• The State: Taking Money Away From Where Your Mouth Is

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    The
    Questions

    I
    often find that people around me don’t understand the libertarian
    position. They view libertarians, and to some extent, conservatives,
    as people who are greedy and selfish, and who want to keep all of
    their money for themselves. Generally my argument has been, "why
    shouldn’t I want to keep all my money for myself?" To which
    anyone with a cause – welfare, warfare, or whatever – replies, "because
    then who would pay for my cause?"

    Who,
    indeed? This is an important question to consider, because in doing
    so we learn how the State gets away with doing things that the majority
    of people don’t want it to do.

    It
    seems to me that nobody wants to pay taxes. I certainly don’t. Most
    people pay taxes because they think they have to. Two things in
    life are inevitable, say people: death and taxes. The grouping is
    certainly appropriate, given all the death paid for by taxes. "If
    you don’t pay your taxes," my father used to tell me, "you’ll
    be in trouble with Uncle Sam." Whether it’s Uncle Sam or the
    Grim Reaper, there’s a factor of fear in the payment of taxes. Who
    thinks that people would pay as much in tax if tax were strictly
    voluntary? Anyone?

    But
    why don’t people want to pay taxes? Shouldn’t they? After all, those
    who advocate a reduction or elimination of taxes are called greedy
    and selfish. But we don’t only want to not have to pay taxes – we
    also want other people to not have to pay taxes. So aren’t people
    who don’t want to pay taxes themselves, but don’t care if others
    do, even more greedy and selfish? Isn’t the opposite of greed and
    selfishness virtue, and shouldn’t people want to be virtuous?

    Goods
    and services cost money to produce. If people want goods or services,
    they generally realize that they have to be willing to pay for them
    in order to get them. Taxes are simply a way of paying for the goods
    and services provided by the government. If people really wanted
    the goods and services provided by the government, they’d be willing
    to pay for them, right?

    So
    the question is, again, who pays for the causes I mentioned above?
    Are people greedy and selfish, or are they virtuous? Are they willing
    to pay for what the government gives them, or not? Are the activists,
    the progressives, the warhawks, the environmentalists, are any of
    these people ready to put their money where their mouth is?

    Voluntary
    Purchase

    I
    own a television set. Without going too deeply into the economics
    of it, we’ll say that it cost me an amount of money that I had earned
    by working a certain number of hours. The decision I made, when
    I bought the television set, was whether the television set was
    the best use of that money I had, or whether I wouldn’t rather have
    something else. I considered my opportunity costs – I could have
    bought a bunch of CDs, or a new cellular phone, or a peripheral
    device for my computer. I considered how much work I had put in
    to get that money, and all the other things I could have done with
    those hours other than earning money for a television set. Finally
    I decided that the TV set was a good idea, that it would be useful
    to me in the future, and that I wanted it more than the amount of
    money it cost.

    Most
    American households contain television sets. In fact, there are
    295 million people in America and 219 million television sets. Television
    sets are not forced on people – those who purchase them do so willingly,
    and voluntarily. They make choices similar to my choice. They decide
    that the benefits of having a television set outweigh the cost.
    They don’t complain loudly that two things in life are inevitable:
    death and television sets. There is no nationwide organization devoted
    to the collection of fees for television sets. There is no nationwide
    organization devoted to the distribution of television sets to the
    poor. In fact, 97% of the households classified as "poor"
    by the US Census owned at least one color television set. More than
    half of the households classified as poor have two or more color
    television sets.

    Aside
    from the ubiquity of television sets, my point is that there is
    a demand for television sets, that this demand is met by a supply
    of them, and that the market price is not prohibitive, even to 97%
    of poor people. There was no nationwide movement to fill every house
    with a television set – it just happened, because people wanted,
    with no urging from any political party, to watch television.

    People
    also buy other things that they want. Cars, houses, computers, digital
    watches, cellular phones, even comfortable shoes – all are purchased
    voluntarily by Americans because Americans believe that their benefits
    outweigh their costs.

    An
    Offer You Can’t Refuse

    I
    am not in favor of the war in Iraq. I am not in favor of Social
    Security. I am not in favor of public education, public transportation,
    monopolized utilities, farm subsidies for corn growers, welfare,
    Medicare, Medicaid, foreign aid, the war on Terror, the war on Drugs,
    the war on Poverty, or any of the vast majority of things the State
    has decided to provide for me. However, the State still provides
    me with these things, and still charges me for them.

    Let’s
    consider the war in Iraq. At no time have I received an estimate
    of how much money the war in Iraq will actually cost me. I can’t
    equate the war in Iraq with any price. I can’t say, "I worked
    this many hours to pay for the war in Iraq," nor can I say
    "I could have bought this much other stuff with the amount
    of money I spent financing the war in Iraq." Instead, the money
    is simply paid for out of my taxes (that is, of course, an oversimplification,
    since the war in Iraq is being funded by debt, which you and I and
    everyone else will pay for eventually) without any kind of itemization.
    Because of the deferment of payment to future tax periods, and the
    uncertainty of state-controlled money supply and interest rates,
    there simply isn’t any way for me to know, conclusively, how much
    the war actually costs me in terms of anything I can understand.
    I am not an economist. That is true for most Americans. Unlike the
    case of the television set, the war in Iraq is impossible for the
    average person to know the cost of. On what, then, do we base our
    decision whether or not to purchase it?

    Well,
    fortunately for us, the confused, adrift public, we don’t have to
    make that decision. The decision is made for us – we will purchase
    the war in Iraq. The taxes are levied and we pay them. In fact,
    there’s a national organization devoted to the collection of fees
    for the war in Iraq – it’s called the IRS. Even though millions
    of people took to the streets in protest of the war, even though
    sixty million people later voted against the President who executed
    the war, we are still going to be forced to pay for this war. It
    is an offer we can’t refuse.

    Some
    people are opposed to television. They don’t have to buy television
    sets. Some people are opposed to the war in Iraq. They still have
    to buy it. People are also forced to buy other things they don’t
    want. People in some states have to buy things that benefit people
    in other states. People in America have to buy things that benefit
    people elsewhere in the world.

    If
    The Cause Is Just

    Nobody
    really thinks that war is good – at best it’s a necessary evil,
    or a cloud with a silver lining. Nobody really thinks that television
    is a necessity – it’s just a luxury, a modern convenience. So what
    about things that are good, in an absolute, moral sense? What about
    a cause that is just?

    Food
    is a necessity. Everyone needs food. In America, 2 percent of poor
    people say that they "often" do not have enough to eat.
    13 percent experience hunger at least once a year. Obviously, this
    is a problem. But if feeding these people is such a good cause,
    why don’t people do it? Why do they spend their money on TV sets
    rather than donating it to charity?

    Most
    people would agree that education is important. Yet few of these
    people are volunteering their time or money toward the cause. Why
    is that? Why do teachers make so little money if their services
    are so important?

    Everyone
    agrees that lack of education and lack of food are problems. And
    yet most people do nothing about these problems because they look
    to the State to solve them. Rather than donating money or time to
    soup kitchens, they loudly demand that the government spend more
    money on the problem. Rather than taking the education of children
    into their own hands, they loudly demand that the government spend
    more money on the problem. People believe that since they are already
    paying taxes, those taxes should go toward the correction of social
    problems. People believe that by paying their taxes, they are doing
    their share.

    Yet
    consider what happens to the money collected by the government.
    It is spent frivolously and to no good effect. The education system
    gets worse. Instead of feeding the poor, we buy tanks and guns and
    bombs and take them to foreign nations to kill people with them.
    People have no control over the use their tax money is put to. They
    spend money, and the problem gets worse.

    If
    a cause – like feeding the hungry – is just, then isn’t it worth
    addressing in as effective a way as possible? If something is worth
    doing, is it not worth doing well? If the provision of education,
    a social safety net, and various other just causes are truly things
    that people want, does it not make sense to allow them to purchase
    these things the way they purchase a television – on a free market?
    On the other hand, if these things are undesirable, is it right
    to force them on people and force them to pay for them, like the
    war in Iraq?

    But
    must we rely on the charitable impulses of the masses? Given that
    government did not invent charity, this might not be such a bad
    idea. Right now we rely on the charitable impulses of a few politicians
    in Washington. If you were in need, who would you rather have to
    rely on – your neighbors, or politicians hundreds of miles away
    who you have never met?

    The
    Answers

    When
    people want a good or a service they will purchase it gladly. People
    buy food and medical care just as surely as they buy television
    sets. They want something, so they buy it. They put their money
    where their mouth is. This leads to wiser decision-making processes.
    People have a concrete way to assess the benefits and costs of a
    given good or service. This is called a "price." The "price"
    of an object is a dollar amount that allows you to compare the costs
    of things. "Price" can only be arrived at by a market
    scenario. A State scenario, as I have shown, obfuscates the "price,"
    making it impossible for people to know what it is.

    Without
    knowledge of the price of the war in Iraq, many people supported
    it who would have balked at paying for it. These people were not
    putting their money where their mouth is. Because of the taxation
    system as a means of paying for goods and services, other people
    paid for the war in Iraq who didn’t even support it.

    People
    supported the war without paying for it, and others paid for it
    without supporting it. If people really wanted the war in Iraq – like they really want television sets – they would gladly have paid
    for it without government urging or State organization.

    On
    the same token, if people really want to feed the hungry, they will
    pay to do it, just like they pay for television sets. They will
    put their money where their mouth is. The trouble with collecting
    taxes to pay for these things is that people have no power to guarantee
    that those taxes will actually pay for causes they believe in. The
    State, in levying taxes, takes money away from where people’s mouths
    are – away from the voice that should be controlling the direction
    of the money. People who want to feed the hungry end up paying for
    the war in Iraq.

    The
    reason that people don’t want to pay taxes is that they don’t want
    to pay for things that they consider to be unjust – whether that
    is the waging of war or simply the enrichment of politicians and
    unscrupulous corporations that feed off of government subsidies.
    The selfishness of the libertarian comes not from disdain for our
    fellow man, but of a belief that we ourselves are better equipped
    to address the problems facing humanity than the State. We’re better
    at spending our own money. We’re willing to put our money where
    our mouth is.

    A
    free market system causes people to back up their beliefs and desires
    up with action. It encourages cautious decisions and empowers individuals.
    A person who truly believes in feeding the hungry has the power
    to spend as much or as little of his or her money on that cause
    as he or she wishes, without having any of the funds diverted to
    other programs or agendas. To defend against the argument that this
    individual may not have enough resources to achieve their ends,
    I will simply point to the fact that in 1950 a television was prohibitively
    expensive to most people, and now even the majority of poor
    people have two. The system of voluntary purchase has led to the
    consistent increases in quality of life that have brought us to
    the point where even our poor people can afford these luxuries.

    Conclusion

    Now
    that I have butchered the phrase "put your money where your
    mouth is" over and over again and used it to make a mockery
    of all reasonable grammatical rules, I hope that you will remember
    it. Beware of people who advocate an action that they themselves
    are not willing to pay for. Beware of other people whenever they
    are proposing to spend your money. Understand that the reason the
    government cannot spend your money well is that it is yours, not
    theirs, and therefore they cannot possibly place the same value
    on it that you do. Be you selfish or selfless, the most reliable
    way to pursue your goals is to put your money where your mouth is.

    February
    10, 2005

    Neal
    Zupancic [send him mail]
    is a bartender in New York City. He moderates the Knowledge
    Is Liberty weblog
    .

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