Friday, November 14, 2008

Coercive Brutality

In the previous post, I used "coercive brutality" to describe the trend in our federal tax system. I thought this would generate more 'yuks', but in either case, there was more in this light that I wanted to share. This post will be a little more organized. Three parts only, 1) philosophy, 2) history, 3) current day story.

Philosophy. Coercion is a tricky thing. On one hand, we all need a "kick in the pants" from time to time. On the other hand, it's easy to point a gun on someone and get them to change -- know that as soon as you lower your gun, that person will go right back to doing the same old thing. This is not a literal statement, but a figurative one and is the cornerstone of libertarian philosophy. No coercion. It is easy to bring most libertarians to their knees, though, with such simple philosophies alone. What is there then to rein in the appetites of men?

The Declaration of Independence seeks to rein in the otherwise hedonistic-like qualities of Libertarianism. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (which is often used interchangeably with private property) are ordered in that way on purpose. In other words, your right to pursue happiness is called into question when it impinges my right to liberty, etc. Certainly, our culture has lost these original values. We do not value life as we should, and we have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world (consisting about half of non-violent drug offenders).

But what happens when we consolidate these passions into the political whims of the day? We get a coercive system of taxation to fund stuff that we don't all believe in; yet we all pay for. That is the basic argument for limiting the size of the federal government. It will become coercive over time, even in the name of good.

History. Remember the Stamp Act of 1765? I did by name only. I certainly remembered the slogan "no taxation without representation." Well, even if we get representation in the form of a politician, does the collage of federal programs represent, even generally, something I believe in? Personally, no it doesn't. The revolt against the Stamp Act was not really even a statement about the level of taxation on the citizens (our current politicians make the same mistaken assumptions, which is why I laughed when people sited Obama's tax plan as a reform or as being different than McCain's). It was about the complexity of taxation and the necessary brutality it took to enforce such complexity.

English soldiers were given the green light to break down doors at will and ransack houses in a sort of visceral audit. This is why people got pissed off. Most people willingly and happily pay taxes and even risk their lives to defend their country. But when the tax code becomes coercive and brutal then we start to say enough is enough. Am I stuck in the past? Are we so arrogant and proud now to say that we would never dare repeat history?

A current day story. My girlfriend hosted some of her friends last weekend, and one of them told me a story that happened to her friend in CA. Now, this girl, based both on her personality and the fact that she manages 80 people who research and assemble heart-rhythm implant devices does not mince words or exaggerate reality. Her friend, a CA native, comes from a family who has made their share of money over time. Hard work by three successive generations, savings, and plenty of blessings have made them a wealthy family. One day, her grandfather, a widower, died.

The very next day, the state of California swarmed his house with agents from the department of revenue. Their legally-backed mission? To itemize every single thing in the house, not just the house itself, to ascertain value and record it all so as to ensure all taxes would be paid upon the honest man's death. The girl, who in her sadness, thought of her grandfather and sought out a single physical remnant of his existence -- a leather pig he kept in his den -- had to approach the state of California to inquire about the price tag. Yes, she had to write out a check to the state of California for $150 for the leather pig.

California is held up by many elites in our country to be some progressive bastion of thought, philosophy and action. It is rather, an upside down place, which currently faces a $15 billion state government shortfall. To what extent will the government acquire what it considers theirs? You've just heard, for sure, one extent. If California is our future, and the Stamp Act is our past, what exactly are we doing to ourselves?

Often, well-meaning liberals scoff at the quaintness of many midwesterners who see the horizon rushing at them. They patronize us with their thin knowledge of trivial facts, global and national visions of U.S. domination in the name of outcome equality, and their cosmopolitan understandings of culture. Well not everyone wants to live in such a world or such a country.

Is it a wonder that gun sales are skyrocketing?


John Hanrahan said...

Stupid Terminator.

That is a crazy story Ryan. I would have gone nuts.

G said...

Thanks for the post, Ryan - this one really inspired something in me.

I think my dog is a libertarian, he hates the post man - I know I can count on him to protect us from any other government minion coming to door.

Seriously, I don't mean to discount your friend's experience, but isn't this a bit of fear mongering?

I think one of the reasons libertarians can't get a better political foothold is because no one is really scared of the taxman anymore. Even the folks buying up guns, I don't believe that people are buying up guns b/c they're afraid of the IRS. They're buying guns b/c they're gun hobbiests, and Obama is likely going to limit their hobby. Or, worse, they're buying up guns b/c we're in an economic downturn, and without reliable social safety nets people are afraid of what their neighbors might do in desperation.

This isn't to say that other parties/ideologies have all the answers, but it does seem that Americans prefer an economy that allows for Keynesian corrections, rather than one that leaves everyone on their own to fight the invisible hand.

Stamp Act -(I wikipedia'd the Stamp Act - so I speak now as an expert) - I'm not sure this is the best example to illustrate your point. People revolted b/c they had no representation in how their tax were going to be spent - and with British soldiers patrolling the colonies the gestapo tactics of collection are hardly surprising.

(Another thing I learned from Wikipedia is that these American colonies declared Independence a scant 11 years after the Stamp Act revolt. They then created a government that included both taxation, and representation. Win-Win!)

But it is significant that we have representation now, no more occupying soldiers, and everyday people have a chance to weigh in on decisions about how our taxes should be spent. Our majority rule model means that not everyone is going to be happy with those decisions. Fortunately, we do have a pretty extensive system of checks and balances to make sure that these decisions are inline with the Constitution.

And lastly, I'm not sure I would discount the political whims of the day - aren't these the reactions of the masses to current realities? So don't our elected leaders have a responsibility to respond? I'm sure it is true that self-interest is at play when thinking about why no politician wants to be in office when we experience the inevitable falls of the free market. But could it also be just as true that these politicians just don't want to see more poverty, inequality, and fewer people able to find life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

You might call the current talk of bailouts - corporate, auto, or home-owners, political whims. But do any of us want the government to do nothing, allow even more banks to fail, even more jobs to be lost, and have our current social services completely overrun? I think this is something to be afraid of - not the taxman.

Ryan said...

G! You of all people siding with the Taxman? I'm shocked. From the Bible to the Beatles, the Taxman has not been of the People but against the People, a bureaucratic sickness against us. You consistently seem to argue that "we" are the federal government, and I understand your point as an ideal. I agree with that ideal and believe that the only way to include people in this power is to minimize its scope so as not to deepen the lines of divide.

But quite contrary to the "fear mongering" you claim is going on here, I am trying to stick to reality only. If you claim that the federal government is as much you as is the taxman, then I lay at your feet your responsibility for Iraq, Afghanistan and the case of the leather pig. Indeed, you should just come out and say that you really don't mind the brutality of the federal government as long as it is only aimed at rich people.

This would be easier and more fun over beers.

It is a critical mistake made by many, that the "flaws" in so many federal programs would be fixed if only their people were in power. Almost nothing achieved by the federal government would not be better achieved by us -- we the people! Leave the leather pigs alone!

Rich people have just as much a right to their private property as you do to defend your dog.

Be careful what you wish for, because the political whims of the time you think are on your side now, may not be on your side tomorrow. That is why people are buying guns.

Ryan said...

This page sucks at posting links. Sorry.

Ryan said...

p.s. thanks for the Genesis comment. I was psyched to include it. I was, however, shocked to google "leather pig" and find not just one but a selection of images to choose from.

Austin said...

I've never really considered how the estate tax was enforced. Is every estate estimated to be over the exemption handled this way? If that's the case, why wouldn't it have been the federal government? I hope the check cleared. We need the money.

Ryan said...

This comment came from a friend of mine via email, regarding the gun surge (and the press story about the Texas store I posted earlier).

[with permission]:"Oddly enough, I had this discussion with a couple people. I haven't purchased anything from Cheaper than Dirt, but my brother has. My brother frequents the online boards for hunters/outdoorsmen and he said that the SHTF (sh*t hits the fan) products are in high demand. My understanding is that this is survival - the type where there is a lawless and wild society - gear of all types. Additionally, a good friend of ours had a vivid dream - she recorded some of the thoughts when she woke and then read her notes the next morning - that scared her enough to tell her husband to buy a gun. Red Dawn type of stuff, only without the russians. Part of the buying spree is fear that Obama is going to start increasing gun bans and the other part is a growing feeling that something "bad" is going to happen. I'm not buying any guns, but I'm practicing casting and hooking people's eyes."