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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Stop Making Sense

So, Warren Buffet thinks the rich should pay more in taxes. I don't want to discuss here whether that makes sense or not. What I do want to discuss is the dumb response many libertarians have offered: "Why doesn't Buffet just pay more taxes voluntarily if he wants to?"

Well, hmm.. let's think... perhaps because that would be an empty gesture that wouldn't even put a dent in the deficit, while Buffet believes (rightly or wrongly) that raising taxes on all of the rich would help fix the problem. This answer is so obvious that one commentator at Reason noted that thelibertarian objection we're discussing is equivalent to: "If you think the speed limit should be lowered on a given stretch of road, why don't you just drive slower while everybody else whizzes by you?"

Maybe Buffet's idea is good or maybe it's bad. But this line of objection is moronic.

33 comments:

  1. Would the gesture really be empty? Wouldn't it be a pretty important signal, "I really mean it!"

    ps. Am I the only one not seeing speed limits as a challenge?

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  2. I could see a type of dedicated pacifist making something like this objection, but from a different line than the one you and l4mbn4y address. Something like "But if it resorts to or depends on force, it's out-of-bounds." So Buffet and co., from that perspective, are essentially saying "Okay, but if we toss out that restraint, what tools of social ordering are at our disposal?"

    But some persons do not want to open that box. To them, the fact that one's own voluntary payment doesn't put a dent in the problem at hand is speaking to a different kind of consideration than whether that means it's fair game to thereby go about attempting to dent it through other methods. Maybe paying more taxes isn't the best way to apply one's own power toward building a better world, but it doesn't mean we get to set about trying to ply others' power instead.

    Y'no: Maybe Buffet's idea is good or maybe it's bad, pragmatically. But his line of thinking is immoral. Maybe individual voluntary action doesn't solve the problem that public policy is supposed to solve, but any other kind of action is ruled out, regardless. Maybe the public policy solution itself is an integral part of the real problem. Maybe the free rider problem is not as expensive as the cost of ejecting all free riders. (okay, that one's worth considering even if you're not a pacifist)

    etc.

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  3. "But his line of thinking is immoral."

    You're not suggesting something ridiculous like "taxation is theft," are you?

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  4. Well, hmm.. let's think... perhaps because that would be an empty gesture that wouldn't even put a dent in the deficit, while Buffet [sic] believes (rightly or wrongly) that raising taxes on all of the rich would help fix the problem.

    But it's not either/or. If Buffett really believes "that raising taxes on all of the rich would help fix the problem" and also believes that he has been "coddled long enough" and shouldn't pay a lower rate than his employees, he should do both. He presents it as both an unfair personal situation and a collective failure. The deficit argument is separate from the argument, repeated by Obama, that "Buffett's secretary shouldn't pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett. There is no justification for it." If something isn't justified, you have an obligation to act whether or not your friends do, and whether or not there is a deficit to fix.

    Of course, Buffett does pay more taxes than his secretary by any measure when you don't play games, but that makes the "libertarian" question all the more insightful, as it forces us to think more deeply about why someone seemingly so intelligent would weave such a silly story as the one Buffett weaves.

    "If you think the speed limit should be lowered on a given stretch of road, why don't you just drive slower while everybody else whizzes by you?"

    This analogy is poorly chosen, as the reason such a move isn't usually taken is because it's dangerous, not because it's an "empty gesture" on the road (groan) to speed limit reform. A better analogy would be "If you think the animals should not be consumed for food, why don't you just not eat meat while everybody else does?" Put that way, it's not so odd anymore, especially if you also call for collective action to be taken. In fact, waiting for the collective action before you take yours would, in that case, be, in many cases, odd. The reason is that it's not just a matter of collective morality, but personal as well. I think Buffet presented his case similarly, and so for libertarians (of course, they're not the only ones) to take him at his word is not moronic.

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  5. "If something isn't justified, you have an obligation to act whether or not your friends do, and whether or not there is a deficit to fix."

    And so he is. He is acting to get the law changed. His personal situation is only an exemplar of what he feels is a *policy* problem. Him personally paying more will not fix the policy problem.

    "Of course, Buffett does pay more taxes than his secretary by any measure when you don't play games..."

    Says you.

    'A better analogy would be "If you think the animals should not be consumed for food, why don't you just not eat meat while everybody else does?"'

    No, that's an awful analogy. What Buffet is contending is NOT "It's immoral to pay only those taxes you owe" -- as the vegetarian thinks it is immoral to eat meat -- but is, instead, it is bad for us to tax the rich so lightly.

    The speed limit one was right on the mark. If you could totally eliminate the danger, that would not solve the collective action problem at all.

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  6. Here is a better analogy than the speeding one because it removes the possibility of Neverfox's feint: Dwight Howard thinks that dunking should be banned from the NBA because it makes the game too boring. Critics respond, "Well, why don't YOU just stop dunking if you're against it?"

    Dumb.

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  7. 'Would the gesture really be empty? Wouldn't it be a pretty important signal, "I really mean it!"'

    And his constant lobbying for it doesn't already signal that?

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  8. I wasn't suggesting anything from my own position, which would be tough to do when I haven't decided anything yet.

    I'm saying that from a pacifist position, the objection here is *not* that one thinks that Buffet can just single-handedly fix collective action problems. (Yes, that *is* silly.) It's that his doing anything *but* paying more taxes voluntarily (and, of course, trying to convince others to do the same, etc.) would be immoral.

    Now, maybe you think that pacifism is moronic, too. But there is more going on here than just "Gee, why can't he just solve it himself?!" That's jumping the gun, as it were.

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  9. OK, Nathan, I see what you are saying now. That's a coherent argument, but it's not the argument this fellow in Reason was making!

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  10. Professor Callahan, I think you need to look at the actual issue rather than the principle involved.

    10 year Treasury Bond rates in the United States have a yield of 1.77% p.a. One Point Seven Seven Per Cent Per Anna! Adjusted for inflation, that is people paying the government money to take money from them!

    You call that a deficit crisis? There is no deficit crisis.

    Warren Buffet's demand is not for solving a problem. It's for political posturing. Purely for "social justice" and abstract philosophical demands of "shared sacrifice".

    If it were necessary for a law to be passed in order that political posturing be done, why can't Buffet do some political posturing himself, rather than demand a law for others to politically posture?

    Political posturing is not a collective action problem at all!

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  11. Prateek, did you miss the part where I said I wasn't talking about whether or not Buffet's idea was a good one, where I said my only objective was to show that *this objection* is nonsense?

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  12. Right, that's not the argument they were making. I'm just doing my usual "Okay, so this isn't exactly what was said. But here's what they might have said, instead!" heh

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  13. Another rare moment of agreement between us, Gene_Callahan. More generally, the argument that someone should "just" unilaterally disarm if they want universal disarmament is a stupid one indeed.

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  14. It seems to me that the objection is mostly directed at liberals who view Buffett as a "virtuous capitalist" for wanting to raise taxes and not necessarily at Buffett's deficit solution. Fundamentally it's not a question of reasonable policy but about morality, although libertarians do tend to conflate the two quite often.

    It should be perfectly clear to you by now that libertarians view taxation as a violation of property rights and thus immoral (whether or not this is a sound argument is irrelevant). Because of this, their view of virtuous behavior cannot include convincing the government to coerce money from others, which is what Buffett is doing.

    Libertarians also know perfectly well that Buffett's voluntary taxes would only be a drop in the ocean, which is why they propose cutting spending as a deficit solution first and foremost. However, that's not the point. The response is meant as a Socratic question to the liberals in an effort to demolish the premise "Buffett is virtuous for wanting to raise taxes" (which, of course, only works if the liberal shares some core ethical assumptions with the libertarian). Here's how it goes in the libertarian's head:

    A: "Warren Buffett is about the only good capitalist out there. He's not a coward who runs away from paying his fair share!"
    B: "He's perfectly free to pay the Treasury any spare money he has. Why doesn't he simply do that?"
    A: "Well, obviously that wouldn't balance the budget nearly enough! The rich would still be paying too little..."
    B: "Yes, but I thought we were talking about Buffett's ostensible duty to pay taxes. What's the budget got to do with it?"
    A: "Well... the other rich people have to pay too, you know..."
    B: "So you're saying Buffett is a good guy, not only for wanting to pay more taxes, but because he wants to force others to pay more as well?"
    A: "..."

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  15. "Because of this, their view of virtuous behavior cannot include convincing the government to coerce money from others, which is what Buffett is doing."

    Well, that is what libertarians claim he is doing.

    In any case, this is a case for why libertarians can say, "Warren Buffet should not try to raise anyone's taxes."

    It is *not* a case for them saying, "He should pay more taxes himself first before he tries to raise the taxes of others."

    Do I know you, Watoosh?

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  16. "Here's how it goes in the libertarian's head:"

    I know, Watoosh! Pretty wacky, huh?

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  17. If Buffet gave more in taxes, it would be an empty and ineffective gesture *if* we have already concluded that personal example -- even in the face of overwhelming odds -- is worthless.

    I find personal example quite compelling. I have argued on this blog that libertarian types need to have a heart and a hand for those who are less fortunate. Then and only then can we convincingly tell the state: "We are already making progress against this social ill. You may run along and find another problem."

    I know that there are plenty of things that I do that will have little global/national/state/county/city effect. Nevertheless, if I have a conviction about something, I need to live by that conviction, results be darned.

    I would ask Warren Buffet to do the same.

    Or, to put it another way:

    Does Warren Buffet vote? If my percentages and ratios are correct, his one vote has less of an impact on the presidential election than his "properly-sized" increase of his federal tax.

    There are several reasons why a person votes: civic duty or personal example or "all pails of water are composed of single drops." These same reasons seem to apply to Buffet and his volutnary payment of an extra tax.

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  18. "In any case, this is a case for why libertarians can say, "Warren Buffet should not try to raise anyone's taxes."

    It is *not* a case for them saying, "He should pay more taxes himself first before he tries to raise the taxes of others." "

    The voluntary taxpaying is only a concession to liberals for the sake of the argument, not a serious policy proposal. No libertarian is going around thinking this is the solution to the deficit problem.

    The underlying point, even though it is often clumsily expressed, is the conclusion of a syllogism combining libertarian (coercion is wrong) and liberal (paying taxes is virtuous) premises: "Buffett should pay taxes voluntarily (if we concede that paying taxes is virtuous)". If you recontextualize the anti-coercion premise well enough (as philosopher Peter Unger does when he proves we have a positive obligation to give money to UNICEF or a similar organization), the argument is also surprisingly sound.

    "I know, Watoosh! Pretty wacky, huh?"

    Well, as someone with a very strong (but not absolute) moral presumption against coercion, it is not completely loopy in my estimate. When liberal talking heads and columnists talk about Buffett, what they are saying is usually "This rich guy gets it.", which I remain agnostic about. But sometimes they slip in the implicit statement "Buffett is a good guy", and I have yet to see anyone defend the proposition "Pushing for coercive methods to raise revenue is virtuous" - and I would be happy to hear and assess that argument.

    "Do I know you, Watoosh?"

    Unless you hang around with philosophy undergrads in Finland, the chances are very slim!

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  19. I agree that it is a dumb argument that appears to defend something that is completely unfair (a ridiculous tax code). They seriously have you tied up in knots when you are defending the income tax code.

    I usually reply that if they think that taxes are messed up and want to even things out, then reduce taxes on wages and salary to equal that on capital gains and get rid of all the deductions. Or get rid of the income tax and replace it with something else altogether. As for the deficit, I say let the government default. It didn't pan out so badly for Iceland.

    It is amazing how many liberals will agree to a flat tax when you argue that way. And if they don't, who cares? At least you haven't done something as dumb as defend the way things are.

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  20. Yes if he gave his money unilaterally it would not accomplish much.

    Also some person giving $20 to the salvation army probably doesn't accomplish much either.

    But they do it anyway, they don't talk about how "oh man whats the point no one else will do the same, I want everyone to be forced into doing the same and that makes me a good guy and everyone else bad guys"

    Sure there's nothing wrong with "only if everyone else does it", but its not a great way to express enthusiasm, sincerity or commitment. It may be rational, but it does not express these things.

    Its really the "everyone else should be *forced* into doing the same" statement that makes things really ugly. If it was just a sort of thing like the thing Bob Murphy was using for his debate or "yeah if you get 100 more signatures" or something then it would be excusable. But this is very *different*. I think that not only is it appropriate to say that Warren Buffet's sincerity is not exhibited by his actions, that on the contrary it is called in question.

    Oh and taxation is not theft. But its not an (always) bilaterally voluntary, mutually beneficial commercial transaction either. And that is the only kind of *good* transaction I know of.

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  21. Buffett does not say everyone should be *forced* to pay a higher tax. He says everyone should be legally required to do so. You are only *forced* to obey the law when you do not do so voluntarily.

    Do you ever complain about how ugly it is that, in most countries, people are *forced* not to molest children?

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  22. Legal requirements necessitate the threat of force. Sure, I could pay protection money to the mafia without complaining about it if I thought they were swell guys and did a good job of protecting me. That still wouldn't make it a voluntary transaction.

    Come on, are we really going to bicker over this? I could understand this if you were just some pedantic guy who didn't understand libertarian thought, but you used to be a libertarian so you know exactly what Avram meant, even if force and legal requirement aren't equivalent concepts. If some Scrooge refuses to pay more in taxes, his rights will be violated by the IRS. If a child is molested, his/her rights are violated by the molester. Enforcement is legitimate when used to protect rights and otherwise illegitimate.

    You understand libertarian theory - I know you don't agree with it (and I have problems with it as well), but please don't act as if raising taxes wouldn't really be illegitimate from a libertarian point of view, just because real guns weren't pointed at taxpayers' heads (as the talking point goes).

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  23. Watoosh, I know what Avram *meant*, but it is wrong, so I won't go along with it. Yes, for something to be a *law*, there must be an enforcement mechanism. But Avram thinks this is different between taxes and market transactions, but it isn't: if I walk into the grocers and eat an apple without paying the price he has set, I will be arrested. So are you willing to say that if I don't pay for the apple, my rights will be violated at the grocer's behest?

    You are asking me to concede on the very point that, once I understood it, made me no longer a libertarian!

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  24. Do I have a comment stuck in limbo?

    Because I said something like:

    I see no incompatibility between not minding that force is used to keep people from molesting children, and minding that force is used to make people give up their legally earned money.

    This is because molesting children is a bad thing. Where as keeping your money is not a bad thing.

    So when you say "oh so you think taxes are so bad cause people use force to get them? then howcome you don't think using force to get the child molesters is bad too" I think that is crazy. Of course using force to prevent child molestation is ok whereas using force to take other peoples stuff is not.

    Maybe to you there really is no difference between keeping your income and molesting children aside from the values "society" assigns to each but that's even more crazy! If this is what you think please explain yourself.

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  25. "This is because molesting children is a bad thing. Where as keeping your money is not a bad thing."

    Keeping money when it is justly yours is not a bad thing. Who says it is?

    Keeping money that you owe to your community in taxes IS a bad thing. Or so say, oh, 99% of the people I know. So we punish you if you try it. If you don't like that, I recommend moving to someplace where people don't think that way.

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  26. "Keeping money that you owe to your community in taxes IS a bad thing. Or so say, oh, 99% of the people I know. So we punish you if you try it. If you don't like that, I recommend moving to someplace where people don't think that way."

    Yes Gene there are more people who think like you than there are that think like me so you can do whatever you want to us. That is correct.

    Similarly if the whole world and 99% of everyone in every "community" ( *very, very, very* super unrealistic loaded term there, implying that all my taxes go to the local council for parks and road maintence or the public libary or something and not, you know, to some big medicine, bank, insurance, energy corporation and the millitary ) decided that child molestation was ok I would be "free" to move away somewhere else too.

    But guess what? Me being "free" to live in isolation from a mad world doesn't make the world any less mad or the actions therein right. At all.

    More on the community point:

    I mean sure if I moved into the neighborhood and before moving in someone asked me "well see one of the things about owning a house here is that you agree to these and these rules and you're required to pay so and so amount every year for maintenence of blah blah and community events blah blah blah decided by a meeting held every blah blah" I would consider it reasonable to punish those who did not follow those rules.

    But that is such a stupid unrealistic misportrayal of the current income tax situation that it is ludicrous that you even compared the two.

    The income tax as it currently stands is evil evil evil used for evil evil evil and maybe some amount of good that could be achieved more efficiently and without all the evil evil evil.

    And yes I am free to move somewhere else if I don't like it, and I'm not going to, and no that doesn't make it good in the slightest.

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  27. "I mean sure if I moved into the neighborhood and before moving in someone asked me "well see one of the things about owning a house here is that you agree..."

    But I am not a contractarian. Your obligations do NOT depend on your having voluntarily undertaken them. You have an obligation to your elderly parents, for instance, whether or not you ever signed a contract to care for them.

    As far as "evil evil evil" goes, acknoledging that one's community has a claim on some of one's efforts is not the same as saying that every community can make any claim it wants on any portion of one's resources and use those resources for whatever it wants. I believe the Irawq War was evil, but it wasn't evil because it was funded by taxes! It still would have been evil if it had been totally funded by Bill Gates' and Warren Buffetts' voluntary contributions.

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  28. re: "But I am not a contractarian. Your obligations do NOT depend on your having voluntarily undertaken them".

    Indeed. To give a similar example, Dr. Callahan, the child who is convinced he has a good argument when he complains "but I never agreed to do that chore!" still has an obligation to complete the chore. Sure, he did not voluntarily undertake the obligation, but it is there for him anyway.

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  29. You guys don't know what you're saying.

    "Oh see there's nothing wrong for an obligation saying you owe me 100% of your labor and time to exist if society says it should, its only if I employ you to evil deeds does an evil happen."

    No there *is* something wrong with such crazy "obligations" existing. And no, Warren, these obligations are not the same as the rules of a family home so stop comparing the two.

    Even if men were angels, which they aren't as Gene has taught me, and no evil could come from crazy obligations that are imposed on you from god knows where by god knows who which you are born into and are "free to leave" to no where and isolation, it still wouldn't make them sane.

    I think this has to do with some kind of faulty understanding of consent that you guys harbor. Just cause someone doesn't say no, doesn't leave etc. doesn't mean they consent and that what's being imposed on them is thereby ok. The perfect example of this would be cases of rape where the girl stays quiet cause she doesn't want to damage her reputation or her family or I dunno something like that. Just cause she doesn't say no and stays quiet doesn't mean whats being done to her is O.K.

    It's the same reason why e.g. blackmail is wrong even though there are some crazy libertarians who say thats O.K. too.

    You are making the exact same error with your "you're free to leave" nonsense.

    Its nonsense!

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  30. Gah I didn't read carefully and was replying to something that didn't quite exist, well, yet.

    Specifically I didn't address

    "Your obligations do NOT depend on your having voluntarily undertaken them"

    To which I have to say is:

    Yes my obligations to my elderly grand parents, road side infants I happen to come across, my neighbors, my children and so on don't depend on me voluntarily choosing them.

    My obligation to some bunch of people some many many miles away from me sitting down and talking about how they're going to run all our lives is zero. non-existant. nothing.

    Your whole justification for taxes being O.K. boils down to a bizzare equating of a child's obligation to do his chores or a father's obligation to provide for the family with an obligation to contribute to this big out of control machine known as the state. To contribute to the interests of some guy I don't know trying to get him and his buddies ahead in life at everyone's expense.

    You, me or nobody has an "obligation" for that. We don't have an obligation to give up 20% of our income for that 10% of our income for that or 0.00001% of our income for that. That obligation does not, and cannot exist without being *evil*.

    Your "obligations" extend as far as your personal social sphere.

    You do not have an obligation to stop some warlords in africa from murdering some children, as henious as this is, and thinking that you do leads to a lot more evil than you can ever imagine, hence reality, hence the overreaction a lot of freedom loving people have to any sense of obligation, which I agree is a folly.

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  31. Avram, I have already said I do not think consent is relevant here.

    "Oh see there's nothing wrong for an obligation saying you owe me 100% of your labor and time to exist if society says it should, its only if I employ you to evil deeds does an evil happen."

    And, you might ask yourself why you feel the need to set up crazy strawman versions of your opponents positions? I have been saying that it is not unreasonable to say we owe *something* to our communities. You therefore set up a position that implies that I think we owe *everything* to our communities.

    Avram's relative says, "Avram, you really shoud go visit elderly Aunt Clara once in a while."

    Avram responds, "Oh, so you think it's fine for Aunt Clara to tie me to a gurney and harvest my organs to keep her alive!"

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  32. "Avram, I have already said I do not think consent is relevant here."

    Ok, then don't employ the "you're free to leave" line of reasoning.

    "And, you might ask yourself why you feel the need to set up crazy strawman versions of your opponents positions?"

    Because otherwise I have nothing! Naw, I realized the error of my response and wrote another one which said in many words "I think your obligations are restricted to your immediate social sphere, i.e. I have no obligation to starving children on the planet zod, similarly I have no obligation for some guy in congress' paycheck"

    I also claimed your entire position rests on the bizzare equation of local community with state.

    But it got lost in comment limbo I suppose :S

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  33. 'Ok, then don't employ the "you're free to leave" line of reasoning.'

    That does not follow.

    "I also claimed your entire position rests on the bizzare equation of local community with state."

    But I don't equate them, not at all! I am only talking about whether some obligation to a community is *on principle* defensible. If so, then *some* forms and levels of taxation are also defensible.

    Sorry about your comment: I will look in my comment log.

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