Thursday, January 27, 2011

Note to Obama: It's Not Your Money

You can grasp a crucial premise underlying Obama's ideology by considering this little nugget from the state of the union:
And if we truly care about our deficit, we simply cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break.

It's not a matter of punishing their success. It's about promoting America's success.
Let's put aside the fact that this statement is highly misleading since the department of education represents only 1.3 cents of every dollar of federal spending and the top 5% of taxpayers pay 57% of all taxes (and the bottom 50% pay 3.3%), and consider the more important philosophical premises implied by this statement. 

Note that he says we can't "afford" a tax cut.  Let's say you have been borrowing money from a friend to pay rent or better yet, say a friend has simply been generously giving you money, and this has been going on for a long time.  Finally, your friend says, "dude, I can't give you any more money."  Would your response ever be: "I can't afford to allow you to stop giving me money"?  In fact, isn't it the case that you can't afford to pay your own rent?  Would you be mad at your friend for not giving you more money?  And, if you were mad, rather than grateful for the past and eager to pay your own way, shouldn't you be considered a scoundrel at best?

How is it different ethically when we apply this principle to the government?

Whether its for schools or public television or turtle tunnels, all the government does, through taxation, is act as a middleman to expropriate the earnings of some for the unearned benefit of others.  Because an individual recipient doesn't ask or see the people whose earnings he has taken, it doesn't change the fact that the money he is spending is not his own.   

But, Obama has completely inverted this logic.

In his view, one does not own his wealth or income.  He is a mere steward awaiting orders from Washington on how much the central planners deem is acceptable for him to keep.  To those who argue that taxing wealth and income at higher rates the more you make punishes success, Obama's answer is that it is not punishment.  By seizing the money you have earned and redistributing it to others whom he and his colleagues have deemed worthy, he is promoting "America's success."  Evidently, individuals do not know how to properly invest, spend, or donate their own wealth and income.  If left to their own devices, they will dispose of this wealth in a way that is not appropriate.  Only central planners in Washington can see to it that the money is spent "wisely", i.e., in such a way that America's success can be guaranteed. 

You should be thanking him!     

At root, Obama rejects the idea that an individual owns his property and therefore his life.  Under this view, the government's function is not to secure rights, i.e., protect an individual's right to pursue his life and happiness free from coercion, but instead, the government's function is to redistribute the earnings of some for the unearned benefit of others.  Under Obama's view, man is not an individual, he is an appendage of a greater collective whose duty is to altruistically serve the interests of whatever he and the Washington central planners define as the "common good."  Essentially, this collectivist view represents a complete repudiation of individualism and the principles upon which America was founded. 

Advocates of freedom and capitalism must understand that the difference between them and Obama and his ilk is not the minutia of the latest budget but the principle of individualism versus collectivsm.


Cato said...

Note to Doug: It's not the defense departments money either.

Jason said...

Comments of this size are sometimes too large for Blogger, so I'm going to split it into two.
Part 1:

I don't think it comes down to individualism vs. collectivism: the explicit advocates of collectivism really believe in collectivism. Whenever I talk to people about ideas and politics, the first thing they do (after calling me an extremist) is mouth collectivism--and it really is just mouthed in a dull, routine, phonily scripted way.

But after I pry a little deeper and explain why freedom and selfishness are good and practical, the thing they actually seem to put some earnest thought into in expressing is the alleged *impracticality* of a completely free political system--not the alleged *immorality* of a non-egalitarian political system that leaves people free to be judged by their degree of virtuous behavior.

When the discussion gets going, they are not asking lots of questions about the morality of freedom, but of how it can work: how will people be educated without largely (financially) "free" government schools, what happens if a private street owner decides to not allow neighbors to use his street, how will people be able to gain enough technical knowledge to figure things like energy/power infrastructure without government "experts"?

Jason said...

Part 2:

People generally really are just overwhelmed by the day to day stresses of a frantic-paced culture that doesn't give people enough time to calmly think and genuinely enjoy recreation. That's one aspect that I think should be a target for improving the culture: explaining to people and showing them that it is normal and okay to calmly contemplate things and take recreational breaks from work.

One example is people feeling guilty for liking TV dramas, especially sitcoms, and "low-brow" thrillers like "The Da Vinci Code," and crime novels by John Grisham and James Patterson. Explaining to people that these works, while being relatively simple, do have esthetic merit, can remove that guilt and allow people to gain more pleasure out of such reading--and I think this enjoyment will induce an atmosphere where calm, methodical thought is more likely to occur. Joy induces contemplation.

I was recently taking a nap for a half hour to an hour in the late afternoon and I had a household member come up to me and basically tell me to "go do something." That frantic attitude of purposeless motion--doing something just to do something--is one deeply embedded bad aspect of the culture that I think some legitimate progress can be made on and can have an impact.

Anonymous said...

Cato- agreed

Doug Reich said...

Where did I say "it's the defense department's money"?

Doug Reich said...


Thanks for your comment.

In the first part of your comment, you said that you don't think that the "individualism vs. collectivism" issue is primary since your experience is more that people don't understand how freedom and capitalism would work in practice.

I think that emphasis on the question of "how freedom would work in practice" itself is a symptom of the more fundamental philosophical issue I cited. In other words, to an advocate of the principle of individualism, it would not even occur to him to think "how will people be educated..." is a primary.

To someone who owns their own life and is responsible for themself, they must be prepared to take care of themself and if they want something from others, they must be prepared to offer something in exchange. To "start" with the question of "how will everyone be taken care of" is a collectivist premise.

Now, I'm not saying it is not important to consider how a society of individuals would function in aggregate to understand the broader implications - this is the entire field of economics which is critical. What I'm saying is that the fact that the EMPHASIS of this consideration as a primary concern is a symptom of collectivism.

The Founding Fathers fought to be free from the yoke of monarchy and dictatorship. As individualists, they trusted in the efficacy of their own minds and judgment. They simply wanted to be left alone.

If you grasp the power of individual reason and the necessity of thinking freely to survive, it's clear that any abrogration of this right will lead to disaster in practice. This leads to the principle that morality, properly defined from an individualist perspective, is the practical.

To start with the premise "how would society benefit" or "how would this freedom thing benefit the collective" is a collectivist premise that emphasises or relies on the "public good" or some other flawed concept to be the criteria of political policies.

Such an approach is an inversion of a rational method which starts with grasping the nature and needs of the individual.

Jason said...

They ask the questions from a non-collectivist perspective. They just want to know how would there be roads, what would education be like, etc. It's a genuine curiosity about how their lives would be affected.

And this is in the intellectual context, not of desiring some 10,000 page plan explaining how they'd live in a free society, but rather of "A self-interested, enlightened society in the way you describe it sounds good, but it will never happen. Cultural forces are too opposed to it. There are too many lazy people who just want to coast by the way things are."

The emphasis, in the rare cases a substantive discussion occurs, is "It will never happen" not "It's morally wrong." On a very implicit (but not at all from a firm sense of life standpoint) level, people want to be free and selfish and live in a society like The Valley as described in Atlas Shrugged, they just don't see how it will ever happen. People don't really believe in collectivism as a moral ideal.

Yaron Brook, in a talk at Oxford, made very articulate remark on this point of how people do try to act selfishly most of the time.

16:50 mark to 17:10 mark in the second video, Q & A Part 1.

Paraphrasing him: We act self-interestedly 90% of the time and then feel guilty and do a little bit of charity work on the side to appease the guilt. [end quote]

This is basically what people do today; they're too stressed and rushed to figure out how to really live selfishly, but they do try. I don't see evidence that people hold collectivism as the moral ideal on a deep level, but rather they are struggling to just get by and enjoy themselves a little.

Convincing people to be calm (not rush all the time) and enjoy the small things they feel unnecessarily guilty about is a first step to getting people to be more contemplative and open to rational ideas--this especially applies to people's intake of art. Along this line, it helps to explain to people what esthetic aspects of those small things, like crime dramas and sitcoms, are good.

Doug Reich said...

Then how can Obama and the entire political establishment make statements like the one I quoted in the post and not be greeted with total outrage?

It doesn't matter if the man on the street doesn't recognize "collectivism". The intellectual establishment drives this agenda and it ends up permeating the culture.

I think you are missing the bigger picture. People taking more time to reflect will not necessarily solve the problem. People have more free time now than ever.