Bryan Caplan  

Mankiw on Morality

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Since When...... Grasping the Nettle of Persona...
Here's a great passage from the noble Mankiw:
A moral and political philosophy is not like a smorgasbord, where you get to pick and choose the offerings you like and leave the others behind without explanation. It is more like your mother telling you to clean everything on your plate. If you are a Utilitarian redistributionist, the height tax is like that awful tasting vegetable your mother served up because it is good for you. No matter how hard you might wish it wasn't there sitting on your plate, it just won't go away.
My key caveat: Since you do need to eat everything on your plate, think twice before you put it there.  As I explained in my debate with Robin, anyone who commits to a one-sentence grand moral theory like utilitarianism or efficiency-maximization is going to have to eat a lot of dirt.  The wiser approach is to begin with concrete, specific cases, and cautiously generalize from there.

Doesn't this give a carte blance to people who want to tax income but not height?  I think not.  If you really begin with concrete, specific cases, all taxation looks a lot like theft.  Yes, you can argue that there are reasons why government theft is less morally objectionable than ordinary theft.  But it still means that taxation operates under a cloud of moral suspicion.  And when you actually look at some leading rationales for taxation, it's more than just suspicious.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Marc writes:

What is the fifth normative rational for redistribution?

El Presidente writes:

Bryan,

We can declare taxation to be theft right after we declare property rights to be fiction. It's a glass house. If we should embrace one social construct as virtuous, why should we oppose the other as vicious?

I believe I would benefit from a little more explanation of the basis on which you stake your claims with respect to morality. I am genuinely interested in the foundation and structure of your philosophy of ethics, so please don't be shy. Tell us what you think. What is the basis for your support of property rights that gives you the confidence to declare taxation is theft until proven otherwise? Is it based in teleological, deontological, or virtue ethics, or in something else?

ryan yin writes:

The optimal tax literature isn't always fully committed to utilitarian principles. I mean, look at the last sentence of Mirrlees' seminal paper (... um, doesn't everyone have a hard copy on their desks?). Pages and pages of "social welfare function" this and "incentive compatibility" that, and then his parting shot is about how being smarter than other people is "unfair" -- this is consequentialism?

Alex J. writes:

EP,

If you can decide what to do with a fork, I cannot also decide what to do with the same fork. We need some way to decide who gets to use the fork: property rights.

Kidnapping someone for years if they refuse to pay up when you ask is a crime prima facie. One needs to justify why it's not a crime in the case of taxation. Hence Bryan's statement of suspicion.

Kurbla writes:

I like this game, since it is always opportunity to refine my arguments. Devil is in the detail. I think Bryan's and similar views are based on misconception that individuals - and not the state - are the owners of the land. In reality, the state always keeps some basic property rights (named sovereignty) and one of the state property rights is to collect taxes. The state has some property rights in Bryan's apartment. Bryan knew it when he bought his apartment. It was written in his contract, and it influenced the price he paid. (Extraterritorial apartment would cost him much more.)

The next line of libertarian's defense is to claim that state property rights on Bryan's apartment are the result of some coercion that happened long time ago. They also need the claim that individual property rights Bryan bought are not the result of coercion. Such combination is possible, but unlikely: since 99% of people are statists, they usually do not oppose the initial formation of the state (tribe) and they go on conquests with their states. (State doesn't make the conquests without citizens.) Burden of proof is on one who claims that one's property rights are not legitimate, in this case it is Bryan.

El Presidente writes:

Alex J.,

If you can decide what to do with a fork, I cannot also decide what to do with the same fork. We need some way to decide who gets to use the fork: property rights.

That seems to suggest utility is guiding your ethic; that it is teleological. This means that the reason you embrace property rights is because you believe they provide the greatest benefit of any system for managing contrtol and exchange of value. Is that correct?

Kidnapping someone for years if they refuse to pay up when you ask is a crime prima facie. One needs to justify why it's not a crime in the case of taxation. Hence Bryan's statement of suspicion.

Crime is an arbitrary construct of society. If we get rid of laws (more generally, authority), there is no crime; only violence, deceit, insecurity, and so on. So, unless you are appealing to natural law, which would be deontological, I'm not sure what to make of this statement about prima facie crime. Are you appealing to natural law?

Adam writes:

Kurbla,

In reality, the state always keeps some basic property rights (named sovereignty) and one of the state property rights is to collect taxes.

That's a justification for a property tax only, though, not other forms of taxes. Sales tax, for example, is a tax on an exchange of goods. The state can't really claim any ownership in the transaction itself.

James writes:

Kurbla,

If your beliefs about what creates a property right are the same as a libertarian's beliefs on the subject, then I think you've found a genuine contradiction in libertarianism (wow). If your beliefs about what creates a property right differ from a libertarian's beliefs concerning the same, then you have found an incompatibility between your own beliefs and libertarian conclusions (who cares?). So sort it out for us:

Why should I believe your assertion that the state has a property right to the country? What has the state done to have this right? Note that I'm not asking for reasons to believe that the state is physically capable of controlling the country. I want to know what you think are the sufficient conditions to establish a property right.

Kurbla writes:

James:

    " Why should I believe your assertion that the state has a property right to the country? "

I can prove that it is *possible* that state has property rights that can satisfy the criteria libertarians require: that property is obtained through homesteading and voluntary agreements.

It appears that libertarians believe that individuals homestead, and that state is dropped on their heads against their will. I think that more often, people homestead territories in tribes: the groups of people who not only walk on the small distance, but apply elaborated systems of rights and duties. These systems can be strange, but as long as membership in tribe is voluntary, I think libertarians cannot object to tribes.

Also, I think libertarian should accept tribal property as legitimate, if it is obtained through usual methods: homesteading and voluntary transactions.

But: tribe + territory = the state. Imagine the tribe that homesteaded the cave; according to tribe rules, members could have the right to sleep in cave and duties to watch the cave one day, and feed watchmen other day. These duties are not coercion, but result from voluntary membership in tribe. And, food for watchmen ... it is tax.

So, in some natural cases, tax can be legitimized using libertarian principles. Some cases of the state property are certainly not legitimate - but there is no reason for claim that generally, private property is more legitimate.

Do you see any mistake in my reasoning?

James writes:

Kurbla,

In English, voluntary payments to landowners are rents, not taxes. Taxes are compulsory payments to governments.

I asked you for your reasons to believe that "In reality, the state always keeps some basic property rights."

Your response purports to show that the state might possibly come to own land in a legitimate way. Why are you changing the subject?

In any case, there is reason for the claim that private property is generally more legitimate: Most private property titles arose through strictly voluntary processes. I wonder if you can point to any state, present or historical, that arose through the gentle process you describe.

El Presidente writes:

James,

Most private property titles arose through strictly voluntary processes.

My reading of history says otherwise, as does the use of simple logic. Even in the instance where squatters lay claim to land that is not otherwise occupied, they have not paid for it. Do we then employ the venerable moral principle "finders keepers"? Does the accident of finding something bestow an inviolable right to deny its use or benefit to other people? How much less so the act of taking by force? At least one of these two methods is inevitably the origin of present titles to land.

If you want to mount a moral defense of property rights, you probably would do better to stick to arguments about utility rather than claiming that title arose through a "voluntary" process. Taxation is a 'voluntary' process in the same way since government 'voluntarily' denies individuals the opportunity to spend the levied portion of income/wealth. This is why it is necessary that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. I think I read that somewhere.

Kurbla writes:

Landowner can require taxes. He can say: you have the right to live on my land, if you pay me 10% of your income. Also, you have to be dressed as rabbit all the time. If you do not like it, you're free to leave.

    I asked you for your reasons to believe that "In reality, the state always keeps some basic property rights." Your response purports to show that the state might possibly come to own land in a legitimate way. Why are you changing the subject?

I thought it was enough to make the point. I'll develop it further. Idea is: territory was initially homesteaded by tribe, not by individuals - and individuals never got property rights over territory. Territory was just handed over from one state to another, but never privatized.

What happened after initial homesteading? Tribal leaders became kings (supposedly on some democratic way.) Kings ownership of territory was base of his rule. He gave lot of property rights to other people, but he kept some basic property rights that allowed him to act like landlord from the beginning of the post; to define laws. Even today, British queen is "ultimate owner" of the whole Britain, everyone else has only "real estate." So, Individuals (except king) still had no property rights over territory.

What happened after that? The revolutions. Kings rights on territory were nationalized - but again, not privatized. That's where are we now. Individuals still have no property rights on territory.

If all these steps, from tribe to democracy were done on just way, then state is rightful owner of territory and it has right to tax individuals, just like landlord has right to tax. But even if these steps are not done on just way, it doesn't make the case for individuals, but for the last of the legitimate states or tribes.

OK?

James writes:

Kurbla,

I'll be kind enough to repeat what you failed to read: In English, voluntary payments to landowners are rents, not taxes. Taxes are compulsory payments to governments. Clear this time?

Since the process you describe never occurred in reality, I don't understand how it is supposed to be proof that, as you claim, "In reality, the state always keeps some basic property rights."

Please stop changing the subject and either prove your assertion in quotes above, or admit to making stuff up.

El Presidente,

Who do you think has a better right than the first finder to control previously undiscovered stuff?

Kurbla writes:

If landowner requires that you pay him 40% of his income as long as you live on his land, and if state requires that you pay 40% of your income, as long as you live on its territory; if you do not want to pay, you have to leave, and if you leave, you'll not have to pay -- it is same relation, no matter how you call it. There is no reason to call this relation in one case "voluntary" and in other case "compulsory". In the period of the kingdoms, this relation was defined in same terms, and even today, British king is ultimate owner of the land.

Second, genesis of the modern state really happened on the way I described. We know even historic data, we know when, for example, Germans tribes came into Europe, when they homesteaded some territories, conquered others, elected kings, we know when people deposed kings and nationalized but not privatized their rights.

This is reality. Do you have in mind some important exception?

El Presidente writes:

James,

Who do you think has a better right than the first finder to control previously undiscovered stuff?

"Stuff" is a little broad. Considering land though, nobody. I'm just saying they don't have a right either, at least not one of moral turpitude.

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