Bryan Caplan  

Moral Theory & Voluntary Overpayment of Taxes

Bet on Oil Prices... My Talk at Berkeley and My MSN...
Tyler, responding to Karl Smith, responding to Steve Landsburg, asks:
[I]f government action to redistribute income is morally required, in the meantime is not greater private charity morally required too?
Tyler's not impressed with Karl's position.  Karl:
If we want to be truly honest then most people mean something like this: I would prefer a world in which all other rich people paid more taxes and I paid less. However, I doubt that anyone is going to go for this. So I am willing to settle for a world in which all rich people including me pay more in taxes. I am not willing to settle for a world where I am the only rich person paying more in taxes.
My challenge for Karl: What moral position, if any, would actually morally justify your preference? 

Most deontological moral theories say that government enforcement and moral obligation have nothing to do with each other.  If you're obligated to help the poor, you should fulfill your obligation even if the government looks the other way. 

Most consequentialist moral theories say the same.  If taxing you more to help the poor raises social utility, then your voluntary gift to the poor will presumably have the same effect.

The simplest moral theory I can imagine that would justify Karl's position says: (a) you're morally obligated to obey the law, (b) morally obligated to support utility-maximizing laws, but (c) not morally obligated to unilaterally maximize utility.  But just imagine making a populist protest sign consistent with this position.  An egalitarian who defers to the law, does cost-benefit policy analysis, and refuses to go above and beyond the call of duty has become everything he hates.

Comments and Sharing

TRACKBACKS (1 to date)
TrackBack URL:
The author at The Liberal Order in a related article titled Karl Smith On Why the Rich Should Pay More In Taxes writes:
    Karl Smith argues: If we want to be truly honest then most people mean something like this: I would prefer a world in which all other rich people paid more taxes and I paid less. However, I doubt that anyone is going to go for this. So I am willing to ... [Tracked on November 4, 2011 3:37 PM]
COMMENTS (18 to date)
Joe Teicher writes:

Karl's position seems to be consistent with a self-interested moral theory.

All he has to believe is that if all rich people pay more taxes then that will result in a society that is so much better that his personal benefit from this better society will be worth more than the extra taxes he has to personally pay. If he just personally paid more then the costs would be the same but the benefits to him would be basically nil.

I think his example about speed limits makes this point.

You may find it implausible that taxing the rich more will make them better off (I know I do!) but that seems to be what he is saying, and its pretty simple from a moral point of view.

Nathan Smith writes:

Anyone who actually wants to help the poor for moral reasons would support open borders first and foremost. The fact that so few liberal support open borders proves that they do not really care about helping the poor but are just squeamish about seeing them. You're treating their moral position with a seriousness that it does not deserve.

Sam writes:

Paraphrased: "I want to be forced, along with others, to do good because I am unwilling to do good on my own."

It is a very strange position, but a widely held one.

Miguel Madeira writes:

I could imagine an utilitarian (not a moral) argument - for a rich eagalitarian, "collective" re-distribution have a pro and a con.

pro - living in a more egalitarian society (who, for him, has a "moral utility")

con - he will have less money

The problem with "voluntary taxation" (where only him share his wealth) is that the con is the same as in forced taxation, but the pro is much smaller.

Puting in other way - for an egalitarian, "a more egalitarian distribution of wealth" is a kind of "public good", with all the problems associated with public goods (like the free-rider issue).

RPLong writes:

Caplan, redistributionists are statists. What's moral to them is what the state says. It's sort of like deontological ethics, only the state actually has to compel them to do something before they will acknowledge that there is a moral obligation to do it. Because the state is the one that determines all ethics.

Get it?

So until they are compelled to give their own income away in the form of taxes, they have no moral obligation to do so.

Mises nailed it 70 years ago. Statism is a religion. It is really that simple.

Mike Huben writes:

Bryan's "simplest moral theory" is actually good enough.

Why he thinks it is bad is just stupid though. Because it doesn't fit into a bumper sticker slogan? Aim some of the Koch brothers' money at it, and I'm sure it could be done. And as for "self-hating" advocates of that theory, Bryan doesn't explain why that position would result in self-hating.

DWAnderson writes:

A few points:

-- I think Miguel hits the nail on the head concerning the principle underlying not being willing to redistribute a significant portion of your income unless others did likewise.

-- The problem with that approach is that it is hard to square with most theories of the the reasons for moral imperative to redistribute, because it values a distributional order (egalitarianism) over the welfare of the other individuals (who would be helped even by just one's own marginal resdistribution).

-- Karl's speed limit response is way off. We want everyone following the same speed limit because there are significant safety advantages to all traffic moving at the same speed, those advantages are actually undone if one car moves more slowly thah the rest.

stataTheLeft writes:

G.A. Cohen's If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich is a really fantastic treatment of this question from the point of view of an analytic Marxist.

For the most part, he concludes that egalitarians should donate huge portions of their money unilaterally, but he does come up with a few plausible counterarguments. Many of them revolve around the idea that it is legitimate to value having similar resources to your peers, so unilateral giving is a much larger sacrifice than giving along with your peers.

Michael writes:

I think another defense of Karl's position may be if your goals are in some way binary. Suppose that I think that as a society we have a moral obligation to provide free higher education to anybody who wants it. Now suppose that there is no such system in place, and that the fixed costs of setting up such a system exceed 100% of my income and assets.

Does my belief that we collectively have a moral obligation to set up this system, to which I would happily contribute, obligate me to quixotically donate my money towards such a system without anybody else doing the same?

Brian Moore writes:

If Karl doesn't feel obliged to give 100$, then he will surely not criticize any single individual who manages to avoid paying a 100$ tax (on moral grounds, obviously there is a legal issue, but that's not the context). The moral/utilitarian impact would seem to be identical.

James writes:

As someone opposed to Obama's position on taxes, I want to agree, but...

Your "simplest moral theory" is a strawman. How about this: You are generally free to do whatever you like whenever you like so long as you obey the law when doing so increases utility.

For that matter, why must preferences be morally justified?

kebko writes:

Identity politics is religion. The point of religion is for everyone to do it together. If you walk around one Wednesday a year with ashes on your forehead, you're a weirdo. If everyone does it, your pious. This is also the reason why the people calling for more taxes don't seem so concerned about how much of the taxes we pay already are wasted. At its base, this is about tithing together, not utility. If only someone had come up with a 10% target level for the state...

Searching writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Tom West writes:

I find this question interesting, because I am a redistributionist who *doesn't* consider this a question of morality, but simply a utilitarian one. (Which doesn't make me popular with other redisributionists...)

Examining myself, the utilitarian calculus is pretty straightforward. Loss of salary reduces by utility by Z, but the benefits of living in a redistributionist society from that money may be 1/1,000th of Z.

So, there's not much point in giving money voluntarily. However, if I can get a law passed, I still lose Z, but now with a million people contribution, I gain 1,000 x Z!

No morality involved at all.

And there's the added benefit that as societies inevitably become more redistributionist (historically, social changes seem to run 10 to 1 in my favor), my utility is constantly increasing!

And the final bonus is that I don't have to take disagreements personally. It's simply competing utility functions as far as I'm concerned.

Lord writes:

The best response to this was a comment to Karl's post. You are confusing greed with morality. There are two kinds of goods, private and public, which differ in utility and you are trying to combine them on one scale but are confusing them in the process.

HispanicPundit writes:

An argument I have heard in defense of Karl's position that I found interesting and somewhat valid is the "change the rules of the game". Say you found a rule in soccer to be unfair, harmful even to players. But if only you followed such rule, you would be placed at an unfair advantage. So instead of doing so, you petition to change the rules.

Would that make you "hypocritical"? I say no. What say you?

Evan writes:

Another explanation for Karl's behavior, one that I find very likely, can be drawn from the common observation that willpower is a finite resource. Helping yourself takes less willpower tha helping others at your own expense.

Suppose Karl has 10 willpower units. Donating money to help others costs 11 willpower units. Paying taxes to avoid jail costs 1 willpower unit. Lobbying for higher taxes costs 6 willpower units. Obviously in that situation lobbying for higher taxes is the best way for the poor to get your money. Karl's bizarre seeming statements are merely him being cheeky about his lack of willpower.

Bryan has indicated in previous posts that his willpower levels are so high that in the DC Universe he'd be eligible for Green Lantern Corps membership. I'm not surprised he'd find someone else's attempts to impose external checks on themselves to be perplexing.

jb writes:

It would appear that he is an 'assured success egalitarian' - that is to say, he believes in redistribution in order to solve various problems, but only if the problem seems likely to be solved by said redistribution.

Extrapolating a bit more, it would appear that in addition to the above, when a solution appears that has some potential feasibility to solve a given social problem via large-scale redistribution, then it is morally imperative that this solution be enacted ASAP.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top