Art Carden  

McCloskey on Self-Ownership, Taxation, and the Corruption of Virtue

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I'm working on a book I'm co-authoring with Deirdre McCloskey on the economic history of the last few centuries. Here is a choice passage from page 44 of her 2006 book The Bourgeois Virtues:

The tempting shortcut of taxing the rich has not worked, for two reasons. First, I repeat, taxation is taking, and as the philosopher Edward Feser puts it, "Respecting another's self-ownership...[reflects] one's recognition that that other person does not exist for you...The socialist or liberal egalitarian...rather than the Nozickian plausibly accused of 'selfishness.'" No left egalitarian has explained how such takings square with Kant's second formulation of the categorical imperative: "So act as to use humanity, both in your own person and in the person of every other, always at the same time as an end, never simply as a means." Taxing Peter to pay Paul is using Peter for Paul. It is corrupting. Modern governments have been encouraged to think that any abuse of Peter is just fine, that Peter is a slave available for any duty that the ruler has in mind. A little like nonmodern governments.

COMMENTS (10 to date)

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Philo writes:

“. . . always at the same time as an end, never *simply* as a means" (emphasis superadded). Kant doesn’t say never to use another person as a means to your end; he says that your doing so must be tempered or modified by your recognition of the other person as “an end in himself” (a phrase which, admittedly, could use some explication).

Woody Belangia writes:

Philo is right to point out the important qualification of Kant's Categorical Imperative, never to use another *simply* as a means. A contract for employment, voluntary on both sides, is certainly using the other as a means to some extent, yes?

That said, it could be McCloskey's point is that the kind of taxation/taking involved in the redistribution of wealth from one pocket to another is *precisely* an instance of what Kant's imperative condemns -- using another as a means only. The advocate of such taxation is (willfully?) blind to the taxpayer as an end-in-him/herself.

Seth writes:

Reminds me of something David Schmidtz said on EconTalk:

But still, there’s a fundamental matter of principle, a question that needs an answer at the end of the day, which is: Do I have the right to say No? Do I have the right to walk? Do I own myself? So, the fact that you can think of other people who helped me, or you just imagine–how do you know that I’m not an orphan? Maybe in your imagination all kinds of people helped me. Tell me at what point other people helping me made me your property.
Jason Brennan writes:

You might not like this argument, but this is the outline of the argument that's supposed to explain why taxing people is not merely using them.

Basic steps:
1. Original appropriation for private property limits freedom and imposes costs upon others in the first instance.
2. To be justified, the moral rules that require us to respect property so appropriated should confer sufficient benefits on those who bear the costs and loss described in 1.

So far, Nozick, Locke, and Schmidtz are on board with 1 and 2. Rothbard, I think, rejects 1 and 2.

3. Now the question becomes what counts as sufficient benefits. Locke: Leave enough and as good, so people aren't harmed relative to a baseline. He might be right. But Rawls, Tomasi, Vallier, and I think the standards are a higher.

4. Then it's an empirical question what particular institutions are needed to make the system work as required by step 3.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

The socialist can not be accused of selfishness for the taxation supports the community directly and the individual recipients only secondarily.

Neither are Kantian imperatives sacrosanct for contemporary socialists. If Kant contradicts redistribution, then so much the worse for him.

Self-ownership taken literally as "Do I own myself?" is an absurdity that only discredits the person speaking of it. Ownership can only exist for items in commerce and even then, the terms of ownership are politically (i.e. socially) defined.
Wider society does not accept libertarian dogmatic absolutism.

Brian writes:


Your repeated references to McCloskey's book has gotten me interested. I'm adding it to my must read list!
With regard to ownership, taking, and redistribution, however, I think McCloskey gets the reasoning wrong. Taking, whether by an individual or by the state, is not wrong because it uses the person solely as a means; it's wrong because it does not SUFFICIENTLY use the person as a means. Let me explain.
Most value is created through exchange. If I take from you something you claim as your own, you are unlikely to exchange other things with me in the future. I have effectively cut you off as a trading partner, which means I can no longer use you as a means for my own betterment. Contra Kant, I need not consider you at all as an end in yourself (that's YOUR job). But if I consider you fully as a means to my own value creation, I'll not be inclined to take but to trade freely.
When the state takes and redistributes, it's even worse. Not only does the act of taking make the person less likely to trade freely with the state, but the state also presumes to know what the recipient of its largesse wants and needs, a presumption which is frequently wrong. If I take for myself, at least I am feeding my own preferences. But if I take for someone else, I am merely guessing what the other prefers and am likely to get it wrong. Redistribution by the state, then, takes what is not freely given and gives what is not freely taken. It's hard to see how any exchange could less misbegotten than that!

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

As a reader of most everything I could find by the "post Max-U" McCloskey, the two volumes of the Bourgeois, blogs, videos, etc., I am surprised by how little the major underlying theme is picked up, explored and amplified by others.

In the above references to Kant, there is some implication of that major underlying theme.

That major underlying theme, by my perception, concerns the dominant socio-economic effects of how individuals in a culture (within social orders) come to regard one another.

Perhaps one reason for avoidance of this outlook lies in the religious implications, particularly those of Christianity. But, ideologies do have consequences; probably far more extensive than those of elections.

Economic Analysis, in common with Economic History, will be deficient and likely erroneous to the degree that the effects of the regard that individuals have for one another within any culture and social order are not properly evaluated.

ThomasH writes:

"Modern governments have been encouraged to think that any abuse of Peter is just fine, that Peter is a slave available for any duty that the ruler has in mind."

Certainly one of the the most over the top criticisms of the mild progressiveness of US Federal taxes I've heard.

Just who encouraged "modern governments" to do this? (States and local governments in the US are apparently not modern or have resisted the "encouragement.")

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

ThomasH -

These McCloskey observations are not limited to taxation, "progressive" or otherwise.

The constraints upon one group of individuals in purported efforts to provide for activities by other groups of individuals constitute numerous examples.

Of course, the fact that "Peter" is regarded as a slave does not exclude the treatment of "Paul" in the same category under other conditions; or, even in the same conditions.

It is the acceptance that relationships between Peter and Paul shall be determined through the mechanisms of government, rather than between them or among them, that has largely changed the tenor of the cultures in Western Civilization as they came to us from preceding generations.

This writer will shortly pass age 89, and opines from observations.

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