Thought For The Day

In order to offer someone a financial reward without him working for it, the government must first ensure that somebody else works for a financial reward without getting it. There is no other way.

(Source)

33 thoughts on “Thought For The Day

  1. This quote is so shallow. Write ‘insurance company’ instead of ‘government’, and it will be just as correct and just as contentless.

  2. Dániel: Insurance companies have no way of coercing someone into working for a financial reward without getting it (the second half of the sentence), because they don’t have the power to take money from you without your consent.

  3. Seems to be suggesting government is a zero-sum game:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-sum

    It also doesn’t cover the situation where the two people are the same person. Everyone pays taxes, but everyone also benefits from multiple government programs. Whether these cancel out (for everyone, or in aggregate) or are a net benefit is an interesting exercise but I’m guessing it vastly does, particularly if you recognize the possibility that many things in society are non-zero sum games (like for example, free software).

  4. Government financing is a zero-sum game – you can’t pay out or spend more than you get in in taxes. Mr Micawber points this out very well.

    If the two people are the same person, then the person still loses, because government administration costs are non-zero. Seriously non-zero.

    The whole point of the quote is that it doesn’t cancel out – there are some people who receive rewards without working for them, and there are other, different people who work for rewards and don’t receive them (because they are taken in taxes from the latter and spent on subsidies or welfare for the former).

    And if it did all cancel out, then why would we bother having this enormous system for taking money from people and giving it back to those same people?

  5. The quote is false. Also, it assumes that financial rewards are the only reason to work. And it seems to be suggesting that taxation is inherently immoral.

    The article proceeds to take an “us versus them” position, and identify “us” (the holders of the above opinions, presumably) as Christians, and “them” as secular. As a Christian, I find that deeply offensive.

  6. Why does someone take an insurance: to get compensation for unfortunate events, out of the person’s control (such as house burn, car accident, etc).
    Why does the government redistribute: to compensate for unfortunate events, out of the person’s control (such as handicap).

    The difference is the coercion indeed, but that is a necessary consequence of the different causal order of things. People will only insure for things still to come, not for things that have already happened (at birth).

  7. roc: I take your criticism seriously, but I think it is misplaced.

    It does not assume that financial rewards are the only reason to work. It says that if the government is to give financial rewards out, then it must get that money in, and it must take it from people who have earned it. This seems to me to be pretty much a truism. Where does government get money apart from via taxation? (Or borrowing, which is taxation deferred.) And who can they tax apart from those who earn money? They can’t tax the recipients of government money; that just sends it round in circles.

    It also does not suggest that taxation is inherently immoral. It suggests that taxation for the purpose of giving out money to those who have not worked for it is wrong. Also, it does not suggest that giving out money to those who have not worked for it is wrong – Christians are obviously called to be generous to the poor and needy. It suggests that taxation for this purpose is wrong – i.e. it is wrong for the government to coerce people into this behaviour. Coerced generosity is not generosity.

  8. Government financing is a zero-sum game –

    Sure, all accounting is like that. It’s not just the government. I think the point dave was making was that some economic activity, including government activity, is better than zero-sum: it builds roads, teaches kids to read, prosecutes violent criminals, makes green spaces in cities, that sort of thing. At the same time it gives somebody a job, sure, but we don’t fund public schools and parks as an employment program for teachers and construction workers. They’re for the benefit of families with kids, and they’re free. These aren’t “financial rewards”, but they are handouts all the same. Someone has to pay for it.

    So what exactly is the objection here? Is it to government programs where people get free stuff? Is it immoral to take tax money from someone who doesn’t have kids and spend it on schools? Does it matter if it’s a park, a Medicaid subsidy, or a TANF check? Why?

  9. Jason: the quote is restricted to commenting on the idea of government taking money from person A and giving it to person B. (Whether it’s called a benefit, a subsidy, a tax rebate or some other name.) Of course government does other things, and people will have different views of whether those other things are things government should be doing or not. But let’s try and stick to one function of government rather than discussing them all at once :-)

    The point here is this: if the government is going to take money from people to give them more than they have earned, then the people the government takes the money from are going to have less than they have earned. I can’t see how this statement can possibly be argued with. Money doesn’t grow on trees. (This is a lesson the current UK government would do well to learn.) Income must, over the long term, equal expenditure.

    This doesn’t in itself say that a transfer of wealth from those who have earned it to those who have not is always wrong. However, such a transfer at gunpoint/prison-point (which is what it really is; that’s what happens when you refuse to pay taxes) is wrong. And the reason it’s wrong (which you may not agree with, if you have a different basis of argument than the Christian one the author and I are using) is that God has not given the state such a role. (It belongs to the family and the church.) And taking things at gunpoint without permission is theft.

    But let’s say you don’t agree with that basis. How, then, do you decide what limits should be set on the power of the state to take your stuff and give it to other people? And what happens if other people think the limits should be different? Say, the people who happen to be in government think they should be allowed to take much more than you think they should?

  10. Folks, forced wealth re-distribution is stealing, which is immoral. Who gives the government the power to do this? The people? No. Just try re-distributing some wealth to yourself. We cannot delegate power to the government that we ourselves do not possess.

  11. “Of course government does other things” How, gerv? There is no single government program that isn’t redistribution. You can’t say that some programs (tax rebates, welfare, etc.) are but some aren’t. Some of us don’t use public roads. Some of our public roads don’t get Federal money. All government is redistribution from the military to welfare so you can’t cherry pick the programs to attack.

  12. Fritz: paying for an army or a police force, for example, is not redistribution. The government outlays money and receives, in return, a service from the people employed (soldiers, policemen) or goods from the companies employed (tanks, uniforms). That is a very different thing from taxing rich people and giving the money to poor people because they are poor. The former is bulk-buying a service on behalf of the population – one which each individual member of the population could not provide on their own. The latter is the result of a decision that rich people are too rich, poor people are too poor, and it’s the government’s job to change that situation by force.

  13. Without reading the article, the quote completely ignores the diminishing marginal utility of money, and that (in my arrogant opinion) is all by itself sufficient to render it not only false but actively misleading.

    Reductio ad absurdum demonstration: There are approximately 310 million people living in the USA, according to the CIA World Factbook. Suppose that alien space bats take one US cent away from every one of those people. The bats now have a little more than three million dollars. But even if you’re living in a cardboard box under a bridge, you’re not going to miss one cent. Therefore, it does not appear that the bats have done anything morally wrong, from an utilitarian perspective.

  14. Money doesn’t grow on trees, maybe; but governments (or central banks working for governments or for monetary unions of governments) can print banknotes and mint coins.

    As for source-levied taxes on labour (including social security etc.) what the worker has earned is the amount of his or her pay check. The tax expresses the fact that the cost of labour to the employer is not equal to what the workers get at the end of the month, it doesn’t mean that labourers work without getting paid.

    As for unemployment benefits, I prefer to pay some tax (or to have some tax levied on my employer) while working in order to be assured that if someday my employer goes broke I’ll still know where my daily bread and my monthly rent are coming from, rather than having to go beg in front of churches and sleep in railway stations. Sorry, but I don’t trust voluntary charity when my life is at stake, even if not believing that God will necessarily answer favourably when I ask “Give us today our daily bread” while reciting the Lord’s prayer once a day sounds un-Christian to you.

  15. Gerv said:

    Fritz: paying for an army or a police force, for example, is not redistribution. The government outlays money and receives, in return, a service from the people employed (soldiers, policemen) or goods from the companies employed (tanks, uniforms). That is a very different thing from taxing rich people and giving the money to poor people because they are poor. The former is bulk-buying a service on behalf of the population – one which each individual member of the population could not provide on their own. The latter is the result of a decision that rich people are too rich, poor people are too poor, and it’s the government’s job to change that situation by force.

    But it is redistribution. There is no fundamental difference between the two. Both are collective action problems. One is security and the other is poverty. Both have different means to solve the problem. Both use money taken in the form of taxes from people (regardless of if they want to participate or not–or if they see the problem–or if they think government is the force that should solve the problem) and gives that money to other to solve the problem. Both use the implied force inherent in all taxation.

    You seem to find some moral difference. Talking about redistributing from rich to poor. I mean, there is no “rich tax” that pays for the poor. Rich people do pay more in taxes, of course, but they do it equally for the military and for welfare. It’s not a decision that the rich are too rich. It’s a decision that the rich can pay more in taxes.

    We choose what our governments do (in some broad democratic sense). I would vote for an increase welfare. I would vote for a cut in military spending. I think I am honest enough to say that those are arbitrary choices based on my political and moral views. I find it incredibly insulting when people try to argue that it is OKAY to use my tax dollars to pay for something I often disagree with but that it’s somehow bad and redistribution to use them for social welfare.

  16. The quote says “the government must first ensure that somebody else works for a financial reward without getting it.”

    I interpreted “someone else works for a financial reward” to mean someone who’s motivated by that financial reward, in which case the statement is false because the government could take money from people who aren’t motivated by financial reward. (Which is actually most people, once you get to a certain level; see e.g. http://money.cnn.com/2010/01/07/news/daniel_pink.fortune/index.htm.)

    It seems you’re interpreting this as “the government must first ensure that somebody else who’s working for money — perhaps money that they care almost nothing about — dosn’t get all of it”.

    When you clarify it that way, it’s a weak complaint, but it’s still not strictly true. Governments have other sources of revenue, such as investments.

    Now, I happen to agree with your actual point about coerced charity not being a good thing. I think this is a case where speaking plainly — “let your yes be yes”, etc — would serve better than pithy quotes :-). I wouldn’t claim Biblical authority for this though; can you explain where the Bible says that charity is not a legitimate purpose of government?

    I’m still concerned that this is political priority #1 among such a huge swathe of Christians, who are more likely to give to charity anyway. It should be more of a concern to the selfish.

  17. Ever thought about that redistributing money gives you benefits by maintaing social peace?

  18. > I happen to agree with your actual point about coerced charity not being a good thing

    I should say that redistributive taxation in democratic societies is only weakly an example of this. People consent to such taxation in a few ways:
    — they get to vote for alternatives
    — most of them, especially the ones who don’t benefit from the redistribution, could move to a lower-tax regime if they wanted to
    — when you get a job, you know roughly how much you’re going to be taxed and how much you take home; your agreement to do the work for the latter amount forms implicit consent to be taxed the former amount. Likewise, when you buy an item you know how much sales tax you’re going to pay, and you’re implicitly consenting to that.

  19. I guess my fundamental problem is that I don’t believe people who complain about taxation are mainly concerned with the moral issues of redistributive taxation. If they were, I’d expect to see a lot more anger about government handouts to other destinations than poor people — for example, farm subsidies (which as well as being redistributive, impoverish farmers in other nations), and porky defense contracts, like when the US Congress forces the Department of Defense to buy weapons it doesn’t want. Of course, the latter gets magically sanctified because it’s “national security” and therefore “a legitimate purpose of government” … no matter what the true purpose. These measures are extremely popular with the bulk of “conservative Christians” in the USA. For some reason, it’s always money for the poor that’s attracts outrage. That makes me very suspicious.

    One more gripe: the term “conservative Christians” is dangerously ambiguous, since it easily mixes up theological conservatism (let me dare to say, adherence to orthodox Christianity) with political conservatism (alignment with certain political groups). A lot of people — across the political spectrum! — would like those to be perfectly aligned, but they aren’t, far from it. That’s another reason when I see politically conservative Christians throwing around the terms “Christian” and “conservative” together, I get worried.

    (A while ago an online quiz classified me as having more conservative values than any of my US Republican friends, and I’m theologically conservative, but I feel almost no affinity with the US “right wing”. It certainly made for interesting discussions when I lived there!)

  20. “Insurance companies have no way of coercing someone into working for a financial reward without getting it (the second half of the sentence), because they don’t have the power to take money from you without your consent.”

    Yeah, because forcing you to have insurance to get even the simplest of things is sooo uncommon!

    Completely ignoring that there is taxing for nothing: taxing digital mediums CDs, DVDs, Hard drives, that go directly to third parties.

    That people that complain about unemployments benefits never complain when their taxes are then redistributed to big companies or group that don’t need/deserve them.

    There are more people than there are useful jobs (producing necessary things).

    So we create that jobs that produce nothing but garbage (garbage in/garbarge out) like in China. It’s a curious thing: they produce vasts amounts of unnecessary things that they export, this things then became useless immediately and are dispose of and then are sent to China again to be recycled.

    There will never be 0% unemployment!

    A big percentage of people employed are incompetent/negligent/criminal. They are a burden to society. Someone has to pay for it private insurances or the state. It would be of to just pay them not do anything at all. How many lives has this cost every year both directly and indirectly?

    The social consequences of its absence would be catastrophic for the whole society not just for those unwilling to find “work”.

    Society is already moved by fanatical greed. Government aids are a necessary buffer.

    “And the reason it’s wrong (which you may not agree with, if you have a different basis of argument than the Christian one the author and I are using) is that God has not given the state such a role. (It belongs to the family and the church.) And taking things at gunpoint without permission is theft.”

    Oh yes GOD, the ultimate scapegoat/alibi! Poor GOD. Has to pay for every moral coward person on this planet.

    “And taking things at gunpoint without permission is theft.” This one is telling. You’re saying that there’s only one way! Your way (using GOD as excuse). Who’s forcing who? So when Church wants to take away personal freedom is that not theft? What to say, what to wear, what type of sex, what to eat, etc… Church is perfectly willing to take away things from us by force if necessary, and it generally is.

    And in the past the church did by itself or in collaboration with monarchs/governments take money/property from the population for themselves. They did also force religious conversions.

    Overall the church is more than willing to rob people of their property/beliefs/principles by force and in celebration!

    Oh the hypocrisy of those that hide behind religion/prophets/gods to justify their moral cowardice…

    And please, for the sake of that person that was called Jesus Christ, don’t you dare call yourselves “christians”. You’re not nor will you ever be.

  21. Zack: From a utilitarian perspective, maybe not. But I’m not a utilitarian. Taking other people’s money without consent is wrong, whether it’s a cent or a grand. Incidentally, your “alien space bats” are actually the government, and the way they do it is called “inflation”, and it’s caused by printing money.

    “the government must first ensure that somebody else who’s working for money — perhaps money that they care almost nothing about — dosn’t get all of it”.

    Yes. And the fact that they don’t care about it doesn’t give you the right to take it. If it did, then stealing the savings of elderly, demented people in care homes would be legal.

    T: So you are arguing we should bribe poor people not to riot?

    roc: I think you would find both the author of this piece and I object also to farm subsidies and pork-barrel politics. The inconsistencies of other people are not my fault :-) I am not an American, and I am not arguing for unquestioning support of the Republican Party, or that all the arguments of “conservative Christians” in the US (although I think that term lumps together a variety of disparate views in an unfair way) are valid. You are right that there are unfortunate linguistic problems with the term.

    I don’t buy your argument for consent. There are no low-tax alternatives to vote for, at least in the UK. I don’t think I should be required to leave my country, which I love, for this reason, and agreeing to do a job to feed your family is not implicit consent to anyone taking a chunk of your pay packet – be they the government, the Mafia, or anyone else. As I’ve said, I agree that there are legitimate reasons for tax-raising, but I don’t consent to them by virtue of taking a job, I consent to them because God (in Romans 13) tells me to.

    Jack: I’m not sure how to respond to 10 unconnected points. There are no digital medium taxes in the UK, and I would oppose them; I would complain just as much about farm subsidies like the CAP; I also don’t support the church taking other people’s property by theft; and I’m not sure how you argue that I’m a moral coward because I want to achieve the same ends (helping the poor) but by different means.

    Zack: People are never paid less than a job is worth (unless they are forced to do the job), because they can always leave. If other people would immediately take their place, then they are not being paid less than the job is worth, they are being paid exactly what it is worth. If no-one else would take their place, then the person wanting the work done has to raise the wage available until someone will – at which point, again, the people are being paid exactly what the job is worth. The only thing that can interfere with this mechanism is coercion (slavery) and government law. Both are bad.

    The value of a job is not necessarily related to the economic value of the output. Should diamond miners be paid 100 times as much as coal miners?

  22. It may well be that individuals here and there oppose farm subsidies and porky defense spending with as much vigour as they oppose handouts to poor people, but I think it’s an empirical fact that the public outrage of groups like the “Tea Party” is almost entirely focused on the latter. You have to ask yourself why that is.

    If these conservatives want people to take their opposition to redistributive taxation seriously, they should campaign on issues other than handouts to the poor, and thus rid themselves of the charge of selfishness and be above reproach. Best of all would be to start with the redistributions that benefit themselves.

  23. I’m trying to apply that myself … When I recently gave a talk about how to improve the state of computer science research in NZ ( http://weblogs.mozillazine.org/roc/archives/2010/04/changing_the_wo.html ) I deliberately stuck to recommendations that do not require the spending of more government money. (Almost every discussion of that sort of thing, in any country, is a discussion of in what manner the government should spend more money on .)

  24. The point here is this: if the government is going to take money from people to give them more than they have earned, then the people the government takes the money from are going to have less than they have earned. I can’t see how this statement can possibly be argued with.

    Well… I think one could argue that the market price of one’s labor is not closely correlated with what one deserves–so using the word earn, with its subtle moral connotations, assumes the conclusion.

    The argument is not that people have no right to the fruits of their labor, but rather that the fruits of their labor, i.e. “the economic value of the output”, is not the same as their wages.

    And taking things at gunpoint without permission is theft.

    How is this different from saying that all taxation is theft?

    I understand that you’d rather limit the discussion to welfare programs. But the above argument seems wrong to me precisely because if it’s correct, then it doesn’t matter how the money is spent.

    How, then, do you decide what limits should be set on the power of the state to take your stuff and give it to other people? And what happens if other people think the limits should be different? Say, the people who happen to be in government think they should be allowed to take much more than you think they should?

    The means of minimizing abuse are the same whether you’re Christian or not. Democracy, constitutional checks and balances, criminal penalties, transparency, societal norms, whatever else you can muster.

    I think the main difference of opinion here is that you claim you can draw a bright line between “take your stuff and give it to other people” and “bulk-buying a service on behalf of the population – one which each individual member of the population could not provide on their own”, based on biblical principles, whereas everyone else claims you can’t.

    Unemployment insurance is the kind of thing that falls in between. Private unemployment insurance would have some pretty serious adverse selection problems. It seems like the sort of thing that individuals “could not provide on their own”. On the other hand, it introduces perverse incentives similar to those in other more explicitly redistributive programs. What do you think?

  25. roc wrote:

    It may well be that individuals here and there oppose farm subsidies and porky defense spending with as much vigour as they oppose handouts to poor people, but I think it’s an empirical fact that the public outrage of groups like the “Tea Party” is almost entirely focused on the latter. You have to ask yourself why that is.

    This is starting to seem a bit much. Gerv already said he doesn’t agree with everything those people have to say and that he opposes the particular kinds of spending you mention here.

    Let’s discuss ideas someone here cares to defend.

  26. Gerv, you had a lot of expensive medical care. Did you pay for that yourself, or was it redistributed to you?

    When you cited that article, maybe you didn’t realize what it was about. One of the Constitutional functions of our government is to promote the general welfare of our nation. That article glorifies the Tea Party, which is a organization that opposes precisely those activities that that promote the general welfare. Many of us find them to be indiscriminately destructive of our ability to manage public affairs on a rational basis. In particular, they bitterly opposed desperately needed health care reform. You might have had a very nasty surprise, had you gotten sick in this country–particularly if you were not able to work any more.

  27. — they get to vote for alternatives
    — most of them, especially the ones who don’t benefit from the redistribution, could move to a lower-tax regime if they wanted to
    — when you get a job, you know roughly how much you’re going to be taxed and how much you take home; your agreement to do the work for the latter amount forms implicit consent to be taxed the former amount. Likewise, when you buy an item you know how much sales tax you’re going to pay, and you’re implicitly consenting to that.

    Because if you don’t vote, you’ll be voted against.
    Removing citizenship still causes 10 years of future taxes in the US
    Because it is impossible to not get a job/buy stuff to survive without the government forcing you to pay.

    Without reading the article, the quote completely ignores the diminishing marginal utility of money, and that (in my arrogant opinion) is all by itself sufficient to render it not only false but actively misleading.

    Reductio ad absurdum demonstration: There are approximately 310 million people living in the USA, according to the CIA World Factbook. Suppose that alien space bats take one US cent away from every one of those people. The bats now have a little more than three million dollars. But even if you’re living in a cardboard box under a bridge, you’re not going to miss one cent. Therefore, it does not appear that the bats have done anything morally wrong, from an utilitarian perspective.

    Why 1 cent if you can take 2 cents or 3 or 300 of 150,000? Calculate for me when it morally becomes wrong. What about the fact that once the 1cent is taken, it is easy to say they won’t miss the next cent until eventually taxation is huge and that it is possible that taxation could prevent free associations from occurring.

  28. Why 1 cent if you can take 2 cents or 3 or 300 or 150,000? Calculate for me when it morally becomes wrong.

    Why does it have to be so black and white? Can’t it be wrong in proportion to the damage done?

  29. Jason: how do you quantify ‘wrong’ in this way? $1 is nothing to one person, and a day’s food to another person. Do you multiply up by the number of people affected? How do you translate the figure you come to into a number of days for a prison sentence?

    (more later on other people’s comments; got to go to Drumbeat meeting)

  30. Gerv, fwiw Zack and I don’t necessarily agree either. I don’t know where he was going with the space bat story. To me it reads like a reductio argument against utilitarianism. But anyway…

    how do you quantify ‘wrong’ in this way? $1 is nothing to one person, and a day’s food to another person. Do you multiply up by the number of people affected?

    Sure.

    It was not my intent to map wrongness to a real-number scale, much less to imply that there’s some simple algebraic formula of good and evil. But I do think we compare moral quantities all the time, or should. Suppose you have promised to meet someone, but on the way you see a man having a seizure. Wouldn’t you weigh the good you can do by stopping to help against the harm of breaking your promise?

    How do you translate the figure you come to into a number of days for a prison sentence?

    I can’t tell what you mean to ask. We do have systems for mapping crimes to sentences. They reflect our common cultural belief in degrees of wrongness and the rough correlation between wrongness and harm.

    If there are no degrees of right and wrong, and if criminal penalties should be entirely a function of the wrongness of the crime as your question implies, then all crimes should be punished equally. Surely you don’t advocate that.

  31. Reading this rather after the fact, unfortunately, but a few thoughts:

    The “Tea Party” movement is not so united that one can say they are unambiguously for or against many propositions. Commentators have biases, so promoting an esoteric view with the aim of causing harm, or promoting a common view with the aim of causing good, are both likely courses of action for most pundits. I don’t think opposing redistribution to the poor is the raison d’être for very many organizations styling themselves Tea Partiers. (It should also be noted that social security historically hasn’t been redistributionist, at least to the extent that the rules of the game aren’t changed halfway through due to looming insolvency.) If anything, opposing redistribution to the “rich” — the creditors of insolvent organizations — through bailouts is much more their reason for existence. That seems to at least partially address the “Best of all would be to start with the redistributions that benefit themselves” contention.

    As for farm subsidies, to a good extent they’re an across-the-board concern. Recall the most recent farm bill (with subsidies) passed with supermajorities in both houses. Also, it’s pretty clear the Tea Party to a large extent (especially recently) has had a throw-the-bums-out effect, so I would caution against conflating the Tea Party with the members of Congress who passed the farm bill, or the views of one with views of the other.

    Jason, regarding this: “Private unemployment insurance would have some pretty serious adverse selection problems. It seems like the sort of thing that individuals ‘could not provide on their own’.” First, props for putting the quotation mark before the period. :-) Second, I don’t know if there could be a meaningful market for it, but supposing there couldn’t, might this be because there is a substantially similar substitute without adverse selection or moral hazard problems? It is a straightforward process (if possibly a lengthy one, depending on how much discretionary income you have or can scrimp) to amass an emergency fund capable of providing for one’s needs during a time of unemployment.