• J.S. Mullen

What is to be Done?

In his 1850 treatise The Law Frédéric Bastiat proposes that, “Law is common force organized to prevent injustice; in short, Law is Justice.” He goes on to argue, “It is not true that the mission of the law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our works, our exchanges, our gifts, our enjoyments. Its mission is to prevent the rights of one from interfering with those of another, in any one of these things.” And further, “As every individual has a right to have recourse to force only in cases of lawful defense, so collective force, which is only the union of individual forces, cannot be rationally used for any other end.”

But what are we to do when so many of our fellows insist on giving the government the responsibility to provide various services for which it has no natural responsibility or ability? Are we to deny our fellows their right to give up their liberty in such cases to the state? I say such a stance is incompatible with every definition of liberty; that our fellows should be able to freely enter into contract with the state, with the state to provide such services as they desire.

Of course, the point of real concern and objection among opponents of such proposals is usually not that the state provide such services as elementary and primary schooling, medical care and insurance, unemployment insurance, housing, college, retirement, et cetera; but rather it is the question of how they shall be paid for and by whom that raises the heat of every serious discussion of political philosophy or public policy today.

Or, as economist Thomas Sowell put it recently, "Since this is an era when many people are concerned about 'fairness' and 'social justice,' what is your 'fair share' of what someone else has worked for?"

Assuming the law has not been previously abused, it is difficult to understand how, besides that which is absolutely necessary for maintaining the law, anyone has any claim to the labor of others. Whether by virtue of majority vote or actual tyranny – both amount to violence or the veiled threat of it.

It is therefore my opinion that the state of affairs in our country is abysmal. The Law is overthrown. The state is voracious, all consuming, and fed by both parties alike. The citizenry and business community are taxed and regulated to the point of exasperation. Why?

Why not? Politics is divisive among elites only and precisely because control of the government means access to the dispersal of rents! Subsidies here; contracts there; political favors and personal benefits accruing to them as our elected officials sit safely and comfortably ensconced in their partisan towers.

It is worth remembering that slavery and virtually all other forms of oppression the people of this country have borne during its long history, have been the result of the deviation of government from its proper role as dictated by the law. Rather than protecting persons, property, and freedoms the government has been used to institutionalize and enforce by violence multitudinous injustices!

Such is the state of the union when the state, rather than serving solely as an instrument of protection and redress against injustice, becomes an extractive economic institution.

Our current system of taxation being the most basic violation of the law imaginable, in order to restore justice and make the state and its many peoples equally prosperous under its protection, what is first called for is a reorganization of revenue generation by the state.

Apart from those things necessary to uphold and preserve the law, the military, police, and courts, there exists no just basis for further deprivation of a person’s property or labor without their consent.[i] That would be not-justice.

Of course, the source of our political conflict today is that the law has been usurped, used to disperse funds illegally obtained toward satisfying various purposes - many, such as tariffs and corporate subsidies, are like cancers on the state and drains on our pocketbooks – taxes paid by consumers. Other expenditures, however, are philanthropically minded and legitimately desired by some whose money has been robbed, and it is to these I speak.

Public education, unemployment insurance - these are things it is right to want and pay for. They make societies strong - or at least they theoretically can when done properly.

But a system founded upon not-justice cannot stand. Therefore, I say, away with taxation, and in with Voluntary Civic Contributions – those monies made by citizens of a state which they choose freely to give to the state in fulfillment of a designated purpose.

This will simultaneously align the law with justice and create a public arena of incentives conducive to generating the revenue necessary to maintain such projects as public education, health, and other social services for those who desire them.

Perhaps one feels very strongly about public education. After making their necessary contributions toward the maintenance of the law, one could then make additional contributions on behalf of education. In the same way, those of us who care about the environment will not suddenly cease to desire paying for its maintenance!

Nothing could be clearer. In addition to raising civic virtue – for who does not feel pride in voluntarily contributing to social betterment rather than being threatened with violation for refusing to be outrightly and unjustly robbed – this new public arena of incentives would encourage competition among the various governmental service providers to get more of your voluntary civic contributions. A patron of the public health service, for example, might receive at the end of each quarter a report detailing the overall fiscal health of the program, as well as any innovations, proposals, or outstanding performers. Knowing their money is being well spent, they will feel justified in continuing to give and perhaps increasing the amount. Likewise, if a department is ill-managed this will be quickly noted by those who see their money being wasted. These shareholders will demand new leadership at once – threatening the withdrawal of their money if not!

One may opt-into any or all government services they like in exchange for agreeing to contribute their money or labor in exchange and in proportion to the amount of services desired. For those unable, by virtue of natural ill health, birth defect, or other disability, to either pay or work – to them I say that a society is only as good as how it treats its most vulnerable. I have confidence that my fellow Americans agree, and would gladly contribute voluntarily to pay their share.

As to what tax rate is appropriate to maintain the law, on this I have no preference, for it could be accomplished in any number of ways. I will say only that however it is done it should be set up in in such a way as to eliminate the incentive of, particularly the extremely wealthy, and corporations, to avoid paying taxes. Make it transparent. Make it simple. I would go so far to say that if you must, you should get Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg on the phone, get a number from them, and just get them paying it.

“But what if they only want to pay 5%? That isn’t fair!”

In answer to such predictable objections I can say only that such claims are impossible to assess by their very nature, and further that a lot of good can be done for even 5% of a trillion dollars annually, rather than the artful dodger nothing they pay at present.

Of course, in the United States today it has become vogue among certain segments of society to demonize the wealthy and successful among us. It is not the first time. And just as in the Gilded Age, when men like Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie were demonized for their wealth, just as they spent millions of their fortunes on public works so to bring their names back into good standing in the public eye, I argue we should create a clear set of incentives in the public arena for such things to happen again.

In ancient Rome there was competition among elites for the honor of having performed the greatest service for the state. Whole armies would be raised out of private funds, aqueducts built, building projects funded and directed, highways constructed, trade expeditions sent – and those great citizens were then glorified – the years were named for them – high offices of public honor were accorded them – all as they strove to outdo one another in earning public adoration.

If things need doing and the government has proven so far incompetent (building modern infrastructure, spreading healthcare, preparing the grid for renewable energy, et cetera), rather than threatening the elites with property confiscation to indulge the inept, lethargic, wasteful state, captured as it is by interest groups and partisanship, why not incentivize elites to simply take care of the matters personally? It is a matter of aligning incentives correctly. The developing schools of behavioral psychology and economics could help us design a system of civic nudges - open opportunities for citizens to engage in voluntary activities beneficial to the state.

To take one example, Mike Bloomberg spent over 700 million dollars on ads running for president. Amazing as this sounds, that hardly put a nick in his bank account. What if, in pursuit of public glory, Mike Bloomberg were to organize and pay for the restoration of the water system in Flint, Michigan? Imagine, Mike Bloomberg hailed in a grand parade running through Flint – statues erected in his honor – maybe renaming the school after him. Don’t like the optics? How do you like childhood lead exposure for years on end – with none in sight?

It is criminal!

As a graduate student, my area of study is periods of social and economic transition. Successful transitions require elite cooperation or at best non-resistance, and they thrive with elite leadership. Material forces of history what they are, individuals are still making choices. And we can use our understanding of past choices to make better ones in the future. I would suggest that what I have briefly outlined above, Civic Voluntarism, is precisely one of those better choices.

J.S. Mullen

April 2020


[i] The liberal principle that government should possess the legal monopoly on violence is just, so long as the law does not become perverted. The objections of various Libertarians on this point generally proceed along one of two lines. The first denies the obligation of the state to protect life, liberty, and property. These are Anarchists in all but name. The second objection goes that while the provisioning of such public goods is technically the purview of the state, that the state is not the most efficient means of providing such goods as defense, public safety, and the courts - that citizens themselves should hire these out in the private sector themselves. In the case of both I disagree.

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