On Tyranny

I have decided to come out of hibernation and revive this blog. This post is an easy start – with not much original content!

In the last month or so, I read two of Robert Heinlein’s novels – “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” and am very impressed, delighted even, at discovering an author whose ideas are a breath of fresh air. And so I noticed a quote on the editorial page of today’s Times – a newspaper I usually ignore almost entirely. Here is the quote:

“There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”

If the point needs to be illustrated with a concrete example, here is a post on the workings of the IRS in the United States by a blogger I very much admire: http://gusvanhorn.blogspot.in/2014/06/an-ill-windfall.html

Sadly, having argued numerous times with the proponents of involuntary taxation, I have come to the conclusion that imagining a system fundamentally different from the status quo is too difficult for most people. And the nonchalant acceptance of tyrannical political systems is just one manifestation. The same nonchalance can be seen in other areas of life as well. More on that later – particularly in regards to the theme of Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”

Charity

Just as I began writing this post, I saw this short piece by Kendall J.

There is an idea that I’ve heard repeated at various times in my life, that there is not enough charitable feeling in naturally “self-centered” man to be of meaningful help to those in need. When I respond that there is ample benevolence in man, and in a capitalist society, ample surplus of productive resource (time, money, etc) that  we should not make it a forced duty to be charitable, but rather allow man’s natural benevolence to take its course, most people tell me that resources have to be aggregated and centrally directed to be effective.

Here at least a is small demonstration that this thinking is completely wrong.

This idea usually comes from people who want the state to step in and force everyone to be charitable. A case in point is the recent discussion I had with T.R. who was arguing for free public education so that poor people can afford education. The ironic part is that we already have a free (and broken) public education system for precisely this reason, indicating that there are many people who are concerned that poor people would not be able to afford education and don’t mind getting taxed to “solve” the problem. So why do these people need the state to intervene? As I see it could be two reasons:

1) They think their donations would not be enough to run an adequate system and so they want to coerce others.

2) They think they themselves would not donate if the state did not force them to.

Since there are very few people who ever advocate the scrapping of subsidized education, reason 1 is not credible. What about reason 2? Clearly reason 2 is paradoxical. Why would they not spend money voluntarily when they themselves think it is important to do so?

The answer can be found in the morality of altruism. Altruism creates an artificial line between actions that help you and actions that help others and claims that only actions that help others are noble. So if Edison invents the electric bulb and sells it for a profit, his action is called selfish (and at best amoral) even though it has benefitted innumerable people much more than it has benefitted him. On the other hand, when Bill Gates donates a large part of his wealth to charity, his action is called selfless (and noble) even though much of those donations will be ineffective (Africa’s biggest problem is not disease). Note how actions are being judged not by their rationality but by their (intended) beneficiaries. So Mother Teresa, who never produced any wealth in her life is judged to be incomparably nobler than Dhirubhai Ambani, who established a large business empire that created wealth for so many people (including himself). By this absurd standard, man is certainly not noble (and that is a very good thing – just imagine everybody spending their whole lives with a begging bowl with the intention of helping others with the proceeds).

The proper standard for judging actions should be – does this action actually benefit the actor? Is this a rational, workable, sound idea or is this a stupid idea that will cause harm? Since most men use both standards, the altruistic standard in the domain of morality and the rational standard in the domain of practicality, they carry over the obvious conclusion from the moral standard and apply it to the practical standard. Thus they reach the conclusion that man (not this or that individual, but man as a species) is incapable of acting for his own long term interests and has to be forced to do so.

But the domains of morality and practicality are not separate. Proper moral principles are <i>derived</i> from practical experience. The moral is the practical. Applied to charity, charity is just another action like investing in a company or buying a work of art and like any other action it can be good or bad. It is only the absurd morality of altruism that claims that charity cannot be in one’s self-interest and then exhorts one to engage in it nevertheless. The proper way to judge it is to balance the costs with the rewards (not necessarily in terms of money). The Mother Teresa kind of charity (redistributing wealth created by others in the prime of her life and sinking into a depression at the end of it) is bad charity because it is incredibly stupid. The Carnegie kind of charity (establishing libraries and universities when he might have lacked the energy to engage in directly productive work) is good charity because it brought him great satisfaction at little cost while also helping others.

Vision

In an email exchange (which has already produced two posts), a friend asked “What are the alternatives you suggest to taxing/ law and order maintainance / public healthcare/ public education etc?”  This is what I wrote as a response:

Education and healthcare are certainly not areas where the government needs to enter. Consider the private tuitions / coaching class business in India for example. They exist for all levels of education and almost everybody attends them. They are also quite profitable. And this is inspite of the fact that parents are forced to pay for both official schools and coaching classes.

I do not have any significant personal experience of the health care industry, so I will merely link to the website of Americans for Free Choice in Medicine

Law and order (Police, courts, army) is a government responsibility and the question of how it is to be funded is certainly a pertinent one. A fee for the protection of business contracts could be one way. Banks requiring tax payments from borrowers (as a proof of responsibility) could be another. Voluntary taxation does seem an unworkable idea today, but men do give to charities and spend time and effort on activism. If the government is restricted to the maintenance of law and order, the revenue requirement will be way smaller (of the order of a few percent) than the level of taxation today (more than 40% for corporates and top earners in most of the world). Since men will be freed from a big tax burden (much of which is wasted by the government today), they will have more to give voluntarily. Anyhow, if the kind of reforms I desire are ever to be realized, abolishing taxation will be one of the last things to happen. A society that genuinely respects self-interest (instead of denigrating it through mis-concepts like greed) and allows economic as well as political freedom will be very different from the society today. What seems (and is) unworkable today need not be unworkable in such a society.

What I am writing about is a vision, not just political but also moral. Taking just a part of that vision and considering it in today’s context will not work. This does not mean that we can dispense with the vision however. No one can live a directed, purposeful life without a vision. The same holds for a country. Atleast the older generations (in India) had a vision (socialism), misguided though it might have been. Today’s generation has no vision at all. Look at some of the recent campaigns for example. Against reservation, against corruption etc. Read this article in today’s Bombay Times as another example. All empty words, no content. What do these people want? They all say they will vote. For whom? “Somebody who sticks to his or her word”, “A young, educated and responsible leader who loves the country whole heartedly. Somebody who puts the country first while discharging his duties.”, “A person we can depend on and trust. A leader who will not just concentrate on one aspect of development, but look around and bring about a positive change in all areas.”, “A young, healthy leader to lead India.”, “A leader who has the vision of a great and young India.”, “A leader who can look after all classes and give young India a path to follow.” These are people who know that the ideas that have always been preached to them have failed miserably. And as a consequence they have rejected ideas as such. They think they are smart, pragmatic and energetic. But what are they directing their energies toward? They don’t think it is necessary to know that, as long as they are pragmatic. But they are only deceiving themselves. Without a vision, they won’t be able to change anything.

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