20 April 2012

Tithing and taxes

This little gem found its way into my Facebook news feed recently:
I'm all for a flat tax. Everyone above the poverty level pays 10% of their total income. It sounds pretty damn fair to me. Yes, this includes corporations too. 10% is good enough for God, it should be good enough for our government. If it's not, then why does our government need more money than God?
Well, gee; it's not much of a flat tax if some are excluded from it, now is it? Taxes are nothing more than a way to transfer wealth from one group to another. Even this proposed system would do exactly that.

That's not the point I wanted to make, though.

What I want to make clear is that tithes and/or charity (in God's name) and taxes should never be conflated or confused with each other. Taxes are involuntarily expropriated via the threat of government force. God, on the other hand, makes no such threats against person or property for failing to give. Not only that, but He doesn't even require that you give to a middle man. Whether you buy a meal for someone in need or give to a church that does, it's the same.

I'm certainly no theologian or saint, so take the following for what it's worth: Our (Christian) salvation is gained through the sacrifice that Christ made by dying on the cross and our belief in what He said about Himself, namely that He is Christ. Paul explains this in Ephesians 2:8-9, saying:
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
I say this to make the point that our salvation is not dependent upon our charity, and thus there is no "donate or go to hell"-type threat looming over Christians. Now, certainly, those who are saved will, by virtue of their salvation, by and large be found to be donating (time, money, etc.) to the church and/or charity as God has instructed them. However, given what Paul said, I find it hard to believe that failure to do works (i.e. give to charity) invalidates salvation. After all, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

There are volumes that could be written about these subjects, and I'm not qualified to write them, although I did find this article instructive. In short, tithing and charity are voluntary; taxes are enforced through violence and/or the threat thereof. Never confuse the two.

16 April 2012

Taxes for thee but not for me

David Axelrod was on Fox News Sunday this past weekend and was asked about President Obama's taxes which were released this past week. I found the exchange over the Obamas' taxes very interesting and telling:
(CHRIS) WALLACE: It turns out that he [President Obama] paid a tax rate of 20.5 percent, which is a lot less than the 30 percent he talks about and yes, it is lower than what his secretary pays.


WALLACE: And the president has -- if I may, David, the question I have for you is: if the president feels so strongly about tax fairness, is he going to he contribute money to the Treasury and they have a special department just for this, to help with the deficit?

AXELROD: Listen, Chris, first of all, the reason that his tax rate was so low was in part because 22 percent of his income was donated to charity, mostly to these Fisher Houses around veteran hospitals. So --
At this point Wallace interrupted Axelrod to point out that Mitt Romney also contributes to charity. Axelrod agreed and then began to point out the differences between President Obama's tax proposal/plan and Governor Romney's. Wallace eventually returned to the original question:
WALLACE: I take it that he's [President Obama] not going to contribute money to the Treasury to help with the deficit.

AXELROD: Listen, well, that's not the way we operate our tax system, OK? We don't run bake sales. It's not about volunteerism. We all kick in according to the system. And the system allows that -- look, the fact that Mitt Romney pays 14 percent on $20 million income is not the issue. The issue is that the system permits it and he would perpetuate that and he would enhance it.
On the one hand, let me say, "good on Obama". If, as libertarians, we believe that taxes are theft, then we ought to commend any attempt to avoid paying them just as we would any defense against other criminal actions. On the other hand, it seems disingenuous of the president to call for the rich (millionaires, specifically) to pay 30% or more of their income in taxes while conspicuously failing to do so himself because the "system" allows it. Perhaps, it would have been wise for Mr. Axelrod to raise the point that the Obamas did not earn over a million dollars last year, and therefore, would not be subject to the president's proposal(s). But he didn't. In fact, he went on to defend the president's use of the system to lower his tax rate -- he's just following the rules. Nevermind that those rules permit him to contribute more.

There are a number of points raised by this story, all of which deserve a post of their own, but I don't have the time or energy to delve into each so deeply. Here they are, briefly and in no particular order:

  • Taxes are not voluntary and are collected at the end of a government gun.

    Axelrod admits as much when he says [emphasis mine], "that's not the way we operate our tax system, OK? We don't run bake sales. It's not about volunteerism. We all kick in according to the system." The only issue I take with his description is the use of the phrase "kick in". Stop enforcing tax laws; only then can we truly know how "voluntary" taxes really are.

  • No person should ever pay more than the "system" requires, the criminality of the system itself, notwithstanding.

    Obama's actions and Axelrod's defense of them (see the quote under the previous point) bear this out.

  • It's hypocritical to call out Mitt Romney for paying "only" 15% of his income in taxes.

    Governor Romney lives under the same tax system that President Obama does. Why is it okay for Obama to "kick in according the system" while Romney is vilified for doing exactly the same thing?

  • President Obama, himself, doesn't believe in his own tax proposal(s).

    As the Fox News story points out, Obama paid less in taxes, percentage-wise, than did his secretary. If he believes that a system in which this kind of "inequity" is allowed is "unfair", why wait for the system to change? Nothing is preventing him from correcting this particular injustice right now. Thus, we can infer that correcting this problem is less important to him than keeping his own money.

  • Why are taxes proportional to income but not other things, too?

    If taxes are what we pay for government goods and services, why don't rich people pay more for everyday goods and services like groceries and carwashes?

  • War is a racket.

    I note that the overwhelming majority of the Obamas' donations went to the Fisher House Foundation. It's been funny (interesting, not ha-ha) for me to see people on the political right who hate Obama with a passion turn around and lavish praise on him for donating money to this organization. Their love of war and support of those who fight it seemingly knows no bounds.

    The politics obscures the absurdity of it all. Why does the government pay for war and the private sector pay for cleaning up the messes left by it?

06 April 2012

Twitter account

Anyone know the owner of @johntyner? Any chance he or she would be willing to turn that account over to me?

04 April 2012

Distinction without difference

I've seen a lot of commentary over the last few days about the so-called "individual mandate" in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that discusses how the mandate is beyond the power(s) of the U.S. federal government and that the Supreme Court would be right to strike it down. Those same commentaries, however, then concede that the same federal government does have the authority to raise taxes and then use that money to provide health care, a la Social Security.

Two thoughts immediately come to mind:
  1. If the commentary, as described above, is correct, why is there such an uproar about the mandate? If the federal government really does have the authority--assuming it does so via the "proper" means--to force health care on every person within its jurisdiction, wouldn't it be far less injurious to individual liberty to allow people to choose from which provider they will get their insurance and the terms of that insurance? Furthermore, wouldn't it be far more economically efficient if individuals purchased insurance for themselves, saving the cost--both monetary and bureaucratic--of the government having to hire more IRS agents to collect the money and more functionaries to manage it?

  2. Isn't the real problem that the U.S. Constitution is all but worthless at this point? That is, if the mandate is such an affront to individual liberty, but the constitution allows the government to achieve the same ends via different means, what good is it as a protector of that liberty?

27 March 2012

Unjust laws

For some reason, today, the quote alongside the picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. got me thinking. The phrase "unjust laws", in particular, struck me. What is an unjust law? Who makes the determination?

King's quote is not new. It was said before by Aquinas who was in turn drawing on Augustine, quoted as saying, "an unjust law is no law at all". I tend to agree with the sentiment, as I imagine most people would, but the rub occurs, of course, when trying to determine exactly which laws are "unjust". Based solely on this quote, it seems that King is suggesting that humans have the ability to determine for themselves what is just and what is unjust. If this is the case, then we can infer that laws are completely unnecessary in the first place. For if a law is unjust, then no one is obligated to follow it. If, on the other hand, it is just, then there was no need for the law in the first place because people would have acted accordingly on their own.

This latter point is predicated on the idea that humans are, by and large, innately interested in living in a peaceful and just society. I believe this to be true simply because society exists at all, because
no social system, whether anarchist or statist, can work at all unless most people are "good" in the sense that they are not all hell-bent upon assaulting and robbing their neighbors. If everyone were so disposed, no amount of protection, whether state or private, could succeed in staving off chaos.
The idea of no laws probably conjures images in people's minds of masked marauders throwing Molotov cocktails in the streets. I'll make the leap of suggesting that this is objectively unjust. (I'm skipping ahead with that assumption, but we'll circle back.) In order to right this injustice, we need to haul the perpetrators into court and try them. Without laws, however, the court--whether by judge or jury--is helpless to judge the actions of the defendants. In fact, any judgment against them should probably be tossed on the grounds that it would be based on the imposition of an ex post facto standard. Since the law didn't exist before the "crime" was committed, no one can be convicted of having broken it.

But, look. We've tossed the conviction based on the idea of ex post facto laws being unjust, an idea clearly introduced into our theoretical justice system ex post facto. Clearly, we need laws, if only to codify what is (believed to be) just. Whether these laws must be promulgated by a single authority, the state, or whether society can adopt them on its own is the subject of another article. Instead, this article is concerned with the idea of (un)just laws.

Aquinas doesn't leave us hanging, fortunately. He lists three things, all of which must be true, in order for the law to be "just":
  1. The law is created for the "common good".
  2. The law does not exceed the authority of the lawmaker.
  3. The law burdens all equally.
For the sake of completeness, Aquinas also describes a law as being unjust if it is opposed to the "divine good". In this way, he is adding a fourth requirement that for a law to be just it must not oppose the "divine good" as dictated by Aquinas' particular religion. This point violates the third point if we wish to allow for the possibility of the existence of other religions or even the right of individuals to choose not to observe any religion. Therefore, this requirement must be rejected.

Let us now consider the remaining requirements. First, the "common good". The phrase, itself, suggests that this "good" can be objectively known and that there is some good or end to which all people subscribe. The only end to which we can confidently assert that all people are working toward is the preservation of their own lives. We know this because any who are not working toward this end presumably would have killed themselves. Thus, any remaining people can objectively be said to value life over death. Therefore, all just laws must be made in the pursuance of the preservation of life.

Second, we consider the authority of the lawmaker. This must start by determining from where this authority comes in the first place. The simplest way to do this is to conduct a thought experiment in which one person and subsequently two people exist in isolation from anyone else. This has been covered before. The conclusion of this experiment is that each person exclusively controls his/her body. If one of these two people is to become the lawmaker, he or she can only assume that role with the consent of the other. That is, a lawmaker's authority extends no further than that which is given by those who would be subject to it.

Given this, we can now determine the extent of that authority. In practice, the lawmaker can have no more authority than any individual, for an individual cannot grant authority that he himself does not possess. It is worth noting that the logical extension of this is that two individuals have no more authority than one; nor four more than two; etc. In order to determine the limits of individual authority, we return to the thought experiment in which we've already concluded that each person has the exclusive right to control his or her body. In order to maintain this right, it is necessary that neither person engage in aggressive (as opposed to defensive) force against the other. This simple rule--the golden rule--is all that is necessary to maintain that status quo. Thus, the authority of the lawmaker is limited to the prevention of the violation of the exclusive control of bodies--the use of aggressive force--between a person or people against another person or people.

Finally, there is the idea that the law, to the extent that it burdens any, must burden all equally. Given the narrow constraints on the law created by the first two requirements, equal burden of the law is not a topic that requires much, if any, investigation except to say that the law must apply to all, including the lawmaker. Failure to apply the law equally, such as it may be under the first two requirements, would be to allow an individual or individuals to act contrary to Aquinas' second provision, and as already discussed, this authority cannot properly be granted by anyone. If the discussion had turned to taxes, a debate could be had on the equality of burden created by progressive vs. flat tax systems, but the imposition of taxes by the law again falls outside of, at least, the second of Aquinas' first two requirements.

To sum up, we find under Aquinas' "modified" requirements (remember, the fourth was dropped), that just laws must be enacted to preserve life; that the scope of these laws is limited to the prevention of the use of aggressive force between persons or peoples; and that all must be subject equally to said laws. (Having arrived at these requirements through the objective observations of human actions, we can now return to the earlier statement that the masked marauders throwing Molotov cocktails were acting "unjustly". To the extent that these actions are against people, they are objectively unjust. A discussion of the propriety of such actions with respect to "property" is purposely excluded from this article.) Given these limitations on the law, we are led to the (perhaps, not so) startling conclusion that nearly all laws on the books today are "unjust".

13 January 2012

Bruce Schneier <3's TSA

Yesterday, Bruce Schneier wrote a blog post about abolishing the Department of Homeland Security. It was based, in large part, on a CATO report calling for the same citing that
DHS has too many subdivisions in too many disparate fields to operate effectively. Agencies with responsibilities for counterfeiting investigations, border security, disaster preparedness, federal law enforcement training, biological warfare defense, and computer incident response find themselves under the same cabinet official. This arrangement has not enhanced the government's competence. Americans are not safer because the head of DHS is simultaneously responsible for airport security and governmental efforts to counter potential flu epidemics.
Schneier agrees, citing his own writing from 2003:
Our nation may actually be less secure if the Department of Homeland Security eventually takes over the responsibilities of existing agencies. [...] Security is the responsibility of everyone in government. We won't defeat terrorism by finding a single thing that works all the time. We'll defeat terrorism when every little thing works in its own way, and together provides an immune system for our society. Unless the DHS distributes security responsibility even as it centralizes coordination, it won't improve our nation's security.
But Schneier takes issue with CATO's suggestion, later in the above linked report, that the TSA should abolished. Instead, he believes
abolishing the TSA isn't a good idea. Airport security should be rolled back to pre-9/11 levels, but someone is going to have to be in charge of it. Putting the airlines in charge of it doesn't make sense; their incentives are going to be passenger service rather than security. Some government agency either has to hire the screeners and staff the checkpoints, or make and enforce rules for contractor-staffed checkpoints to follow.
It would be very easy, at this point, to attack Schneier on the basis that the TSA is a colossal failure. However, that TSA is not a failure of epic proportions is not what he is arguing. In fact, Schneier himself is the progenitor of the idea that exactly "two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers". Furthermore, just this week, he penned an article calling the TSA irrelevant. So, let's look at exactly what he did say: that airline security should return to pre-9/11 levels with the government being in charge of it, either directly (government-hired goons staffing the checkpoints) or indirectly (private contractors acting under government regulation). If we hearken back to the pre-9/11 days, we find that his statement is redundant. Prior to 9/11, the government via the FAA was in charge of airline security, and what Schneier is suggesting is exactly how we arrived -- ignoring the reason(s) for the attacks themselves -- at 9/11 in the first place.

Before addressing Schneier's claim that putting the airlines in charge of airport security doesn't make sense, let's start with why his own solution doesn't make sense. First, there is the empirical evidence. As I just pointed out, 9/11 happened on the government's watch. While I agree that airline security should be rolled back to pre-9/11 levels, putting/leaving the government in charge of it is ludicrous, and the reason for that is that the government's interests do not align with that of the traveling public. Ostensibly, both care about flight safety. But in reality, as Schneier himself points out relentlessly, the TSA fails to provide this on any level. Just last month, a Vanity Fair writer explained how Schneier helped him circumvent TSA security to meet Schneier at the gate when his flight arrived. Then there's my own personal experience: after leaving the screening area (without being screened), the TSA demanded that I return because they feared that I may have an explosive device on my person. Why would they usher me back to the most crowed area of the airport if they feared that I had explosives? In reality, the government's interest(s) lie in an ever increasing role in security. This provides, not an actual increase in security, but an ever increasing ability to funnel money to favored contractors and further ratchet up the police state apparatus for the same reason.

The other reason that having the government in charge of airline security doesn't make sense is the same reason that letting the airlines manage their own security does: the profit and loss test. The basic idea is that when a business produces a product that consumers want at a cost that is less than what consumers are willing to pay, then the business profits. If any of these conditions are not met, the business suffers a loss. If the business does not change, then it goes out of business, government intervention notwithstanding.

Let's apply this test to the government's handling of airline security. It is producing a product that consumers want, namely, security. It is producing it at a cost of approximately $8.8 billion per year according to the federal government's 2011 budget. But this is where the profit and loss test ends for the TSA or any government entity. The profit and loss test requires that consumers of a product voluntarily pay or not pay for it. The government is funded via compulsory taxation. Therefore, the government need not concern itself with whether or not it is producing a product that people want or, more importantly, in a way that they want. That the government acts in exactly this way is borne out by reality. The TSA's budget during its first full year of funding in 2003 was $4.8 billion. It's current budget, only 8 years on, is a near 100% increase from that initial budget. This comes despite repeated TSA bungles including sleeping on the job, physically harassing passengers, allowing criminal activity to bypass security, stealing from passengers... the list goes on and on. If the TSA was a private corporation, consumers would have put it out of business almost 10 years ago. Instead, its costs are higher than ever and rising with no end in sight. In fact, the TSA's only measurable goal is total security, something that requires an absolute police state. Despite the desire on the part of the traveling public for total security, I'd wager that none would actually want to pay for it in terms of money or liberty required to implement said police state.

Now we can return to Schneier's claim that putting airline security in the hands of the airlines makes no sense. He believes this because he thinks that the airlines' focus will be on passenger service instead of security. Somebody didn't think through his rationale, completely. Tsk, tsk. Security is part and parcel of the service provided by the airlines. No passenger is going to be concerned about a glass of soda and a bag of peanuts or that he didn't get a blanket and a fluffy pillow if his plane is commandeered or blown up by a terrorist. Not only that, but the loss of a plane costs an airline hugely. There is of course the capital loss of the plane and the fuel, but more than that, if the airline wants to stay in business it's not only going to have to beef up its security, but it is going to have to figure out how to prove to passengers that it had changed its ways so that they'd be willing to fly again. We see then, that the airlines' interests, unlike the government's, align perfectly with the traveling public. In addition, airlines carry insurance for their operations. This means that airlines want their operations to be safe and secure because they don't want their premiums to rise in the event of an accident, and the airlines' insurance companies have every incentive to pressure the airlines to keep their operations safe and secure lest the insurance company have to pay out a multi-million, possibly billion, dollar claim.

"We can't trust the airlines", I hear you scream. "They're greedy capitalists!" Indeed they are, and that's exactly why the system would work. The airlines, unlike the government, cannot just take consumers' money to fund their operations. They must induce consumers to voluntarily give money to them. Thus, the airlines are subject to the profit and loss test described earlier. If the airlines provide too little security, passengers won't be willing to fly. The airlines will have saved some money by skimping on security, but the lack of income will ultimately result in losses. If they provide too much security, either the costs will drive ticket prices to a level that consumers are unwilling to pay, or consumers will find alternate means of travel because they find the security required by the airlines too onerous. In either event, the airlines will again find themselves losing money. In order to make money, the airlines will have to provide enough security to satisfy their passengers' desire for safety and their insurance companies' risk tolerance while not imposing so much security that passengers seek other airlines or other modes of travel entirely to avoid the costs and hassles.

Astonishingly, a self-correcting and self-policing system like this hasn't taken hold. Part of the reason for this is human nature. Humans have demonstrated a surprising inability to correlate events with the likelihood of their occurrence. For example, very few people are concerned about choking to death on their own vomit. However, it turns out that one is 9 times more likely to die by this method than via an act of terrorism. This is a topic that Bruce Schneier has also written about repeatedly. Because of this, people always demand ever more security in the event of some kind of accident or attack. Normally, the costs of these demands would temper them somewhat, but this doesn't happen because of government involvement. This is the other reason that a free market system has not taken hold: the government provides moral hazard. The airlines prefer that the government be involved because by using government provided security and/or standards, responsibility for security failures falls on the government, not the airlines. When something tragic occurs, the airlines can point to the government as the failure. Insurance companies are likewise not terribly worried about having to pay airline claims because the government has proven willing to bail them out. Even consumers are unwitting accomplices in this system because the costs of security have been separated from the cost of a ticket. Instead, these costs are (or would normally be) imposed as taxes, but even if one went looking for them, they would be difficult to find as the government has taken to inflating the currency in order to finance its operations. The increased costs of security are found in the rising prices of everyday items like milk, rent, electricity, and gasoline.

The government's involvement in airline security is not only an abject failure but an impediment to allowing a free(d) market to discover what the people really want when it comes to airline security. Bruce Schneier is a smart guy, and he's one of the TSA's harshest critics. He's written extensively about security and the trade-offs made in its name; he's no stranger to economics, especially when it comes to security. In light of this, I can only conclude from his desire to keep the government involved in airline security that he secretly loves the TSA.

05 January 2012

Who's still standing?

This morning I was reading a story on the Volokh Conspiracy about how a judge in Georgia has allowed a lawsuit challenging Obama's listing on that state's presidential election ballot. A sentence in the middle of the article caught my attention:
Similar challenges have generally been rejected on procedural grounds, such as on the grounds that plaintiffs lack standing to sue because they have no greater stake in the matter than any other citizen. Generally speaking, federal courts have concluded that in such cases where the plaintiff doesn’t have a particularized stake in the matter, the resolution even of constitutional controversies should be left to the political process and not to courts.
This reminded me of the Kucinich lawsuit against Obama claiming the latter's violation of the War Powers Act in sending forces to Libya in early 2011. This lawsuit was dismissed for a similar reason -- lack of standing:
Judge Walton held the members of Congress lacked standing to bring the challenge, as they had ample legislative means at their disposal to oppose the President’s use of military force.
I haven't read the decision in this case, but I suspect that the judge's decision rested, at least partially, on the "political question" doctrine. This is the idea that the judicial branch should "avoid inserting itself into conflicts between branches of the federal government" and that "some questions [are] best resolved through the political process". This strikes me as incorrect, as it should be justiciable as to whether or not the president's actions were in accordance with the War Powers Act (or whether that act is itself constitutional). But I digress.

The point is that if the government breaks the law (in a general enough way), it would seem that no one has standing to challenge that action. Say the executive branch eavesdrops on everyone's communications, in clear violation of the fourth amendment, and that this is readily provable and a potential court case is not subject to being tossed under the state secrets doctrine. It seems that the case would still be tossed under the theory that everyone is equally harmed/oppressed, so none have standing to challenge. Furthermore, Congess is powerless here (via the courts) for the same reason Kucinich was unable to stop Obama's action in Libya: Congress has "ample legislative means at their disposal to oppose the President", namely defunding and impeachment.

But defunding and impeachment are themselves political, not judicial actions. They require the votes of members that (may) have an interest in the outcome of these actions that is not necessarily aligned with upholding the constitution or the laws or even the interests of justice. The entire idea underlying the court system is that it is comprised of impartial, disinterested officials. (Whether or not this is true in practice is a separate matter.) The executive and legislative branches are explicitly not comprised of such people. If the court is unwilling to get involved, then we must resign ourselves to the idea that the law is whatever the majority of the Congress says it is (or fails to say that it isn't).

While this may be comforting to some, in that these officers are (in theory) the "people" themselves, democracy is no panacea:
But what kind of person runs for public office? Madison failed to foresee that even the so-called "separation of powers" could not restrain men forever. Entry into politics does not require any particular skill or morality. It simply requires some combination of money, connections, personality, and a desire to rule others, particularly the last one. In fact, that last reason is probably the main reason that anyone runs for office. The idea that the world would be a better place if was in charge is probably not foreign to anyone. To succeed in government, however, involves backroom deals and "compromises" ensuring that only the least moral and most willing to deal away their principles will rise to the top. Thus, government will ultimately be populated with the worst people in society, and it is only a matter of time before they decide to work together to turn their legal authority to use force on the people themselves.
It would seem that we are inexorably on a path to this end in which we will be ruled by the oligarchs in office and their benefactors or by the "people" both of which, in practice, believe that positive law is superior to and therefore trumps natural law. No matter which prevails, one thing is certain: it's not going to be pleasant.