The libertarian argument has been much in vogue over the past fifty years. It claims to support the maximization of personal freedom. But, from a political perspective, the most important issues have to do with private property and taxation. The principal claim is that the government's taking of private property by taxation is an infringement of personal rights. The argument is under cut when it is understood that the concept of private property can only exist when there is a state to enforce property rights. This state must be supported by contributions from the populace for, at a minimum, policing, legal recourse (laws, trials, etc.), and the ability to forcibly compel compliance with the rulings.
There have been many successful societies where the concept of personal property was not recognized. Most nomadic societies consider the environment to be a common good and it is not owned. Personal property is limited to the modest amount of things needed to provide shelter, clothes and required tools. In herding societies it may also include livestock. The society is expected to work toward common goals in most areas. There is nothing inherent in the human condition to support a libertarian social structure.
Thus, libertarians implicitly believe it is alright for some of a person's private property to be taken for purposes which are for their benefit, but that other takings that they may not be in sympathy are unjustified. As presently interpreted in the seats of power this is just another example of a minority promoting personal interests at the expense of other sectors of society. So, we can take the Libertarian arguments about unjustified takings for old age support and similar programs out of the list of valid philosophical objections. Similarly, the argument to "personal responsibility" is just another way to object to takings for specific purposes which the individual does not personally approve. This is not to say that those in power will not continue to use them as a way to counter movements for change.
One of the most powerful human emotions seems to be related to the concept of "fairness". Psychological experiments have been done which indicate that in many cases a person is willing to accept less for themselves if it also means that someone else is not to receive more than their "fair share". So, we have to consider the case where a benefit is being distributed and some percentage of it is gotten unfairly. For example, let's suppose there is a soup kitchen set up for those unable to work and an able bodied, but lazy, person gets in line. This person is considered a "slacker" and is universally condemned. Slackers quite frequently have to resort to deceit to obtain unwarranted benefits.
Another argument that is given is that if people observe slackers getting "something for nothing" they will be unwilling to work themselves. This argument sounds plausible, but it has been observed that, in most circumstances, the satisfaction to be gotten from being self sufficient, and other psychological rewards, is enough to make most people continue working productively. How can the slacker problem be addressed? The first thing to notice, is that only those getting certain types of public financial support are considered slackers. The most heat is raised by "welfare", disability and unemployment support. This is natural since most people have personal experience with how much effort they must put in to earn enough for these types of personal expenses. Thus, slackers, in this category, evoke strong personal identification.
There are many other, less visible, support services present in a modern society. Common examples include agricultural support, transportation support, manufacturing support, and land use support. These programs are in the form of either direct payments or tax relief to certain sectors of the society. They tend not to be as criticized since they are not visible to the average person. The financial balance sheets of commercial enterprises are not accessible to the average person.
Another form of specialized support is the tailoring of the tax laws to benefit some types of income over some others. In the US a worker may pay an effective tax rate of 25% on his wages. A wealthy person with investments may pay only 5-15% on income derived from these sources. We could say that these people are "slackers" to the extent of 10-20% of their income. Once again the average person is not aware of these public benefits and does not resent them.
The first conclusion to be drawn is that certain types of special benefits are perceived as subject to abuse more than others. Thus, the objections are based upon lack of comprehensive information and are not fully justified.
The second objection is based upon the existence of fraud. The argument, stripped to its essentials, is that because a benefit can be abused it should not be supported at all. Carried to a logic conclusion this type of argument leads to the total breakdown of modern society. Let's take an example. Suppose that some percentage of parking tickets are dismissed because of payoffs to the police or the courts. Should we therefore abolish are parking tickets? All human endeavors are imperfect. The fear of fraud cannot be used as an objection to implementation, it can only be a motivation for better administration of the benefit.
So, the second conclusion is that fear of fraud cannot be a valid objection to a specific support program.
"Might makes right" has been the unspoken, guiding principal for most societies throughout history. Many techniques have been used to disguise it: appeals to nationalism, religion, tradition or security have been the most frequent. In every case there is a small elite group that wishes to maintain its position of privilege and wealth. This elite group has the levers of power and wealth at its disposal. The threat of force, and the application of small amounts of wealth to buy the support of key segments of the population are very successful. History is replete with cases where an infinitesimally small group has controlled an entire populace for extended periods of time. The French aristocracy, the Chinese dynasties, and Middle Eastern sheiks are obvious examples.
This situation exists today even in the democratic, enlightened, developed societies of the West. The power may not be as absolute as formerly, the imbalance of wealth may not be as great, but the control of social policy is just about as effective. The Nazis are are good recent example.
By definition "might makes right" is an amoral philosophy, so
appeals to reason or morality will have little practical effect.
The essential question that remains is:
How do we get a society to become more equitable when this inevitably implies that some elite class will have to give up some or most of their special status to the underprivileged?
There seems to be only one argument. Unbridled power must be met with the potential for even more power by the under served. Many approaches have been taken to redress the imbalance of power. The most dramatic have been violent revolution, as in France in 1789. More recently there has been a tendency for societies to just refuse to acquiesce in the current arrangement. The first successful application of this technique was India in 1948. Other recent cases have included Eastern Europe under Soviet domination, Argentina, Peru, and the Philippines. The ruling elite must be made to feel that giving up some privilege or wealth is preferable to risking a wholesale disruption of society. Once events get out of control there is no assurance that the ruling class will be able to maintain its privilege. The overthrow of the French aristocracy is still a valuable cautionary tale to those who think that they are immune to change.
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Copyright © 2005-7 Robert D Feinman
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