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The "dominant theme" of Murphy & Nagel's book is that "private property is a legal convention." They claim that "the modern economy in which we earn our salaries, own our homes, bank accounts, retirement savings, and personal possessions...would be impossible without the framework provided by government supported by taxes." There is no natural right to property because whatever right does exist is artificially created by government. On what seems like every page of their book, they reiterate their "insistence on the conventionality of property, and [their] denial that property rights are morally fundamental."
In the conclusion of their book, the writers dismiss with disdain "the claim that the entire social product really belongs to the government," as if this claim were not the cornerstone of their anti-property rights argument. But they can't make such a disavowal and remain true to their basic principle, which is that pre-tax income doesn't exist, that it is a mere convention. If pre-tax income doesn't exist, how can a laborer be entitled to even a minute percentage of it? How can one be entitled to something that doesn't exist? In Christian theology, defrauding the laborer of his wages is one of the four sins that cry to heaven for vengeance...but how can you defraud a laborer of his wages if wages don't exist?
Though M&N would deny it, once the right to property is seen as a myth, there is nothing to stand in the way of a 100% income tax, provided that government then ensures a minimum standard of living and distributive justice, however it may be defined during whatever reign. State provided medical care, housing, clothes, food, even restaurants, tv and other entertainment...possibly not the best quality of goods in any category but that's the way the hard tack crumbles. One thinks of the canteen in Orwell's 1984 or the people's cafeterias of the Soviet Union with their greasy, tepid goulash. In such a society, there would be no need for left-over, disposable income...at least theoretically. Of course, a black market functioning by barter would soon develop, in which people would trade goods and services directly.
Perhaps not surprisingly, M&N, after demolishing to their satisfaction the right to property, do not go on to their logical next step. For if the right to property is not a natural one, but is only conceded in a very limit from by government, then surely the right to life and liberty are in the same boat. If property rights would not exist without government, then neither would the right to life and liberty. Indeed, the three rights are always bundled together, because without the right to property--that is, without the right to the fruits of one's labor that enable one to sustain one's life--life is certainly impossible, and without life there certainly can be no liberty.
"What sort of life would be led in the total absence of government?" the authors ask. "The non-government world is Hobbes's state of nature, which he aptly described as a war of all against all....(we leave aside the fact that without government...most of us wouldn't exist even in Hobbes's state of nature.)" This is about the closest the authors come to admitting that in their view, the right to life is something given us by tax-funded government.
The authors would certainly not put it this way, but their ideal world is one in which an omnipotent government controlled by a political elite of putative experts expropriate working people and use the wealth to engage in social engineering meant to bring about an earthly paradise in which "distributive justice" and "equity of results" prevail. What distributive justice is they never quite define, but it certainly entails expropriation carried out through heavy and multiple taxation. Since property rights would not exist without the state, the state has the right to dispose of your property as it sees fit. The same disposition can for the same reason be made of your liberty and life, though M&N refrain from articulating this. But following their logic, if I would have no freedom of movement without government, then government certainly has the right to restrict my movements if it so chooses, doubtless in the interests of distributive justice. I would not live very long, if were I able to be born at all, without government, so again government has the right to decide whether I live or die, again in the interests of distributive justice and equity of results.
Paraphrasing Wendell Holmes, we might say that taxes are the price we pay for totalitarianism.
"The idea that it is the function of government merely to provide the conditions for peaceful economic cooperation and competition, without any concern for the equity of the results, is just too minimal," the authors write. They appeal to A Theory of Justice author John Rawls to substantiate their belief: Rawls' "most famous and controversial claim is that differences in natural ability--the inequalities of what he calls the natural lottery--have a morally arbitrary effect when they result in differences of earning power. He holds that ...no one can be said to deserve the genetic endowment they are born with."
Rawls did not include genetic engineering in his Theory of Justice, but Transhumanist James Hughes takes up the distributive slack with Dr-Moreauish delight in his Embracing Change with All Four Arms: A Post-Humanist Defense of Genetic Engineering, in which Hughes asserts that "social domination has some biological determinants. Patriarchy is, in part, based on women's physical vulnerability, and their special role in reproduction. While industrialization, contraception and the liberal democratic state may have removed the bulk of patriarchy's weight, genetic technology offers to remove the rest. Similarly, while racism, ageism, heterosexism, and so on may be only 10% biological and 90% social construction, at least the biological factors can be made a matter of choice by genetic and biological technology.... If there are genetic factors in gender or racial difference, they will most likely be revealed as minor beside the social factors, and the genetic factors will become ameliorable through a technical fix."
Just as government can dispose of the laborer's wages, so too it can manipulate the laborer's genes as it sees fit, in order to bring about the highly-prized equity of results.
In their defense of expropriation, M&N muddy the waters quite a bit by using their invented term "everyday liberalism" instead of saying clearly "a right to property and the fruits of one's labor." Their everyday liberalism consists of two ideas: 1) "each person has an inviolable moral right to the accumulation of property that results from genuinely free exchanges" and 2) "the market gives people what they deserve by rewarding their productive contribution and value to others." Of course, M&N are dead set against the right to property and to one's earnings because, still following Rawls, "to the extent that market outcomes are determined by genetic or medical or social luck (including inheritance), they are not, on anyone's account, morally deserved."
Hard work, diligence, application, effort, sacrifice are the results of good luck in life; laziness, apathy, loafing, improvidence and just general all-around good-for-nothingness are the results of bad luck and are no fault of the idler.
M&N's reading of Aesop's The Ant and the Grasshopper would be something like this: Once upon a time, there lived an ant who, because of his genetic and medical and social luck (including inheritance: it seems that he inherited some grain from his parents), was able to put away a good store of food for the coming winter. There lived near the ant a grasshopper, who because of his lack of genetic and medical and social luck (including inheritance: his parents left him nothing), sang all summer long instead of storing food. When the winter came, the grasshopper appealed to the ant for food, but was refused. Luckily for the grasshopper, however, a new government had just come in with a distributive justice plan that they were keen to try out. They expropriated the ant of most of his grain (for it was not morally deserved by him), gave a bit of it to the grasshopper, then used the rest to set up a bureaucracy through which they could continue to administer their distributive justice schemes.
The nightmare doesn't stop once the laborer's earnings have been expropriated: rather it begins in earnest. The uses of other people's money are infinite, and "a government aiming to improve the justice of social outcomes needs to know whether a given change in the tax law will increase or reduce inequality, the level of welfare of the worst off, equality of opportunity, and so on. The real issue of political morality is the extent to which social outcomes are just, and knowledge of the distribution of real tax burdens is important only insofar as it helps us advance that aim." One can envisage a vast army of government bureaucrats veering from one scheme to another, throwing cash in here, sucking it out there, surveying and evaluating the effects of their schemes on their hundred millions of guinea pigs, the American people, strangling the economic life of the country in a crimson band made in Washington, DC. Should a scheme fail, it's back to the drawing board and the treasury.
In 1882, when Oscar Wilde arrived in NY to start his lecture tour, he famously said to the customs official, "I have nothing to declare but my genius." The official is reputed to have responded with something along the lines of, "You'll find we charge no duty on that in this country." In M&N's ideal world, the official would have said, "We'll evaluate your genius with our distributive justice scale and see how much tax you have to pay on it. After all, if it weren't for taxes paying for this customs office, you wouldn't even be able to get into the country."
Redistribution enthusiasts forget that the name of the statue in NY harbor is Liberty Enlightening the World, not Taxation Expropriating the World.
M&N have not updated their book since its release in 2002, so there is no reference in it to what government actually does with taxpayer money, fine social theories notwithstanding. The TARP grant of nearly a trillion dollars to the Wall Street bucket shops in order to "save the international financial system," under Bush, and the continuation of government subsidy of the financially parasitic entities under Obama, should encourage any reader to take M&N's limitless faith in the beneficence of government with more than a grain of salt.
A much sounder discussion of property rights and trade is found in Matt Ridley's The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, specifically in the chapter titled The Gains from Trade, in which Ridley demonstrates that "exchange for mutual benefit has been part of the human condition for at least as long as Homo sapiens has been a species. It is not a modern invention....Government, law, justice and politics are not only far more recently developed than trade, but they follow where trade leads....Modern commercial law was invented and enforced not by government, but by merchants themselves. Only later did governments try to take it over, and with mostly disastrous results....The growing cost and gradual congestion of the official courts soon deprived the system of its speed and frugality....Markets, exchanges and rules can develop before government or any other monopolist has defined their rules. They define their own rules, because they have been part of human nature for many millions of years."
At the end of their book, M&N lament that "taxes are naturally perceived by most people as expropriations of their property...Changing this habit of thought would require a kind of gestalt shift, and it may be unrealistic to hope that such a shift in perception could easily become widespread." But M&N should take heart, for in the ten years since the authors wrote their book, there has been just such a shift in an America in which consumption has replaced creation, an obvious manifestation of the decadence that is the hallmark of the penultimate cycle of a civilization. M&N's idea that men are not endowed by their Creator with the unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has gradually become part of the American mentality.
But it remains wrong, it remains absolutely morally wrong to take earnings from the working person, especially from working people with a family to raise and support, and give those earnings to someone who refuses to work. And yet for M&N, such a transfer is desirable:
"The most realistic aim is to try to ensure that everyone in the society should have at least a minimally decent quality of life...that even people who fail to take advantage of reasonably favorable initial opportunities should not be left to fall into destitution," they write. In other words, people who refuse to work should be nevertheless be provided gratis with the standard goods: food, clothing, shelter and more...free for the idler who failed to take advantage of opportunity, a cost for the laborer who saw and took the opportunity to make an honest living.
As Thomas Sowell asks in his essay Apologizing for Civilization (collected in Is Reality Optional?): "Can anyone seriously believe that maintaining an army of idle people...makes for a better society? Or that subsidizing irresponsible behavior is the way to get responsible behavior--either by the people involved or by those who see them getting away with it?"
It seems that at least two professors of philosophy and law at NYU seriously do believe it. And the following of these professors grows daily larger.