Fairness, Justice, Equality, Stability

As anticipated, Sec. / Gen. Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama this morning. Yes, we all remember how Powell allowed himself to be a tool, but many still admire him. Matt Yglesias:

His endorsement helps ratify the post-Palin trend toward McCain solidifying his base but losing his once-formidable support from moderates. Plus I bet it’ll inspire someone at the Corner to say something racist.

We can all look forward to that. And speaking of racism and other forms of discrimination, I give you the Rightie Genius of the Week, Robert McCain, who writes,

This idiotic liberal tendency to equate inequality with injustice is indefensible as logic.

If you need to stop and reflect on that for a bit, take your time.

In context, I believe Mr. McCain was using the word equality to mean identical, which I think only works in mathematics — not even then, if I’m doing the mathematics. However, here in Real World Land, equality — as in equal treatment under the law — is the cornerstone of justice. When elements are equal they are not necessarily identical, but they have the same intrinsic value even if they have different attributes.

Mr. McCain was commenting on this column by Jonathan Cohn, “What’s So Awful About ‘Spreading the Wealth’?” Cohn’s primary point is that progressive income taxes are fairer than flat taxes. As part of this argument, he writes,

Another rationale for progressive taxation is the fact that random chance has profound effects on everybody’s financial well-being. (A guy named John Rawls once wrote a thing or two about this.) Mandating economic equality–i.e., carrying out a truly socialist agenda–would obviously be wrong. But there are compelling moral and economic arguments for asking the fortunate to pay a little more in taxes, in order to blunt the influence of chance on people’s lives.

Mr. McCain is having none of that. Which takes us to equating inequality with injustice:

Why is random chance “unjust”? Whence the “moral” obligation to equalize outcomes? This idiotic liberal tendency to equate inequality with injustice is indefensible as logic.

But Cohn didn’t use the words justice or injustice anywhere in his column. Mr. McCain leaped to the conclusion that Cohn wants to “blunt the influence of chance on people’s lives” out of a sense of justice, but that’s not what he said, and that wouldn’t be my primary argument, either.

What is the purpose of government? Cohn writes, “Government performs certain essential functions, from education to national defense.” How do we know which functions are “essential” and which are not? And why would blunting “the influence of chance on people’s lives” be a function of government? This is what we need to think about.

I say government is a means — not the only one, but the major one — by which people maintain civilization. Through government, theft and murder are criminalized and discouraged. Through government contracts are enforced, which enables people to work together to build cities and engage in commerce.

Put another way, the principal purpose of government is to maintain some sort of orderly and stable system that allows people to live peacefully in proximity to other people. Ideally, public and private sectors work together to maintain conditions in which people can provide for themselves and pursue their own interests as freely as possible.

Reasonable people can disagree about which functions should be public and which should be private. But that argument often is not about “morality” or “equality” or “justice.” It’s about balancing stability and liberty.

A classic problem for democratic government is the balance of civil liberty versus crime control. Like it or not, totalitarian governments generally do a better job of controlling crime than democratic governments. If you want to really clamp down on crime, whip up a police state. But most of us don’t want to live in a police state. So we put limits on police powers and accept a higher risk of crime. In this equation, we take away from stability and add to liberty.

For years conservatives have called for deregulation for this or that part of the private sector, because regulations get in the way of profits. But the point of many of those regulations is to discourage risk-taking. Recent events ought to be teaching us that risk-taking has its down side. If it were just a matter of some investors taking risks with their own money that would be one thing, but we see that risk-taking can create widespread financial instability with widespread harmful consequences.

So, the primary point of putting limits on what financial managers can do with investors’ money is not just to protect the investors from losses, but to keep the economy itself from becoming unacceptably unstable. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that has to be re-learned every few decades.

Likewise, the primary reason government has an interest in blunting the influence of chance on people’s lives is to maintain political and social stability. Certainly, the government cannot be ready with a band-aid every time a citizen stumbles. But history teaches us that when a large portion of citizens, especially middle-class citizens, are facing catastrophic disruption and falling through the economic cracks, political and social instability are right around the corner.

I’m not talking about saving people from their own folly. I’m talking about saving them from other peoples’ folly, or the consequences of natural disaster, or something else that’s bigger than they are. Self-reliance is a wonderful virtue, but sometimes it isn’t enough. And maintaining the integrity of the middle class as a whole is good for everybody.

Let’s go back to Mr. McCain.

The purpose of taxation is to collect revenue for the government, not to reward or punish various classes of citizens.

I agree, but the rest of this paragraph suggests to Mr. McCain suffers some sort of brain damage.

The fiscal action of government is never equal, and inevitably divides the population into taxpayers and tax consumers (as another famous guy said), and tax consumers will always argue for the expansion of revenue. If left unchecked, government become nothing more than organized theft, plundering one part of the population in order to enrich another part.

I like the part about government being unchecked. Once again, we see that the ideal of government of the people, by the people, and for the people has been forgotten. Rather than being an instrument for We, the People, to govern ourselves, government has become an alien fungus that no one can control. But let’s go on …

First, I’d like to know which Americans are not “tax consumers.” Who living here does not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the justice system, the national security system, meat inspectors, highways, etc.? Show of hands? Anyone?

Who is being “plundered” and who is being “enriched”? Certainly there’s a lot of plundering going on, but seems to me it’s the corrupt, not the poor, who are the perps. If Mr. McCain actually believes that the poor are benefiting disproportionately from his tax dollars, he should try being poor for a while. Mr. McCain may not be on food stamps, but he receives benefit from his tax dollars whenever he uses air transportation, buys a steak, or has good shipped across country.

Remember the “lucky ducky“? This would be funny if it weren’t so, I don’t know, pathological.

I’ve argued in the past that one defining features of righties is that they don’t grasp interconnections. They have rigidly linear thought processes and don’t see the complexity of interrelationships that supports all of us. Well, here it is again.

Update: Matt Yglesias again:

Meanwhile, as John McCain says, it’s true that forty percent of the workforce pays no net income taxes. But everyone who works pays payroll tax. Payroll tax is a tax, ergo if you work you pay taxes, ergo if you work you could receive a tax cut. It’s true that the method by which you deliver tax cuts to people with no income tax liability is via a refundable tax credit, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re talking about reducing the tax burden on people who pay taxes. You’re offering them a tax cut, in other words. Or as McCain puts it, “socialism.” Meanwhile, George W. Bush is nationalizing banks and John McCain wants to buy up bad mortgages so that those who currently own them don’t need to pay any financial penalty for their unsound lending practices.

It stuns me that McCain doesn’t think taxes taken out of paychecks count as taxes.

11 thoughts on “Fairness, Justice, Equality, Stability

  1. One version of this kind of argument I’ve often had with wingnuts, is the idea that every society, from a family up to a nation-state practices some kind of income redistribution. Among nation-states where the population has some say in how it’s run, there is a spectrum of choices people make as to how much and what kind of redistribution is done. On the left side of the dial are those countries that practice extreme forms of socialism, where there’s lots of redistribution. On the right side of the dial are countries like the US that practice relatively less redistribution. The tug of war between left and right in this country often comes down to a tug on this dial, of how much, and what kind, of redistribution occurs. But the point is that every society redistributes wealth to varying extents.

    When I present this argument it often completely flummoxes the wingnut, who is not used to thinking in shades of gray (you mean there are no pure black and white extremes? But…but… but…).

    The further argument, that is even harder for wingnuts to accept is that when everybody wins, everybody wins. In other words, putting in a highway paid by public funds benefits everyone. Having national health care benefits everyone. And on and on. They simply cannot grasp the concept of they themselves benefiting from collective (shudder) action. These people just have a bug up their a$$es about government, or doing anything collectively and for whatever reason see it as totally evil. And so wrapping their minds around these problems in this fashion is extremely hard for them. You can see the sweat breaking out on their foreheads as they struggle with these hateful, unfamiliar concepts. This is what happens when the Me generation enters adulthood. (I first wrote “when the Me generation grows up” but had to strike that out).

  2. You argue for interconnectedness, community and political stability. These are indeed civic virtues, though of course they must be balanced against their complements; individuality and liberty.

    What interests me is that these are called _conservative_ virtues, if you use the non-Orwellian meaning of the word ‘conservative’. Somehow the cool-blue D’s have become the conservative party, and the hot-red R’s the radical party.

    Confucious spoke of the need to ‘rectify the language’. This is a case in point.

  3. You argue for interconnectedness, community and political stability. These are indeed civic virtues, though of course they must be balanced against their complements; individuality and liberty.

    Absolutely right. I’m arguing for a middle way between extremes. Does that make me a “moderate”?

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  5. It is, I think, a sign of how biased I have become against right-wing “thinkers” that I originally misread that line from Robert McCain as “…is as indefensible as logic.” I’m actually kind of waiting for one of them to come right out and acknowledge they they have abandoned even the pretense of logical thought, since they abandoned evidence-based reasoning long ago.

    I believe that it has been so long since John McCain actually had to look at one of his own paystubs that he may have completely forgotten that there is such a thing as a payroll tax. It isn’t something often talked about, as anyone who has watched a teenager get her first paycheck, with attendant shock, knows.

  6. Absolutely right. I’m arguing for a middle way between extremes. Does that make me a “moderate”?

    I think it means you base your views on common sense.

    Also there’s that whole thing about balance in Buddhism, which I don’t expect Christian righties to understand. Everything is Right/Left, Good/Evil, Worship it/Kill it with them. I believe balance is a much healthier way to understanding than viewing the universe as controlled by some gigantic toggle switch.

  7. Back in the 1950’s the upper tax bracket was 90 percent. We had a thriving economy then.

  8. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented Robert Stacy McCain’s connections with the white supremacist League of the South. I think this says a lot about Robert McCain. He fits in well with the modern GOP.

  9. and now.. the late night news..three years ago Freddie and Fannie lobbied the repugs to have a bill that would regulate them squashed.

  10. Of course John McCain doesn’t get taxes.

    He’s never had to ‘work’ for a living in the private sector. Son and grandson of Admirals, he grew up a spoiled brat. A military career followed by marriage to a wealthy heiress and life as a Congresscritter. A lifetime of Government health care and luxury vacations paid for by Charles Keating.

    How would he have ever learned a damned thing about how 99.9% of the rest of us earn a living?

    No wonder he hasn’t got a clue about the difference between income taxes and payroll taxes.

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