8.14.2009

Tax Withholding is the Threat Here?

In the WSJ today, Charles Murray comes out strongly, forcefully, against taxes. Wait, I mean against tax withholding. But first, he sets the stage, listing the dire threat he sees:
America is supposed to be a democracy in which we're all in it together. Part of that ethos, which has been so essential to the country in times of crisis, is a common understanding that we all pay a share of the costs. Taxes are an essential ingredient in the civic glue that binds us together.

Our democracy is corrupted when some voters think that they won't have to pay for the benefits their representatives offer them. It is corrupted when some voters see themselves as victims of exploitation by their fellow citizens.

By both standards, American democracy is in trouble. [all emphasis mine]
OK, Charles, I got it. We're all in this together, bound by the happy glue of taxes, but we're in danger if some people feel one way about them and another group feels another way. And the key source of the conflict is not how much we're all paying, why we're forced to pay it, or whether the government has a right to take our money at all, but that payroll taxes and withholding hides from us the true weight of our dutiful burden. Observe:
For once, we face a problem with a solution that costs nothing. Most families who pay little or no personal income taxes are paying Social Security and Medicare taxes. All we need to do is make an accounting change, no longer pretending that payroll taxes are sequestered in trust funds.

Fold payroll taxes into the personal tax code, adjusting the rules so that everyone still pays the same total, but the tax bill shows up on the 1040. Doing so will tell everyone the truth: Their payroll taxes are being used to pay whatever bills the federal government brings upon itself, among which are the costs of Social Security and Medicare.

The finishing touch is to make sure that people understand how much they are paying, which is presently obscured by withholding at the workplace. End withholding, and require everybody to do what millions of Americans already do: write checks for estimated taxes four times a year. ...

End the payroll tax, end withholding, and these corrosive misapprehensions go away. We will once again be a democracy in which we're all in it together, we all know that we're all paying a share, and we are all aware how much that share is. [bold added]
I have to hand it to him. He's taken up a whole column in a very good newspaper writing urgently about a non-problem, proposing a non-solution. What's he really getting at with all of this? He mentioned "corrosive misapprehensions" and the poor feeling like the rich aren't paying their share while the rich feel like victims... all of these feelings are threatening our democracy!

While it's clear that his typical view of democracy is bad in itself--he seems to say that anything the government does is OK as long as a majority votes for it, and the only concern is that the voting is "honest" and runs smoothly--and that he pays no heed to individual rights or the fact that our country is a republic, the subtext of his whole piece is more instructive. The key to understanding this is to see that his essential worry is group polarization. I've had occassion to refer to the following quote from Ayn Rand a lot lately. People like Murray and Cass Sunstein keep returning to this idea, raising it as a vague threat to civil society, and holding Ayn Rand's points in mind is essential to being able to detect what they're really trying to do:
An anti-concept is an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listeners a sense of approximate understanding. But in the realm of cognition, nothing is as bad as the approximate . . . .

One of today’s fashionable anti-concepts is “polarization.” Its meaning is not very clear, except that it is something bad—undesirable, socially destructive, evil—something that would split the country into irreconcilable camps and conflicts. It is used mainly in political issues and serves as a kind of “argument from intimidation”: it replaces a discussion of the merits (the truth or falsehood) of a given idea by the menacing accusation that such an idea would “polarize” the country—which is supposed to make one’s opponents retreat, protesting that they didn’t mean it. Mean—what? . . .

It is doubtful—even in the midst of today’s intellectual decadence—that one could get away with declaring explicitly: “Let us abolish all debate on fundamental principles!” (though some men have tried it). If, however, one declares; “Don’t let us polarize,” and suggests a vague image of warring camps ready to fight (with no mention of the fight’s object), one has a chance to silence the mentally weary. The use of “polarization” as a pejorative term means: the suppression of fundamental principles. Such is the pattern of the function of anti-concepts. [Ayn Rand Letter, italics in original]
Go back and read Murray's piece with this in mind, and his evasiveness will jump out at you. There is no there there. As I said earlier, it's a non-solution proposed for a non-problem, with some "we're all in this together" collectivism thrown in for good measure.

I wonder, and perhaps commenters could weigh in: What is the point of his piece? Is he trying to distract people from real issues? Is the root of his non-argument "Why can't we all get along?" Or is he really so deluded as to think that he's promoting actual ideas?


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Update: Thanks for the link, Billy.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent insight into Murray's complete and utter evasion of the moral issue. His "solution" to the "envy" problem and the withholding problem and so on, is a classic instance of anti-conceptual mental gymnastics. He is afraid of the moral issue of taxation -- that individuals have a right to ALL their property -- and should be protected by objective law from any taxation, never mind bookkeeping tricks and accounting ruses that accomplish the same thing -- theft of wealth and the violation of individual rights.

Why would Murray be afraid of addressing the moral issue? Because he's never had to deal with it. His whole career -- and a partly laudatory one -- has been devoted to exposing the waste and unintended consequences and corruption inherent in government spending and social programs. He is a "fiscal conservative" -- let's spend tax revenues "rationally," not recklessly in pursuit of every random altruist end, ends, however, which he cannot argue against with any moral certitude. So he is forced to devise hocus-pocus tax collection schemes that bring "honesty" to the realm of the career plunderers.

He is likely an alruist at core, but a compartmentalized one -- some part of his mind is devoted to the inexorable truth of numbers, but another part lies dormant in the swamp of altruism.

Ed

C. August said...

Thanks for the comment and context. I'm not familiar with Murray except for a vague recollection of his name, so knowing he is a typical "fiscal conservative" explains a lot.

perlhaqr said...

Oh, I dunno, I kinda like the "end withholding" idea.

I bet if people got to keep all the money they make, and then got one gigantic m-----f-----r of a tax bill come due April 15th, we'd see quite a bit of change in who we send to the Congress.

C. August said...

perlhaqr, I actually wondered if that was the hidden reason behind Murray's proposal, but I don't think it is.

So what you're saying is that one way to effect change would be to expose exactly what a burden the government is, and then we could elect new representatives after the people see how bad it is?

Perhaps it would cause people to look for new politicians, but who will they have to choose from? The Republicans are a bunch of unprincipled altruists who just want to sell individual rights down the river a bit slower than the Democrats do.

Until people can fully understand the nature and derivation of individual rights grounded in reality, and the morality of rational self-interest as the ideal, there won't be anyone to turn to if we want to turn this country around. Until an atheist quoting Ayn Rand in a stump speech can win an election, no superficial changes like Murray suggests will have any effect.

C. August said...

And, I might add, that were such a Rand-quoting politician an accepted, viable candidate, the changes we'd be talking about would be much more fundamental that Murray's attempt to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

madmax said...

Charles Murray is a pragmatist to his core. His book "The Bell Curve" dealt with the race and IQ numbers as well as race and wealth. The book was an attempt to argue against the welfare state but not from the perspective of individual rights. Murray wouldn't know what those were if they beat him over the head. His basic argument was that blacks and hispanics have not improved under the welfare state so therefore the welfare state is a waste of resources. Yeah, that argument is going to win the day. Murray also considers himself a libertarian. I guess he's the alternative to the anarchists.

C. August said...

madmax, your points reinforce what Ed said: Murray "has been devoted to exposing the waste and unintended consequences and corruption inherent in government spending and social programs."

If that's his lifeblood, then he doesn't need principles to pick this or that govt. program. As you mentioned, he's a pragmatist, so with that as his "guide," all he has to do is close his eyes and point to something in a list and then say "oh, this hasn't worked like they said it would!" When you're in a principle-free zone, every instance of something can seem unique. He can pick apart something like tax withholding as if it's a profoundly new idea. It's really rather pitiful.

This is beside the point, but do people like that sit outside after dinner and think, "wow! I really accomplished something today!"? My guess is that even asking that question is entirely foreign. I was thinking, "what a waste this whole column in the WSJ is!" but I think it's broader than that. When an entire life is a waste like that, it's kind of depressing.