Powell on McCain’s Campaign and on taxes

October 20th, 2008

In endorsing Barack Obama, Colin Powell made several comments on McCain’s campaign and on taxes.

I admire Powell very much. Along with Condoleezza Rice, they are some of the few people in Washington who, from my view, are non-partisan patriots in the true sense of the word — they love their country without bias, and when it errs, are not afraid to recognize and try to fix the problem.

His comments on McCain’s negative campaign are true enough. McCain’s intent was to run a honorable and dignified campaign, but I think his advisors won out on hitting Obama on the rather trivial Bill Ayers issue.

Powell’s discussion of taxes, however, is not as spot on. Powell said that all taxes are “redistribution of money,” and that most of it is “redistributed” back to the people who paid them through benefits — roads, schools, police, et cetera. Thus, taxes are justified and we should not be angry when taxes increase.

On both counts Powell is correct, but the implication, which is that because the people paying taxes see a benefit from it taxes are justified, is false. Taxes, which is the forcible taking of wealth from individuals by the government, is by its very nature wrong. It is not hard to understand why; taxing entails taking wealth from someone who does not consent to it, but must because of the government’s threat to jail them. It is stealing.

Seeing a benefit does not justify something that is itself wrong. For example, if I take your Mac without your consent, sell it and use the capital raised to plant a beautiful garden in your neighborhood, you will see a benefit from my taking your Mac. You will be able to enjoy the wonderful new garden I designed and planted, but I don’t think you would say that justifies my taking your Mac.

Of course, there are two replies. The first is that it isn’t stealing because people tacitly agree to pay taxes by living in society. Perhaps this is true, but the problem with a tacit agreement argument is this: if, by living in a society I tacitly agree to the government’s rules and laws, then all actions the government takes becomes justified. The government could ban free speech, require segregation, and any other noxious action that most would be hard-pressed to support.

If this seems absurd on face, that is because it is. Government is not bound just by what the people have agreed to, but by preexisting, a priori, natural rights the individual has. Hence we have a Constitution which defines what and what not the government can do. The government cannot abridge free speech or freedom of the press, because it is wrong to do so.

So we see that there are preexisting rules which government must follow.

The second reply is that while taxes are wrong, they are necessary to support the government, and people will not pay them voluntarily. I wonder, though, if we are receiving an equal return on our taxes (e.g., however much roads and education are worth to the individual is equal to, or greater than, the amount paid in taxes, which is what Powell’s statement presumes), which on infrastructure I would tend to say is true, why wouldn’t people voluntarily pay to support the government? Why must taxes then be involuntary?

The reply to this is that even if the return is equal or greater than their payment to the government, people still will not pay them because people do not like paying taxes. Remember, embedded in this argument, is still the presumption that taxes are wrong. So even if this is true, taxes are necessary, then they should still be minimized as much as possible.

It doesn’t follow, then, because taxes are necessary (but not moral), that we should not complain when a candidate’s tax proposal plans to increase tax rates. It means that we should do all that we can to keep them as low as possible, through more efficient government and eliminating wasteful and/or unjust spending. Increasing taxes is not the default answer when government spending is higher than its “revenue” — it is a last resort. At best.