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Ethics and the Holidays

Mises Daily: Wednesday, December 24, 2008 by

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It had to be the time of year. How else can I explain it? Regardless, there I sat in an inner-city recreation center, enjoying a children's holiday program when this thought disturbed the performance: I do not mind my tax dollars paying for this.

Wow. I grabbed that thought and began to analyze it. Yes, it is true: I do not mind that my tax dollars paid for the program I watched. But how can a lover of liberty hold such a belief? It is easy to explain: I do not mind paying for activities, programs, events, etc, that I desire. If my preference scale is such that I desire something greater than the corresponding fee, I reach into my wallet and pay.

That is a fair statement under most circumstances. However, when taxation and the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion are involved, the ethics change. No longer is it just my wallet; it is now the wallet of everyone in the taxing district. So when I advocate for the state to force my neighbor to pay for my desires, I am advocating for nothing less than theft. While I am not toting the gun, my well-armed partner, the state, is.

In my situation, the calculus is a little different. Since I am not a resident of the city, I do not get the opportunity to vote for or against the city's income tax. I simply pay the tax because my employer is located within the city boundary. So when I speak of my tax dollars paying for the holiday program, those very same dollars were already foregone — better they pay for the program I watched than a host of other government intrusions.

Ethics Missing

Because ethics is missing from most political debates, these debates turn from a straightforward evaluation of property rights to one of weighing in the balance means and perceived ends. Yes, it is nice to see children engaged in constructive activities, and it is true that many folks who can afford to contribute to the recreation center would opt not to do so. Nevertheless, no one can ethically balance the program and center against the property of others. No one.

Mr. Smith Goes to the Statehouse

I recently had a discussion with my incoming state representative. He called me because he did not like my characterization — in a blog posting — of one of his campaign flyers. In essence, the flyer stated that he would stand up for my "right to receive high quality health care." But no such right exists — at least in an ethical system. I stated as much. First, he said that I misunderstood his intent. Later in the conversation, he said he now agrees the reference to a "right" was incorrect. We talked some more.

As we discussed other issues, it became obvious that he has no ethical grounding — he is tossing about looking for a place to anchor in a stormy sea of voter demands. For him, property is not an ethical right to defend; property is just a word used by the various sides to strengthen their position. Therefore, the state does not need to protect property; the state simply balances property against the perceived utility of proposed legislative actions.

To be certain, I was not discussing ethics and politics with a Hans Hoppe or a Murray Rothbard. I was discussing utils with my future state representative, a man whose only knowledge of rights appears to come from that which he learned in government schools. When confronted with a demand of the state, he weighs the demand against any perceived ill that may arise — he puts his finger to the political winds.

Of course, his is not an ethical system. It is not a system at all. It is chaos. The loudest cry, the strongest demand will become the rule. And the rule will change from day to day.

While I believe that this man wants to do what is right, I also believe that he does not know or understand what is right.

There is no right to high-quality health care. There is no right to any health care. Why? To enforce such a supposed right would be to enslave some and steal from others. But without a Ron Paul-like understanding of property and ethics, this young politician has no firm ground to defend, leaving himself defenseless against the wants of those who see the state as their collective means to personal ends.

Establishing Ethics

As I consider books that had the greatest impact on me, Hoppe's Economics and Ethics of Private Property is near that top of the list. Why? Because Hoppe places property in the center of ethics. He builds a system of ethics that is the basis for judging action. To that end, I try to keep Hoppe in mind when confronted by apparent ethical challenges, such as a children's holiday program in the inner city.

I have resolved to send a copy of Economics and Ethics of Private Property to my incoming state representative. At the very least, he can begin making decisions founded in property — the only defense he will have against those who seek to redistribute the wealth of others. Moreover, if he truly wants to be an advocate for liberty — as he stated to me — he will read the book and try to adopt its system of ethics. I can only hope he does.

That Disturbing Thought Again

But what about the thought that disrupted my evening?

As I noted above, I do not mind that some of the two percent of my income thieved by the city went to this program. However, I do mind that the city confiscated part of my income in the first place, as well as the income of all other taxpayers. I cannot justify the children's program from a property-based system of ethics. Moreover, I would argue, no ethical system can exist that is not based on property. Therefore, no means exist to reconcile the program against property. Yes, I can pay for the program, but I cannot force my neighbors to do the same.

The Competing System

To believe that, absent government, folks would not help the poor is to turn one's back on history. In addition, to destroy capital in the name of ending poverty simply impoverishes us all.

Many of those who advocate theft by government believe that theft is the only means to realize a perceived good. While this contradiction should send their heads spinning, they are able to reconcile these opposing views with ease. Why? They base their system of ethics on redistribution. In this system, theft is justified by the ends it supports.

"I have resolved to send a copy of Economics and Ethics of Private Property to my incoming state representative."

In addition, feelings of envy dominate others. How else can I explain the fact that these folks claim dire needs — needs that in their minds require immediate collective action — but will not spend their own money unless the state forces all others to pay as well? Really, if I sense a need, I will pay or contribute as I see fit.

At the center of government education, you will find a system of envy and redistribution where the state and its minions take their cut from the top. I argue that government education has robbed ethics from the classroom, as well as from the public square. Graduates are simply applying the system pounded into their heads 180 days per year. Of course, their lack of knowledge does not justify their means and sought-after ends.

Concluding thought

As I finalize the analysis of my disturbing thought, I make this statement: I do not mind paying for the children's holiday program, but I mind that my neighbor was forced to pay as well.