Shared Obligations

Does the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page take itself seriously? There is a school of thought that the RTD sees itself providing entertainment for that portion of its readership that wants a nice helping of liberal-baiting red meat in the morning, presumably as an appetizer for an afternoon of listening to Rush and co.

Reality, I think, is a bit more complicated. A substantial portion of the paper’s staff editorials are devoted to innocuous, unobjectionable observations about local events, and at times the editorials display a centrist, “common sense” sensibility.

But about once every couple of days (I haven’t quantified the ratio yet), there appears an editorial comment notable not only for its right-wing ideological content but also for a tone of mean-spiritedness and/or sarcasm.

A good example is a brief Saturday editorial about taxes. The editorial observes that few Americans voluntarily make donations to government above and beyond their tax obligation, then sardonically calls on those who support higher taxes to start making more voluntary contributions.

As far as this reader can tell, the editorial serves no purpose other than to mock those (presumably “liberals”) who do support higher taxes. The implicit ideological point is this: some people support higher taxes, but won’t put their money where their mouth is.

Let’s break down the RTD’s proposition on its own terms.

No one supports higher taxes as an end in itself (as the editorial insinuates). Rather, some people support greater provision of public goods such as education, health care, transportation, public safety, and help for those who cannot help themselves. Taxes are a necessary price for securing the resources to provide such goods.

It follows that people can reasonably be willing to pay higher taxes ourselves, so long as others are making a fair contribution themselves. This is a rational position for two kinds of reasons. The first is a simple matter of fairness; it’s unreasonable to ask people who support greater provision of public goods to disadvantage themselves relative to those who do not. The logical outcome of that kind of reasoning would be a society that taxed some more than others based on their political preferences–and hence, a society in which the very notion of shared obligation soon dissipated.

Second, if what “liberals” and others want is more effective provision of public goods, not higher taxes for their own sake, than it’s highly unlikely that making a voluntary donation to the state coffers will secure that end. Paying an extra $50 to the state is not going to improve the schools, or any other good worth caring about. But paying an extra $50 along with a milliion of your fellow citizens is a totally different story. In the one case the individual has made a donation with notable personal cost and negligible public payoff. In the other case the the individual has made a contribution with notable personal cost and potentially quite important public payoff.

So much for the question of self-imposing “extra” taxes. But the RTD editorial, perhaps unintentionally, raises another kind of question: what should the wealthy or affluent “liberal” who supports greater provision of public goods, and can afford to give money away with minimal personal cost, do with their discretionary money?

I agree that such people should do something with some of those funds that helps put their beliefs and preferences into action.

But handing over that money to the federal government at large, and letting a Republican-controlled government decide how the money will be spent, is going to be one of the least efficient ways possible to advance the wealthy liberal’s goals. Some of that money will be spent on weapons contracts, some on servicing the national debt, some on White House dinners, some on Halliburton cost overruns, and some precious percentage on the public goods one actually cares about.

The rational thing for such a person to do is to give money directly to organizations and efforts that directly help schools or help poor people or help secure some other valued end. That, of course, is what many wealthy (and some not-so-wealthy) liberals and moderates already do–a point conveniently ignored by the RTD editorial in its eagerness to suggest that liberals are hypocrites.

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Published in: on September 9, 2006 at 1:53 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. “But handing over that money to the federal government at large, and letting a Republican-controlled government decide how the money will be spent, is going to be one of the least efficient ways possible to advance the wealthy liberal’s goals.”

    Doesn’t this statement play directly into the arguments of the conservatives who say the government is inherently unable to efficiently and effectively provide the kinds of services that the non-profit sector can?

    One of the problems with this arguement is that there is no accountability for the rich in whom they chose to give their money to- someone could donate millions to school-voucher programs, for example, and those of us without funds have no say. Whereas, when the government chooses program recipients, we theoretically have democratic controls which can put pressure on politicians who we feel are misspending our tax dollars.

    Of course, a wealthy liberal can do what you suggest, donate to causes which are politically unpopular, but they should maintain a committment to higher taxes for the reasons I’ve outlined above. Denigrating the government’s ability to deliver services plays into the hands of conservatives.

    Of course, my theory is that conservatives are deliberately making governement agencies inefficient and ineffective by denying them funding, “starving the beast,” as some would say. When you deny an agency funding, they are bound to become ineffective, thus proving the conservatives’ point that government can’t, and therefore shouldn’t, provide services.

  2. Good comment (and not at all Amateurish)… I agree with the sentiment that private donations are not an adequate substitute for greater public support of public programs financed by taxes. I also agree that wealthy liberals should be wiling to pay higher taxes.

    The point I was making was on the narrow question of whether a wealthy liberal who wants to act on their convictions should most wisely spend their money. I think the answer to this is, give money to organizations that directly do the things you believe should be done, OR (and I almost put this in the initial post, but left it out to keep the argument simper) finance political activism aimed at generating change, or both, rather than give the money to the government.

    The reason why is not because is government is supposed to be less efficient or effective in some technical sense. It’s because the federal government currently does some things that liberals support, but many other things that they do not. And the proportion of things government is doing that liberals oppose is higher when the Republicans control the entire federal government, as they currently do.

    If you give the federal government $10 right now,
    probably at least $5 is going to go to the care of an agenda you don’t personally support. Now I would argue that all of us (moderate, liberal, radical, conservative) are obliged to pay taxes for government as a whole, including the parts we don’t agree with, because shared obligation is fundamental principle of shared self-government and democracy–we have to go along with the results of the political process, even when we don’t like it. But the scope of THAT obligation ends with the payment of the final penny owed to the IRS.

    After that, the obligation we have is not to abide by democratically determined shared obligations, but to follow our own moral consciences. For most liberals, especially these days, the best way to advance the ends we care about is to give discretionary money to groups and causes that directly advanced those ends.


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