Saturday, December 18, 2010

Wrong Question

Today, Daniel Henninger, Prince of Darkness (aka director of the WSJ editorial board), takes a stab at the profound.

A radical (in the best sense) 21st-century tax debate—such as over Bowles-Simpson's three stripped-down marginal rates, topping at 23%, and lower taxes on business—would challenge the conventional 100-year-old idea in the U.S. that the first purpose of a tax regime is to ensure the functioning of the state. In the hypercompetitive world we will inhabit for at least a generation, might not it be time to rewrite the textbook? To ensure American well-being, the pre-eminent purpose of a modern tax system should be to achieve the highest possible level of growth in the private economy with a competent, efficient state in a supporting role.

For a split second this argument sound superficially intelligent.  Don't we need to face up to a world where the nation state is in decline?  Where borders mean nothing to business and the only thing that holds us together is our collective commitment to the two car garage?  Don't we have global problems that need a global solution?  Isn't the logic of the "hypercompetitive" free market the final and inevitable verdict of history?  And shouldn't all these taxes at least ensure we stay ahead of the chinese?  

But after this brief and bracing moment of radicalism, we are suddenly forced to look down and discover, much like Wile E. Coyote, that there is absolutely nothing under our feet; the question was not what taxes and for, but what the state is for.  While it may not be far from the truth in actual practice, I don't think any one of you big state liberals out there (you know who you are) really argued that we pay taxes to support the state so that the state can collect taxes.  So to pretend that he's making a radical critique by suggesting that taxes actually have a purpose is not so much rhetorical as just plain idiotic.  

After these smoke and mirrors are deployed, he goes on to be just completely flat out fucking wrong.  The purpose of the state is emphatically not to maximize economic growth, so that can't be the purpose of the taxes supporting it either.  

The purpose of the state is to keep us free.  While this may require a certain base economic level -- people not getting enough to eat are shackled just as surely as if they were in chains -- that level is not the endpoint but merely the beginning of what we want out of a state.  I don't mean to imply that this base level if fixed forever at food, or is ever going to uncontroversial in practice.  I simply mean that it's philosophically very important to realize  that economic growth is not the primary thing we want out of a state, and is not at all the metric on which it should be judged.  

In fact, the state should have very little to do with economic growth.  Once it fulfills its basic function of facilitating cooperation, once it frees us to do the things we want with one another without worrying about people doing things to us we don't want, its role in the economy is over.  I suppose you could call that an "efficient supporting role", by analogy to the way an agnostic supports a Catholic, but it does seem to stretch the language.  

Whatever happened to the real libertarians I wonder.  The ones where your liberty didn't ultimately boil down to the size of your pile of gold?


Anonymous said...

No man, it says right there in teh Constitution: "life, liberty and the pursuit of maximal GDP growth at the expense of everything else."

Anonymous said...

I don't like what's happening these days. Not at all. It's not
really the cell phones, at least not in the normal reactionary sense
that you hear this commentary. It is, however, related to this constant
connection we all have to one another, like some incestuous breed of
hyperventilating ant incapable of spending a moment alone.

One slips into it, gradually at first, and without ever really being
able to establish at exactly what point you just accepted the presence
of all these other voices, when precisely you began to take it for
grudging granted that they would always be around. But then one day it
seems that there is no moment when these friendly slavering demons are
not pressing down on you like the neighbors' dog.

My objection is not so much that there is anything wrong
with this constant ringtoning and texting and chatting and staring,
with constantly wiping of our snot on the bar of the guy next to us on
the subway. That we press ourselves together like hung hams for half
our life is a choice we make individually, if you can call it that.
It probably leaves our souls in the same state of salty preservation.

No, what I don't like is the way it makes us treat each other. You
should approach even yourself with the politeness of a stranger if you
want to get along, and it is this that we can no longer muster. We
are together so much that we can never come to anyone or anything as
unfamiliar and new, never as a beginner, but only as a cynic who has
promised himself not to look up in the Big City. Without an outside,
nothing new can ever happen.