A Desperate Attempt at Clarity
Tim Kowal’s post prompted some wide-ranging thoughts about what the government is entitled to. Here they are.
It’s obviously true that we all do better off in a society rather than living alone, and it’s obviously true that government helps us do many things that we could not do in its absence, at the very least without some social technologies and practices that we’re not aware of. I reserve anarchy as an academic possibility; it may be that one day we figure out how to make it work, but I don’t think we know how yet, and I don’t think we’re very close to it either.
So the government is a net good. But how much is it entitled to take?
(a) The government may rightfully take everything above the product that we would personally produce in complete isolation. It’s entitled to all gains from pre-existing social capital, all gains from specialization and trade, and any surplus that it creates through the enforcement of property, security, contracts, regulation, and the like.
This one’s easy to evaluate; the government here would be morally entitled to reduce us to starvation. No one supports this. Do they?
(b) The government may rightfully take everything that we, acting as a society, would be unable to produce in an anarchy — that is, it may take everything above that which we could produce with the benefits of social capital and gains from specialization and trade, but without the services of the state.
This one’s harder to evaluate, because we don’t know how much we would produce in an anarchy, and experimenting with it doesn’t seem wise. And the anarchy might not even last that long anyway, before a government emerged. I think the product of (b) is almost certainly more than the product of (a), but it’s probably not nearly as much as what we are producing right now.
(c) The government may rightfully take only enough to cover its own expenses for the services that it provides. The rest of our surplus product, including gains from pre-existing social capital, and gains from specialization and trade, and gains from the benefits of government, should go to the people according to some publicly defensible principle of justice in holdings to be determined shortly. (Rawls and/or Nozick may help here, and maybe others, but that’s a different argument.)
Option (c) seems obviously right to me. The government is not a business. It’s not supposed to be maximizing its own income, and it doesn’t have a self-interest outside of the interests of the people — again, as expressed in a publicly defensible principle of justice that is at least close enough to command our common allegiance. (See Gerald Gaus on this point.) The government is our servant, not the other way around.
Can we all agree on (c)? I think we probably can. But if (c) is what Obama stands for, then why did he go through all the song and dance about how little private citizens are entitled to?