“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The Bible, Exodus 20:17
“You shall not steal” The Bible, Exodus 20:15
It is perhaps a natural condition of men to envy those more fortunate than themselves. Envy is simply the strong feeling or desire to possess what someone else has. However, our culture has now accepted that envy is both a natural and a desirable characteristic of an enlightened person and that is okay not only to desire what another has but to possess it. However, because something is natural and commonplace does not make it good or right. Envy has taken on new respectability that it does not deserve and now permeates our political discourse. Why else would our political leaders promote the ideals of “sharing the wealth,” “taxing the rich” or “at some point you have enough money.” Fully forty percent of the country shares this political philosophy and economic viewpoint. We simply no longer call it envy.
Our culture, in most cases without knowing it, justifies envy in a number of ways. The most common arguments are that we must take another person’s money or property to be fair. The second is that we can take their money or property to ensure equality. Finally, we justify these actions based on the good we that can do using another person’s money (social justice).
On Fairness. First consider the argument for fairness. We hear the argument that the rich must pay their fair share. This is a logical sounding argument but is ultimately nonsensical. Consider the word fair. Fair treatment means treatment that is honest, upright, impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced, even handed or neutral. Fairness means equitable treatment not equal outcomes. Now in some cases equal outcomes may be fair. If I have only one cookie and both of my children want it I may decide to split it evenly between them and give one half to each. Am I fair?
If you said “Yes” you may have made a very faulty decision. What if one child has just eaten six cookies and the other none. Is splitting the remaining cooking into two equal pieces fair? Possibly it is, possibly it isn’t. The only thing you can say is that you treated the children equally. You cannot say you treated them fairly. In fact, the problem of splitting cookies is only a moderately difficult problem. You will make a fair decision only if you have complete (and true) information about your children and their cookie consumption.
Now consider two wealthy men – both with the same amount of money. How do you make a fair decision about taxing these men. One rich man may use his money to invest in new businesses and create jobs. A second rich man may use his money to build a new mansion and buy a new yacht. Now you can tax them equally – perhaps have both pay 35% or 90 % of their wealth in taxes. However, you cannot argue that you have made a fair taxing decision because you don’t have complete information about the two cases.
Now some would argue that we can tinker with tax policy and give tax breaks to the man making the decision to invest in new businesses. They believe that this somehow makes things fair. In this case, what they are proposing to do is change the behavior of the second rich man by getting him to invest in business creation rather than build a new mansion. No matter how you look at it, changing this man’s behavior is impinging on his freedom and his liberty. Is constraining a man’s freedom and liberty ever fair? I think not. In trying to be fair to one individual, you have grossly violated the freedom and liberty of the second. And remember, in making these tax decisions you assumed complete information about these individuals and their intentions. How can you be fair with incomplete information about thousands of individuals and situations?
So talking about one’s fair share of taxes is clearly nonsensical. You can say many things about taxes but you can never under any conceivable tax code talk about fairness. Taxing decisions are necessarily made about individuals in the absence of complete information about that individual, his situation and intentions. Therefore fairness simply isn’t possible because no one (not even the best bureaucrat) can make a fair decision about a person’s tax bill.
On Equality. The other rubric used to justify envy is that of equality. However delightful equality sounds it is simply an impossibility. First our founding fathers granted that all men are created equal. Men do not have a natural right to be equal in all aspects of their lives. Men are born into different circumstances, have different skills, talents and abilities. Because things like fate, karma, hard work, slovenliness and other factors determine outcomes, people can never be equal. It is the purpose of government to ensure equal rights not equality in all things.
There have been a large number of utopian schemes aimed at achieving equality. They have taken many forms ranging from populism, to socialism, to communism, to social democracy. Ultimately all fail to provide equality. Now equality of rights and equality of opportunity are important concepts. However, these must not be confused with equality of outcome.
Equality seems like a good thing. So it is easy to talk of taking another’s property, or wealth in the name of equality of outcome for all. However, the concept always fails because the only way to provide equality is to deny liberty and freedom. One cannot have both equality of outcome and a free people. As a practical matter there is no way to ensure equality because some (the party bosses, the bureaucrats, the politician) always end up being “more equal than others.”
On Social Justice . Many play mind games with themselves to justify class warfare and class envy by using terms like equality and fairness. When and if they are made to understand that equality is unachievable and that the concept of fairness is mostly nonsensical they still argue the necessity of “taxing the rich” because they want a just and better society. This way they can assert that they personally are not really envious of that CEO flying in a private jet.
Now many of these same people will argue that they simply want a better world for the disadvantaged. That does not mean they are envious of the rich does it? They simply recognize that only those with money can pay for the better world they desire. There are several things wrong with the morality of this concept.
First, what gives any man the moral right to dictate what another man does with his wealth? Can taking the rich man’s wealth because he is wealthy (regardless of how noble the justification) be considered anything other than stealing? (This is not an argument against taxes; it is an argument against taxes that specifically target and penalize one who is wealthy. We will address fair and equitable taxes in another post.) Taking anything from one person, even to give it to a third party is still stealing.
Secondly, one can only sway popular opinion to pass such “tax the rich” legislation by appealing to the baser instincts of the populace. That is, the masses must be made to envy the rich and become convinced that they personally can benefit by the government taking another’s wealth. That is, they can only achieve their dream of a just society by encouraging envy in others.
So our liberal friends have a major moral problem. They cannot in fact ensure fairness or equality of outcome and so then must either condone the sin of stealing or promote the sin of envy. (Some do both.) Adopting either moral position is abhorrent. You cannot achieve a just society with immoral behavior. The next time a smug liberal friend adopts a tone of moral superiority remind him that his beliefs are the ones that are in fact immoral. Think about it.