Big Thinking: Mill, Taxation and the Individual

Taxation is an intense, emotional issue in the news and on the streets these days. I had an argument about it with a guy at work who advocated a flat income tax.

“But no politician, not even McCain, is calling for a flat income tax,” I said. “The only person calling for a flat income tax is Joe the Plumber.”

“Well, it’s not fair,” my friend said. “How is it fair that if I make more money than you I have to pay a higher percentage? Why should I be penalized for working harder?”

“Do the math,” I said. “We spend money on things like roads and schools and defense. If we had a flat tax, there would be no way to raise our annual budget. No economist has ever been able to show how we could balance our budget with a flat tax unless we literally starved the middle class. So the only way to have a flat tax is to run up a big budget deficit, which by the way your damn Bush/McCain Republicans are very good at.”

He pouted. “Well, it’s not fair.”

What this exchange and several like it have shown me is the intensity of feeling that taxation inspires. The American cry is “IT’S MY MONEY”. Personally, I do not feel as concerned with specific income tax rates as many other Americans seem to. As a web developer, my annual earnings can vary greatly with the economic climate — don’t even talk to me about 2003 — and my biggest concern is how much income I can earn each year, not the percentage I’ll pay back in tax. I would rather a government that taxes reasonably to maintain a thriving economy than one that chooses frugality over common sense.

On the other hand, I do understand that many Americans feel very strongly that federal taxation is an inexcusable intrusion into their private rights, and I do even respect the fact that this corresponds in some way to the great American love of freedom that means as much to me as it does to any, say, tax-hating John McCain voter out there. I also think it must mean something that when Henry David Thoreau famously went to jail for a day, his crime was refusing to pay taxes.

However, it’s also worth noting that Thoreau did not refuse to pay tax for selfish reasons, but rather for a public cause: he was protesting legalized slavery in America.

The intense public discourse about taxation within the 2008 presidential election calls to mind a quote from the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, founder of a practical and democratic philosophy called Utilitarianism that has inspired both liberal and conservative politicians and pundits. Mill’s philosophy is that government exists to maximize the shared happiness of all individuals within a society. The individual is the basic unit of government’s every purpose, and every question is resolved by examining the various possible individual benefits and costs. As Mill says:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

There is much to be gained from reading John Stuart Mill, but at the same time I don’t think that political philosophy can stop here. Do we really exist only as individuals? I am a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a cousin and an uncle — in all these ways I am committed to a unit of existence, a family, which is more than a collection of individuals but rather seems to be something alive in itself. I am also an employee of a company, a proud New Yorker, a Mets fan, an American and an ethnic Jew. In all of these ways, I am more than an individual, and nobody can tell me that I don’t feel pain when any of my “groups” are hurt, or happy when any of my “groups” are doing well.

And yet altruism or group awareness does not play — not even close — in the 2008 Presidential campaign. Even Barack Obama, who in my opinion takes a much more practical and realistic stance on taxation than John McCain, will not suggest in public that wealthy American taxpayers ought to feel good about the chance to help their fellow citizens. The few times he’s said anything along these lines, as when he mentioned “spreading the wealth around”, his opponents have been able to roast him for it.

You know, I don’t like paying taxes either. But it is worth stepping back and taking a deeper look at what the collective good — the good of our own collectives, our families, our cities, our country, our world — means to each of us, and why it does.

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Photo above from the excellent Library of Congress photo archive

15 Responses

  1. Every Republican, Democrat,
    Every Republican, Democrat, and Independent is aware that a certain amount of taxation is necessary. The only difference is, they only think it’s fair when it pays for things they want.

    People who are really into the Space Program want taxes to fund NASA. Almost everyone wants some taxes to fund the military. A lot of people want taxes to fund interstate highways, whether for vacation travel, to visit loved ones, or to move products from factories to distributors to stores. Some people want tax money for schools because they believe, however corny it may sound, that children are our future. Some people want taxes to provide health care to more people because, in the long run, this makes a stronger America. That’s why we have polio and small pox vaccinations! Remember? If you are a millionaire living in a gated community, you have to go outside sometime. Do you want to catch polio because you said, “Let the peasants fend for themsleves?” If a kid is failing in school because of poor eyesight or an undetected illness, I would rather pay taxes to help the child become a productive member of society, rather than later when taxes are used to subsidize emergency care for the indigent, welfare, or even the criminal justice system and prison.

    What are Republicans so afraid of?

  2. Four things. First, while he
    Four things. First, while he was an abolitionist, Thoreau’s refusal to pay his taxes was not because of slavery, but because he didn’t support the Mexican-American War. And, while he did later write a lovely little tract about it, it is worth noting that his friends bailed him out the next day by paying them.

    Second, Mill is not the originator of utilitarianism. In fact, his father was a famous utilitarian, and his crazy upbringing was a result of applying utilitarian principles to child-rearing. Usually, Jeremy Bentham is credited as the originator.

    Third, neither Mill’s nor Bentham’s utilitarianism implies that our desires and goals as parents, teachers, citizens, etc. are not relevant to our happiness. Rather, their claim is that these social groups (such as family, classroom, and country) are only morally relevant insofar as they do affect the happiness of the individuals involved. Of course, since people are happier when their family is doing well, that means that utilitarians care about the success of families from a social policy standpoint. Their claim is that if families didn’t make people happier, there isn’t some other reason why we should try to encourage them.

    Finally, I think you mistake the McCain’s campaign’s overheated rhetoric for a “roasting.” Based on its track record, that’s a mistake. In fact, I think Obama’s statements were pretty vanilla, and I haven’t seen any indication that most Americans don’t agree with me.

  3. Sabina’s Hat, what is your
    Sabina’s Hat, what is your source for your statement that Thoreau was not protesting slavery but the Mexican-American war? I’d like to fix this if it’s an error, but I just checked several online sources and every source I’ve found so far agrees with me: here, here and here. I’ve found some references, like Wikipedia, that say he was protesting both slavery and the Mexican-American war, but I can’t find any source that says he was not primarily protesting American slavery.

    As for your question about Mill and Utilitarianism, I think I am accurate in describing Mill as not “the” but “a” founder of Utilitarianism. He wrote the well-known book with this title, and his name is as widely connected with Utilitarianism as, say, Karl Marx’s is with Communism. I’ll stick with my words.

    Yes, I agree that Mill and Bentham’s basic claim is that social groups are “only morally relevant insofar as they do affect the happiness of the individuals involved”. That’s exactly how I would characterize their philosophy, in fact — and I continue to believe that this is a limited and limiting way to understand the complexities of human society.

    Finally — I hope you’re right that most Americans don’t agree with McCain’s attacks on Obama’s tax plans — the fact that Obama is way ahead in the polls is a very hopeful indication. However, I make it a habit to follow a wide variety of news sources, and it’s a fact that the conservative news outlets have been hitting Obama hard on the taxation issue. I’m glad to see, though, that voters do not seem to be falling for it.

  4. Levi,

    You’re correct about

    You’re correct about Thoreau. I had thought the proximate cause of the tax was the Mexican-American war. My bad.

    As for Mill being a founder, well, it is true that he is probably the most famous utilitarian. But Bentham’s Principles of Morals and Legislation was published in 1789, seventy years before the publication of Utilitarianism. I think a closer analogy would be Lenin, rather than Marx. Or maybe this: do you consider Lincoln a “founding father.”

    My point about individualism is that utilitarians will not claim that the pain you feel when your “groups” aren’t doing well is not real. It’s true that some of the earliest utilitarians were psychological egoists, but it’s not clear that Mill himself was, and even so, that doesn’t make that kind of “pain” illusory.

  5. This is not conclusive
    This is not conclusive research, but I remember thinking he was protesting the war too. As to taxes, it is indicative of the Republican party to take the emotionally easy side of every issue. I am just surprised they haven’t found a Christian reason that taxes are bad. No one likes paying taxes, save maybe Oliver Wendell Holmes, so it is easy to say: Obama wants to tax you while I want to give you money back. What an applause line! Obviously he doesn’t need to mention at that point that while not taxing, he still plans to ramp up military and defense spending, presumably at the expense of schools, highways, and other negligible experiments gone awry.

    Taxes are not my main issue even though McCain thinks they are. I am much more concerned with getting a thinking man (or woman) into the White House, preferably someone who will actually listen to advisers and weigh alternate opinions. And yes, for the first time in a long time, I am proud of my country. For ignoring the constant attack ads, for ignoring the anti-intellectual rhetoric, for putting race aside, and for not falling for every old trick, I am proud of my country. First order of business: regain the moral high ground that we have most certainly lost over the last 50 years.

    I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization. ~Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

  6. Let’s go to the man himself,
    Let’s go to the man himself, Mr. Thoreau. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau names slavery, the war in Mexico, and our treatment of American Indians, all as reasons for a man to refuse to pay taxes, saying that if enough people were willing to go to jail, the government would be forced to rethink its positions.

    Rubiao, I like what you said about the people who say they will cut taxes while desiring to ramp up the military. You know, I’m sure, where a lot of that ramping-up money comes from: selling U.S. bonds to other countries, especially Japan and China. Compare that to WWII, when almost every Amercian supported the military and WE bought the war bonds (well, not me, but my parents) because our government knows if it were up to us, we wouldn’t want our money going for the war in Iraq.

  7. Taking my point a step
    Taking my point a step further:
    We know a lot of Americans supported sending the military to Iraq. How would most of those Americans have reacted if George W. Bush had said, “Now, I ask all of you who support my decision to invade Iraq to donate, according to your income, $500.00 to $2000.00 to the cause?”

    “Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals
    using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the
    people would not have consented to this measure.” – Thoreau

  8. I agree that Mill can be
    I agree that Mill can be considered a founder, but not the founder, of utilitarianism. He is certainly widely credited with founding so-called “rule utilitarianism,” as distinct from Bentham’s “act utilitarianism.” Broadly speaking, Bentham’s philosophy prescribes that, in any given circumstance, a government should act to maximize overall social happiness or utility. Mill’s philosophy prescribes creating and acting on general rules that tend to increase happiness/utility, rather than making policies on a case-by-case basis.

  9. What’s Wrong w/ Flat
    What’s Wrong w/ Flat Tax?

    Republicans are authoritarian.
    They work for Cheney, not
    Innocent Libby. They work for
    The man, not Joe the Plumber

  10. dlt, I am interested in
    dlt, I am interested in pursuing the idea of a flat tax, but I’ve heard of a few problems with it. There are two main models for a flat tax (probably more than two, but these are the two I’m familiar with).

    The first model says we should do away with Federal Income Tax and charge a higher sales tax on all goods. The higher sales tax would not seem so bad because we would all have more money to spend. Also, we would control, to some extent, how much tax we pay by what we choose to buy. The downside of that is it might lead to a massive underground market where everyone sells and buys “under the table” and almost no taxes would get paid. As more people ordered things by internet, the government would be tempted to scan everyone’s internet activities (even more than they do now). If they want to spy on you for national security, just think how bad they would want to spy on you for money!

    The second model is, a flat Federal Income Tax. I don’t know, but I’ve been told, it would not bring in enough money to fund the government unless we set the percentage high, to the point where lower income families would suffer.

  11. Kind folks and gentle people,
    Kind folks and gentle people, I hear all this republican fear of “spreading the wealth around” and what’s wrong with that? The church, temple, and mosque offerings spread the wealth around and it is considered good to “give alms to the poor”. So, to me, the republicans have a lame fear of government “giveaways”. What the hell is wrong with government giveaways to a good cause like stopping aids or world hunger? Jane Fonda got roundly criticized in the south for pointing out hungry people in America. Yes, there are hungry people in America. What’s wrong with Head Start and Food Stamps?

    I think the republicans have a selfish bunch of policy makers. I remember a time when emancipated students could get food stamps if they could prove they were going to college/tech school full time. We need to return to that benevolent mindset. Our taxes need to go to where they do the most good. Yes, the middle class needs a break and yes the rich need to pay up.

  12. Hey!
    A flat income tax is

    A flat income tax is ridiculous proposal! I still make 0.80 for every 1.00 a man makes for the same work; this is according to the GAO. It doesn’t matter how hard I work, how long I work; it is because I am a woman.
    There is a of way to generate tax money in a most robust way. Let’s leave aside the discussion of income taxes,we clearly need to figure out a better system.
    Legalize all recreational drugs. Nationalize their sales.These products of the US government would then be taxed at about 200-250%.
    Want to buy a lid? Go to the corner substance store, show ID, pay.The stuff will be packaged and marketed like any other product.
    Crack? Sorry; we only sell wine laced with cocaine. On sale this week, Pinot Noir from Templeton, CA. Just the perfect gift to celebrate your 10th anniversary!
    Imagine: Baked goods made with the shake. Hashish candles.Opium bubble bath.
    Coughing all night last night? Forget codeine! Heroin is a much more effective antitussive, and it doesn’t cause constipation. Of course it’s by prescription only, have your doc phone it in to the pharmacy.
    See how great a one- payer system is, now that we can afford it?

  13. I do not think that there is
    I do not think that there is such a thing as private money. When people complain about paying taxes and say that ‘It’s my money! Why should I pay to help someone who does not work?’ they forget that it is not their money. Any payment you receive for doing anything is ultimately paid to you at the point of the government’s gun. It’s paid with the government’s paper and ink. It’s paid with an entire infrastructure built by a government’s tax revenues. There is no such thing as private money. If you want private money, you will end up with warlords and clans printing their own currencies and trading bullets for food.

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