A few days ago I wrote a blog in which I suggested we need to alter our mind-set regarding the payment of taxes. Instead of the pejorative overtones the word has now we should try to give it a positive spin and bear in mind the immense good our taxes do — regardless of the abuses of the system that are inevitable. The blog received a most interesting comment from William Thien who appreciated my take on the question but who worried that recipients of tax relief for food, clothing, shelter, and schooling might in fact become “enslaved” by the money thrown their way: they might become dependent on the government’s largess. This is an excellent point and one I have worried about for many years.
In fact, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche both worried about it as well, and they had much larger minds than mine. They worried that “socialism” (which Dostoevsky regarded as the bastard stepchild of Catholicism, which he hated for the same reasons) deprived humans of their freedom by making them dependent on the generosity of the state (or the Church). In any case they insisted that freedom was the core of humanity: without it we are less than human, “denizens of an ant heap,” as Dostoevsky would have it.
The idea comes from Kant’s notion of autonomy which he regarded as essential to our humanity: it is what makes us human, The fact is that we, of all the animals, are the only ones who can make and follow (or ignore) our own moral precepts. This is real freedom — from which comes our responsibility — and it is the heart of our humanity according to Kant. To the extent that we initiate our own moral precepts to that extent are we human. It is a rich and very persuasive point of view.
But in the “real” world, where philosophers often stumble over the furniture, people suffer from lack of necessities for their survival. They can hardly be expected to achieve freedom in Kant’s sense. Are they then less than human? Certainly not. Further, in the face of human suffering doesn’t it behoove each of us to do what we can to alleviate that suffering and care about our fellow humans who if ignored must go without? Those who suffer from chronic malnutrition and lack of adequate clothing are not really in a position to realize their full human potential in Kant’s sense of that term. One could argue that those who lack adequate schooling cannot be said to be fully autonomous human beings, either — again, in Kant’s sense of that term. These people are too busy just trying to survive in an unfriendly world. It’s not clear that in the extreme case the chronically disadvantaged should even be held responsible for their actions. These people deserve more. And if we are in a position to provide more it would appear we have an obligation to respond by being generous.
If it is wrong to alleviate suffering because it “enslaves” those who are the recipients of our generosity (or our tax money), it is much worse to look the other way and ignore the suffering of those we might be in position to help. I would say it is the lesser of two evils, except that I fail to see that the option of helping others is in any way “evil.” Furthermore, as I look deeper into the issue I wonder whether this sort of dependence, this “enslavement” that is associated with social programs that help people in need is any different from the perfectly ordinary forms of dependence that we associate with “free market” capitalism — to wit, the dependence of the wage earner or the salaried employee on the largess of his or her employer, or even the independent business person on his or her customers. I dare say the “fat cats” at the top of the capitalistic pyramid depend on tax breaks and subsidies to help them increase their already obscene wealth. We are all tied by numerous bonds of interdependence in this or any economic system. But the major impediments to real independence, the achievement of autonomy, are poverty and ignorance. And we are in a position to do something about those if we choose to do so.
In the end I still contend that we need to rethink our take on taxation. Despite the abuses our tax money does immense good: it eliminates a great deal of human suffering and frees many people from dehumanizing conditions. Surely, these are good things.