Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Nanocars and Other Nifty Feats

Tibor R. Machan

My full confidence in Ayn Rand’s judgment waned a bit when she got all gushy about a space shot she was invited by the White House to witness close up, if I recall right. Yes, as a technological feat the shot was a marvel all right. But so was Sputnik, yet I was not tempted at all to celebrate the Soviet’s achievement. Why? Because it was done at the point of a gun. And if anyone ought to know that “Morality ends at the point of a gun,” Ayn Rand should have since she is the one who made the best philosophical case for that very vital notion.

So when I was reading about how some folks have come up with actual, functioning nanocars, tiny as all get out—reportedly made from a single molecule—yet capable of being driven around on some kind of golden highway [THE WEEK, Nov. 5, 2005, p. 19], I was thinking to myself how cool this is, yet how its creation probably came at the expense of the resources of thousands of taxpayers who then had to go without.

Since the news item was very skimpy, giving only the most meager of information (that the research occurred at Rice University, in Houston, TX), I didn’t learn whether it was funded in part by a government grant. (See more at http://www.nanotech-now.com/news.cgi?story_id=12107.) That in itself is disconcerting—we cannot tell who to thank for such innovations because, as I argued in one of my first published papers in political philosophy, “Justice and the Welfare State” (reprinted in The Libertarian Alternative [1974], the first book I edited and had published), the connection between cause and effect in the area of production, creation and what is being produced or created is severed nearly completely, or at least severely distorted, in the welfare state. So while one would wish to give thanks to those who achieve such feats as flying out into space or making nanocars, because the funds needed to pay for the process that made it happen came from the point of the gun, it is nearly impossible to thank anyone. It is as if one were contemplating thanking the Mafia for making contributions to some museum or Renaissance art.

There are, of course, those who believe that taxes do not amount to the confiscation of anything—they are, the preposterous story goes, due being paid to government, dues justly owed. But this is crazy and most officials of the government know it since they are always criticizing one another for “misspending the taxpayers’ dollars.” If it belong to the government, then the taxpayer has no claim on it, not even to have it well spent. After all, if I pay my rent to someone I owe it to, and this person then blows all of it in Las Vegas, I have nothing to beef about. Maybe his or her spouse and children do, but I do not.

The fact that people complain about how “their” money is spend by the government that takes it in taxes suggests strongly whose the money really is. It belongs to the taxpayers but is extorted by the government which, nonetheless, needs to spend it properly because... well, because it doesn’t own it. One may suppose that even an out and out thief might be looked upon with some mercy if the stolen goods are directed to really important things, like feeding starving children or supporting important research projects. So what taxes—one of the remaining anomalies of a supposedly free society—amount to is money belonging to wage, salary, and other earners (as well as others with wealth come by peacefully). They are taken by government at gun point, though with the ever so slightly mitigating circumstance that it promises to spend it in some kind of praiseworthy fashion.

Of course, in our era few political thinkers will be able to complain about such confiscation of our resources since too many among these people are what is called consequentialists, people for whom any action can be justified so long as it produces more desirable results than would have been produced otherwise. (Just think of Kelo v. City of New London, CT.) Since hardly anyone can figure out what you and I and the rest of us would have done had the tax collectors not extorted it from us, and since politicians and bureaucrats always put on display their fabulous plans, of which some actually materialize in time, who can argue with taxation—it does some good, doesn’t it? In any case, prior to the completion of a project no one knows enough to figure whether the intended consequences will be produced and will create more benefit than the taking did harm. (Frederick Bastiat’s famous insight comes to mind here about the difficulty to accounting for something that isn’t seen!)

So, despite wishing to celebrate some of the technical feats achieved with extorted funds, I will not. Yes, I praise the scientists, the technological whizzes (I used to literally stroke my Volvo P1800 for being such a great engineering marvel). But given that they shouldn’t have had most of the funds that enabled them to achieve these feats, I decline the invitation to celebrate.

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