Friday, March 13, 2009

Beholden to our ancestors

Tibor R. Machan

When the idea of paying taxes, especially the exorbitant ones extorted from the well to do, is debated, defenders sometimes maintain that these are due because we owe it to our ancestors who forged institutions and other results that now benefit us all. So even our own selves, our bodies, health, pleasant looks, and, of course, any inheritance we were left by our elders do not really belong to us free and clear.

No, these are all owned by us conditionally, provided we pay back some of the goodies, through taxation and other burdens on us. We owe it, in other words, to our ancestors because they left us with lots of benefits, including such institutions as the legal system that protects us and our property. The great art we have inherited from those who went before us, for example, and the science, too, are what came our way and our use and enjoyment of these all bestow upon us the obligation to pay with our labor and resources which, of course, are to be collected from us by the government. As one prominent defender of heavy taxation and government wealth redistribution put it, "we haven't just 'come across' our unearned wealth. We--meaning the children of the rich--have inherited through a systematic institution, which needs principled defense or critique." And from this it is supposed to follow that we owe the government(!) and those it picks for its largess big time.

Well, all this is quite open to dispute and skepticism. For one thing, even if our ancestors, including parents and grandparents, left benefits and riches for us to enjoy, it doesn't follow that we owe something in return. They, too, gained from their parents and grandparents and from the surrounding world from which they obtained what they picked. And when they produced what we inherited from them, they didn't do so, at least as a rule, so as to benefit us! It is a fair assumption that they created and produced all the values they did because they believed it was something they ought to do, something important quite apart from those of us who followed in their footsteps. So we may safely assume they made their wealth, art, science, and so forth because they wanted to do it quite independently from what we inherited from them, except when, in fact, they specifically planned to benefit their offspring or some causes they believed in.

Another problem with this thesis is that when you give a gift to someone who hasn't asked for it, you don't later get to go to that individual or group and ask for payment! Unsolicited benefits are supposed to be given gratis, free and clear of obligations in return. The artists and scientists and entrepreneurs who have benefited us all unless they were coerced to do so did it of their own free will and for reasons of their own and did not attach the rider, "You may have all this provided you pay your government for it." (Why, indeed, would it amount to payback to fork out money to the government for all this? Those who provided us with the benefits are, after all, long gone and current governments are not working for them any longer but for current citizens.)

The best system for what some call inter-generational justice--for squaring with our ancestors fairly--is the private property system that does a reasonably decent job of securing for everyone what he or she has a right to, what everyone is entitled to. The country's system of property law translates this idea of the right to private property from one generation over to the next and except for cases of corruption or error, this is how rights and obligations stretch out into the future. Those in the past may be presumed to have taken good care of themselves with the aid of this system as we are supposed to do for ourselves. (Cases of corruption would be when those in the past stole from their fellows, like the Europeans did from the native Americans for instance, and when slave holders robbed the labor and time of their slaves, or when successful common criminals did this from their victims! In these cases restitution is due where it is possible to establish it through a just and functioning legal system.)

Over the history of political thought there have often been those who wanted to represent previous generations and take from current ones what they regarded as payments but it is little more than either a gross error or an outright ruse. It is a ploy by which some today get to take from their fellows and has nothing at all to do with collecting various mythical obligatory repayments!

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