TCS Daily

A Little Unhappiness Goes a Long Way

By Jeffrey Alan Miron - June 30, 2006 12:00 AM

Most debates about government policy concern whether government should intervene. A different but important question is whether intervention belongs at the state or federal level, if intervention occurs. In fact, many current federal policies should be left to the states.


The standard view is that policies like welfare must be federal; states will avoid redistribution for fear of becoming welfare magnets. This concern is understandable, but a different mechanism suggests redistribution is often excessive. Redistribution to the poor creates a demand for redistribution from the near poor, and then from the sort-of poor, and then from the working poor, and so on. The end-result is massive redistribution, mostly from the middle class to the middle class. This generates huge distortions.

Nothing guarantees, of course, that leaving redistribution to the states gets the balance just right. But the chances are better since competition between states nudges against the tendency for excess redistribution. And many states have unemployment benefits, welfare programs, and minimum wages that are well above anything required by federal law. So, rightly or wrongly, states do not race to the bottom.

Environmental Policies

Most environmental issues are local. Air and water pollution affect residents who live near the pollution source. The demand for a clean environment is likely to differ between rural and urban areas, high and low income areas, agricultural versus manufacturing areas, and so on. Likewise, the costs of alleviating pollution differ substantially across areas.

Federal policies do not readily address this heterogeneity. As with redistribution, moreover, the potential for excess regulation is clear, so leaving things to the states promises a better balance. And a race to the bottom is again not obvious; many states, sensibly or not, adopt more stringent regulation than anything required by the federal government.


Education has historically been the province of state and local government, but No Child Left Behind and other federal policies are overturning that situation. This is an especially egregious overreach by federal government. To begin, nothing about education suggests under provision if left to the states. And federal intervention generates bureaucracy while suppressing variety and innovation. Remember that states experimented with charters, vouchers, and accountability long before NCLB.

More importantly, federal control over the production and dissemination of ideas is the road to thought control. All totalitarian governments have monopolized the educational system. Keeping intervention in education at the state level provides a counter-weight to this danger.


The issue for abortion policy is defining what constitutes murder. And states have done this historically. Roe v. Wade upset the situation by reading privacy rights into the Constitution where none plausibly exist. And whether or not Roe was right constitutionally, a federal ban on laws restricting abortion is ill-advised as a matter of public policy.

The reason is that deciding when life begins is impossible. Passions will always run high on abortion, and most people will favor neither unlimited access nor severe restrictions.

Leaving abortion to the states accepts this heterogeneity. Absent Roe, most states will retain legal abortion while a few will restrict or ban it. Most women will still have access to legal abortion, and most people will feel they have some control over abortion policy. Of course, leaving abortion to the states also rules out federal legislation about abortion, such as bans on partial birth procedures.

Gay Marriage

As with murder, defining marriage has always been the province of states. The legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts, however, spurred a call for federal regulation. As with abortion, however, there will always be strong opinions on both sides. Leaving the issue to the states avoids the polarization that comes from pushing one view on everyone. The possible downside is confusion arising from different laws in different states, but this concern seems overblown. Marriage, divorce, and guardianship laws have always differed somewhat across states. And the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts has not generated significant problems.

The United States lucked into what has been, and could continue to be, one of the most effective governmental structures available: federalism. Yet the U.S. has moved strongly away from this approach over the past century. Few people favor every implication of the federal approach, but most also appreciate it on certain issues. And that is the point: by making many people somewhat unhappy, federalism avoids making some people become truly alienated. That is essential to a free society.

Jeffrey Alan Miron is an economist at Harvard University. Find more of his writing here.



Administering social programs
Contrary to what the author states, welfare checks are not given out by the federal government. They are given by the states.

Here's how it works. The feds write the blanket legislation, and provide matching payments for every state proggram that fits the guidelines. Then each state draws up its own rules and administers its own program. Thus we have fifty sets of rules for AFDC, for food stamps, etc.

So why do the states give out anything? Couldn't they just save money by not having any programs? Well for one thing, people on the bottom don't move. They would develop a dysfunctional, criminal underclass to allow serious poverty to become entrenched. The costs of dealing with this group would become untenable, just counting hard costs in law enforcement, incarceration etc. There are also serious social costs.

Plus, depressed communities spread like a cancer. It's not good for the economy. Much better to get federal matching funds, and inject enough money into the community to keep the pressure from building up.

Many communities also find it cash-wise to put a chunk of change into community coleges, so the children of these ghetto dwellers have a way to leave that life behind. This kind of thinking may be anathema to the libertarians, but it's a wise use of funds.

Everyone posting here seems to think if you don't spend any money on welfare, the problem of poverty is not costing us anything. Everyone in this instance would be wrong.

With-holding of federal funds under "No child left behind"
With-holding of federal funds via "No child left behind" was necessary because some states and school districts were failing to require adequate standards of education. Why should federal funds go to incompetent educational authorities?

point by point
Redistribution: maybe too much redistribution is bad, but have we reached that point? On the contraty, we've spent the last 30 years moving in the other direction -- with top marginal tax rates declining by half and welfare "reform" in full swing.

Environment: some issues are federal. Much of the air pollution in Boston and New York is created in Ohio. Then there's the international issue of global warming. The feds set minimum environmental standards under the commerce clause: otherwise states with environmental protections could loose economic competition with dirtier states. NAFTA also addresses this issue.

Education: a reasonable role for the feds is national educational standards for content and achievement. As it is now, small school districts have to decide which biology book to use and what the biology curriculum should be. Many do not have the technical expertise to do that.

Abortion: Abortion is about what constitutes human life. Is a fetus with less nervous activity than Terry Schiavo a full person? The Supremes say no. The ninth amentment is the plausible source of the right to privacy that underlies Roe. The 13-th (or 14-th?) amendment explicitly federalizes rights in the constitution. Do you want to repeal that?

why should federal funds be going to any state for education purposes?

Your right and wrong
Yes, state agencies do give out welfare checks, food stamps, etc. But the food stamp program, for example, is almost entirely run through the Department of Ag. It is administered through the state human services alongside AFDC and other public assistance programs.

But, I think, you miss the point of the author. If each state ran these programs independently they would still exist, be less expensive, and the people in that state could decide how much they were really willing to spend.

I do agree with your premise of why welfare is important and would add to that the ability to supply a "safety net" for those who suddenly find their income cut for whatever reason. this keeps them from becoming "the poor" as they try to survive a job change or injury.

Sure, next!!
This is almost pure BS - "Much of the air pollution in Boston and New York is created in Ohio."

Come on. The smog hanging over these cities is created there. They may get some particulate polution from factories in other states that blows in on the prevailing winds, but not much.

This is just as bad - "The feds set minimum environmental standards under the commerce clause: otherwise states with environmental protections could loose economic competition with dirtier states."

Sure, there is a very small amount of this involved, but most environmental regulation comes straight through the EPA and other civil/environmental departments. Most of it is written for New York or L.A. and isn't even relavent for a majority of the mid-west and pacific northwest. Yet, a town of 800 with a landfill that will cover their needs for the next 10,000 years, has to work under the regulations designed for the landfill problems in Boston. You have to see it to understand the lunacy of these regulations.
Also, If a state wants to put in pollution controls that hamstring it's own businesses, why should another state have to obey them?

Get off Global warming, not a part of this, and NAFTA wouldn't be either if the feds didn't already have the EPA and federal regulations in place.

The only area were some true federal regulation is needed is waterways. You can't have upstream states polluting the water so it is unusable downstream.

On Education I would agree with you, but the national standards on this don't exist and I'm not sure I want the idiots in Washington making this decision anyway.

On abortion, Roe v. Wade established that, at some point in a pregnancy, the state has "a compelling interest" in seeing the pregnancy goes to birth. That has been conveniently ignored in spbsequent rulings and legal precident.
This case should never have been heard by the supremes; they literally had to create the need for it to be heard. (read the enitre ruling, the court spent more time and effort explaining why they decided to take the case than in almost any decision i've ever read. The fact they even felt a need to explain themselves is telling, in my opinion!)

What's Luck Got To Do With It?
>>The United States lucked into what has been, and could continue to be, one of the most effective governmental structures available: federalism.

This is plainly untrue. We didn't just "luck" into it. It can be shown that a federalized republic is the only good form of government. It honors the principles of subsidium and of a representative democracy. The founders of the country knew this and chose the form of government we have now, even though in practice it is not always followed.

This is too obvious to comment on.

RE: The paragraph on marriage.
I would beg to differ on the first sentence's supposition that "defining marriage has always been the province of states." On the contrary marriage has historically been the province of the "Church" or religion in its many forms. Therefore by virtue of the 1st Amendment "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion," neither government or it's branches should be meddling in the sacraments of the "Church," If the state wishes to offer ciivil unions that is an option but, "marriage" is outside of the province of government!

The Prince & the Political Payola Machines
Machiavelli needs updating, so here goes ....

Politicians and their political machines turn human, liquid and political capital into political power. Think of the campaign workers, cash and political influence and connections one must have to even stand a chance of winning 1/535th of Congress' power.

The Republican and Democrat parties' raison d’être is to raise the necessary capital as well as to ensure that it's invested in candidates who stand the best chance of winning power. Since candidates who compete for political power against politicians who enjoy the (R) & (D) services rarely win, the (R) & (D) have acquired for themselves both an oligopoly and cartel position in American politics. Worse, this position is national.

So how does this affect federalism? To maintain political power over time, political power must constantly be exchanged with special interests for cash in the form of campaign contributions, for the next election is always right around the corner. To maximize their capacity to do this at every level of government, national (R) & (D) politicians tap into the biggest pot of money on the planet - the federal budget - and spread it thickly and widely round the entire nation.

Consequently, no remote American backwater has ever been too remote to get its hands on some federal payola, so long as it's got a local (R) or (D) crook hooked into the requisite national political payola system. And this is how we've lost federalism in America.

Interestingly, notice that the (R) & (D) parties have also seized an oligopoly on ideologies, e.g., (R) = right while (D) = left, (R) = slash & burn capitalism while (D) = environmental conservationism, (R) = theocracy while (D) = secular soft/hard paternalism, etc. As a result, both parties can stamp their brand on every political issue, thereby excluding alternative ideas as well as the parties that could offer them.

Notice also that the ideological center of gravity for both parties is at their extremes. This is so by design, for just as people are fascinated by circus freaks, so are they fascinated by the Jerry Fallwells and Ralph Naders of political ideas, such that the media focuses its political coverage on suchlike reprobates. In the meanwhile, the (R) & (D) cartel manufactures centrist policies in the relative quite of their Congressional offices. After all, political power over a dysfunctional and bankrupt country is not as desirable as over a functional and wealthy one.

I like this argument!
Religions attempt to define and refine the laws governing human nature, some even going so far as to enforce them (e.g, Islam). Hence, the Christian concept of natural law. Since marriage is a decree of the laws governing human nature, the state acts illegitimately when it fiddles around with marriage, for the laws legitimizing marriage exist apart from and perhaps even despite the state.

Washington State treats marriage as a community governed by the legal principles of contracts and equity. While this treatment makes rational sense, it does not adequately reflect how people naturally treat marriage. Consequently, Washington law imposes inducements on the conduct of married couples contrary to their natural inclinations, resulting in much lucrative legal carnage when marriages dissolve. So even heterosexual marriage is not immune from the state converting it from a natural human institution into a sordid political and legal competition for cash.

But then, what else would you expect when lawyers make the laws? What's got me most puzzled, then, is why gays who want to marry want any part of this mess.

The way of the world
Why, you old lefty! I think I agree with every word of this-- even your last sentence.

The world of 6.2 billion noncitizens have no vote, thus no weight in any matter. 240 million Americans are either ineligible or elect not to utilize their vote. Therefore it's only sixty million people who even get to add their two cents. And they're only given the choice of Door A or Door B. Federal referenda on policies are decidedly NOT encouraged. And voter initiatives are not permitted.

Out in the rural constituencies here we just read yesterday of a state senator who sold his vote on a key issue for a paltry $1,000 contribution (a landfill site for out-of-state waste), in a blatant exchange of quid for quo. So if you wants a say in things, you gots to pay for the singing telegram.

BTW I hope you didn't miss Stephanopoulos last night, on polarization in America. Very timely program.

State run welfare programs
Hi Paul,

"If each state ran these programs independently they would still exist, be less expensive, and the people in that state could decide how much they were really willing to spend."

Oh, but I think each state does run its own program, within not especially restrictive federal guidelines for matching funds. States subscribe, for one thing, so they can bring those federal bucks back in house, where they can be spent and taxed.

Each state tends to run the program it can afford. Primitive venues like Alabama, with most of their public below the poverty line, have no tax base. Thus they have inadequate programs. I believe Jesus takes care of their poor.

Affluent states like California tend to have more program than they need. Thus they practically force boxes of surplus food on people, just to get rid of the stuff they've purchased from the ag sector.

For one, you are confusing programs…
Yes, I agree, the states administer the program, based on federal and state funding and mandates. Some states only do the minimum matching while others add more to the programs. In that light, yes states do "run" the programs.

But, for the most part, the state contribution depends on what the feds are willing to do. If the feds cut funding, most states will not make up the gap and the program gets reduced. In the end, the federal government really runs the show. Also, if a state doesn't meet federal guidlines, they can lose all funding. In many cases (if not most) that is more than half the total for the program.

The food pantry programs are more locally run, with some federal help, the rest is true only to some extent. Also, get the feds out, and you lose the expense of the buracracy. As for the problem with state's like Alabama, it is too many recipients, as much as it is a low tax base.

The problem with California is not their affluence so much as it is a simple surplus of the federal commodity distrubution program and, perhaps, too much in food donations (that would be due to that affluence you talked about) locally. The vast majority of food Bank/pantry programs go through cycles; more than they need at some times, less than they need at other times.

Numbers a bit skewed, but overall a good post
Over 110 million Americans voted in the last election (actually, that is the number of votes counted, a couple of percentage points are not registerable for whatever reason; call it 2 million more who actually voted.) That is about 55% of the adult citizenry (excluding alien residents and illegals as well as minors and you get about 200 million, give or take), leaving about 90 million who are eligible, but did not vote. Oops forgot the 10 million or so who have lost their right to vote for whatever reason

That makes it 80 million. So 80 million of 190 million eligible is 41% who did not vote and could have. Still a very high number, but no where near your 240 million, 80% figure.

Still, you point is well taken and I can't argue with the rest of what you said.

Is that all - one grand?
I'm no lefty, rb. Rather, I despise the enterprise of government because it fouls nearly everyone and everything it touches. Even its basic premise is foul: Men need government because too many man can't be trusted to govern themselves. But if this is true, then we can't let any men run the government because they probably can't be trusted to govern themselves, much less others. Peeing into the wind to keep one's feet dry makes more sense.

You and I can't compete with the money men and slick hucksters that run our country, rb. So why should we expect anything more out of government than we put into it? And wanting nothing from government except a few user-fee financed services, I'm willing to expect very little of it.

Who runs the show
Paul, In case you haven't appreciated the distinction, the states are chronically strapped for money while the feds are not. That is because the federal government can create money by fiat, through borrowing on nothing more than its "promise to pay". While all the states must undergo the exquisite discipline of having to come up with balanced budgets every year.

Therefore it's not a case of "If the feds cut funding, most states will not make up the gap and the program gets reduced." It's the case that when the feds cut funding, the states CAN'T make up the gap. So programs fold up and blow away, and poor kids don't go to college.

For that reason, I believe all the states make a sincere effort to meet federal guidelines. We're talking about a tall stack of cash.

In the case of Alabama I don't immediately see a distinction between too many eligible recipients and too thin a tax base. If you've been there you'll see the two go together.

But these are small issues. We're in agreement. The main fact is that the feds take the lead in designing programs that the states then modify and administer according to local conditions. And things have changed quite a bit nationwide since 1996.

Our most important civic duty
I stand corrected. I didn't think 100 million voted in 2004. I do know that in the off year of 2002, only 16% of eligibles voted for D's, while only 17% of eligibles voted for R's. That left 67% of eligibles who voted for no one.

And I may not have stated things clearly enough. You comment "80 million of 190 million eligible is 41% who did not vote and could have. Still a very high number, but no where near your 240 million, 80% figure."

My 240 million was all citizens, even the one year olds and those in prisons. Obviously if 110 million voted in 2004, the remainder (190 million) did not.

My wife and I recently voted in the county primaries. Our precinct includes several thousand families. We got there late in the day, 3:30 or four, and the precinct captain told my wife "Congratulations! You're number sixty." And to me, "You're sixty-one."

As I said, I agree that Americans don't vote as the should
Many don't vote in primaries because they refuse to have to declare a party; even in states with an open primary. Many don't vote in mid-term elections for a number of reasons.

still, even most of these elections show 25 to 30% turnout. Our county has about 2,200 people, about 1,500 are of voting age and at least 1,400 or eligible to vote. There are just over 1,100 registered voters and only 468 fo them showed up for this last primary.

Yes, Americans give up this right all too easily; but it is just a personal pet-peeve when someone over-hypes the numbers to make a point. (yes, we are all prone to this, even me.) But, for me, it is a good example of why you can't believe anyone, not politicians or scientists, when they are trying to make a points or work toward a political agenda.

Member States
EU Member State politicians rail against the EU's eating up their nations' sovereignty at home while meeting every so often in Brussels to make laws binding on their nations that are too risky to make at home. Politically it really is possible to have your cake and eat it, too. But of course, the little guy calls this kind of thing hypocrisy.

Comparing the US, the American demand for government programs solving all of society's problems is unlimited while the demand for paying high taxes is very limited. The political solution? Promise the sun, moon and stars at the federal level while printing and borrowing money to provide them, while at the state level delivering fiscal discipline. And since this scam is carried out under the biggest political tent of all - the Republican/Democrat political cartel - American politicians get to have their cake and eat it, too.

Ah, the machinations of politics ... what a wonderful gig, politics, isn't it? Just like the next day's cauldron of rock soup after all the vegetables are gone!

No Subject
This is why it is imperative that "we the people" break the choke hold that the two party system had placed upon the political system. There are viable third parties, but they need the support and strength of the voters to increase their effectiveness.

Government programs?
Robert-- There are a great many problem prevalent in this country that the market is not solving-- that the market is in fact exacerbating, like the flight of good jobs overseas and the creation of a captive job market. I frankly don't see that much impetus from below to create government programs that will solve these structural issues-- but that's only because people are so disgusted with an unresponsive government.

Solving such problems would be the role of a responsible government. Instead we've gotten used to having a government by knaves, and made the assumption that it can never get better. I don't see much push from below demanding programs to solve our many problems. Instead I see Americans wandering around directionless, baffled by such diversions as the War on Terror.

Volatility and the Boy in the Bubble
Remember the boy in the bubble, Roy? The one whose immune system couldn't take the volatile conditions the rest of our bodies can handle? So doctors put him in an airtight bubble to keep him safe from every virus, bacteria, and grain of pollen the rest of us cope with every day. Only problem was, the kid didn't have a real life.

Neither would we Americans if it really were true that our government could put our society in a bubble of social programs and laws that could protect us from every manner of volatility this world throws at us. Really, Roy, no such bubble is possible, which is why we have lives worth living.

Often terrifying and aways subject to risk our lives may be, but considering the alternative Brave New World a society of bubble boys would feel right at home in, I'll take what we've got now ... just less slick hucksters selling expensive anti-volatility bubbles that are already defective before they even get off the ideology drawing board, please.

The working poor
I would offer instead that it's you who are living in the ivory tower, and have no real idea of the lives the working poor live-- that 40% of our society that has essentially zero net wealth, as they owe more than they own.

I would recommend your going to the library and picking up a copy of The Working Poor: Invisible in America, by David Shipler. After you've read his presentation you may get back to me about the bubble these people live inside.

You got it right and I do agree
Also there is no distinction between too many recipients and too small a tax base. There do go hand in hand. In fact, that was the point I was trying to make; the Alabama program is as plagued by one as it is by the other.

So you are exactly right, in my view, on all these points.

Alabama also has the problem that the state legislature is controlled by the timber interests. So their only conceivable tax base is not taxed. Poverty has won.

American property and contract laws justify the initial distribution of valuable things by enforcing it. This distribution is an outcome of the billions of economic transactions voluntarily occurring between Americans every day, describing a system of economic distribution politically known as "capitalism".

American property and contract laws are based on the principles of private property rights, freedom of exchange, and competition. Most Americans agree that these principles justify the property and contract laws derived from them, thereby justifying eventual economic outcomes. In sum then, most Americans agree that both the existence and the identity of the working poor are legitimate and justified.

But you would have me believe that there's a need for a further set of laws designed to achieve a more "socially just" outcome regarding the final distribution of valuable things. Further, you would have me believe that the principles justifying these laws are equality, sympathy and social duty. Finally, you would base your advocacy for redistributive laws on moral arguments indicting Americans' daily economic conduct as "greedy", "selfish", and socially irresponsible.

Here's were you fail, Roy, because I and most Americans don't believe these things, as you seem to. For we know that the law can't make people good, and further, that slick political hucksters can politically define "good" as just about anything they desire. So this further set of redistributive laws you advocate won't make people any less greedy, selfish or socially responsible. Rather, the redistributive laws you advocate will only redirect these vices to political arenas of competition, where the little guy has absolutely no chance to determine the ultimate outcome, as you and I seem to agree.

But let's save ourselves the political bedevilment of your redistributive laws, shall we Roy? Rather, let's fashion property and contract laws that will initially distribute valuable things according to the moral principles of equality, sympathy, and social duty. But I'll have to throw in one wrinkle: No socialism. The state owning and distributing all things of value has already failed to egregious human cost, and the state seizing valuable things to redistribute is off the table by the terms of riddle.

Will you accept my challenge, Roy? Or do you suspect, as I already know, that no such property and contract laws exist in a purely secular context?

Redistribution, eh?
Your train of logic skitters off the tracks before it even gets out of the station, rb. You accuse me of favoring "redistributive laws" when in fact the entire body of tax law is just a complicated muddle of redistribution.

I would do away with tax breaks enbling companies to uphold the fiction that they are operating offshore when they are not. And I would take away the breaks for companies that shut down plant in this country in order to relocate overseas. Not fine them-- just take away some of the incentives they have for shutting down American jobs.

This country used to be a much better place back when that forty percent or so of the population that was not academically inclined could find career employment with one company. You can afford to be philosophical about this slide downhill because you are not affected by it. But the country as a whole is much the poorer for it.

In sum, you've had to fashion an argument you can win and put it in my mouth. It is our society, not poor little me, that is founded in redistributive schemes.

The tax code does not justify itself
The tax law is a muddle because it serves a muddle of political, moral, and practical purposes. Don't let this list deceive you, though, for all purposes serve politics where politicians make laws. Think sales - every political party needs a moral sales department that specializes in selling politicians and their ideas. (There's a reason yesterday's honorable lawyers turned their noses up at advertising; we'll get you the money you deserve!: Sounds like a crossover of law and politics, doesn't it?)

Still, the tax laws do not justify themselves. Rather, they redistribute wealth primarily because there is political capital to be purchased with other people's money. Where expenditures and entitlements remain constant, a tax break to Lickpenny Inc. from the Highbinder party (read Republican/Democrat parties) reduces its tax costs relative to its entitlements.

Is this pure charity, I ask you? No. Lo and behold, Lickpenny Inc. makes up some of the difference in campaign contributions to the political payola machine while the gullible masses who actually buy redistributive moral arguments make up the entire difference.

Beautiful gig, isn't it, rb? Collusion between Big Business and the state to skim polical capital off the top of public fisc against tax breaks and campaign contributions while the benighted masses, doing more for their country than their country does for them, pick up the tab. And you believe more politics is the fix for this kind of thing?

Property and contract law justifies every legitimate claim against the one obligated to pay it. But there is no connection whatever - moral, rational, or even fantastical - between an American citizen's duties to society and his claims against society. JFK must be spinning in his grave.

Indeed, the 14th amendment to the constitution prohibits the law requiring one to work to pay off tax obligations, for such an obligation earns the constitutional designation of "slavery". There's food for thought, huh rb? What do you call an entire class of Americans obligated to pay high taxes but entitled to none of the benefits thereof? Ripe sucks? Guilt-ridden limosine liberals? Just plain dumb?

But I digress. I could have spared you the entire foregoing by simply stating that the tax code does not justify itself. So what does justify the tax code, do you suppose? Does the state own the unopposed right to take as much money from its citizenry as it likes? Or should there be some rational or even moral link between the amount citizen Joe Blow pays in tax and the value of the public goods and services he receives in return? In other words, what justifies the net of each taxpayer's public debits and credits? The ability to create wealth or the ability to create need?

"disturbance of right order"
“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and, at the same time, a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help (subsidium) to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” – Pope Pius XI, "Quadragesimo Anno", 1931.

Another false argument
Of course, I was offering nothing like a justification for the structure of the tax code. What I was offering was the dimplest way of effecting change-- from within, by rescinding some of its least fair elements for the purpose of promoting job retention.

All you're saying is that the system we use for self governance is hopelessly corrupt and beyond redemption. And that the best we peasants can do is to descend on Washington with pitchforks and burning flinders, and reduce the place to ashes.

I don't think it's quite that bad yet... although I could be wrong.

Yes, Washington is thoroughly venal. But people still get worked up over the excesses of a Tom DeLay. Our problem is our childish credulity. We think we can give a sigh of relief when just one of those bastards, after years of patient shovel work by a dedicated state's attorney, pays off in a largely symbolic conviction, with unindicted co-conspirators cheering hypocritically from the bleachers.

It's possible that the only cure is to let them keep winning, so we enter the world they have in mind for us. No one seems to have seriously minded that the Florida elections are rigged, as are the Ohio elections now. Under the electoral system that is enough to insure Republican wins ad infinitum in a country roughly evenly divided. I think ultimately it will be events themselves that radicalize the public.

In short, I did not say the tax code was justified by anything. It is a hashwork of presents to the rich from the poor, as it was devised by a large bicameral commitee that only exists because of donations. Such social equity as it has ever had has been the work of a small number of "limousine liberals" like FDR and LBJ.

BTW that's a nifty putdown of people who have more money than they need and recognize that others don't have enough. What's your word for rich people who scorn the poor and go out of their way to avoid them?

If the only purpose of government was to give back to people only in the exact proportion to which they paid in, we would need no taxes, and thus no government, at all. The rich could keep their money and hire more guards with it. The poor could do what they've always done. But I think government has the prupose ofpromoting the common welfare. And that is not simply done by allowing the already rich to become yet richer, as is now the case.

The state owes the citizen the right for a good explanation of why it spends the money it demands from them the way it does. In a clean system, the check on unjust taxation is an informed public voting the incumbent up or down. But in our system, serious money determines the character of the government we get. And that is a government that creates wealth by dredging it up very efficiently from the bottom.

Here - here!
"If the only purpose of government was to give back to people only in the exact proportion to which they paid in, we would need no taxes, and thus no government, at all."

This precisely states my goal. Not the pitchforks and reducing Washington DC to flinders. A far more horrible demise for DC would be if people ignored it until it became a ghost town. Oh what a day that would be, when the last person to leave DC shook the dust of it off his feet!

"The rich could keep their money and hire more guards with it. The poor could do what they've always done. But I think government has the prupose of promoting the common welfare. And that is not simply done by allowing the already rich to become yet richer, as is now the case."

OK. But as things stand now, the rich have government firmly in their corner. Indeed, the rich always have done and always will do. So how do you overcome this? In other words, how do you get people to utilize government as a platform for civic cooperation regardless of their economic and social status instead of an arena of competition predicated on precisely these qualities? For if you can't, you'll never beat the rich at anything, particularly in a competition for political power.

Next, what's the common welfare? You and I disagree what it is, which means we have to compete politically for the power to use government to affect our different versions of the common welfare. And once the game reaches this stage, government has ceased being a platform for civic cooperation and descends into the forum of competition favoring the richest and most corrupt among us.

Worse, if I win, your common welfare will be ruined and your moral claims against me will start piling up (which is why a president's second term is always much more bitterly opposed than his first one). But if you win, your tax claims against me will start piling up until it's either sell the family farm to pay the Piper for your perfect society or grab the pitchfork and reduce DC to flinders. Neither option appeals to me, which is why I care about who wins.

As to the rich getting richer, why not? So long as the rich don't jerk me around economically, socially, politically or legally, I couldn't care less who farts through silk and who bags my groceries. Indeed, turning the identity of such people into a political issue turns people into political capital, and off we go into a fresh round of political competition. But this time the politicians divvy the herd up into rich and poor while devising a common slaughtering schedule. No thanks - I don't want to belong to this herd.

Government is venal because we are venal, rb. As luck would have it, what's good for me is also secures the common welfare. Even more wonderous is that 250 million other Americans believe exactly the same thing. But being the big-hearted, generous guy I am, I'm willing to forgo my share of the common good in return for drastically reducing the size and scope of government.

One last thought. Let's stage a fair competition for the income tax rate, shall we? We'll start with a flat rate, say, 15% Those who want that rate to go up will pay more into government than their tax bill demands, and the surplus will be put in a fund. But those who want the tax rate to go down will claim a "risk deduction", which they'll be eligible for if they subject any of their owned capital to any form of private enterprise risk.

All risk deductions claimed will be added up, and on some date, the two figures - the surplus tax fund & risk deductions - will be compared. If the surplus tax fund is the larger, then the flat tax rate will increase by a percentage that will bring in an amount of revenue equal to the flat rate plus the extra tax fund plus the sum of the risk deductions. But if the risk deductions are larger, the flat rate will remain at 15%.

In this competition, your limosine liberals would have to put their money where there mouths are. They'd have to demonstrate their true zeal for government by investing their surplus cash (which is a subjective figure) in the state rather than the private economy if they truly believed, that is, that the state can do more for society than the private economy.

How do you suppose they'd perform, rb? Do really you think they'd sell the family Manhattan townhouse to achieve social justice in Boise, Idaho? Forgive me if I don't.

The arguments get sillier
I think you'd be less than pleased with the result. Iraq has been without s government for three years now. Proof of victory of the principle?

Secondly, you descend to arguing on absurd principle by say that if we really thought government could do everything best, people would voluntarily put their spare cash into the common kitty.

Isn't it rather the case that (a) most government programs now represent huge sums wasted through abysmal program design. And that (b) We need to find a fundamental way of restructuring it, such as the FF's did two centuries back? That way we could (c) establish our most important priorities and exceute them.

Naturally that will never happen without a serious revolution. So in the meantime the only thing people of wealth and conscience can do is to start their own foundations-- such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet-- to do those jobs government doesn'r want to do.

No, what you're trying to do is to defend a principle that will prevent you from having to share any of the wealth you have cornered at all cost. So you will remain opaque to any suggestion that today's rich are allowed not only to keep their money but to earn ever more through a rigged system. on the government dole.

I would only shut down further subsidies for the rich, then see whether we could get a crippled budget to balance, and then if we had any change left over, to help kids in backward school districts get a little better education.

State needs to define marriage
IF the state is going to grant privelege to marriage, then it must define marriage.

Else the state should make no laws regarding child custody or divorce or any other kind of family law.

Coerce or persuade?
" For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help (subsidium) to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.” "

Is the social activity coercive or persuasive?

Coerce or persuade?
The "social activity" he is referring to could be a level of government, for example. In this context, a legitmate function of government should not be raised to a higher level that that which is necessary for its accomplishment. If it is, then subordinate members (e.g., lower levels of government) of the body social, or the body social itself, get destroyed or absorbed.

Example: Ever wonder why your vote “doesn’t count”? If you did, consider whether the federal government should coduct a pet census in Oxnard, CA (an actual case). If you live in some other part of the country and think it's a waste of your taxes, you can write your congressman and complain, but you are only one of over 100,000,000 voters in the country. If this issue were kept at the local (i.e., city in this case), and a voter in the city felt it was a waste, he could write to his city council. He is one of, say, 50,000 voters in the city. His vote is 20,000 times more powerful than on the federal level. Moved to the federal level, however, this program "absorbs" the function of the city and thus contributes to the destruction of the "body social" (democracy).

Axiom: The greater the agreed value of a thing becomes, the greater in number and scope and variety of character the competing claims asserted against it will become.

Land gives rise to such a vast number of competing claims because it is the most valuable source of non-human capital. Human capital similarly gives rise to competing claims because it is the most valuable of all capital, and is indeed the source of all value.

My experience is that there are three ways to acquire valuable things: Produce them, trade for them, or assert claims for them against others. This latter method of acquisition provides the arena for man's social, political, legal and violent competition for valuable things. So it should come as no surprise to you, rb, that I regard it most cynically.

The character of the claims asserted against valuable things can be stated in legal, political or moral terms, which components contrive the core of every political ideology. For example, those who love liberty (as I do) argue that the individual owners of human capital own the highest and best claim to it, and only those claims voluntarily granted against it are legitimately cognizable under the Law of our Creator (a summation of the Declaration of Independence). In contrast, the left argues that society through the state owns better claims against human capital than its individual owners do regardless of whether the individual owners of human capital voluntarily granted them. Democracy is then elevated as a sure-fire safeguard guarnteeing the moral legitimacy of all claims majorities grant themselves against minorities.

But the American polity is insanely competitive, and it seems its warring factions recognize no frontier of moral corruption in thier quest to acquire the political power necessary to legitimize and enforce their claims against others' capital. Yet the amount of human capital wasted in this competition far exceeds any benefit it bestows on the polity as a whole or any of its warring factions. Worse, the whole lousy exercise erodes my liberty, which I love far more than democracy.

Enough, already! I want no part of this mess! I do not recognize the moral legitimacy of the left's claims against my capital, and I firmly believe that we'd all be better off making less claims against one another while producing more valuable things. This means several of the state's vast appendages must shrivel up and die (like the SSA), and the sooner, the better.

Really, rb. It should be obvious to every American that "freedom" means being free from unvoluntarily granted claims of every character.

Measures and Rules
Social norms provide the measures of conduct which law sometimes attempts to codify as rules. Oftentimes, legislators desiring to change social norms will attempt to codify contrary measures of conduct in the law. And just as often such attempts fail, for changing social norms requires changing people's beliefs, and it's damnably difficult to legally force people to change their beliefs. Exhibit A: Roe v. Wade.

This was an obtuse way of saying that society has already defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman, such that the measure applied to a marriage so concluded is "good and proper" while the measure applied to a union not so concluded is "bad and improper". Any attempt by legislators or judges to change this measure by force of law will ultimately fail, and American society will lose even more of its liberty and decency.

It takes all kinds
You and I just have a very different take on things. For you it is natural to begin with the idea that we can own land. There is no inkling that only God owns the land, and that we are best seen as its caretakers.

I also find it awfully small, in the face of the sorts of issues confronting the world today, to see you clinging with such dogged determination to your little pile of gold... to the exclusion of any other measure of value. I understand the emotion, but do not find it an attractive trait.

A larger and more open heart might have made you see things in a different light. Oh well, sleep tight, buy plenty of locks and make sure the policeman checks your garden gate every night.

Very apropo
Read this TCS article:

Because they've got more guns and thugs to weild them, and because they're better organized, the corrupt want nothing to do with law, the essence of which is value for value. Corruption enables one to take without giving, to lay claims on the valuable things due others without parting with anything of value themselves. Of course, this means the corrupt never need to produce anything of value to exchange. They merely need to brutalize, kill, but most importantly, TAKE. And so the societies ruled by corruption stay poor, for there can be no economic growth unless risk is rewarded according to the forseeable terms of a fully enforceable exchange.

In Sweden, corruption on the scale described in the article is scarce. Instead, people take from one another openly, exerting their claims on one another under the banner of socialist politics. This election year it's students and pensioners set to clean house because the ruling socialists need to purchase their votes with other people's money. Now, the effects of all this taking on Sweden's economy have not been as dramatic as it has been in the Phillipines because only half of the wealth produced every year is subject to be taken. Still, the nation has slipped dramatically in wealth since the 70s. Indeed, a buddy's father who recently visited from the US remarked that the country looks like it's been trapped in the 70s. I concur.

With discipline, scarcity engenders efficient competition. So I'm willing to voluntarily part with my little pile of gold so long as the parting is disciplined, competitive, efficient, and thus fair. But if the parting is contingent on buying the flyblown tripe the political left sells, particularly the part about my money's capacity to buy society some happiness, then clutch I shall. For no amount of gold can cure society's problems, particularly when society's problems arise from its love of gold.

As to land ownership, ownership is a legal fiction defining the rights of certain entities respecting the land described. These rights give rise to forseeable claims, enabling owners to take risks putting land into production, for every act of production is a speculative, risky act. Without these forseeable claims, few would invest much capital in putting land into production because the risk of losing everything to thugs would be too great, which is why the corrupt developing world is a reeking cesspit of human misery and death.

God would have us behave otherwise, which is why He's told us what's most valuable - life. Not happiness, not equality, not koo-koo-ku-choo kumbayah wetdreams, not democracy, not property ownership, not freedom, and certainly not gold. Life. So to my eyes, value for value is the wisest legal rule to impose discipline on human competition for scarce and valuable things. Otherwise, we are little better than thugs who're sure to make life nastier, shorter and scarcer than it ought to be.

Life is good-- compared to the alternative
Robert-- The plain fact is that we sustain such horrible regimes by doing business with them because we make money that way. That's one of the problems one encounters when money is the measure of all things. Our corporate and government leaders take the pragmatic approach that if they think they can expend slightly less money bringing about a given amount of profit by keeping a hundred million foreigners under the thumb of a bad government, it's a no brainer. That's the way they're going to go.

The American public, of course shows no interest. So what's the harm?

I guess that's up to what each of us thinks his purpose here on earth is for. Every one of us answers this question in his own way, most by saying that's the way it's always been. If someone can toss it off that easily, fine. They'll find me to be offensive.

2. The love of gold.

My mother used to teach me that money was not the root of all evil. Money was a necessity. It was the LOVE of money that was the root of all evil.

Now of course I know that's not the entire story. A lot of people are just brutal a-holes for the fun of it. But I got the message.

The way my father put it was thus: "Money's not important-- so long as you have some". And that's the attitude I've retained through a personal life I've found to be thoroughly satisfying, considering the sad shape of the world I've had to live in.

Whether one uses the tools of money or of rhetoric, it's not so easy to change human nature. So we will continue to kill one another over the issue of how to divide your money, to take money from those who have not, and to gain a greater share for ourselves. The biggest dog in the pound will, as always, win. Right now the winning team is headed up by D Cheney, with a smart ass Texan as the front man.

You need to get out of Sweden. I think the place is bad for your 'tude.

The working poor
are poor because of the poor decisions that they made.

Taking money from those who earned it and giving it to these people will not help them. Because such free gifts do not change the mindsets that caused them to be poor in the first place. Just look at the majority of people who win the lottery. Most of them are broke again in a few years.

And the number is closer to 10% than 40%.

the tax code is a present from the poor to the rich????
Let's see, according to roy, anytime the govt takes less than 100% of your income, the govt is giving you a gift.

I'm gone
You're right about Sweden - it's made me a grumpy crank. So I'm taking your advice and moving at the end of this month to live among some of the most conservative people Western Civilisation has to offer. Let's see how that affects my attitude.

Still, Sweden taught me a lot. I leaned leftward before I moved here because I believed the love of money is what drives right-wing politics. Here I learned that the very same is true of left-wing politics. Indeed, underlying most social policies is a brutal contest for power and cash, the existence of which legitimizes its political distribution and the outcome thereof.

Hearkening back to my college days when I studied the works of Engels and the Proto-Socialists, I now realize that the Proto-Socialists were at least correct in one thing: Only simple agrarian societies with few natural resources and a rudimentary technology can make socialism work; otherwise, socialism will only funnel a society's economic and social competition for scarce and valuable things into the political arena where the worst of mankind excel.

A recent disturbing development in this regard is the rise of cleric-politicians who are dragging Christianity into the political arena, claiming it provides a legitimate source of moral and thus political claims against American society. This is deadly dangerous for the Christian faith because force and faith are like oil and water - they can never mix, and oil does best at the bottom of the barrel.

My purpose is to put an end to this development - not for America, not for any political organization, but for the Christian faith. To do this I'll have to revive natural law as a viable theory and show how it establishes the measure of the motives driving every society's political competition, the result of which is its laws.

Conversing with you has encouraged me that I'm on a productive track, and I appreciate your intelligence, wit, honesty and time. God bless, but now I'd better get busy getting my ducks in a row for the move.

On to the next phase
I applaud the move. A change of venue at the right stage in one's life can be a fresh chapter. And if it's true we only go around once, it's another whole existence to add to one's scrapbook. I can only imagine what the most conservative place in the West might be. Ottawa?

It's a pity that the human brain, awarding itself the reputation for being imaginative and innovative, normally plods along in the same rut for centuries until happenstance jolts it into a new mode. Thus in something important, like the sci3nce of ordering public affairs in pluralistic societies, 99 of a hundred people can't imagine any ready mold to put the project in other than commumnism and capitalism. This to me is a true poverty of the spirit, and intellect.

Ergo, if it's nor capitalism it's communism. And if it is capitalism, it must be good. These intellectual models exist in the brain, not in real life.

If you pose the problem differently, you frame the issue as being one where free trade between individuals is to be encouraged, and the ownership of private capital and other property to be enforced by law. But to balance that mode you have to posit that there's an element of the public who are not natural entrepreneurs. Left to themselves they will not naturally start cottage industries or shine shoes for their livelihood. They will get into trouble.

You have to engineer a solution. The Swedish approach likely gives them too much. The American approach, not enough. Certainly what we're seeing now is the sudden appearance of large numbers of unmotivated teenagers who are dropping out of school. What would be the "market-driven solution" for that one, I wonder?

Like it or not, I think some thought has to be given to the retention of large numbers of meaningful (career) jobs. CEO's have all fallen for the model where they can strip the company bare, fire half the help and then get rid of the rest when they relocate the plant in Nicaragua. Shareholders love it because expenses go down to pennies a day and share prices and dividends skyrocket. But does this make it the best move for society as a whole? Somewhere along the line, don't we all still pay the price for moving into this new world?

It goes back to something I said yesterday, probably not to you, about our inability to form coalition governments. Taking Mexico as the example, it's obvious that exactly one half the country thinks one way and one half thinks another way-- just like in the states. But no one can conceive of any model other than the winner take all approach, which leaves a discontented "minority" of fifty percent of the public.

Likewise with public policies that encourage the interests of the shareholders as a body, and disregards as irrelevant the interests of the employees, a lasting and satisfactory solution to how to run the country is unlikely to be found. To me this is basic good sense. It is met here with such fierce resistance that I know I'm in the company of partisans, not philosophers.

I have a quick answer for anyone who says such and such has been tried and doesn't work... don't try it again. There are as many approaches as there are stars in the sky. We shouldn't restrict ourselves to a choice of two, chocolate or vanilla.

Anyhow, best of luck in Ottawa. Try the cutlet with the mashed potatos and green peas. Exquisite! :)

Oh, just one more word
Actually, it's Switzerland. And the fondue and local wines are divine!

Anyway, I think you've hit the nail on the head. The two dominant ideologies drown out innovation. That's why free-thinkers are welcome in neither academia nor boardrooms. But there's always the Internet and libraries.

As to teenagers dropping out of society, I'd refer you to the work of Friedrich Schiller - "On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a series of Letters".

Schiller's idea was that as a society gets richer, it gets more time and cash to dedicate to decadent pursuits, which themselves must descend to ever more pungent depths due to decadence's capacity to enervate men. This describes very well what we see happening in Western Civilisation.

This brings me to folks who don't fit in. A one-size-fits-all society is very expensive to those who don't fit in. I should know because I live in one and don't fit in. Homogenous societies offer such conditions with scarcely a forethougt. In contrast, America's heterogene society can't offer one-size-fits-all conditions. As a result, the feds can't offer one-size-fits all solutions to society's problems.

This leaves the states and local governments to take a crack at solving social problems, which is why federalism is preferable to a starkly centralized state. Sadly, federalism is not possible in the US unless we downsize DC drastically. If we can't, were stuck with the rut we're in. But if the feds can't manufacture a Great Society, they should quit blowing 25% of America's GDP every year trying.

Finally, consider whether law and government are the best tools to use when fashioning social policy. It occurred to me today that moral philosophy is inverted hindsight. This means that the moral measure of what one should do in future is what one should have done to prevent the crap hitting the fan. But when the crap hits the fan, the slick hucksters jam their faces into video cameras, breathlessly promising the shocked and fearful masses laws making people do or not do whatever it was that caused the crap to hit the fan. Problem is, laws often fail in this regard because people tend to adjust their conduct to satisfy their own desires, violating the spirit of not the letter of the law. I submit the US tax code and the $4+ trillion offshore asset protection industry as Exhibit A.

Rather, consider whether society's law - social norms - doesn't provide the best tool for fashioning social policy. Social norms are powerful, which my ordinarily lazy brother's mania for a perfect front lawn attests to. But best of all, social norms require no politicians to promulgate them. Exhibit B - Martin Luther King, Jr.


Adult supervision required
I'm sure you'll find the food better in Basel than you would in Ottawa. One thing old school British culture hasn't quite mastered is the cuisine.

I think Schiller might be the wrong allusion though for what's happening back here on the home front. This is not some postmodern bout of Romanticism driving our gilded youth to feats of faux nihilism. (Although there is also a little of that happening.) No, this is teenagers with haggard mothers of 35 who can'r keep them in designer sneaks and Ipods, who think dropping out of school's a step in the right direction. And they are suddenly 35% of the high scholl population, kids who enter ninth grade but never exit 12th grade.

One approach to take is that everyone is master of his own destiny, and that the Hidden Hand of the market will make the proper correction. I would offer that anyone going with that analysis hadn't seen the life up close. It shows us a future we shouldn't be proud of. Because it's a future no one responsible has had any hand in making.

I don't go with the view that each of us being master of his own little destiny is going to cut it. Somewhere along the line we have to start thinking of ourselves in the collective sense, and wondering whether some responsible party shouldn't take the helm and try to guide the species toward a better destiny. In short, I think there should be some responsible grownups.

This is of course strictly volitional. As the man said, you can lead, follow or just get out of the way. But that's the idea. We're in for a very rough ride as the sectarian wars continue heating up, the resource wars start to become a big thing and we add our next couple of billion hungry mouths.

I can't help thinking this. Switzerland has great security systems. Good choice.

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