Home > A Theory of the State > Morality and Government

Morality and Government

This is a continuation of what I started in this post on morality and ethics.  The position I am disputing is that government shouldn’t tax because taxation is theft and theft is immoral.  Let me say up front, that a government which could accomplish its purpose without taxation would be ideal and I believe it’s possible that this could be achieved.  If we could start a government from scratch with people who all believed as Thomas and I do, we might be able to fund the government with only voluntary payments (to be fair this is exactly the scenario he was dealing with in his original post).  I won’t get into how that could be done but I’m not trying to prove that it’s impossible here. My issue is with the attitude that there is a universal morality which government must (or at least ought to) follow.  And if we have any interest in fixing this thing before it gets so bad that we have to rebuild a society out of the ashes, we can’t have that approach.  We are so far away from a national consensus that taxation is theft and should be outlawed altogether that if you adopt this position your only option is to wait for the collapse of society.   The real important thing is that the government be prevented from using taxation to redistribute wealth and manage its distribution.  This does not require a complete moratorium on taxation.

A government has no morals.  It has no morals because it is not a creature.  It is a tool created by people to perform some task.  Tools do not have morals.  A hammer can be used for building a house–a noble pursuit–or committing a murder–not so noble.  If I am making a hammer, I cannot imbue the hammer with a moral objection to murder.  There are however, some things I could do to make it more difficult to commit murder with my hammer.  I could remove the forks on the back or perhaps put a layer of foam rubber around the whole head except for the face.  If I really wanted to be sure, I could even cover most of the face leaving only a small hole in the foam rubber that would have to be lined up precisely with the nail on every strike in order to work.  These things, while making it more difficult for someone to use my hammer for murder would also make it less useful for building houses.

My morals may guide my decision about how “safe” to make my hammer.  If I absolve myself of all responsibility for what someone else does with it, I will not take any steps to make it safer.  If I think it is my moral obligation to make it impossible for someone to use my hammer for evil, then I have no choice but to not make a hammer since even my foam-rubber-hammer could be used in a number of creative ways to harm another person from jamming it in the spokes of a bicycle to driving a stake through the heart, to a good old-fashioned nut shot.  That’s not to mention the potential for someone to find a way to remove the foam rubber or for a poorly built house, constructed with the help of my hammer, to collapse on its inhabitants.  But if my morals forbid me from building a hammer that might be a party to these acts I must give up all the houses which could be built by the hammers also.  Alternatively, my morals (or the demand in the market for hammers which, in part, is a reflection of the morals of others) may lead me to make some tradeoff between usefulness and safety and adopt some safety features but not others.

As a second example, imagine I am a bomb-maker.  I make a tool which is designed to blow up and kill people.  The bomb can’t have the moral that killing is bad because it is a tool, it can’t have morals at all.  I can’t have the moral that killing is bad because I am building a thing whose purpose is to kill.  If I thought that killing was universally immoral, I would be forced to find another job in order to not participate in it.  Of course, if someone didn’t step in and do it for me I may suffer real consequences from this decision due to others not having the same morals and using their bombs against me but more on that later.  Assuming I believe that killing is sometimes justified, I would still like to control who gets killed by my bomb.  For instance, I would prefer that it not blow up while I’m working on it and kill me.  Also, I would rather, it not blow up inside the plane on the way to its target killing the pilot, or in a warehouse killing a supply officer.  I may even be concerned about people in the vicinity of the person the bomb is intended to kill.  Because of this I must take precautions to ensure that the bomb explodes in the right way at the right time.  Of course, in order to do this I must have a thorough understanding of the goal of the ordinance and the threat which I’m trying to avoid.

To get that understanding we must go back to the beginning.  For a more in-depth exposition on the origins and nature of government see these three posts: [1], [2], [3].  Here I will just hit the main points.  Begin with a bunch of people living in an area with no government.  They will have economic property rights but no legal property rights.

The term “property rights” carries two distinct meanings in the economic literature. One, primarily developed by Alchian (1965, 1987) and Cheung (1969), is essentially the ability to enjoy a piece of property. The other, much more prevalent and much older, is essentially what the state assigns to a person.  I designate the first “economic (property) rights” and the second “legal (property) rights.” Economic rights are the end, that is, what people ultimately seek, whereas legal rights are means to achieve the end . . .

I define the economic property rights an individual has over a commodity (or an asset) to be the individual’s ability, in expected terms, to consume the commodity (or the services of the asset) directly or to consume it indirectly through exchange.


This means that their economic property rights will only go as far as they can defend against everyone else.  This will make specialization, trade, and accumulation of wealth very difficult.  If they could find a way to enhance their property rights, the mutual benefits could be spectacular.  There are several ways this could happen.  For one, it could be imposed upon some of them by one or more others.  This could still generate gains in total welfare but it may not be the best for the one upon which it is imposed.  In order to avoid this and to reap the mutual benefits which flow from well-defined property rights, some of them may get together and decide to form a mutual agreement to establish these rights and provide for the defense of them against outsiders as well as each other.  In other words they may create a government.

As I said, a government is a tool created by people to achieve some purpose(s).  The purposes may vary, for instance, they may wish for it to provide healthcare and housing etc.  However, the one purpose which all governments must perform, which makes them governments, is establish legal property rights.  Now the parties to the formation of this government do have morals.  They make moral judgements about what the purpose of the government will be.  They may decide that its purpose should be only to establish and protect property rights, or they may think it should provide other services, or they may think it should conquer other territory or confine itself to a smaller given area and only defend that territory against invaders.  The creators of the government must agree (at least mostly) about the purpose of the government they are creating.  If any among them did not agree, they would essentially be having it imposed upon them.

So having decided upon the intended purpose of government, our founders must then tackle the more difficult task of designing it so as to achieve that purpose and avoid several other undesirable results.  If they could simply imbue the government with their morals, this would be easy.  Unfortunately, you cannot imbue a tool with morals.  However, in a sense, you can bind it with ethics (note this will only make sense if you read my previous post in which I defined what I mean by these two words).  You can force the government to follow a set of rules designed to keep it on track, generally promoting its intended purpose and avoiding those outcomes deemed undesirable.  An example of a set of ethics for a government is the Constitution of the United States, especially the bill of rights.  This spells out certain things the government must not do.  It is not because the founders considered these things immoral.  It is because they knew that if a government was allowed to do these things it was likely to blow up in the faces of its handlers.

To see what I mean, let us assume that these founders agree that the intended purpose of the government is only to establish and protect property rights.  In order to do this, they must create a government which has the power to confiscate people’s lives and property against their will or it will be entirely ineffective.  If you have a moral objection to this you cannot form a government, just as if you don’t believe in exploding you can’t build a bomb.  Nonetheless, the founders will want to ensure that the government can only wield this power against them in certain circumstances lest it become destructive to their liberty and property.  So they make rules.  For instance, the government cannot use this power against a citizen without going through some due process to prove that he is guilty of some preexisting crime, or that the government cannot use its power to suppress speech, religion, or association.  Then they must find a way to bind the government to these rules.  This requires them to be able to collectively overpower the government (“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…”) and more importantly, to be able to coordinate this collective action mechanism and spur it into action when necessary to enforce these rules.

Notice that the determination of these rules is a practical matter not a matter of morality.  The morals of the people determine the intended purpose of government but practicality dictates the ethical system which brings this about (or doesn’t).  If these people could get together and form a complete morality function and assign it to government they wouldn’t need these rules.  For instance, there may be some speech which they would all agree shouldn’t exist and they may prefer for the government to be able to outlaw this speech.  However, it is impossible beforehand to define all speech which they consider moral and immoral.  To distinguish between desirable and undesirable speech would require the government to use discretion and this ability to use discretion would make it nearly impossible to restrain.  The people would have to examine every decision made by the government restricting speech independently and decide whether they thought it was appropriate and if not, try to coordinate their response with others who may or may not agree or be paying attention at all.  This would be nearly impossible.  So it is better to just make a simple ethic which is relatively easy to monitor such as

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Then they can enforce this strictly.  It will not result in the outcome they want every time but it will be better than any other rule they could make which would be enforceable.

When it comes to funding the government there is a potential free-rider problem.  That means even though everyone may agree that they are better off having a certain government and paying some share of its cost than not having it, if that payment is strictly voluntary, they may instead elect not to pay since their lack of payment may not be signficant enough to bring down the government entirely in which case they could receive the protection it provides for free.  Of course if everyone looks at it this way then nobody would pay and the government would be brought down.  Because of this it may be in the best interest of each individual founder to bind himself along with his colleagues to paying some share of the cost of the government.  This is essentially a contract that they voluntarily enter into at the establishment of the government which the government then enforces using its power of coercion.

The real problem with taxes is in determining the way in which they will be apportioned.  If you give the government discretion over this it will have the power to favor some at the expense of others, to socially engineer society, affect the economy, stir up discontent and animosity between different groups etc.  (sound familiar?).  But avoiding this does not require taxes to be outlawed, it merely requires that the apportionment of the taxes be bound by some predetermined rules.  We have a perfect example of this in the Constitution.

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers.

-Article I, Section 2, Clause 3

And the success of this measure is apparent in the fact that in order to instate the income tax, the progressives, under Wilson, had to pass the 16th amendment to undo this provision.  Our problem is not a lack of morals in government because governments don’t have morals.  It is a lack of ethics.  And it is not because we never had them, it is because we have dismissed them and eroded them, and ignored them to the point where they no longer matter.  And usually it is a moral argument which is used to get around them.  We are told that following the rules would lead to an outcome which we find morally undesirable.  But if we let this undermine the set of ethics which the government is bound by we will find ourselves with a government bound by nothing.  And friends, that’s basically what we’ve got.  But the answer isn’t to impose a sense of morality on government.  This is as foolish as trying to impose a sense of morality on a hammer, it can’t be done.  We must impose a system of ethics on it.  This is inherently a matter of practicality, it cannot be approached from a standpoint of moral puritanism.

I have not addressed the issue of whether it is “moral” to impose this tax burden on others who are not party to the founding of the government but I feel this post is long enough as it stands so I will address this in a future post.  For now I will leave you with the following claim which most will probably not be sympathetic to, in order to create a cliff-hanger effect.  As long as people are freely allowed to leave the country, they are freely choosing to pay the tax in exchange for the services provided by the government and this should not be considered theft.

  1. January 20, 2012 at 6:30 am

    So, do you think the founders did a good job in the creation of the Constitution? If I understand correctly, you are saying that the structure of government wasn’t the problem, but the ethical system people adopted was the problem and got us where we are now?

  2. Free Radical
    January 20, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    No when I talk about ethics in this context I am talking about an ethical system created to control the government. It need not be shared by the people, that’s kind of the point. Yes I think the original formula was solid (the best so far conceived on Earth at least) but we have been tricked into dismantling it. And the key to the trick is to convince us to treat the government as a moral entity rather than a necessary but dangerous tool which must be contained with a carefully designed system of ethics.

  3. March 5, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    When all those things hapepn to you regularly, and when people recoil at the answers, then you will know what it is to be an atheist.But isn’t it wonderful to live in a country where we can ask each other questions and not fear being arrested or persecuted? We may be rejected, but such is life.A person who friended my blog (and I friended hers) posted a YouTube video of Christopher Hitchens experiencing waterboarding. Hitchens had not believed it was torture, but because that was an uninformed opinion, he had himself waterboarded. And discovered that it was torture.My friend posted the video, saying she thought her many blog friends would enjoy seeing an atheist tortured. Well, no, not so much.She’s young, and her mind and heart were expanded that day, I hope. At least I was not defriended.It must be extraordinarily difficult to assemble a community of faith these days. Who believes what? The bible is how large, three-quarters of a million words? More? Questions upon questions. Your average Catholic doesn’t profess every article of faith the Pope demands. I’ve never understood how communities hold together, and perhaps they don’t.So how do believers select a community? I know it is being discussed here. Do they somehow research the parameters of belief for a given church, or just look for open doors?

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