"If the major opportunities for future growth of government lie in the area of conventional taxation, are there any defenses available to the citizenry? ... Perhaps the most fruitful advice comes in two parts. The first piece of advice is to avoid war and the rumor of war: this is history's greatest boon to the tax man. ... The second piece of advice is to seek ways of inhibiting government's ability conveniently to increase its collections. Possibly the very increase in that ability that is in prospect can be turned to account by a constitutional provision which forbade the income tax, and perhaps even the storage of information regarding individual incomes by third parties, including government." ~ Benjamin Ward
Column by Paul Bonneau.
Exclusive to STR
It took me a long, long time to figure out how important self interest was, in motivating people. It’s essentially all there is. Humans do not appear to have much of a natural in-born tendency toward virtues such as truth or decency.
As a parent, I try to warn my son about this; but he thinks I am being too cynical. I suspect that, even though we kept him out of government schools all his life, he still has been indoctrinated in a lot of the memes out there. For example, he has difficulty believing that “anthropogenic global warming” might not be a problem after all--in other words, believing that such vast segments of the scientific and government communities might be lying merely because it is in their self interest to do so. Understanding the overwhelming drive of self interest is apparently a difficult lesson to learn.
Yet people can be truthful or honorable or decent. What is going on here?
Let’s imagine two kinds of societies. In the first, people are largely virtuous; we can call this a healthy society. The second, an unhealthy society, is largely filled with people who are not virtuous. Yet self-interest is the primary drive in both kinds of societies. How can this happen?
In the healthy society, one obvious mechanism is reputation. People realize that if they get a reputation as a liar, their life will become much more difficult and unpleasant, because decent people will not associate with them and they will be stuck with other liars and people of generally poor morals. If there is no trust, if nobody believes you, certainly your life will be shit. While there is no inherent drive to virtue, and there might be some back-sliding in this respect, self-interest mostly drives people to be virtuous through the mechanism of reputation.
Obviously, the “right” of association is an important key to a healthy society.
There are other possible mechanisms that push people this way. For example, religion might do so. If a person buys the existence of a God who is watching them, and the existence of a Heaven and Hell, and that virtue will get them to Heaven, then they will tend toward virtue. It is not in their self interest to end up in Hell.
Adam Smith’s famous comment recognized self-interest: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
But how do these mechanisms fail in an unhealthy society?
The rulers still are driven by self interest. If they perceive that a population dependent on them is what keeps them in power, they might see that a virtuous population is not a way to get that. Such a population does not need them. So the ruling class project is to manipulate people into dependence through corruption of their morals. For example, one way to do that is to “help” certain members of the population steal from one set to give to another set. This corrupts the morals of the latter, and divides the people.
They might attempt to destroy the mechanism of reputation, by making it illegal or legally risky for members of the population to communicate with each other, with regards to a person seeking a job or housing, for example. If you can’t get the goods on Joe Blow when he is seeking employment with you, without risking a lawsuit, reputation no longer works. If you cannot pick and choose to whom you rent a home, reputation no longer works. If even baking a cake carries risks, reputation no longer works. If you are in fear of using the wrong word to describe a person, reputation no longer works. Wherever government has seen fit to “protect” some subset of the population from allegedly mean people, they have destroyed reputation as a mechanism toward virtue.
The churches might also become corrupted. To a certain extent, the congregation is only as virtuous as the priest or pastor is. If he gets his entertainment by poking altar boys, the outlook is not too good. Churches also tend to knuckle under to the rulers, to protect their tax exempt status and their position in society. That’s how they end up justifying things like war.
If people face no disincentives, no consequences for bad behavior--one of the main projects of the ruling class in an unhealthy society--then they will become bad. Self interest then pushes them away from the things that make society livable. For example, women will crank out babies they cannot take care of, or with no man in the house to help rear them, when the government removes all disincentives for doing so and in fact provides incentives. People will sell crack when the government raises the profits for doing so by outlawing drugs. Another example, government provides “free” schooling to everyone, while forcing everyone to pay taxes to support this schooling whether they use the schools or not; no wonder people keep sending their kids there despite their knowing how awful these schools are.
Our society is becoming unhealthy, and people are now noticing it, because they are starting to see a lot of downsides lately. It’s all over the Internet. There is no voting ourselves out of it, either, although some have foolishly pinned their hopes on Trump.
Get ready for a revolution. We should hope it comes, because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.