Two recent reactions to current political events are evidence of the proposition that as society becomes more politicized it creates some of the fuel that powers that politicization to expand further.
The first reaction is a private e-mail from a very smart friend of mine with far more “Progressive” sentiments than I have. He ridicules my letter to Elaine Marshall – the woman who earlier e-mailed me (along, probably, with millions of other people) to criticize the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to pull some of its private funding from Planned Parenthood. My annoyance at Ms. Marshall’s presumption that she knows better than the officers of the Komen Foundation how the Komen Foundation’s funds are best used prompted me to end my letter to her by advising that she mind her own business.
The thrust of my friend’s e-mail is that the Komen Foundation’s funding decisions are indeed the business of all of us because the Komen Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization – meaning that private financial contributions to it are tax-exempt. In my friend’s view (which he presses vigorously at every opportunity), this fact means that taxpayers are in fact supporting the Komen Foundation. Government not taxing something that would otherwise be subject to taxation is, in my friend’s view, equivalent to government paying for that something. So if government pays for part of the Komen Foundation’s funding, taxpayers have a right to opine about how that Foundation spends its money.
(Never mind that my letter to Ms. Marshall focuses on the “knowledge problem” – that is, on the question of who is best positioned to have the most accurate and up-to-date knowledge about just how the funds can be spent most effectively to achieve the Foundation’s goal of curing breast cancer. I believe that my point – if not the strength of its manner of expression – stands even if we accept in full my friend’s theory of public finance.)
Thorny questions are indeed raised by any tax system in which government does not confiscate all wealth, for it can always be argued that any wealth not taxed is a gift to its private owners by the state. And, of course, government can and does use tax breaks, and the threat of taxation, to engage in various brands of social engineering and special-interest-group favoritism.
So the very existence of taxation – any taxation – opens the door wider to those who wish to use the state to butt further into other people’s business. It’s true that we can marshall theories and arguments about the analytical primacy of the private; the analytical (and in some cases also temporal) primacy of private property; and the analytical (and also sometimes temporal) primacy of social order. That is, we can (in the tradition dating back at least to the Scottish Enlightenment and running up through recent scholars such as Mises, Hayek, Bruno Leoni, Milton Friedman, Vernon Smith, Harold Demsetz, Robert Ellickson, Deirdre McCloskey, Anthony de Jasay, and Bruce Benson) offer evidence and argument that the state is not the prime mover of society and, therefore, that the state does not deserve the widespread modern presumption that bestows upon it an open-ended claim – one bounded only by its own choices – on society’s wealth and resources.
But the fact remains that there is no method of taxation that avoids significant arbitrariness in its application and consequences. (“If X is taxed, why not tax Y, too?!”) It’s this arbitrariness – which is practically inseparable from the fiat that is legislation – that opens the door wider to those who claim, in one breath, not to wish to mind other people’s private business but, in a second breath, insist that much of what looks to non-“Progressives” as private is, alas, really public and, therefore, the business of us all.
The second reaction is one that I heard on the radio yesterday. It’s a reaction by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to the brouhaha over Obamacare’s confrontation with the Catholic church over health-insurance to cover contraception. (Quick disclaimer: although I was raised Catholic and heard endlessly in my K-12 years in Catholic school of the alleged immorality of contraception, I never came close to buying that argument. Insisting that contraception is immoral seems to me to make as much sense as insisting that failure to have heterosexual intercourse as frequently as is humanly possible is immoral. So what I say here is in no way meant as an endorsement of the Catholic church’s theology.)
Here’s what Ms. Gillibrand said (in a tone of extraordinary self-righteousness):
The power to decide whether or not to use contraception lies with a woman – not her boss. What is more intrusive than trying to allow an employer to make medical decisions for someone who works for them?
The twisted logic underlying Ms. Gillibrand’s worldview is stunning. First she wants to collectivize health-care funding. Second, she then expresses indignance that express orders by the state on how private parties spend their funds are resisted by those private parties. And third, she parades her indignance as being a defense of private spheres of actions that ought not be intruded into by outsiders!
As my friend Reuvain Borchardt (quoted here with his permission and original emphases) wrote to me by e-mail in response to Ms. Gillibrand furtherance of twistocracy:
Am I missing something, or is this woman an idiot? First the gov’t forces employers to provide insurance; then, when employers don’t wanna provide a service they morally oppose, the gov’t says HOW DARE YOU INTERFERE WITH PRIVATE DECISIONS! I never thought I’d be shocked by something a politician said, but frankly, Gillibrand deserves to be impeached immediately, for failing CIRCULAR LOGIC 101.