Thursday, September 27, 2012

Redistribution is not Compassion, Taxes are not Charity

Robin Hood Misunderstood

The legend of Robin Hood is sometimes cited as an example, mistakenly summarized as "Take from the rich and give to the poor!" That is not what Robin Hood did, though.

Robin Hood fought the corrupt sheriffs of Nottingham and Derby. What made these men corrupt? They collected unreasonably high taxes from the residents of the two shires. Prince John of the stories also raised taxes, not only on the poor but also on the wealthy nobility. Those who were loyal to the prince, however, received "favors" (lower tax rates) and were more likely to have the crown prince buy goods from them. (Crony capitalism, anyone?)

The way the system worked at the time, the sheriff was the tax collector and law enforcement in a region. He paid to retain the post, using tax money and fines to fund the annual payment to the royal court and to pay off local nobility for their support.

Robin Hood fought unfair taxes and tax breaks given to the fortunate few. You have to understand the legend properly to appreciate it.

The reason Robin Hood, himself a member of the landed class, opposed the prince in the various legends is that he was unwilling to pledge loyalty to a corrupt government. He was a loyal supporter of King Richard, the Lionheart, and a defender of Christian values.

When someone calls redistribution of tax dollars "Robin Hood" policy, that's simply inaccurate. Unfortunately, I've used the saying, too, when describing state educational funding laws known as "Robin Hood Laws" because they take from rich neighborhoods to give funding to poor neighborhood schools. Such misuses of the "Robin Hood" label contribute to misunderstanding what is compassion. It associates wealth with the immoral villains of legends.

Whichever Robin Hood legend you enjoy, there's little doubt that his personal goal was to return to the nobility and restore his family honor. Poverty was not celebrated by Robin Hood — but he did fight the corruption and confiscatory taxes that were creating poverty.

Redistribution is not Compassion

One of the "memes" going around Facebook is a virtual poster that reads: Really, You Call It "Redistribution?" — We Call It "Compassion!"

People are confusing a basic concept, and it annoys me. Conflating taxes with charity leads to a loss of freedom, since it turns "charity" into an act of majority (or bureaucratic) rule.

Taxes are not voluntary, while charity must be an act of free will. Charity is altruistic, at some level, even if there is some enlightened self-interest. Taxes are collected under the threat of government force. There's little voluntary about paying taxes, especially when most taxes are deducted from paychecks before you can even consider if you want to pay.

When I attempt to explain to students that "charity" must be an ethical act involving free will, some attempt to argue that taxes are free will — we elect representatives and therefore taxes are a choice of the group. The majority decides to use taxes in a particular way, making it somehow more ethical.

I am not a believer in direct democracy; Tyranny of the Majority is quite real. Tax policies easily become a tool of such mob mentality. It is easy to play the populist, arguing for taxes on the rich, because the rich is a minority group. It's the equivalent of the villagers carrying pitchforks and torches towards the mansions.

But, you might argue, plenty of wealthy people are arguing for higher taxes. They understand compassion.

Fine, let them donate to charities or pay additional taxes. Make a "gift" donation to the federal government if you're so eager to pay additional taxes. That's easy enough to do:

Don't argue that "I'll pay more if others pay more." Doing what is ethical should never be based on what others do. Again, I don't care what a majority wants or does. If you only do what the majority will do, that's not much of an ethical core.

If you believe government should expand the welfare state safety net, then say so. Don't call it charity or compassion, though. Compassion is not taking wealth from one person to give it to another. Compassion is you, giving your own money, possessions, and time to a charity.

What should government do? What should the divisions between local, state, and federal responsibilities be? What is the role of real charity in our society? What is the role of family?

We need to have some serious discussions as a nation about what it means to be charitable and why so many of us want to replace charity with federal redistribution of wealth. When we demand redistribution, what are we also implying about income and wealth? What is implied matters a great deal.

Sadly, I fear we have lost trust in charity. But, why would we trust government to be any better at solving problems? Experience should teach us that the most likely result will be a government led by people claiming to be populists, while lining their own pockets.

If you really want to be like Robin Hood, practice charity and personal good deeds. Keep in mind Robin Hood was a symbol of tax revolt, not higher taxes on the rich.

1 comment:

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