Wednesday, April 18, 2012

We, The People - Jack C. Haldeman II

Not too long after I started asking people about tax choice, a fellow on facebook mentioned that a science fiction story had been written on the subject.  Unfortunately, he couldn't remember the title of the story or the name of the author.  That was a year and a half ago.

Just yesterday, in this thread...How to Defeat a Liberal in a Debate...raytri had this to say about pragmatarianism...
Right. Because taxpayers are going to take the time to research all the available options and carefully weigh what needs funding.
For that matter, who decides what options are available to be chosen from? Within a broader category (like, say, defense), who decides what weapons systems will be bought, and how many?
We have representatives for a reason: they're supposed to spend the time developing the expertise and studying the options to make good decisions on our behalf. We can then judge them by the results, and vote them out if we don't like the results. It's a very rational division of labor.
The fact that many Congresspeople are idiots, or deep partisans from safe districts, is a problem. But direct democracy at the level of granularity you're talking about isn't a solution.
Are you a collector?  I sure am.  So I added his response to my collection...Unglamorous but Important Things.  But that's not all that raytri had to say about the subject...
BTW, there's a science fiction short story based on the premise of individual allocation of taxes. It's called "We the People", written by Jack Haldeman:
W00t!  Partial knowledge for the win!
The problem is thus in no way solved if we can show that all the facts, if they were known to a single mind (as we hypothetically assume them to be given to the observing economist), would uniquely determine the solution; instead we must show how a solution is produced by the interactions of people each of whom possesses only partial knowledge. To assume all the knowledge to be given to a single mind in the same manner in which we assume it to be given to us as the explaining economists is to assume the problem away and to disregard everything that is important and significant in the real world. - Friedrich Hayek, The Use of Knowledge in Society
Speaking of partial knowledge...I quickly updated the Wikipedia entry on Tax Choice.  Wikipedia, tax choice and Buddha's parable of the blind men and the elephant are all based on the concept of partial knowledge.

The science fiction story by Jack Haldeman was a lot shorter than I had took less than 5 minutes to read...but it was even better than I had imagined.  Here's what Haldeman himself had to say about his story, which was published in 1983...
"We, the People," written in a flush of bitter anger, but with an undertone of hope -- has over the years gathered me more response than anything else I've ever written. It has appeared in a variety of newsletters from such diverse organizations as Libertarians and CPAs. I was told that someone once sent copies to all the members of the Senate when they were considering tax reform. It has been used in classrooms to teach the critical difference between a Democracy and a Republic. I wrote it years ago, but I feel it is as pertinent today as it was when it appeared in Analog magazine. - Jack C. Haldeman II, Political Science Fiction
1983 was a long time ago!  You'd figure that somebody would have already fleshed out the conceptual framework for the idea.  Why hasn't the idea gone viral yet?  If you get a chance check out Arnold Kling's blog entry...The Idea Factory.

Maybe going viral is a matter of connecting the right dots.  When I searched google for other references to Haldeman's story I found this large and relatively recent dot on the subject...Voluntary Tax Rates and Personalized Earmarks: How to Solve the Debate over Taxes.  How many more dots have to be connected before the tax choice movement can gain momentum?

[Update: 24 Aug 2017]

Just noticed that shut down so the story is no longer available on that site.  I used to see a copy of the page.  At the top it says that commercial use is prohibited.  Sharing it here wouldn't count as commercial use.  I'd ask the author for permission but he's dead.  I'm pretty sure that he'd want his story to be read by more, rather than fewer, people so...

Jack C. Haldeman II 
       The eggs were just the way he liked them. Mark ate slowly, enjoying the luxury of a leisurely breakfast. Outside his window the city was beginning to stir. Rain had been programmed for last night, and the streets were still damp. Across the room his cat was curled up in a patch of sunlight on the sofa, his tail swishing back and forth. The apartment was quiet, and he dragged breakfast out as long as he could. Finally he got up, set his plate on the floor for the cat to lick, and walked across the room to his desk.
       "Good morning," he said automatically.
       Mark looked at the words as they danced across the screen. "Kind of a bad night," he said. "My arthritis is acting up again."
       "No, just my hands this time." He looked at his swollen knuckles and ran them through his thinning gray hair. There were worse things.
       "No, that's okay. I'll be seeing him next week."
       "Saturday." It couldn't be his birthday. He'd told the desk to stop reminding him of those several years ago.
       TODAY IS APRIL 15TH."
       "So what?"
       "I forgot," he said.
       Mark looked around the room. The cat was busily licking the plate. He felt old. You could block out birthdays, but not the IRS. "I guess we might as well get it over with," he said.
       "Can the pep talk. Let's go."
       "Don't be stupid."
       "Does anybody use the short forms?"
       "I'm not a convicted felon and I'm not an idiot. Let's have the long form."
       Mark scanned the figures as they rolled by. His income was higher than he'd thought, but not much more than comfortable, what with prices these days. Semi-retired, he did occasional projects for a variety of ecological organizations. He worked at home. He didn't get out much anymore.
       "They look okay," he said.
       "Now you're being stupid again. Why else would I use the long form? Doesn't everybody?"
       Mark nodded. A person would have to be crazy to pass up the chance to say how his money would be spent.
       Mark was old enough to remember the hungry times, the children who had grown up without hope. "One hundred dollars," he said.
       "Zero." They were almost all gone now, much to Mark's relief.
       "Fifty." He tried to imagine a life without music, without the sculptures and paintings all over town. He remembered how much Mary had liked the weekly concerts by the river and he recalled that day in the park with the kids and the dancers. "Make that seventy-five," he said.
       Mark laughed. They tried to slip that old chestnut by every year. "Zero," he said. A bomb that killed people and left buildings intact was crazy, pure and simple. If they could refine it so it killed only generals, he might be interested.
       Mark relaxed and let the categories roll by. He always put his taxes off until the last minute. A lot of people did. 
       Alice Thompson was an actress. At 43, she felt her career was just peaking. She had worked her way up through the ranks from community theater to stage productions to Hollywood, from ingenue roles to character parts. She had a comfortable income, good investment advice, a secure career. She portioned out her calculated tax with good humor: the Actors' Old Folks Home, a theater scholarship at her Alma Mater, the Playwrights' Association, two summer camps specializing in drama, the National Repertory Theater. She had little interest in the mundane affairs of state and saw no reason to spend any money on them. She had a little left over. 
       Erik Hesse was a janitor. He was sixty-three and had been a janitor for over forty years, from the day he got married. It hadn't been a bad life, especially after the union came in. These days it was hard to get someone to do nontechnical work so he made a pretty decent wage. When the time came, Erik went to a tax preparer to find out how much money he had to allocate. He put it in off-track betting, weather control (he hated shoveling snow off the sidewalk), the sports cable network, two research projects that concerned beer, and woman's gymnastics. Erik had a granddaughter who was into somersaults. Even so, he had a little left over when he finished and no place to put it. 
       Raymond Montonero was a Supreme Court Justice. There was less and less for him to do, however. People were working their problems out together in an aura of optimism that astounded him. It seemed that the more control people had over the government, the more control they used in their daily lives. He carefully allocated his tax bite to the Congressional Library, scientific research, and social programs. He worried over the remaining balance for a long time. 
       Tom Hanna was a red dirt farmer in the Oklahoma panhandle. His family had worked the same land for five generations and even though it wasn't a large spread, it was theirs. He was a proud man, and when he came in from the fields that Saturday he took his taxes seriously. He allocated the bulk of it to the Farm Bureau and the County Agriculture Commission. The rest he parceled out to the two state universities for operating expenses. He had a boy down at OU playing football and studying to be a veterinarian. Still, he had a little left over. 
       And so it went that day, all over the country. People put money into the programs that touched their lives and ignored the rest. They turned out to be excellent judges of the things they needed. The quality of life in the country had improved tremendously since the introduction of the Uniform Tax Act.
       It had all started with a box on the tax form to support presidential campaigns. The next box to come along allocated money for the space program. Within two years the Mars project was completely funded. That unexpected success had lobbyists descending on Washington like a plague. Everyone wanted a special box on the tax form. Eventually they all got it.
       Economists predicted chaos, but what they got was cooperation. People knew what they wanted, and for the first time in history they were able to get it. Unpopular projects came to a grinding halt as money for them was withheld. Politicians were forced to be more in tune with the desires of the public. Control of the purse-strings turned out to be the ultimate democratic tool, even more effective than the ballot.
       Times changed. They changed for the better.
       Mark's cat had climbed onto his lap and fallen asleep. He relaxed in front of the desk, stroking the cat and responding to the programs almost automatically as they rolled across the screen in the quiet room. They were presented to him randomly. Each taxpayer got them in a different order, so that position on the list didn't favor any one program over another.
       Mark had been doing tax forms for years, so it didn't take much thought. He remembered his mother's last years and increased his amount for Aid to the Elderly. He allocated money for the school lunch program and aid for the handicapped. He supported environmental programs and medical research. Although solar energy was the norm now, he put a few dollars into geothermal studies. He refused to put any money into bailing out two major oil companies. If they couldn't change with the times, that was their problem.
       He studied last year's military expenditures carefully. What was the sense in having enough weapons to kill everyone on the face of the Earth six times over? He cut back even farther than he had last year. He made up the difference in veterans' benefits. Being one himself, he had a vested interest.
       Vietnam had cut a bloody swath through his family before he was born, but he hadn't managed to escape the oil wars and that fiasco in South America. The jungle had cost him two brothers, a hip, and a knee. No amount of aid could bring back his brothers or his friends. It had been such a useless loss.
       The words on the screen were blurry, and when he blinked his eyes he realized he'd been crying. He softly cursed. He slipped one hand out from beneath the cat and wiped his eyes. The words became clear once more.
       "No." The tears were coming again, damn it. He blinked his eyes.
       He thought of his brothers, and the times they'd had growing up. The days seemed bathed in the warm glow of summer sunshine. They were precious days, gone forever. He knew that every person who had died in any war on any side for any cause had been grieved for, just as he was grieving now. It tore at his heart. All that pain, all that suffering.
       "No," he said softly.
       "Yes." It was barely a whisper.
       "Peace," he said, and his single word floated in the quiet apartment.
       "I said peace, damn it," he shouted. "Everlasting, forever peace!"
       The cat jumped from his lap at the outburst, and Mark pushed his chair back, leaving the desk. His eyes were still full of tears, and he felt like a fool.
       If he was a fool, though, he wasn't alone. On that particular April 15 over two hundred million taxpayers added their voices to his.
       By Christmas it was an accomplished fact. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Divide and Conquer the Government

My response to....A Better System Than Pragmatarianism


Everything boils down to people putting their own money where their mouths are.  All things being equal...the problem with our current system is that voters do not have to put their own money where their mouths are.  Therefore, to solve that problem we should simply give taxpayers the freedom to put their own taxes where their mouths are.

With that in's completely counterintuitive to pay congress in order to solve the problem of congress.  If there's a problem with an organization then you boycott it (Dude, Where's my Ethical Consumerism?) and encourage others to do the same.  The organization either changes or it goes out of business.

Clearly you're not going to be able to encourage every single taxpayer to boycott the government.  But believe you me...every single taxpayer would be more than happy to boycott one or more government organizations.  Liberals would be more than happy to boycott the military and conservatives would be more than happy to boycott everything but the military.

In a pragmatarian system...taxpayers would have the freedom to opt out of funding every single government organization...except for one.  Once taxpayers have the freedom to opt out of funding specific government organizations...then that's all you really need.  That was your biggest obstacle.  At that point you simply need to go down the list and encourage taxpayers to boycott each and every government organization one by one out of existence.

When faced with an insurmountable's extremely helpful to break the insurmountable obstacle down into several smaller more manageable obstacles.  That's the beauty of allows us to divide and conquer the government.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Consequentialist Arguments Against Children's Suffrage

What's going on here?  Campaign anonymity rule thrown out

Xerographica: You don't support allowing children to vote because they are incompetent?
megaprogman: If my boys could vote, they would vote for darth vader (I just asked them). If my daughter could vote, it would be for a disney princess.
Xerographica: Are you saying that if kids could vote then we would end up with either darth vader or a disney princess as our president?
What if...?: It becomes a possibility.
megaprogman: Not likely since they are not real people, the votes would just be voided.

Not likely?  Heh.

If you ask enough adults why kids shouldn't be allowed to vote...then you'll understand what Churchill meant when he said that the best argument against democracy is a 5 minute conversation with your average voter.  Well...unless you happen to be an average voter yourself.  In that case, then you'll think that the average voter's arguments against kids voting merely confirm your own arguments against kids voting.

Would there be any ridiculous consequences of allowing children to vote?  Not if you understand the concept of tyranny of the majority.  What's a ridiculous consequence anyways?  How about prohibition?   Was that a ridiculous consequence?  Was that a good reason why women shouldn't have been allowed to vote?

Xerographica: You don't support allowing women to vote because they are incompetent?
megaprogman: If my wife could vote, she would vote for alcohol to be illegal (I just asked her)
Xerographica: Are you saying that if women could vote then we would end up with prohibition?
What if...?: It becomes a possibility.
megaprogman: Not likely since they are not real people, the votes would just be voided.

That people believe there's a problem with allowing kids to vote...clearly indicates that there is not.

In related news...check out my arguments against personal shoppers for public goods...What's Wrong With a Representative Democracy?  What do you think?  Are my arguments so good or no good?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Troy Camplin's Critique of Pragmatarianism

In a recent post of mine...What Are Taxes Worth?...I commented on Peter Boettke's post highlighting  Don Boudreaux's perspective on Ludwig Lachmann.  Among the comments on Boettke's post...I found this one to be particularly agreeable...
What Austrian believes any free market economy could ever be "optimal"? That's the mistake made by mainstream economists, believing such nonsense, not Austrians. Complexity implies messiness, redundancy, etc. Complexity implies both coordination and discoordination. That is, it implies equilibrium is impossible to achieve. Which, again, is what all the Austrians I have ever read have ever said. If Austrians believe anything, it's that the economy is a far-from-equilibrium process. Thus, Lachmann's ideas are rightly understood to be Austrian. - Troy Camplin I visited Camplin's blog...Interdisciplinary World...and really enjoyed reading his entries.  Figured it wouldn't hurt to ask him for his perspective on pragmatarianism...and he was nice enough to oblige me...  Troy Camplin's Critique of Pragmatarianism

In this first part of the critique he recognizes that people would be forced to put their taxes where their mouths are.  But he doesn't necessarily seem to find much value in this.  How much value is there in only being able to spend your own taxes?  How much value is there in preventing other people from spending your own taxes?  From my perspective this is priceless.  This would allow 150 million of our most productive citizens to ask themselves whether it was worth it to give their own hard-earned money to the government.  How many taxpayers would truly believe that they would be getting their money's worth of public goods?

The second part of his critique leaned heavily on the political party heuristic...liberals vs order to guesstimate the values of 150 million taxpayers.  According to his analysis, conservatives would spend their taxes on national defense and liberals would spend their taxes on welfare.  Well...this strikes me as a much too hasty generalization that does not accurately represent myself...nor anybody that I've ever met.  Don't get me's not that I don't rely on this heuristic myself...but perfect caricatures of political ideologies are exceptions rather than the rule.

Pragmatarianism is the epitome of political pluralism.  Rather than having 3 or 4 or 10 political parties...we would have 150 million completely unique political parties.  From my perspective...a much more effective heuristic to consider would be Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs...

This can help us grasp the idea that taxpayers would allocate their taxes according to their priorities.  If a liberal felt like another country genuinely threatened their safety...then chances are pretty good that their priorities would change...they would sacrifice funding welfare in order to spend their taxes on solutions that might peacefully resolve our disagreements with the other country.

Basically, there's more than one way to skin a cat.  The idea of giving 150 million of our most productive citizens the freedom to directly allocate their taxes is based on that simple concept.  We all have limited perspectives....therefore we all make mistakes.  Yet, we all have unique perspectives...therefore we can see problems from different angles.
Perhaps the individual taxpayer feels better about where their money is going, but I also see how this can result in much deeper divisions in the country, where people become resentful that their neighbors are not supporting their pet projects. 
Well...our society is based on the idea of a division of labor...which I addressed in my post on a taxpayer division of labor.  But do a substantial number of people really become resentful when their neighbors don't invest in their pet projects?  Here's kind of a ridiculously oversimplified version of how I see it playing out between neighbors.

Bob: Hey should really spend more of your taxes on the EPA
Sally: Actually...the news said that Canada might try and invade us
Bob: Oh, that would be no good.  I better check the fundraising progress bar on the DoD website

In my post on Perspectives Matter - Economics in One Lesson...I pointed out that persuasion is instrumental in ensuring the dissemination of partial knowledge throughout society.  People would certainly debate which government organizations needed the most funding...and that debate would be priceless.

The next critique Camplin offers has to do with corruption.  How could decentralizing power and control increase corruption?  Right now if you want to "corrupt" the government it's relatively easy to do given that we have too many eggs in one basket.  You only need to go to one location...Washington DC.  If you wanted to engage in some "corruption" in a pragmatarian system you'd have to buy an ad on TV just like the rest of the organizations that want to persuade us change our priorities.

Regarding subsidies...a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  Farmers would only be shooting themselves in the foot if they ignored other links that were essential to the successful operation of their business.  To quote the bible, "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" What good is it to subsidize your own industry...if there are no roads to transport your police to protect your courts to handle military to prevent Canada from invading?  In my post on the opportunity costs of public transportation I address this concept from the aspect of public transportation.

Pragmatarianism is also valuable because it begs the question of what organizations should qualify as tax recipients.  Should farming really qualify if only farmers allocate their taxes to it?  How many taxpayers would have to allocate their taxes to something for it to be considered a genuine "public" good?  That important debate would certainly be a positive externality of considering pragmatarianism.

Lastly, Camplin suggests a more acceptable system...where private donations would be 100% tax deductible.  Sure, I would have no problem with this compromise...but I doubt many liberals would find it acceptable.  This was the point I addressed in my entry on Libertarianism and the Free-rider Problem.

But what I didn't quite get from Camplin was an explanation as to why pragmatarianism wouldn't result in anarcho-capitalism.  Given that Austrian economists believe that the private sector does everything better than the public sector...why wouldn't giving self-interested, utility maximizing, psychic profit-seeking consumers (taxpayers) the freedom to choose which government organizations they give their taxes to shrink the scope of government down to nothing?  Why would consumers give their taxes to public organization B if private organization A offered them more bang for their buck?  If no government organizations are truly fit...then why wouldn't applying survival of the fittest to the public sector result in the mass extinction of all government organizations?

In the beginning of his critique, Camplin acknowledged that pragmatarianism would force taxpayers to put their money where their mouths are...but I don't think he quite recognized that pragmatarianism itself represents an opportunity for socialists, liberals, libertarians and anarcho-capitalists to put their money where their political ideologies are.  What does it mean when people aren't willing to allow 150 million taxpayers to use their hard-earned taxes to determine the proper scope of government?  Socialists, liberals, libertarians and anarcho-capitalists can't all be perhaps the possibility of being right is far better than the possibility of being proved wrong.

The proof is in the pudding.

Ouch, My Most of Me!!

When I was growing up I faithfully read the comic strip section in the Los Angeles Times.  I remember my grandfather once asked me if they were funny.  I responded that they were...and he asked, "so how come you're not laughing?"

For some time now I've been faithfully reading the Crooked Timber Liberal blog.  So far there have been only two instances where something that I've read has made me actually laugh out loud.  Well...perhaps more like chuckle out loud.  Nothing too maniacal.

Both instances revolved around David Graeber's book on Debt.  The first instance occurred when I read Daniel Davies making a point regarding a wife swapping economy and the second instance occurred today when I read David Graeber's response to all the Crooked Timber Liberals that reviewed his book.  Seminar on Debt: The First 5000 Years – Reply.  Here's the punchline from his response to Henry Farrell's critique (see my post on Economic Fairytales)...
Again—I’m sorry to be rude, but I didn’t start this thing—one really wonders what this has to say about Prof. Farrell’s professional qualifications. After all, he is a Professor of Political Science and International Relations. Prof. Hudson’s work falls under his supposed area of expertise, not mine. Yet I, a lowly anthropologist, managed to figure out pretty easily what Hudson is saying, and Farrell, the man who receives a salary based on his presumed understanding of such matters, comes up with interpretations of Hudson that make the man himself laugh in disbelief.
Did Henry Farrell say "Ouch, my most of me!!" when he read this?  It's probably what I would have reference to Episode 8 of Teen Girl Squad.  "Ouch, my most of me!!" is what you say when your bass guitar turns into a shark and then chomps off more than half of your body...or when somebody lobs a decent insult at you.

Over on the Ron Paul Forums I have my own critics to deal or not deal with.  Probably my most enthusiastic and creative critic is noneedtoaggress.  Here's what he posted in the thread with a decent amount of consequentialist discussion...

"Ouch, my most of me?"...yeah, not so much.  To drive the point home he created a new account on the Ron Paul Forums ("Pragmatarian") and then pretends to be my first follower..."We're All Pragmatarians Now": My Journey to Pragmatarianism.  Interestingly enough...David Graeber's lengthy response had this somewhat relevant tidbit...
This I guess is why I’m a radical, and not a liberal. Don’t get me wrong. Liberals have made magnificent contributions to the world. I might be an anarchist, but I have no desire to see anyone privatize the NHS—nor, interestingly, do any other anarchists I am aware of (though granted, I don’t know many anarcho-capitalists. I suspect it’s because they largely don’t exist, except on the Internet, which is crawling with them.)
This point is a bit confusing isn't it?  David Graeber says he might be an anarchist...but then he goes on to say that he doesn't want to privatize the NHS...unlike the anarcho-capitalists...who only exist on the internet.  Here's the rest of the paragraph...
But this is because as an anarchist, I see states as bureaucracies of violence, and make a distinction between state institutions, and public or better, common institutions, that happen to be run by the state because states rarely allow anyone but themselves to manage collective resources (unless it be for private profit.) There are collective institutions that cannot be run without recourse to violence—where you need to be able to call up the guys with sticks and guns or it all wouldn’t work. There are collective institutions—and I suspect large communal health arrangements are one—that could. I tend to see a collective health system as falling into the latter category so it never occurs to me it should be eliminated, even if currently run by the state.
What does David Graeber think the large majority of anarcho-capitalists crawling around the internet are actually saying?  Perhaps he should read my post on anarcho-capitalism and pragmatarianism.  Here's his conclusion...
What’s important to me is how to do it with as broad an alliance as possible—as anarchists such as myself who have been involved with OWS have consistently tried to do. How to find a common ground to push things further towards a free society, without any sort of consensus of just how far we can ultimately go?
After he reads my post on anarcho-capitalism then he should definitely read this post...Tax Choice - A Strategy for the Occupy Movement.