Taxes and Justice: It is Your money

It's just willful silliness to argue that questions about how much of "our money" the government can take is logically incoherent. 

Taxes and Justice: It is Your money

I'm reading Robert Frank's new book, The Darwin Economy, which is mostly familiar if you've ever read any of Frank's many previous books, but it does contain some new stuff. The following passage put me in mind of Elizabeth Warren's (in)famous "marauding bands" video:

Each year as the April 15 tax filing deadline draws near, wealthy libertarians mount the stump in high dudgeon to denounce government for seizing money that is rightfully theirs. They might do well to reflect briefly on the fact that no matter how talented and industrious they are, they wouldn't have had any significant wealth to seize in the first place if they'd grown up in a country like Nepal or Somalia. The infrastructure that made their wealth possible was paid for by taxes. Much of that wealth is thus an unearned return on investments made by others.

I'd refine this a bit.

First, most libertarians aren't wealthy and they all complain about the government seizing money that is rightfully theirs. Second, most people who complain about the government seizing money that is rightfully theirs aren't libertarians (or wealthy). Otherwise, the "'It's your money...' rhetoric" Frank thinks short-circuits reasonable discussion of tax policy wouldn't. I reckon most Americans buy into "'It's your money...' rhetoric," even if few ever mount stumps of any kind in any sort of dudgeon.

Second, the difference between Nepal or Somalia and France or America that explains why the latter pair of countries are rich while the former pair are poor is not "infrastructure" except in the most attenuated sense. The full slate of liberal institutions that account for most first-world wealth--the rule of law, private property, well-functioning market institutions, representative democracy--can't be bought with tax money. Not to say it hasn't been tried. The West continues to spend a bit of its tax money trying to buy the liberal institutions of peaceful wealth-creation for countries like Bhutan, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so forth. It doesn't work.

The institutional infrastructure of liberal-democratic capitalism depends on a deeper moral or cultural infrastructure. One thing I'd like progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Robert Frank to get through their heads is that this deeper moral/cultural infrastructure makes possible both tax-financed public goods and wealth-producing market institutions. You can't buy with taxes the cultural prerequisites of the productive collection and expenditure of taxes.

So, if you live in a wealthy country and made some money last year, there is some sense in which much of that wealth is an "unearned return" on your cultural patrimony. Does that have any implications for what counts as "your money"? I doubt it.

As my former colleague Tom Palmer likes to point out, nobody could make any money at all if they didn't have any food to eat, but that doesn't imply that any of us owe farmers a penny more than we already paid for our grub. If it turns out we can't buy the institutional infrastructure "that makes our wealth possible" in exactly the same way we buy the food "that makes our wealth possible," we'll need to buy it somehow. Taxation seems like a good way to do that. But the fact that it might be necessary to have a government that forces you to pay for some necessary public goods doesn't mean it's not "your money" you're paying with. The money I spend on bacon didn't really belong to pig farmers all along.

Frank is led astray by two prominent contemporary political philosophers, Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel. He quotes their book The Myth of Ownership at length:

The question How much of "our money" may the government take in taxes? is logically incoherent, because the legal system, including the tax system, determines what "our money" is. The real moral issue is how the legal system that governs property rights should be designed, and with what goals. What kinds of markets will best promote investment and productivity? What goods, at what level, should be provided by collective public decision and which goods by private individual choice? Should all citizens be guaranteed a minimum level of economic protection? To what extent should equal opportunity be publicly supported? Are large social and economic inequalities morally objectionable, and if they are, what may legitimately be done to discourage them?

All these questions are excellent questions. But it's just willful silliness to argue that questions about how much of "our money" the government can take is logically incoherent. I mean, really? If there are institutions that determine how much money you get, it's not really your money you got? This somehow reminds me of the argument philosopher David Stove called “the Gem,” and crowned with thorns as the worst argument in the history of philosophy: If the mind has a nature, then we cannot know reality as it is. Compare: If you can make money at all, then it can't really be yours.

Anyway, in the magnificently monumental The Order of Public Reason, Jerry Gaus nails what's wrong with Murphy and Nagel's argument:

If the state is in the business of determining the shape of property, it may seem that everything it does – including taxing as it sees fit – is part of this job of specifying property rights. If so, it might appear that nobody could be in a position to argue that the state is taking away his property since until the state specifies it, there really is no effective right to property. There is, in this way of thinking, no Archimedean point outside of the state’s determinations of your property rights (or any other rights?) from which to criticize the state’s legislation, in particular its revenue legislation, as taking away what is yours, for its decisions determine what is yours.

This conclusion does not follow from recognizing that effective property rights are conventional and depend on the state. All laws are to be justified. This justification occurs against a background of one’s already justified rights, what I have called the order of justification. Now property rights, if not the most basic rights in the liberal order of justification, are certainly prior to many state laws and policies such as, say, funding museums. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant all recognized that distinguishing “mine” and “thine” is one of the first requisites of an effective social order. In seeking to fund museums, representatives of the state cannot simply say that citizens have no entitlement to their incomes because they, the representatives, determine property rights, and so they may tax for these purposes without justification. “Without us, there would be no property, so you have no property claims against us!” Once property rights have been justified, they form the background for further justifications; they can be justifiably overridden in order to tax, but this must be justified.

It is your money. And, if you ask me, it's justified for the state to take some of it to finance necessary public goods. But that doesn't mean it wasn't yours. And that doesn't mean it's "logically incoherent" even to raise the question of how much the state's justified in taking. Asking and correctly answering that question is a requirement of a just political order. Finally, if the state takes more than is really justified, you're perfectly right to bitch about it.

Frank complains that

... public conversations among elected officials about taxes of any kind are typically stopped in their tracks by 'It's your money...' incantations from the right. Our inability to pursue those conversations has made us all poorer.

This is both false and uncharitable. Folks on the right love to talk about the "Fair Tax" or ideas like Herman Cain's "9-9-9" plan. (Those numbers are tax rates, and none of them are zeros.) Libertarian ideologues aside, everybody recognizes the need to finance government spending with taxes. I truly doubt progressives do themselves any favors responding to perfectly justified "It's your money..." rhetoric with a bad philosophical argument that says "No, it really isn't."

[Image credit: sushi♥ina on Flickr]

A new study says it's okay to eat red meat. An immediate uproar follows.

Even before publication, health agencies were asking the journal not to publish the research.

Photo by Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Surprising Science
  • A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found little correlation between red meat consumption and health problems.
  • A number of organizations immediately contested the evidence, claiming it to be based on an irrelevant system of analysis.
  • Beef and dairy production is one of the leading drivers of climate change, forcing humans to weigh personal health against the environment.
Keep reading Show less

CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.


"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.


If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

UFOs: US intelligence report finds no aliens but plenty of unidentified flying objects

A new government report describes 144 sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena.

Photo by Albert Antony on Unsplash
Surprising Science

On June 25, 2021, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a much-anticipated report on UFOs to Congress.

Keep reading Show less