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Dorm room solutions to a hand-me-down world
It’s fun to kick around dorm-room debate solutions to complicated problems, but ultimately we know they can’t work
So I was reading (dangerous! I know!) David’s post from yesterday about the “Fair Tax”. This got me to thinkin’, as the folks in south Georgia might could say. The “Fair Tax” proposal has been kicked around for decades, mostly in Ramada conference rooms by Libertarian delegates and among dorm-room fans of Ron Paul who pine for the the ghost of Ross Perot to arise and smite the IRS into the eternal void.
(This raises another question: if Joe Biden, at 82, and DJT, at 78, are not too old to become president, then why not Ron Paul, a spry 87-year-old? After apparently suffering a stroke during a 2020 on-air interview, the elder Paul quickly said he’s “ok” from his hospital room. And if Pennsylvania voters elected John Fetterman, who is still recovering from an actual stroke, it seems the road is well-paved for ol’ Ron.)
As I was thinking about the “Fair Tax” on its merits, it occurred to me that the proposal is dead on arrival, and always has been. Even if a national sales tax, or a European-style VAT, or a Japanese-style flat tax is the best solution a test-tube think tank can come up with, it can never work in ‘Murica. It should be obvious, but indulge me a bit so I can explain (and in the comments, you’ll find plenty of material to challenge me, I’m sure).
The IRS is really the tip of the iceberg in our tax system. A whole universe of lawyers, software companies, accounting firms, payroll services, state and local agencies, law enforcement institutions, colleges and accrediting bodies make up the part below the surface of the income tax sea. That’s really the issue—income tax, capital gains tax, corporate tax, refunds, withholding, using the U.S. Treasury as a piggy bank to hand out “walking around money” from the government, these are all core constituencies of our tax system. While Congress can monkey with tax rates, incentives, credits, tables and brackets (this is even encouraged as it further empowers the priestly class who interpret such things for us plebes), it cannot dismantle the system.
The entire debate over the “Fair Tax” is nothing more than a dorm-room discussion by college kids who know little of the “real world” they are about to inherit from their parents. It’s an exercise in “if I were king…” thinking, or utopian thinking of how to build a better society. There’s nothing wrong with those thought exercises. Entire philosophies have been birthed and refined by it—Friedrich Hayek refined a long history of economic thinking that many today credit with the birth of modern conservatism. But you’ll also note that none of the so-called conservatives, when in power, dismantle the last spasm of utopian thinking by FDR. The New Deal persists, as does most of LBJ’s Great Society.
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What egg-heads—even brilliant, fluent ones—hurl themselves into is a conundrum as old as government itself. To get to power, the actual power to implement new ideals, utopian or otherwise (most despots are driven by their own sense of an ordered and utopian society), power must be gained in one of three ways: by the feet of the population, by the explosion of revolution, or by the gun barrels and boots of government power. In America, we’ve really seen all three in some measure over the course of our nation’s history, but in general, it’s the people—versus hereditary monarchies or continual revolutions—who move principles from pen to stockyard.
William F. Buckley was famously dissatisfied with Ronald Reagan, who represented the best, and most serious, conservative revival since Calvin Coolidge, once the Gipper was in office. But Reagan won on the backs of a populist wave, and populism, when the wave is deeper than his knees, nauseated the elite-leaning Buckley.
Those who examine the world and find it wanting, and raise themselves out of ignorance by reading those who came before—de Tocqueville, Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and more modern, Thomas Sowell, Milton Friedman, Arthur Laffer, and Joseph Stiglitz—realize that we can do things better than we do. When those ideals find themselves expressed in policy, sometimes they work—like “Supply Side” economics and Volker’s recession to end Carter’s stagflation. Sometimes they don’t, like G.W. Bush’s 2008 bailouts.
It’s not just economics, and not just conservatives. Take gun control. There’s all kinds of laws on the books to prevent people who should not have guns from having them. But many law enforcement agencies don’t bother even tracking straw purchase prosecutions—because they probably don’t pursue them, except when it’s attached to a criminal conspiracy or gang case. Then, when spree shootings happen, in states like California, where the gun laws are strict, the utopians come out and say it’s the guns, not the fact that laws don’t stop the shootings.
The hand-me-down world we have includes a Second Amendment. Proposals to confiscate every gun are as stillborn as abolishing the IRS. If purchasing new guns were illegal, and let’s say every American gun manufacturer was put out of business—at least in selling to the public—then guns would find other methods to change hands. Now suppose, for the sake of argument, enough populist support could be gathered to repeal the Second Amendment. Then the government could pass laws to confiscate all privately-owned guns.
We’ve seen what happens when government enacts such laws—in microcosm. Connecticut made certain “assault” rifles illegal, and people didn’t turn them in. There was massive civil disobedience. We know from the days of Prohibition what would happen. There’s no utopia here.
This is why governing is hard. It’s not a dorm-room debate where we can come up with ideal, utopian solutions. The public, and interest groups that form from voluntary associations among the public, determine what is and isn’t possible. That is derived from the hand-me-down world that no generation gets to have to itself.
Ultimately, when the avatar of the public’s ideals gets into power, propelled by either populist fervor, or a reactionary recoil from the last surge, we find ourselves like Buckley, disappointed and frustrated. It’s easy to give the people “rights” and “entitlements” but very hard, once they’re bestowed, to remove them, even if removing them is the right thing to do. Each bauble the government hands out is like the seed of a pearl in an oyster’s shell. The irritant causes its own hard shell to form; each program becomes a constituency.
The military and defense contractors, the pharmaceutical industry and university labs, universities and student loan providers, banks and realtors, technology companies and government restrictions, Live Nation and Ticketmaster versus Taylor Swift and the U.S. Senate. The world we have is the world the kids we’re raising will inherit, and it’s a hand-me-down world. It’s fun to kick around dorm-room debate solutions to complicated problems, but ultimately we know they can’t work.