Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Remember, It's The Government's Money - You're Only Allowed To Borrow Some Of It

The tax collection of the U.K. is proposing a new policy under which all paychecks in the country would go first to the government, and only then be sent on to workers after the appropriate taxes had been levied. As will not come as any surprise to anyone who knows me, I hate this idea with a passion. I don't think it's some kind of first-step-towards-the-gulag power grab, as more histrionic rightists might call it. Britain is a country with a long and thoroughly ingrained democratic tradition, and absent some 1930s style economic apocalypse I doubt very much that totalitarianism will go on the march there. But I do think it's a dangerous and unnecessary expansion of the government's coercive power over economic activity, and betrays a troubling assumption at the heart of modern left-wing ideology - that the concerns of society as a whole trump the rights of the individual.

The potential for conflict between individual interest and the well-being of society as a whole has long been one of the key sources of tension in democratic societies, and while I don't deny that there are certainly cases in which societal interest should be paramount - nobody should be allowed to dump toxic waste in a river at the expense of people downstream, for example - any free society which wishes to remain that way must respect the autonomy, political and economic, of the individual citizen. By and large, people do not go to work because they feel some abstract commitment to do their part for society, they go to work because they have personal financial concerns and desires which working helps them to address. The paying of salaries is fundamentally a private transaction between employers and employees, and the money an employee receives is recompense for his or her labor. It's not the state's business. I'm fine with requiring people to pay taxes, but the idea that the government has any legitimate right to see peoples' paychecks before they themselves do strikes me as deeply pernicious, and not something that should be entertained even in the name of ostensibly worthwhile goals such as greater government efficiency or cracking down on tax evasion. It's not by accident that Locke cited the right to personal property as one of the necessary conditions for free and just government - without a fundamental distinction between what belongs to the state and what does not, there are too many ways in which the government can abuse power and coerce the citizenry. Just ask all those people in China who were displaced from homes their families had inhabited for generations because the government wanted to build a dam or an athletic stadium and hey, family ties or no the land didn't belong to the people living on it anyway. Legitimizing the notion that the government first gets to seize whatever portion of a person's salary is currently deemed necessary, and only then must pass the money on to the person who earned it, erodes that distinction, and that's a bad thing.

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