Published mid-February, 2019
Good proverbs contain good principles of wisdom, but they only can make us wise if we know how to use them.
Consider “Look before you leap.” It captures well that, in some situations, it would be folly to act impulsively, without first doing some checking.
But then there’s, “He who hesitates is lost.” Which captures well the need — on some occasions — to seize the moment.
Although each proverb contains wisdom, the contradiction between them proves that neither makes us wise without our adding another ingredient: good judgment. In any situation, we need to judge well which proverb applies: Is this one of those situations where we should hesitate, looking before we leap, or one where if we hesitate we’re lost?
Simple rules don’t do justice to the complexity of the world in which we operate.
In our politics, one can often see people fixing upon rules that are inadequate in their simplification, as if managing human affairs well required no hard thinking.
Take, for example, the idea that “taxation is bad.” Any fan of the Robin Hood legend can readily recognize how that can be true — as the wicked Prince John oppresses the peasantry with ruinous taxes. In that situation, Robin seems justified in robbing from the rich to give back to the tax-paying poor.
And we Americans still celebrate the slogan of our revolutionary founders, “No taxation without representation,” regarding it the act of an unjust government to tax without “the consent of the governed.”
But there’s a whole segment of the American political spectrum that talks as though taxation, even by a government representing the people, were inherently wrong and evil. These people talk as if cutting taxes is always good, and as if the proper level of taxation were zero.
The folly of that notion should be readily apparent to everyone. No nation has made that choice because a society with no taxation would be a nightmare. No police, no fire departments, no roads, no police, no fire departments, no traffic lights, no water in the cities, no sewage treatment, no courts to right the wrongs some people do to others, no protection against external enemies, etc.
The fact is that many things that people want cannot be purchased by individuals acting separately: clean air and water, an educated workforce, the maintenance of order and public safety, etc.
If “taxation is bad” is an inadequate guide, what then does wisdom require?
It requires careful cost/benefit analysis: do the people and the society benefit from what the collected taxes purchase for them more than they’d benefit from people spending those funds separately?
The proper level of taxation is that at which taxing either more or less would make the society less good—however we calculate the good.
(And there’s no reason whatever to assume that we Americans are taxed at too high a level. The people of Norway, for example, pay roughly twice as much as we do in taxes, but they are happier with their political arrangements than we Americans. And while Norway is among the most highly taxed, we Americans are the least taxed among advanced democracies. It’s far from clear we’re better off for that.)
We really would benefit from a less simplistic way of talking about taxes than the “taxation is bad” crowd brings to the discussion.
The same problem besets the way some people talk about “government regulation.” We hear a lot of people – some of them our elected representatives – talk as if the simplistic principle “regulation is bad” provides a guide to good policy.
A little knowledge of American history should suffice to prove that’s utter nonsense.
The latter decades of the 19th century – a period often called the Age of the Robber Barons — showed that “no regulation” of a powerful market economy is a ticket to a brutal, messed-up society. For many decades, that era’s rising industrial capitalism successfully fought off regulation.
The resulting corporate giants’ running rampant led to an economy so unjust on so many levels – and a society so disordered – that much of the nation rose up in an attempt to regulate economic forces that had run amok.
A powerful movement arose: the “Muckrakers” famously exposed the ruination these economic giants inflicted, and political leaders like President Theodore Roosevelt helped institute some important regulatory mechanisms to protect the public interest. (There’s a reason Teddy Roosevelt is up there on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.)
The market does many things supremely well. But a society shaped only by actors pursuing their own self-interest – unimpeded by regulation — will be fragmented and distorted, with everyone victimized in their role as by-standers to the decisions of others. To prevent such damage, as every capitalist society has recognized, the market must be joined by collective action, where government is used to channel the economic activity in the ways required for a decent society.
Once again, simple rules are no substitute for good judgment—to identify what economic activity needs to be regulated for the common good, and what manner of regulation will do the most good in the least bothersome way?
It is understandable that people like their truths to be simple; Rendering good judgment takes more work than thinking simplistically. But a species that wields the great powers we’ve amassed has a responsibility to understand what it’s doing.