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Monday, June 16, 2003
The Antic Muse listens to Limbaugh and brings us the following tidbit, spoken by an African-American economics professor named Walter E. Williams:

If you don't pay taxes, why should you have the right to vote? For example, I don't hold any shares of General Motors stock, so should I be voting on what happens in General Motors? No! ... If you don't pay taxes, maybe you should not vote on at least financial issues. Or maybe you should get one vote for each dollar in taxes that you pay.

Yes, you just read a quote from a black college professor proposing a poll tax. It boggles the mind, doesn't it? And this isn't out of the blue: he's written a paper saying much the same thing. I won't get into just how blinkered the reference to a poll tax is, as the muse covers that nicely. I also won't delve into the almost as mind-boggling idea that running the government like a corporation would be a good thing (weren't most white men screwed over by their corporate bosses, or did I miss that part of the country song?) as it's been covered elsewhere and better.

I do, however, want to slice 'n' dice the reasoning he's specifically using here. In the paper, he starts from a thought experiment about what would happen if non-stockholders were allowed to vote on corporate boards (always models of democratic republicanism) and concludes--surprise--that it's not a good idea, and then he exteeeeeeends that reasoning to the government. Here's the condensed logic:

People who have little or no stake in General Motors can be expected to behave differently than those who do, simply because their decisions are less costly to them - others bear the cost of their decisions...From a moral point of view, we might ask just how fair is it to allow those who pay little or no taxes to use the political process to decide how much taxes others should pay?

Oh dear, where to start? First off, the thing about politics is that it's not economics--the raison d'etre for a state isn't profit, but the collective welfare of its citizens. It is, in fact, a separate realm from economics, intentionally insulated, although the two do of necessity interact on a regular basis. So while it's true that a non-stockholder voting on the board of General Motors might impair its profits, it's not true to say that allowing someone who pays "little" taxes to vote will impair the general welfare of the citizenry.

Saying that the "moral" point of view would see a wrong in allowing the poor to vote for a representative who then vote for a measure that would benefit the poor and slightly impoverish the rich is similarly questionable. (Thomas Friedman might see a wrong, but he's hardly the voice of morality, don't you think?) It implies, for instance, that the rich simply materialized their wealth from the sky, whereas it did come from somewhere, and that perhaps the moral thing when you have a lot of money and other people have very little is to perhaps give them some so they can feed their families. This is not to imply that wealth acquisition is immoral, but neither are social welfare programs. Government, like social welfare programs, exists as a collective enterprise that compels everyone to give because we all know that we probably wouldn't otherwise, but we do need firefighters and schools and hospitals and, yes, health care and food if we can't afford it on our own. I know a certain branch of economics gets uneasy at any scheme involving collective action, but I think the fact is that any government is going to involve collective decision-making--there's no reason to have a nation otherwise--so without abolishing government entirely (no comment) I think it's something we're all going to have to collectively deal with.

It's all coming a bit close to the old saw that liberals are simply mercenaries who mobilize the dumb masses in order to victimize the rich for their own benefit. If this were true, of course, we'd see Democratic administrations in which the rich toppled and the poor feasted in the streets. Well, let's see--FDR, definitely not; JFK, nope; LBJ, nope; Carter, not so good for the economy, but the poor weren't doing all that well themselves; Clinton--uh, definitely not.

These kind of arguments appeal to a third-grader's conception of justice and should be laughed out of the building upon appearance. They also base themselves on a model of democracy half a step above mob rule.