Selfishness and Ref. C
by Ari Armstrong, November 10, 2005
Craig Biddle recently spoke at the University of Colorado, Boulder, in defense of Ayn Rand's theory of selfishness as a virtue. Biddle spoke just two days after the passage of Referendum C. During the political debate, various parties related selfishness to the referendum in a variety of ways. The debate over Referendum C, then, illustrates Rand's point that politics is a derivative of ethics.
State Senator Ken Gordon, one of the leading advocates of Referendum C, explicitly linked opposition to the net tax hike to selfishness. In an October 13 e-mail, he wrote, "The opponents want to replicate our spending limit in other states and they use Colorado as an example. If we make changes here in Colorado, it can help stop a nationwide trend of selfishness."
I don't care about roads & bridges
The fact that the lyrics are based on lies didn't seem to concern Gordon. For instance, the claim that the TABOR refund was a mere $25 is complete nonsense. The song implies that tax funding for the listed programs would have been cut, even though general-fund spending was already expected to increase substantially.
The more fundamental problems with the lyrics are more interesting. The song certainly invokes selfishness in the sense used by altruists. (Please see the accompanying essay about Biddle's talk or read Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness for descriptions of this terminology.) In this view, a "selfish" person is one who doesn't care about others and who trades greater values for narrow-sighted personal gains.
But, as Biddle argued, a truly selfish person supports a government that protects individual rights. Furthermore, a truly selfish person would fund such a government voluntarily. Why? Simply because it is in one's objective self-interests to live in a civilized society in which individual rights are respected and protected.
The song packages several activities of government as though they were inseparable. The song discusses courts and prisons, which every opponent of Referendum C supports. Indeed, I think courts should get a greater portion of available funds. A lawyer friend of mine tells me that civil cases are backlogged. So the lyrics are simply wrong on this point with respect to the actual views of their targets.
The song discusses roads and bridges. Opponents of Referendum C are split as to whether government should be involved in building roads, but most see the government's role as essential. Even those who think roads should be built with private money grant that at least tax money spent on roads benefits the taxpayer. The most common argument among opponents was that the legislature should never have let road construction fall behind, and it should have used already-scheduled revenue increases to fund roads. Of course, many also argued that toll roads should play a larger role in the region's infrastructure.
The song discusses "ecology." But what does that mean? If that means protecting individual rights by stopping localized pollution, then every opponent of Referendum C wants to use the government to protect the "ecology." If, on the other hand, "ecology" means making a religion out of environmentalism and putting dirt, bugs, and rats above human life, then most opponents of Referendum C would take a contrary position.
The song's most ridiculous assertion is that those who opposed the massive net tax hike somehow "don't care about our economy." But, as I've pointed out from start to finish, high taxes hurt the economy, and economic liberty helps it.
The final category, then, is welfare, in its many aspects. I oppose welfare. Most opponents of Referendum C want some welfare, but they want a less ambitious welfare program than most supporters of the referendum envision. As I've discussed, alleged "cuts" in next year's budget were actually, for the most part, anticipated increases in welfare spending. And general-fund spending was already expected to increase by nearly a billion dollars by the end of the five-year cycle. So the debate over Referendum C was not about whether to reduce or increase welfare: it was whether to increase spending on welfare at a slower or faster rate. But neither the advocates of Referendum C nor the media establishment made those facts clear to the voting public.
But opposition to welfare does not indicate a lack of caring for things like education and health care for the poor. Indeed, as Biddle argued, perfectly selfish people can and do contribute, voluntarily, to charity. Yet the song totally obliterates the distinction between voluntary charity and coercive welfare. The song also totally ignores the fact that both health care and education can be, and are, provided on the voluntary market.
If we distinguish between "brute selfishness" -- that is, what the brute mistakenly thinks is selfish but what is actually contrary to one's objective interests -- and "enlightened selfishness," then the song actually manifests brute selfishness. The advocates of Referendum C don't care about individual rights or economic liberty, they want to take more money by force from the people who earn it. Taking people's money by brute force is hardly indicative of a caring attitude.
Beyond Gordon's references to selfishness, how was that term was used by other participants in the debate? The Rocky Mountain News titled an October 28 letter to the editor, "Don't give in to selfish arguments against C." (Usually somebody at the paper, rather than the author of the letter, selects the title.) The letter, like the lyrics above, conflates all the possible purposes of government as though they were of equal moral and practical status.
On October 11, another letter writer described an "ad against Referendums C and D showing someone taking an ice cream cone away from a child." (I don't think those sorts of ads were effective.) The writer criticizes the ad as "selfish and unchristian," as "medical or mental health" that people need is more important than ice cream.
A couple wrote to the October 19 Gazette: "We cannot believe there are enough selfish people in this state to defeat these referendums, which ask for a small sacrifice, estimated at less than $500 over five years for the average taxpayer. This small sacrifice will benefit all of our citizens, rich and poor, and move Colorado forward." In other words, the claim is that voting for the tax increase is in one's own interests, yet opposing the tax increase is "selfish." That's an odd sort of claim. But even when we move past the terminological absurdities, we must address the question of whether the tax increase, objectively, "will benefit all of our citizens." The letter doesn't invoke any argument to make this case. Rather, it blithely assumes that a tax increase makes everyone better off, whereas letting people keep more of their own money makes only those people better off but somehow harms "all of our citizens."
In an September 11 article (not directly related to Referendum C), Paul Johnson argues that statesmanship is not "about single interests, or selfish individuals, it's about what's good for all." Again we see this notion that what is good for the individual is bad for "all," and, by implication, what's good for "all" is bad for the individual. What's completely missing from such analysis is the idea of voluntary trade for mutual benefit.
An October 23 letter to The Gazette makes the same error: "I would like to see more money in my pocket just like other people. But it would be short-sighted and selfish to ignore the greater good of the community in which we all live."
And here's a selection from a September 28 article by John Ensslin for the Rocky Mountain News:
For [Jeanette] Maroulis, the potential refunds she would give up over five years total $520, or $104 a year, according to an estimate by the nonpartisan Legislative Council based on her financial information.
Apparently, it never crossed Maroulis's mind that she could have contributed her TABOR refund to health care for the elderly of her own volition.
A quote attributed to a member of MoveOn invokes collectivism: "By correcting an unintended consequence of the revenue-limiting Tabor Amendment, Referendum C effectively reaffirms the commitment of the citizens of Colorado to support education, infrastructure repair, and assistance to those who cannot help themselves. It is a recognition that we're a society, not just a collection of selfish interests."
And a critic of the anti-C crowd wrote, "Gov't isn't free, people. And that small amount of money is better used to HELP Colorado meet it's obligations to it's citizens. You are all selfish and greedy, caring more about partisanship then helping the eldery and young in this state."
But an opponent of Referendum C (on the same forum) tried to twist the common criticism: "People who are advocating C&D want to personally benefit from the work of productive members of society by increasing workers' taxes. That's unfair, selfish and unethical." This generated some replies. "The NoOnC&D people are only concerned about maintaining a phantom refund. So who exactly is being selfish here?" And, "I am a worker, and I want my taxes to benefit me and my state. My support of Referendum C is neither selfish nor unethical."
Notice the schizophrenia of the high-tax position. On one hand, giving up your TABOR refund for the betterment of others is the unselfish thing to do. On the other hand, one should support higher taxes "to benefit me." This supports Biddle's argument that nobody can consistently practice -- or advocate -- altruism.
Let's move on. Here's a quote from The Aspen Times: "For Roaring Fork school board member Brad Zeigel, detractors of C and D who say the referendums amount to a tax increase that will prevent families from getting their rightfully earned money are being 'selfish' and 'shortsighted.' 'If you believe in a common good, you believe in public schools,' Zeigel said. 'I support taxation'." I'll leave aside such questions as whether "public" schools must be operated by politicians and coercively funded, and whether government-run schools are the best sorts of schools.
In a September 7 editorial, the Greeley Tribune argues: "We think it's worth the risk of losing a bit of extra cash every year from the state refund. With C and D, the public good is served and the ever-growing items in Colorado's budget, including corrections, may not have to take a hit. It's time to think of the entire picture rather than concentrate on selfish interests." But it's ridiculous to suggest only corrections for the chopping block, as that category receives only a small portion of available dollars. (As I have argued, thought, the state should stop "correcting" people for behaviors, such as drug use, that should not be crimes.)
Jake Adam York quotes a letter writer: "Even the most selfish among us realize... that C and D are not addressing 'the government's needs.' They are addressing our own needs." This statement is almost a concession that selfishness, at least the right sort of selfishness, is okay. Yet the statement again just assumes that higher taxes are in the individual's objective interests.
York agrees with the quote: "[M]y self-interest does not exist individually. As a teacher I exist and work inside a web of personal and ethical relations. When I do well, my students can do well. When my students do well, I can do even better. So what my interests -- in funding that will support decent facilities, namely classrooms that will seat the students comfortably, and a library that will support their learning, and perhaps a little money for curricular and cultural initiatives that improve the general tone of the learning environment -- are also in the interests of my students. But they are also, in some measure, in the interests of all. As I say, I work as a teacher in a web of personal and ethical relations." York is essentially correct that we are social creatures who benefit enormously through our relationships with others. Yet this social "web" is a group of individuals, not some transcendent entity. And York pretends the forcible confiscation of wealth is somehow morally equivalent to voluntary interaction.
Bob Ross uses "selfishness" as invective: "Referendum C is a critical first step toward addressing Colorado's chronic fiscal straightjacket and will allow the state to restore some of the critical programs that have been devastated by cuts... Evil, close minded, selfish Republicans. You're all very ignorant and very sad." (Of course, a large minority of Democrats also opposed the measure.)
Here is a similar "argument:" "In addition to the service cuts, 605 FTEs would be eliminated resulting in the lay-off of hundreds of workers (not including Corrections and Higher Education staff) which would effect county and local tax revenues beyond seriously compromising the quality of life of thousands of affected family members. All for the want of a few selfish anti-government zealots desperately clinging to their precious dollars while seniors go hungry, middle class families struggle to educate their kids, and public safety is diminished."
That quoted statement contains numerous errors. 1. People who oppose higher taxes are generally neither "anti-government" nor "zealots." Those are merely ad hominem attacks. 2. Higher taxes will result in the lay-off of people in the market sector. 3. The figure of "605 FTEs" (Full-Time Equivalents) is totally arbitrary. Had Referendum C failed, general-fund spending would have gone up by nearly a billion dollars by the end of the five-year cycle. 4. Even if some government employees got laid off, they could find more productive work in the market sector. 5. Since when is the proper function of taxpayers to maintain "FTEs?" Aren't "FTEs" supposed to serve the public, not vice versa? 6. Welfare is again improperly conflated with "public safety."
Here's yet another ad-hominem attack by Michele Salazar: "Your [Colorado Club for Growth's] simplistic, ignorant, self-centered and selfish postcard went immediately to my shreader... Our state is currently at the bottom in spending of higher and lower education. Our roads and bridges are falling apart... Some day our state, and country will be taken back by caring people and interests. Why don't you go live in anarchy on an island somewhere and burn the boat. We don't need or want you."
It so happens that Salazar's claims about tax funding for education are inaccurate. And I have yet to see a single road, bridge or school that is "falling apart," though I've heard that some roads need repair. (Whatever happened to funds from the gasoline tax?) Salazar crisply draws the line between bad "selfish" people and "caring people" who want higher taxes.
Apparently, it has never occurred to Salazar that rationally selfish people necessarily care about others. Nor has it occurred to her that it is possible to fund education, roads, and bridges (etc.) with lower taxes and, indeed, with voluntary funding. Salazar implies that the only alternative to Hobbesian anarchy is the forcible confiscation of wealth. She also implies that taking people's wealth away from them by force is somehow the act of "caring people."
Meanwhile, those who explicitly advocate rational selfishness advocate voluntary exchange and the consistent protection of individual rights.