TED Conversations

Bill Harrison


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How can we re-frame tax policy to make people happier about paying taxes and/or spending pro-socially?

We already require people to pay taxes, both for their own good and for the good of society as a whole. Michael Norton's talk, everyday experience, and our tribal evolutionary history suggest that pro-social spending makes us happier. Yet, many people hate paying taxes, possibly (as per Rory Sutherland's talk) because of the way tax policy is perceived or structured, or because they hate the lack of control as to where their money goes.

If you think social policies should be structured in such a way as to give the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people, then is there a way to structure tax policy in such a way to make people happier about paying taxes and/or spending pro-socially?

For example, maybe allowing (or requiring) people to pay some percentage of their taxes (beyond what they pay to the general fund) on some pre-approved set of necessary social programs, but allowing people to choose which ones, could be a policy that would promote pro-social behavior, and thereby produce happier and tighter-knit communities, nations, etc.

Such a policy would, in fact, be less restrictive than either taxation or education, both of which we already require. We don't allow selfish behavior (not paying taxes, remaining ignorant) in either of those cases, because we understand that pro-social laws and policies are necessary for society to function at all.

Policies like this are particularly necessary right now in the US, for example, where the country is extremely divided politically. This could also get the Mitt Romneys of the world to gain an appreciation of the interdependence that allows them to become and remain wealthy.

So, given that pro-social spending makes people happy (a la Michael Norton's talk) and given that re-framing where money goes can make people happier about paying money (as per Rory Sutherland's talk), how would you structure taxes so that people would be happier about paying them?

  • Apr 27 2012: Taxation effectively IS spending money on other people ... it's just that you don't choose exactly how - but as the speaker says, that's actually not so important.

    Too often, politicians appeal to our base instincts (greed, what's in it for me?) when, as this TED talk perfectly illustrates, they should be framing the debate around how helping others can actually make everyone involved better off.
  • Apr 25 2012: Paying taxes *IS* forced spending on other people. Unfortunately, most seem to overlook this fact. Maybe the IRS needs a publicist.
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      Apr 30 2012: u r really missing the point .... it is not on OTHER PEOPLE but it is on society or ALL of us. dont pay tax then u need to forget the rule of law! who pays for it? or do you suggest the wealthy pay for their own protection/armies/gangs???? We pay our dues to live in a relative safe and productive environment.
  • May 13 2012: Just to set things straight. Taxation is theft plain and simple. Libertarians care about poor/disadvantaged, etc. people more than anyone else, because the free market (whether businesses, charities, churches, nonprofits, etc.) is the most effective method of solving these issues. This is abundantly clear if you study the works of the Austrian School that Sutherland refers to.

    Decentralization allows money to be spent more effectively, especially regarding local problems, as they don't face the economic calculation problem Your view that a libertarian world would not punish polluting corporations, the Madoffs of the world, etc. is misguided. In such a society, these wrongdoers would be punished according to tort and trespass law and fraud. The reason these bad things happen is due to corporatism and regulatory capture--i.e. corruption. Government is flawed from the beginning.

    You also take a naive view that simply because technologies like the Internet and benefits like education, roads, etc. are funded by taxpayers, that they couldn't be provided by a free market. This is a gross logical leap. If government spending and taxes didn't crowd out private organizations, then of course they would provide them--especially if these goods and services are in high demand. Similarly we could all engage in "pro-social" behavior without staring down the barrel of a gun.

    I encourage everyone to visit Mises.org. It has tons of great information and will teach you real economics.
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      May 14 2012: Well, you could take the Austrian school and "the free market" as the be all end all of economic discussion.

      Here are some alternative views:

      The slogans (it would be a charity to call them real ideas) that taxation is theft and "the free market" can solve all problems are bizarre and hollow. The discipline of economics is undergoing a sea change at the moment, but it's more in the direction of Robert Frank, Daniel Kahneman, and William Deriesiewicz than the anti-government propaganda from Mises.org.

      To be fair, I believe markets are a powerful policy tool that can create good outcomes in a wide variety of cases. But there is a large role for government as well, when markets fail, as they often do.
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        May 14 2012: do i decipher it right that you believe that austrian economics is not more than the two slogans "taxation is theft" and "free market solves all"? and you find that shallow?

        austrian economics is a life-long work, tens of thousands of written pages, of many individuals. starting with karl menger, through böhm-bawerk, von mises, rothbard and hayek, a thorough and sophisticated economic theory was built and explained in many books. since then, literally hundreds of books are available, ranging from the introductory materials to detailed analysis of specific subjects like the history of governments or banking, anti-trust laws, education or the business cycle.

        i spent 9 month of my time studying this theory, and i've learned to respect those, who have or had 100 times the knowledge i have. from all of this vast library of knowledge, you managed to extract two tiny chips of conclusions, and you complain about shallowness? that is bold.
      • May 16 2012: It is absurd to call it "anti-government propaganda". As absurd as democrats and republicans (US terms) calling each other anti-government people. Please learn the difference between Anarchy and Libertarianism.

        As for "bizarre and hollow", anything will sound bizarre and hollow if you have not made the effort to learn about it. The bill of rights sounds bizarre and hollow to tribals with strict social hierarchies.
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    Apr 26 2012: Bill, a core theme of narcissism and psychopathy is the desire for the unearned - unearned love, authority, prestige, approval, sex, money, status and more, and more fundamentally the desire for power over others. The government essentially allows normal people to behave in psychopathic ways while still preserving their conscience. In the same way that most people would become vegetarians if they had to butcher their own meat, most people would shy away from inflicting the government's laws on their neighbours directly themselves. But because it's the government doing the violence, people get to turn a blind eye ti this - it's far away, remote, unreal.

    Secondly, the government uses moral arguments as the source of its power - that is why people support it. Government long ago lost the argument from efficiency or effectiveness all they have is the argument from morality ("We need government because it is good"). Interestingly, this is exactly what psychopaths do: once you see through their charm and see how crappy their real world actions and results are, they will tend to shift to moral/guilt tripping arguments to keep you hooked.

    BTW democracy is still violates the logical fallacy of the appeal to popularity, because it still involves people imposing their will on those who didn't agree to the democratic framework at all, with the justification that "The majority voted on it, so therefore it's right". No redefining nonsense here: democracy is to civilised society what gang-rape is to lovemaking.
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      Apr 26 2012: I agree with you that a democracy, without laws or rules of constitutional due process, is just mob rule.

      But the fact that we do have constitutional protections against what other people can do to you no matter how rich or powerful they are, means that we are better off with the rule of law than without it.

      In a stateless world, rich families / large groups of people cooperating would band together to hire armies to take everyone else's land and property. You could say that that's immoral, and they would laugh at you.

      In the absence of a strong government, you end up with warlords fighting for control, with no rule of law in place and everyone is worse off as a result (see, for example, Somalia). With strong governments in which people look after one another, you have healthy, educated people with high literacy rates and amazing quality of life (See, for example, Nordic countries).

      I fully agree with you that there are many things governments do and have done that are completely terrible - the Iraq war, the drug war, mass incarceration of poor people, etc. And again, I try to change those things via democratic means.

      But because we are all on the same boat and we all have to live on the same planet, the rule of law requires that people who blatantly violate the rules can be punished or coerced, even if they disagree with the rules in the first place.

      Imagine a narcissist on a boat in the middle of the ocean. Everyone else on the boat agrees to a certain set of rules about how they will ration food, settle disputes, etc. Even if the narcissists thinks he's better than the rules, he will be punished - because opting out is behaviorally no different from breaking the rule. And we're all in the same boat, so to speak.

      Coercion is always wrong, though, you might say - we can live without states! Well, you can tell that to the large, wealthy, cooperative army taking your life, liberty, and property without giving you any due process whatsoever.
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        Apr 26 2012: Bill, how do you know what would happen in a free market stateless world? Note that somalia is not the greatest example (despite their improvements relative to surrounding big government nations). In somalia, there is no foundation for free market ideas there in the first place. The collapse of a government doesn't necessarily result in a free market, in the same way that throwing out an alcoholic's liquor collection doesn't make them cured. If people are addicted to centralised violent authority such as government, then a sudden government collapse won't cure that addiction. Something else will fill that 'need' unless we cure people's underlying addiction to this kind of system. Or wait till it hits rock bottom so they see the error of their ways (e.g. Nazi Germany). I would rather avoid such a messy journey.

        We can't base the foundations of civilisation on lifeboat scenarios, because life in general is not a lifeboat situation. I have to say that a narcissist on a lifeboat is likely to charm himself into the leadership role, hoard resources, attention and power for himself, and manipulating the majority into sacrificing people as he sees necessary. Don't you see? It's people like him who MAKE the rules. Just like politicians.

        Regarding your sci-fi scenario of a corporate army rising up in a free market society, I call this argument the "Argument form imagination" - the idea that I have to disprove any scenario you can imagine in order to vindicate a free market society. I don't. All I have to do, patiently and consistently, is point out that in the background behind all of your arguments, justifications and reasons, your trump card is a loaded gun pointed at everyone who disagrees. Dramatic maybe, but THAT is the truth about arguing for government. When people finally see it, they will shrink away in horror and demand better. Most people don't debate the efficiency of murder or theft: they just know it's immoral, and that's as far as the discussion needs to go.
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          Apr 26 2012: It isn't a science fiction argument, it's historical. The Peloponnesian Wars? The Crusades? Genghis Khan? All I am supposing is that a large, external army could arise (as has happened many, many times in the past) kill you, and take all your land and property, without giving you due process rights or any say in the matter. And you could complain that coercion is immoral all you want, and you would be laughed at.

          I'm not even contesting that the rule of law requires a backdrop of force - if you break the law, you are punished. But in a state, there are at least rules for the application of force, whereas in anarchy, there aren't.

          Free markets require a backdrop of rules people follow when things don't work out perfectly - contract law, courts, judges, and police officers to enforce those rules even when the parties at stake disagree.

          On top of which, reputation isn't perfect - you can sully someone's reputation when they haven't done anything wrong, and then your fate depends upon public opinion rather than the facts. And that's, in my view, worse than living under the rule of law, where I don't have to be popular in order to survive, because I'm guaranteed rights as a minority, including a right to a fair trial under a judge, paid for by taxes. And we have laws against libel and slander for that reason, too.
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    Apr 24 2012: I think of taxation exactly as such a tool to require people to contribute financially to things that are shared by all or that benefit all, including services one might in the first instance construe as serving others.
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      Apr 24 2012: Yes, but lots of people hate paying taxes, whereas this talk was saying that spending money on others makes the vast majority of people happier.

      I think people hate paying taxes partly because you don't get to choose where your tax money goes, and partly because you don't get to directly see the benefit of your personal contribution. The gap between the giving and the benefit is so large that we don't always get a sense of gratification out of it, even though pro-social spending is necessary for society to function and probably good for us.

      I was thinking that this would be a way of structuring tax policy in order to promote happy pro-social giving as opposed to begrudging pro-social giving (traditional taxes), and possibly create more interdependent, and tighter-knit communities as a result.
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        Apr 25 2012: just a thought ... the strugglers don't want to pay tax because they see the rich minimize and scab out of paying. The rich don't want to pay tax because they feel they have done good by their hard work and the lazy poor could do better but why help them let them help themselves.

        this is why no one like to pay tax. its silly maybe we should spend more time in social education and learn to live in the civil society we believe we've made.
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      Apr 24 2012: And most people thought of slavery as an effective tool to require people to contribute their labour for the financial benefit of farm owners, but that doesn't matter, because slavery is fundamentally evil and based on contradictions. No matter what you want, if it is evil, people will eventually stand for a shift in 'public morality' until the majority stands firmly against it. A small, moral, tireless minority stood against slavery, and fought for the individual dignity of women, blacks, homosexuals, children to have a right to be free from another human being FORCING them by threat of violence to do something against their will. It took time and patience, but eventually, they turned the tide of public opinion and human freedom was extended that much farther. Now, it is time for the final push, to consistently apply the root principle of libertarianism that runs through all of these expansions in human dignity, regardless of any practical 'reasons' (excuses) that are given for using violence to run society.

      Taxation - as with all government action - is the act of threatening a non-violent person to do something against his will for a purpose he does not consent to, with much excuses and justifications and public relations to convince a majority of others that this is moral. Libertarianism counters with only one principle: it is immoral to initiate the use of force against another person or their property for any reason, even personal or political. For hundreds of years, we have been making great progress in this direction, with each successive generation wondering at the ignorance and barbarism of those who came before, the people who opposed rights for slaves/women/children and more. There is still much resistance to expanding the principle of non-violence, and a growing minority of us are working to overturn this, so the only real question I have is: which side of history do YOU want to be on?
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        Apr 24 2012: "it is immoral to initiate the use of force against another person or their property for any reason"

        Way back when, slaves were considered property, not people. You could say, well, slaves are obviously people and then try to free them (forcefully, but nonviolently) a la John Brown, and I would say, why are you being so violent in taking my property? They're obviously not fully people, it says so in the Constitution! We're a nation of laws! Why are you so uncivilized? Don't you know the libertarian principle? Let the southern plantation owners live in peace, man!

        Property rights are a social construct, enforced by laws enforced by police forces paid for by taxes.

        In its present form, property rights exist as bits of information on a computer (money) or pieces of paper claiming ownership to buildings or land or whatever. There are complex sets of rules, enacted by judges or democratically elected representatives, constraining what you can and cannot do with property.

        I could say, "you know, it would be a real shame if something happened to your legs or house. Hey, I like that wallet you have" and without any explicit use of force you would give me your wallet because of the freak accidents that tended to happen to people who didn't comply. But we have laws against extortion enforced by prosecutors and judges and cops, paid for by taxes. Which we're arguing about over the Internet, invented by DARPA, paid for by taxes.

        So once we've established that property is a socially defined and socially enforced construct, governments and laws and taxes are necessary, and that we have to live with one another in societies and not in a state of nature, and we establish that this policy is less restrictive than taxation, then what? Are you still opposed to it?
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          Apr 25 2012: much more eloquent than my dribble. it is extortion or taxation at least with taxation there is a pathway to directing the 'stolen' currency. if you give it to the mafia they will not spend it on your kids.
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    May 9 2012: In Islam the second pillar after 5 times daily prayer is to pay Zakat one time per year which have diffrent rates depened in your type of weath
    if its money you pay 2.5% each year
    if its been extracted from earth its like oil it reach 20%
    if your weath is a cattle of caws ,camles ,sheep...ect each one has different calculation
    and they is 8 categories of people whom deserved the Zakat
    so Muslim are happy we he share part of his wealth and many people pay more than their percentage because they saw the rewards the more the pay the more their life become peaceful and blessed
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    May 7 2012: TED speaker and one of my favourite modern philosophers Alain de Botton says that the tax man ought to send us a thank you note because paying it is an act of social generosity! We should rebrand tax season as something sexier! He makes a good argument for it:

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    Apr 26 2012: This is why I fundamentally disagree with Bill's proposal:
  • Apr 26 2012: The social good? Are we talking about strengthening or weakening the human spirit?

    How is it good for society to expand on a sector that is dependent upon government subsidies and private charity?

    How does denying an individual or company the opportunity to fail and learn a valuable lesson become good for society?

    All you are talking about is Industrializing Compassion. What happens when something is industrialized? Isn't someone getting exploited?

    Anyway, the path you are on will only lead to fewer producers and more dependents. Before you expend more energy in this direction try studying human nature. Human nature will dictate the consequences of the "pro-social" avenue you are on.

    Good luck on your journey.
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      Apr 26 2012: So let me get this straight. Suppose the first 10 dollars of your income taxes were refunded to you every year, on the condition that you had to spend it pro-socially, on someone other than you. Hell, it might even just be a "suggestion" that you can opt out of and not a "requirement" (if you've read Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, then you could call it libertarian paternalism, since the default option is the healthy one.)

      As per this talk, it wouldn't matter how people spent pro-socially, just that they did so, and they would be better off for it. And this would tend to make people happier, on average, and possibly give them a sense of how interdependent people are. And because they could choose where the money would go, it's hard to see how one particular "sector" would expand. Industrialization, in my mind, implies standardization, and this would be anything but that.

      So, I'm not entirely sure what you're talking about with "expand on a sector that is dependent upon government subsidies and private charity," but (back to the question) do you really think a policy like this would increase the number of "dependents" relative to "producers"? If you're talking about a "sector" of "dependent people" I think this is an insane and broad brush to paint with - we're all interdependent. You probably don't grow all your own food or make all your own clothing or produce all your own electricity - we all live off of the (legal, technological, educational, scientific, etc.) infrastructure created by people who came before us, as well as the labor of others. We're all interdependent.

      For the record, I reject the Ayn Rand framework entirely - here is an article by Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz on rising income inequality in the face of growing productivity of the average American:

      What you produce is not at all the same as what you take - they are very distinct activities.
      • Apr 26 2012: I will agree with you that it is good when people DIRECTLY help each other. However, when a system is designed for people to help their fellow man INDIRECTLY the seeds of corruption are layed.

        We are all interdependent. Yet, to facillitate the means by which people are able to be involved in the marketplace only gives way to more corruption and "exploitation". When an individual does not earn their own money they then do not treat that money the same way. Easy come, easy go. Giving people money only makes them more easily used to enrichen the wealthy.

        The reason for the convolution of the modern day is because the rich and powerful through legislation are getting competitive advantages and gaining access to new customers; example, the world markets.

        I have never read Ayn Rand, though I have wanted to. Nevertheless, I have seen the damage social programs have done to individuals and areas where they are reliant upon those social programs. They are void of ambition and imagination to create their own world. They wait for the next check to continue their monthly existence and are unhappy with the world around them. All the while they are looking for someone to blame for their meager existence.

        What you produce is not at all the same as what you take - they are very distinct activities.

        I do understand where you are coming from. People have to have the best of everything and consume more than they produce. They drive diesel pickups when they do not need them. They eat till they are so fat they can't move. And the list goes. Where we differ is why this is this way.

        Prosperity is a double edged sword. When individuals do not have the developed character to withstand the temptations of a prosperous economy they will be eaten up by it. Just because we want something does not mean we should be given what we want.
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          Apr 26 2012: i would not recommend rand. her theses are loaded with not so smart ideas hidden among the good ones.

          murray rothbard would be a more clean source, but i most recommend henry hazlitt, and his famous "economics in one lesson"
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          Apr 26 2012: Rand is brilliant, just imperfect, but her work is so powerful and she goes 99% of the way to the right answer that I can overlook the 1% of inconsistencies. Murray Rothbard eliminated the inconsistencies but as he did not write dramatic fiction and did not go into personal philosophy as much, I'd only recommend him to someone who wanted to get the finer details right.

          Ayn Rand essentially demonstrated that you don't need a government, that it is the purest manifestation of evil. However, instead of going all the way with this idea, she instead stopped at monarchism - the idea of a very, very small government, which is a big mistake I beleive. Also, she overlooked the emotional side of things - she was correct in matters of the ego and not letting your emotions blindly dictate your actions, but she did not express the kind of complete portrayal of a happy human being that a philosopher should.

          Another great philosopher is Stephan Molyneux: he combines rational philosophy, Austrian economics and modern psychology into an intellectually consistent framework. Here is his best video:

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          Apr 26 2012: i would say, for the open minded, who are curious, rand mght be good as an eye opener. but for those who intend to nitpick, or dismiss an idea if they spot any problems, rand can have the opposite effect.

          for example. rand idolizes entrepreneurs. while in reality, we have to "worship" entrepreneur function, but not any specific entrepreneur. we all know that businessmen are far far from being the nice guys. they are the ones who happily stand in queues at senators' offices with large bags of money, and they never complain about it. they are the ones who put poisons in our food if they can, and they are the bernie madoffs and other bigtime bandits who happily steal what they can lay a hand on. corporate figures are not the good guys. they are not the heroes. most of them are just opportunists, as everyone else.

          capitalism is not good because it makes such figures the leaders. capitalism is good exactly because it keeps such figures in check way better than the state can.
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    Apr 25 2012: It would be interesting to see anyone try to implement such a policy, especially now, in this climate. I nelieve the great resistance you will find to implementation is that everybody believes the lie that their money a) has any real value and b) is theirs to begin with.

    First of all, it is a Biblical mandate to pay your taxes. Taxes in America are for the common good, and they keep the country maintained. I think it is sad that we have allowed ourselves to become convinced that Mr Evil government is taking away our money. Refusing to pay taxes is not only un-Christian but also un-American, and should again be seen as such.

    Second of all, since American society views anybody who struggles as being lazy or at best unlucky "too bad, buddy". We are less inclined to want to be required to assist. Or even worse, should we be requiredto give additional funds directly for the support of others, then we would in our arrogance try to place restrcitions on the use of the funds, such as only giving to certain groups, etc.

    Were something like this ever to work, we would have to shift our thinking from a belief in the indiividual right to have as much stuff as we can, to one in which we no longer see our earnings as our own, but as something to help for the good of all. We also must stop judging each other. . . But that just has to end regardless.

    And before any Libertarians start spouting me out as a commie,I'd humbly ask them to understand that I got this crazy notion from the Word of God.
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      Apr 25 2012: we should see our earning as not our own?

      lucky it is nothing else than the word of god, thus having no relevance to me. otherwise it would sound really crazy.
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        Apr 26 2012: Ah Mr Pinter, I do appreciate your forthrightness. Especially since you do indeed prove the point that it will be very difficult to implement additonal taxation for the express purpose of helping others on the community.

        Yes, I'll admit it sounds nuts as all git-out, but what I am proposing is this: the only way that we will as a community agree to the plan of spending a portion of our income helping others is when we viewothers as more valuable than our income. The perfect way to do that is to see it not as "our" earnings but something that has been given to us, that we should use for the best effect, which is to help others. The idea of divorcing ourselves of the idea that we "earned" anything, I quote scripture, but I've found similar ideas in karma, the kindness of the universe, dumb luck, etc, Just think of all the money you get just as something that happened to come your way just because the universe is magnanimous.

        When you have reached that level of thought, you will no longer see money as something to be used wholly and singularly for your benefit. You will see yourself as a steward of a resource, and the. You will see this resource as something that needs to be "paid forward" for example, in direct application to make other peoples' lives as fortunate as your own.

        Yes, again, you will find it crazy. But it is precisely because you and many others find it crazy that I realise that what is proposed in this question will never come to pass. And that, good sir, is a cause of great sorrow.
      • Apr 26 2012: Krisztian, thank you for the author references.
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      Apr 27 2012: "Taxes in America are for the common good, and they keep the country maintained"... Evidence please?

      25% of our money goes to defense... That means buying weapons which are no longer used for defense, but wars of aggression... In your personal life, are you spending 25% of your money on weapons?

      I'll assume no.

      So... Don't you invest your money more wisely, and less violently than the government? Don't they waste enough of you money needlessly murdering people and erasing our constitution?

      Is it really important to you that we get drug addicts off their parents couches and into prison cells? I find it incredibly convenient that god wants us to give the government more money... Especially since it's fighting his holy war for him.
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        Apr 27 2012: "defense"
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        Apr 28 2012: As for keeping the country maintained, I would think that should be fairly evident, in that we have a country to live in, but if you need some examples: street lights, school systems, highways, police and fire departments, even subsidiesto farms that keep the prices of your food down to a manageable level (managing us, by the way, not the food) and yes, also my little deposit that supplements my income that is evidence of all the years of work that I've paid into this baby, as well as another little assistance program that I can use as my body starts falling apart.

        I should assume you should know by now my stance on war. It is anathema to God (the true God, that is) and the money we spend on war (sanitized by the word "defense") is a twisted sickness.

        The reason why Jesus teaches us to pay our taxes is 1) to understand our place in the world, 2) to keep everything in perspective as to what's really important (a) not to be tied to the possession of money and (b) submit our souls and lives to God and our physical bodies to the state, and 3) by all this, so we can be good examples of His grace and His love.

        Instead of all this "we're angry so we shouldn't have to pay our taxes because all the government does is drone bomb and buy catregena coke for secret service agents and dare to give us all socialized medicine" what we are required to do it act. Get involved. Go into politics at whatever level. If you don't like how the government is spending your money they tell them, That's part of what OWS is all about. They were saying look, these guys already got thier money, why is the gvmt giving them more of ours?

        And again, your comment about me just wanting to get lazy junkie off the couch and into prison iis evidence that Mr Harrison's premise will be terrifically difficult to implement, given that we have already made such qualitative judgments on other people.
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    Apr 25 2012: Firstly I do believe the taxation system should cover the needs of its society to a level that make it a "society" and has an empathy for all its citizens. Society provides the infrastructure to make its citizens safe from harm (violence or intolerance) allows them to get around by road rail etc and if it chooses wisely it will provide universal health care. AND oh yeah education so they can make decisions about becoming libertarian or not lol.

    Maybe ..... a way to give recognition is that the government could send an occasional proclamation to some of its citizens thanking them for their contribution to a specific project and this personal contact will undoubtedly provide the same amounts of amount of happiness as does giving.

    We All humans share the same DNA and are family. Many of our flaws are geonomatically passed to us diversity makes some well suited to play this present game and others not so well suited and leads them into unwise decisions. We could punishing our family members and help them. Unlike the libertarians I be say we are obliged to help to pay for our protection.

    I agree with the facts that we need more effort going to help. Then I think good governance should do it through taxation and we should all feel proud to be contribution each to our ability.

    And lastly the time honored trickle down effect has not worked ... maybe too much water retainers in the subsoil
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    Apr 24 2012: It is immoral to initiate the use of force against another person or their property for any reason. If we define this as the foundational libertarian principle, then any idea which contradicts it is by definition not libertarian. Hence, slavery, tax, initiated violence of any kind is not allowed under libertarianism no matter how creatively property is defined. Note that if it is immoral to rape, murder, steal, trespass, assault or defraud someone, then it is also immoral to threaten to do so. How this would be enforced is a matter of debate and may vary from place to place in a libertarian society, but the universal agreement would be that it is immoral.

    Rather than get into a discussion over the definitions of what property and force really are, consider that libertarianism is a social and moral framework that a 5 year old could perfectly understand, with simple concepts of property ("It's mine!"), the immorality of initiated force ("He started it!"), and universality ("But you said he could do that, so why can't I?"). It takes an adult mind with 12 years of 'education' from schools and hypocrisy from his parents to betray the integrity of simple consistency and accept the complex mess of unprocessed contradictions known as "statism". This involves justifications for outrageous concepts like forced education of children, a social contract that no participants signed, forced taxes to pay for what some want, war etc that any private person would be seen as insane or evil if he carried out himself.

    However you want to define property, create a new word if you wish to describe what Libertarians mean by it, and then consider their position more thoroughly, this approach can be helpful when using words that have been misused by too many groups. Similarly, try inventing words to replace capitalism or force if it helps you get to the core of the issue from the libertarian perspective, then you may be able to see what we're harping on about.
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      Apr 24 2012: i don't know who blew the horn, but the latest upsurge in the number of libertarians around here is a great development. i felt a little isolated lately.

      anyway, well argued.
  • Apr 24 2012: Tax IS for other people. (i'm guessing someone else has said this?)
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      Apr 24 2012: Haha, what? You mean you don't want to read pages of arguments about the legitimacy of taxation as a public policy???

      Fritzie said this, and I responded that people hate paying taxes. This policy (letting people choose where and how they spend some percentage of their income pro-socially) might be a way of structuring (or raising) taxes to make people happier, and happier about spending pro-socially, which is what taxation, at its core, is.

      CTRL+F Fritzie, if you're curious.
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    Apr 24 2012: actually it is not the libertarian position to "leave people alone". the libertarian position is that it is not right to use force to get things from one person in order to help another. helping is good, and you ought to do it yourself. it is good if you provide service for the poor for free or reduced price, if you give for charity or something like that.
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      Apr 24 2012: So, to the extent that requiring (forcing) people to spend pro-socially (getting things from one person in order to help another), this runs contrary to libertarian views.

      The point of the rebuttal that immediately follows that sentence is to show that we (at least, most people) already accept taxation as necessary for society to function, even though we force people to pay taxes in order to help people who are mostly not them.

      Unless you are always opposed to taxation on principle (an extreme position, which, if you take, then we probably won't see eye to eye on this or much else), then you should favor something that is both less restrictive than taxation (since you can choose how to spend pro-socially), and designed to help you at least as much as other people.
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        Apr 24 2012: you, the majority might accept it, but we, libertarians hold that taxation is a form of theft.
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          Apr 24 2012: It is a theft AND throwing money down the drain. All public services - one by one - are simply POOR and/or unsustainable. From pensions to trains.

          But no, the majority "already accept taxation as necessary for society to function". MALfunction would be more precise.
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          Apr 24 2012: Haha, I know! Thanks for drawing a sharp contrast between the libertarian and liberal positions, I guess. We could get into a debate about taxes and government. I think the "taxes are always theft and theft is always wrong position" is extreme, rigid, incoherent, and hilarious. I find it particularly amusing that we are having this debate on the Internet, which was invented by DARPA, AKA the US government, and funded by taxpayer research. Also, do you want roads that aren't toll roads? Do you want clean air? Do you want the Bernie Madoff's of the world to be prosecuted? etc. etc.

          But what's interesting is that you could take the libertarian position and still be in favor of requiring people to spend money pro-socially, because at least relative to regular taxation, it is less restrictive (because you choose how to spend pro-socially), AND (as per this TED talk) it will make you happier. As social animals, pro-social spending makes us happy; that seems like a straightforward proposition based in evolutionary psychology, everyday experience and so forth.

          But taxes, for whatever reason, don't make people happy, even though much of the rationale is arguably the same (see Fritzie's comment.) Maybe it's because the benefits are too abstract; in a nation of 300 million people, for example, you don't see the benefits of your contribution directly, you aren't thanked for paying them, and so forth.

          So you could take the position that taxation is theft and therefore wrong (a simplistic and misguided view), and you could also take the position that the government can't do anything right (a self-fulfilling prophecy that serves the interests of polluting industrialists and major banks at the expense of the common man), and you could STILL favor requiring people to spend some percentage of their income on other people, because that is less "theft-like" and less directly pro-government than taxation, but it also is designed for your happiness and autonomy. Thoughts?
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        Apr 24 2012: i'm very happy that i was able to entertain you. however, i must point out that your arguments are, alas, might have been entertaining once, but now older than dirt. it is not enough in a debate to be sure. being sure is not important. having good arguments is. as burt rutan pointed out, darpa network was a stationary, never developing project in the hands of the government. but as soon as it got out to the public, it started to grow as mushrooms after rain.

        you got the benefit-cost problem backwards. government spending is like that, the benefits are immediately visible, while the cost seems not that serious. as henry hazlitt explained beautifully, based on the reasoning of bastiat, we celebrate what is seen, and ignore what is unseen.
  • May 16 2012: This conversation amounts to riding a train, debating about whether leaning right or left will change its destination. What's needed is someone going ahead to lay a little new track.

    I'd encourage reading this depression's Keynes, Australian Modern Monetary Theorist (MMT), Steve Keen. His "Debunking Economics" thoroughly demonstrates that neither the Austrian / austerian school, nor Friedman's Monetarism, nor the pseudo-Keynesians (actually Hicks and Walras are their predecessors) describe what corresponds to actual economic reality.

    One example: With sovereign, fiat currency, Government creates currency out of nothing. It must create and spend it before it can demand its return in taxes. Taxes do *not* fund government, nor does borrowing, nor Chinese investors, etc. The U.S. government could literally mint a few trillion-dollar coins and pay the entire deficit tomorrow. It does not have "debt" in any conventional sense of that word (unless you know some families who can legally mint their debts' repayment).

    This puts an entirely different light on taxation. Tax liabilities are what makes the money valuable. As another MMT'er, Warren Mosler, says, you could make business cards valuable if you had to have one to leave the conference room.

    Notice that the above is not even slightly controversial, and describes history, not some theory. According to its first-ever audit, the U.S. central bank (the "Fed") created $16 - $29 trillion, out of nothing, to bail out the banks after Lehman went bankrupt.

    The big question is not "Isn't this inflationary?"... The Lehman bailout exceeds TARP by orders of magnitude, nearly doubled the base money supply...and where's the inflation five years later?

    Nope, the big question is: Why does Wall Street get a multi-trillion-dollar bailout at the drop of a hat while social safety net programs and revenue sharing get the shaft?

    And when will we start treating money as a tool to serve the public rather than the banks?
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      May 16 2012: okay, so the argument is the following. we know that there is a fraudulent activity going on. the solution is not that we stop it. but rather, we make the frauds to hand out a fair share of the loot to everyone.

      granted, if the government creates new money, it might be fair to give us some of it (and not only friends at wall street). but i suggest a better solution. stop creating new money.
  • May 14 2012: Odd that not many comments reflect the wisdom of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Economists like Steve Keen and Bill Mitchell explain modern money is not constrained by commodity backing, and governments as the monopoly issuers of currency are not constrained by "debt" or tax receipts in spending it. The real constraint is inflation -- issuing more money than the economy can supply goods and services to satisfy. Episodes of hyperinflation occur in economies with impaired productive capacities (post-WWI Germany, post-colonial Zimbabwe). MMT suggests guaranteed employment as the correct use of this monopoly power. Offering such guaranteed employment would fully employ all citizens and do a lot to curb resentment about being taxed.

    I should add that taxes do *not* fund government. Neither does government borrowing. And government "debt" is perhaps the most deceptive possible use of that word. Show me a family that can (legally) mint the means to repay its debt, and I'll say the term "debt" is accurate.

    Therefore, taxes are not to fund government, but to make the money valuable. The British couldn't give away their money when they took over Nigeria until they initiated a "hut tax." ... Now the Nigerians wanted the money the Brits wanted to spend, so they could pay tax with it. Government has to spend first. And the "deficit" is really the money that the rest of the economy can hold.

    This is pretty non-theoretical, too. Government in the U.S. can issue currency at will. The audit of the Fed disclosed that the U.S. central bank issued $16 - $29 trillion to make the financial markets whole in the wake of Lehman Brothers' collapse.

    The trouble here: Only the banks got relief. Guaranteed employment would lift the entire economy, not just the oligarchs.
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      May 15 2012: there is something seriously lacking from this argument.

      we don't want jobs just for the sake of it. we want stuff. we want jobs in order to have stuff. one man's job is another man's stuff. that's why we earn a wage, because we provided some stuff for someone else, so in return, we get money to buy the stuff they produced.

      a job is useless unless it is productive. if a job is productive, the free market can provide it. if a man can produce more value than his requested wage, there will be an entrepreneur lending the necessary capital, and then reap profit. so in this case, we don't need the government. the government is needed only to create such jobs that don't produce enough to cover the wage. but such jobs don't make more stuff. such jobs actually consume stuff. they produce negative profit, and makes us poorer in total. we don't want the government to provide jobs of that kind.

      full employment is not the tool, high unemployment is not the cause. they are symptoms. a functioning economy has full employment if you only count involuntary unemployment. if it is not the case, there are some problems with the economy. for some reason, entrepreneurs can't hire. and that problem is to be fixed. you don't fix a problem by fixing the symptom. you can not outlaw the problem.
  • May 9 2012: Taxpayers would be a lot happier if the bracket system was not used to determine the tax rates since it makes
    many believe that if you are in the xx% "bracket" that is your tax rate and that there are "steps" in the tax rates.
    In reality, your tax rate is always less than the bracket rates and there are no steps.
    A better system would be simple tables to show the actual tax, or graphs to show tax rate percentages.
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    May 9 2012: Some others have already mentioned giving individuals some control over their taxes, but let's take it to its logical conclusion.

    To make people happy about paying their state and federal taxes, give them full control over where that money goes. Complete control. Let's say citizens receive a list of issues, projects, and initiatives. They then write in a percentage they would like to put towards each issue (yes, 0% is an option). However, they must still pay the same amount of total taxes.

    With citizens able to choose where all of their taxes go, we can speculate on a few results:

    1) Some crucial public projects would go underfunded and fail.
    2) Taxpayers would be happier. They would have the power of choice, after all!
    3) Politicians and government workers would have to find other jobs (after all, who would assign a percentage of their taxes towards governmental wages? [just a joke, I swear!] )

    There is no chance of this system being implemented any time soon, but it's a nice thought! However, it doesn't take much to improve on our current system of taxation: "Put the money in the bag, or else! And I won't tell you what I'm spending it on, either!"
  • May 7 2012: @Bill Harrison: "But libertarian views have those characteristics (which stem from a lack of empathy for poor people generally, either because you can't or won't empathize with poor people's needs, equating them to rich people's wants), and you can choose to respond to those criticisms or not."

    Sorry, but this shows a gross misunderstanding of libertarian ideology.
    I recommend two things:
    1. Read http://www.fee.org/library/not-yours-to-give-2/ to know why some of us have made the choice.
    2. Observe how libertarians run their own lives. Not by talking to people on the internet... look in your own society.
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    May 7 2012: Ok, finally through some of the comments! Idea: -Let me Spend My Tax Money!
    To re-engage people with their representative governments, since their is a lot of talk about how to bridge this gap, apart from the gap in happiness, wouldn't a progressively higher tax percentage YOU CHOOSE where to spend on catch on? Mathematical buffers can be put in to smooth down great volatility, but basically first year I pay taxes... whatever is calculated for me, be it 10 dollars or 10.000, I can choose in which area ie Health, Infrastructure, education, defense etc... (I recommend further breakdown - so that if the ONE issue I care about is Science, but I would like to see more mathematics there should even be a way for me to pin down a percentage of my taxes directly to that issue), after an initial year or so, one could build up to at least 50% of my taxes being spent THE WAY I WANT THEM spent. Let's be a little Post-modern here and embrace the world we live in and the age we live in too. We know game dynamics work. So why not apply it to this problem. I can have my own tax game -everyone should have their own profile with points, and every year we log in a few times to manage our scores. Imagine if we tie in how many seats MY PARTY got in the last election to how much weight my prioritization of my tax has? Imagine if my party can present me with different definitions and boxes i can tick? -If my representative cares a lot about the environment and I want to fund a new national park...why not give a specific box for his constituency to prioritize or not? Suddenly, although the local government in a large country can have outreach, local identity and involvement and a stronger sense of belonging and identity not to mention the stakeholder's position. Think about it. if someone only cares about military spending, let them funnel all their taxes towards that...if on the other hand I disagree with military spending altogether I would feel more happy if my money DOESN'T GO TO IT
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    Apr 26 2012: Bill, I live in a country where the tax code runs to over 12000 pages - and there's no excuse for any system taking money from ordinary people to be that complex. The best way to get people to give to good causes is to decrease the involvement of bureaucracy and give them greater control over their own earnings. When people are working all hours to support a bloated bureaucracy that leaves little scope for what you call pro-social giving - not just because the bureaucracy sucks up the money, but because trying to scrape a living and deal with the complexity of bureaucracy takes time away from pro-social activities.

    Beyond dealing with the basic functions which politicians are elected to manage, there's no excuse for the state to get involved in people's lives.

    Actually, if you look into what really influences people's giving, you'll find that the media and social media are a lot more effective than any state department.
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    Apr 26 2012: Bill, It's in the nature of bureaucracies to proliferate, whether within a single department or by creation of new departments.

    The difference between tax and pro-social spending is quite simple - the former is enforced, the latter is voluntary. the various experiments quoted lack one critical control. In the experimental situation, the giving of money to spend on others is a novelty. As such that money is treated differently from money flowing through a run of the mill bureaucratic process.

    There are examples of philanthropy being tied in to the tax system, and they do result in some increased gain for charities. That has a lot to do with the fact that people giving to a charity of their choice would rather see money go to the charity than to the taxman.
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      Apr 26 2012: Not only is pro-social spending voluntary, but you get to choose where it goes, and people express gratitude, and you get to directly see the results of what you paid for, etc.

      But I don't see why 10% of your "taxes", for example, couldn't be pro-social/discretionary instead of it going into the general coffer to pay for things you disagree with. We obviously need taxes. But here's another option/category of payment - you're required to pay it, but you choose where it goes. And that might make people a little bit happier.

      I've argued in the past that money is more like a vote than voting is, because it is a direct claim check on the allocation of social resources. If Warren Buffett wants thousands of people to paint his portrait every day, he can do that, because he has lots of "claim checks" on society's capital, which includes its human capital. The point being that if we value people being equal under the law, then we can maybe give people a little bit more control over where social resources are allocated, without letting people just keep it all for themselves. And maybe that would make people happier with their governments and the societies they live in.
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        Apr 26 2012: The problem with routing those funds through a bureaucracy is that the state would increase taxation by 10%, skim off the cost of administering it, then return the money to people in the vague hope that people would do with it what the state wants them to do. As processes go, that's hugely inefficient, even in the realms of social engineering.
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          Apr 26 2012: But what I'm saying is that tax funds are already routed through an already existing bureaucracy via tax withholding, and (at least in the US) we already get back money through tax refunds/returns. This wouldn't even have to be a tax increase necessarily - you could be an anti-government, anti-tax person and still favor this policy, because you're getting the same amount of money back or more, (at the least restrictive end of the spectrum) along with a note saying, for example, that it would be really cool if you spent 5% of your money pro-socially, that might make you a little happier.

          Half the point of the program would be for the benefit of the giver, not the receiver, so I fail to see how that would be inefficient, given that there are a huge number of pro-social causes that need money and which people could choose to give to.

          I get that you really dislike bureaucracy, but there are so many ways that this could be implemented with very few changes to how things already are. It seems like your objections can be easily met if you toggle any number of variables, but I reject the "no, it wouldn't work and it would be inefficient because bureaucracy/government are inefficient" argument. If you dislike government to the extent that you don't want it to work, then you can design it in such a way that it doesn't - which is why modern Republicans should never be put in positions of government.
  • Apr 26 2012: I'm curious if compelling someone to be generous negates happiness. If you give someone (or some government) $X without being coerced, the assumption here is that you will receive a certain amount of happiness. But what if someone says you HAVE to give that same $X? Does the requirement to give impact the amount of happiness you get from the giving?
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    Apr 26 2012: I propose an alternative to all of this taxation: the government launches a new website where you can pick and choose from a big list of which government departments or projects you wish to fund, and exactly how much. You can modify your subscription at any time. You can choose to donate ZERO if you wish.

    The government can put private alternatives to each of their programmes next to theirs on the list, so that people can make a more fair choice. So instead of welfare, you could choose to send $30/month of your salary on the Red Cross. Instead of funding the war in Iraq, you could fund a private army to arrest Kony. Note that everyone's overall donation amount can be public, so that people can identify anyone who is not paying their 'fair share', and such individuals can choose whether they want there hassle of any social stigma from this or not.

    When the funding for a department dips below a certain level, it naturally is abolished or privatised. This would eliminate any immorality with taxation, but they are unlikely to do this, because insecure people who have gained power unjustly are afraid of being judged by the honest standards of a competitive free market.
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      Apr 26 2012: So, we could think of payment options along a spectrum - involuntary spending (taxation) and voluntary spending.

      Basic economic theory regarding externalities, public goods, and the commons, justify making people pay for things they benefit from, even if they refuse to acknowledge that they benefit. Examples include standing armies, roads, environmental protections, an educated populace, etc.

      In a free market, people over-consume goods that have negative externalities for other people, and under-consume goods that have positive externalities for other people. Correcting for these scenarios requires laws, which require a backdrop of force.

      Markets fail massively, particularly in the absence of a state. Although I think there should be more "required" voluntary spending, I think we also need taxation for that reason.
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    Apr 26 2012: A bureaucratic decision which forces you to spend money in a certain way is a tax. The only difference between what you suggest and today's taxes is that there is a degree of choice about what your tax is spent on. Apply that idea to existing taxes, and you would have people only paying tax for the policies they support. How could that be made to work?

    Then apply tax justification to your new tax suggestion. Who decides what type of spend is acceptable under this new tax rule? If these causes justify tax support, why are they not supported by the existing tax regime? What happens if a tax cause doesn't get any support?

    Then it's a situation which would require a huge bureacratic overhead to setup, manage and police. How would that be funded? Would a proportion of the spend intended for these causes be funnelled off to support a proliferating bureaucracy? How would you prevent that new bureaucracy from losing focus and becoming a self-sustaining behemoth?

    And more fundamentally - has it ever been shown that giving people someone else's money, in the absence of a real personal relationship, makes them happy?
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      Apr 26 2012: So, in one of the posts below, I lay out and agree with one of your concerns, that taxation requires people to pay for things they don't necessarily agree with. Which is why this would just be an interesting side program and not a replacement for taxes.

      As for your other concerns - additional bureaucracy, who decides what is acceptable pro-social spending, giving people money that isn't yours, I have a few responses.

      First, it wouldn't necessarily even have to be enforced at all by a bureaucracy, it could just be a suggestion. Imagine that you're refunded the first 5 dollars of your income taxes every year, with the suggestion that you use it for some pro-social cause, because research shows that doing that will make you happier and better off. You don't even have to do it, you can opt out if you want. But the default setting will be that people will choose some pro-social cause and they will be slightly better off for it.

      And second, you can toggle the switch of "yours or someone else's money" via tax refunds or some other means, and you can also toggle the personal relationship switch depending on the circumstances or charity. In the TED talk, apparently people were made happier by giving people someone else's money, in the absence of a (pre-existing) personal relationship.

      And the net result would be that people would just see a 5 dollar bill once a year (theirs or the public's money - who cares?) with a note saying that they would probably be happier if they spent it pro-socially in some way; and because that would be the default option, lots of people would tend to do it; and maybe that would make people happier and more charitable over time.

      Basically, we're wired to be happy when we behave pro-socially, and paying taxes is pro-social behavior that we already require, so would it be possible to implement a social policy that would make people happier about behaving pro-socially, given that such a policy would be less restrictive than taxation?
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        Apr 26 2012: Any redistribution of funds requires some bureaucracy to handle the simple logistics, and I have never seen the sense in any of the complex tax systems which take in money under one heading and give it back under another. That's just bureaucracy for its own sake. And why would it make people any happier to donate at the suggestion of a bureaucracy than to donate of their own accord.

        As regards being wired to be happy when bahaving pro-socially and paying taxes being pro-social behaviour - I can guarantee to find enough people who are unhappy when they pay taxes to prove that that statement is in no way an absolute verity.
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          Apr 26 2012: If you take the time to read the rest of this conversation, you'll see that I completely agree with your second point, that many people are unhappy paying taxes. You will also see me and other people saying that paying taxes is arguably pro-social spending. This conversation is essentially about teasing out and reconciling the differences between pro-social spending and taxation, to see if we can implement a policy that will tend to make people happier about spending on other people.

          As to your first point, I don't necessarily see much additional bureaucracy, given that people (at least in the US) already receive tax returns every year. The way it would work would be similar to what Larry Lessig has suggested with the "democracy voucher" - just giving people a bit more say in what they do with their money could potentially have some positive effects.

          So the idea that you would need some massive new bureaucracy (it would be handled by the same department that does tax returns) in order to implement this isn't necessarily right.
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    Apr 25 2012: Bill, you are using the logical fallacy known as the appeal to popularity. Just because something is popular does not make it true or good or justified in any way. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argumentum_ad_populum

    One could claim that smoking is a healthy pastime, since millions of people do it. However, knowing the dangers of smoking, we instead say that smoking is not a healthy pastime despite the fact that millions do it.

    One could claim that slavery is morally justified if the majority of people within society support it, or at least do not oppose it (as has been the case in the past).

    At a time in history when most people believed the world was flat, one could have claimed the world is flat because the majority believed it.
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      Apr 25 2012: You're right in that everyone in the world believing in something doesn't make it true. But everyone believing something doesn't make it false either.

      Also, as Wikipedia notes, democracy is an exception; democracy is predicated on equal rights under the law, and by extension, because your vote counts only as much as any other one person's vote, the popularity of a view within systems of representative democracy is what counts.

      So in a democracy, if everyone votes that we need to pay taxes in order to have roads or publicly funded research or police forces, then that is what happens. There are generally constitutional provisions that keep a majority of people from abusing minorities. But for the most part, the fact that we have to live together as equals under the law, with one man having one vote, means that the popular will is what rules.

      You can say, well, that doesn't speak to the correctness of the view that taxation is justified - if everyone thought rape was justified, that wouldn't make it right.

      But in the context of taxation and democratic systems, it kind of does, because there are always trade-offs involved in any sort of public policy argument, and given that reality, and given that we all have to live on the same planet together, I favor policies that promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people over time, and equal justice under the law.

      If you benefit from public goods like roads, clean air, educated people, armed forces, etc. then you should have to pay for them, even if you are opposed to taxation on principle. If you disagree, then it is your job in a democracy to convince the majority that we don't need those things. I agree with you that governments spend our money and resources on idiotic wars, prisons, and other things that I fundamentally disagree with, and I attempt to change that via public discourse, but that is distinct from me saying that taxation or democracy are unjustified.
  • Apr 25 2012: Giving because you have to will not cause happiness. Taxes already support welfare and Social Security among other things.

    Give from your heart and it will cause you happiness because your are genuinely giving a portion of your income to a good cause. But if you were required to give a portion then you would find that you would grugingly give money especially when you might be overwhelmed by unexpected bills and debts.
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    Apr 25 2012: Isn't that precisely what taxes are?