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?


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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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