"Pursuing Happiness" By Joseph Ashby

In modest enough fashion, Joseph Ashby recounts the ordinary but nevertheless impressive story of how he and his wife worked full time while putting themselves through college during the first year of their marriage. Despite all that, they were “resolved not to let schooling keep us from starting a family,” he remembers, so aside from classes he worked as a landscaper, she answered phones at a customer service center, and they conceived a child. “Our plan was simple: put in the heavy work hours while we could, pay off the car, set aside money for the pending baby, and save as much as we could after that,” he writes, so they got rid of their cell phones, washed clothing in the tub to save trips to the laundromat, studied rather than getting a full night’s sleep, spent long Saturdays mowing lawns, and otherwise lived as ascetic an existence as they could.

Baby arrived! Sleep declined. Then tax time came, and “we felt like something had to be wrong. Our tax liability (mostly payroll) was more than we had paid in rent over the entire year…” The experience caused the author to set out on a quest “to answer certain fundamental questions about government.” This being a book of essays about conservatism, you can imagine his conclusion: the tax burden is too high. It’s a perfectly defensible conclusion. But the faulty logic that Ashby employs to get there is problematic, especially if he hopes to persuade an educated audience of non-conservatives that he is right.

The essay’s personal narrative is weakened by the fact that a married couple with a child and both husband and wife qualifying as full-time students don’t actually face a particularly high tax burden, especially if they are making a typical customer service and landscaping wage. Later in the essay, the author includes something he would regard as explaining away this objection. “Once the taxes were collected, we faced the demoralizing option of returning to the government to beg for the money back through Pell Grants, Earned Income Credit, food stamps, Medicaid, or other programs,” he writes. “Our sustenance and prosperity were de-linked from our own faculties and effort and tied to a bureaucrat’s actuarial table.” Given the social stigma associated with food stamps, I understand how the prospect of applying for them might demoralize someone (though again, if you’re eligible for food stamps your tax burden is relatively low). What I find hard to accept is that it’s demoralizing to apply for a Pell Grant or to file for the earned income tax credit, or that doing so is tantamount to begging. It struck me as particularly weird that the author would feel like a beggar simply for seeking the return of assets that, by his logic, were illegitimately taken.

Here we arrive at the weakness in the author’s principled argument. In his telling, he delved into various works of political philosophy, and “two principal worldviews emerged in every case: According to the first philosophy, a just society could only exist if its members had the right to do what they wished with what they earned. The second philosophy dictated that for a just society to exist, some of what people earned must be taken so that all could be maintained in relative economic equality.”

I submit that this binary isn’t very useful.

The first philosophy would seem to prohibit taxation entirely in a just society. The second philosophy is too vague to be usefully descriptive — what exactly is relative economic equality? — but however defined, neither worldview describes very well the philosophy that is the reigning consensus among many Americans: put roughly, some redistribution is justified to care for the least well off, but beyond that debt to society people are by and large free to keep what they earn and spend money on what they wish. The devil is in the details, and there are intense disagreements about degree, but it’s a glaring omission when you don’t include a middle ground so big it encompasses John F. Kennedy and Milton Friedman.

Articulating his own philosophy, the author seems to reject the social safety net and all redistributive welfare spending on principle. “The money we earned wasn’t just ours, it was us; an extension of who we were no less than fingers are an extension of a hand,” he writes. “The vision described by President Roosevelt relied upon taking the sweat of one man’s brow and giving it to another as his own. Cries of necessity merely served as a smokescreen, covering up the true nature of a redistributive system.” This is evasive nonsense. Read any semi-complete history of the Great Depression. The “cries of necessity” weren’t mere smokescreen! And redistributive policies passed by Congress in that era not because people were evading the true nature of redistribution, but because they directly confronted what the United States would be like absent any of it.

Several lines later, Abraham Lincoln is invoked, decrying men who take other men’s labor—thus slavery is implicitly equated with paying into the welfare state. This last portion of the essay is sufficiently vague that the reader is left unclear about whether the author would really embrace the full implications of his theory. If pressed, I suspect he’d concede that, even in principle, a minimal amount of social welfare spending financed by redistributive taxes is better than allowing people without food to starve to death, or handicapped orphans to die on the streets from exposure. But his stated positions don’t allow for that.

I raise these examples not to vilify Ashby, or to score a cheap debating point, but to highlight the problem with essays about taxation that go no farther than vague statements of poorly conceived first principles. The impulse is understandable: there is self-evident truth in the notion that humans have an individual right to the fruits of their labor. Once a concession is made that any redistribution is justified, the purist fears that the whole game is over — suddenly the argument is over the appropriate scope of the redistributive welfare state.

As a practical matter, however, all is lost for people like Ashby. You’ll be hard pressed to find people — even staunch conservatives — who favor an end to all redistribution by government. Perhaps this widespread consensus, which has endured for many generations, is mistaken. I certainly want to encourage writers of all people to stand on principle, even if it means mounting radical challenges to current arrangements in the society we share. But if that’s your project, have the courage to confront its full implications: impoverished Americans relying on charities that, if the whole of history is any guide, won’t meet all their needs; a wholesale re-organization of American government; massive social upheaval as the country adjusts to the new status quo; and that’s not a comprehensive list.

Ashby gives us something different — an impressive personal story of self-reliance and delayed gratification that anyone in a similar position would do well to emulate, followed by a principled argument against redistribution whose full implications he doesn’t nearly confront. As a result, I cannot help but wonder if the author has failed to grapple with the practical consequences of the ideas he espouses, seeming to reject most taxation and social welfare, but never acknowledging what it would mean to reorganize America in that fashion, because he cannot actually defend everything it would entail. If he is inclined to respond, I’d encourage him to either grapple with the most unpleasant consequences of his ideas, or else to find arguments for lowering the tax burden that he actually believes.

(Previous entries in this series are here and here.)