Friday, February 20, 2009

Like tax cuts? Let's eliminate the Morality Tax.

I once boggled my somewhat socially conservative doctor that a "tax" could be defined as any cost that you were forced to bear that was an unavoidable cost of doing business.

It didn't matter if you paid it to the government or not, or if it was the result of law, regulation, or simply "common practice." Anything that was the unavoidable predicate of doing business - such as overhead costs of recovering from ten or fifteen different insurance programs, which for one family doctor, require a staff of five clerks - was a tax upon your resources, your time and your liberty.

Of course, all human societies are based on exchanges of this nature. We can, however, calculate the cost/benefit ratios with the application of computers and common sense and come up with an assessment as to whether a tax is fair.

Fair and reasonable taxation brings you as much or more benefit than you could otherwise get - or brings you benefits you could not reasonably get at any price as an individual. For instance, while rich people may complain that they are taxed at a higher rate than poor people, they benefit disproportionately from social stability and low crime rates. When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he famously replied, "That's where the money is." So high levels of crime can be seen as a regressive tax upon wealth, and they are extorted in terms of direct insurance costs, security systems, the requirement for personal security and gated communities and other fairly direct costs. This is aside from the direct human impacts of having one's liberty very severely restricted. Regressive taxes are unfair, and need to be rationally addressed.

A fair tax is one that is as low as possible in order to achieve the desired effect with as few consequential costs as possible. So one of the first principles is to not simply throw money away on things that bring no concrete, provable, positive benefit. To the extent that tax dollars go to such efforts, those taxes ARE manifestly unfair.

Unfair taxes impose costs that negatively impact your life or restrict otherwise legal choices without proof of overriding benefit. The latter sort of tax is the sort that breeds resentment and evasion, generates contempt for the law, creates black markets where none existed and spreads cynicism and corruption throughout structures that absolutely rely on high levels of personal integrity in order to function; the offices of the court and law enforcement.

The problem becomes more complex when a tax is not even seen to be a tax, compounded when the benefit - or supposed benefit - advantages one group while imposing costs diffusely, or worse yet, disproportionately imposes costs on an entirely different group of people.

I was talking about single-payer health care to my doctor, who reflexively resisted the idea until I pointed out just how much it would simplify his life and reduce his overhead. I pointed out that doctors in Canada maintaining roughly the same level of patient traffic might have one person on staff, or perhaps at most two, and someone starting out could establish a practice with one person on a part-time basis. In many ways, an inflexible adherence to an ideological viewpoint blinds us to costs that a more pragmatic vision might well sharply reduce, or even eliminate.

The idea applies to drug policy as well, and the more you hate the idea of paying money to support people who "don't deserve it," the more outraged you should be.

One of the more rational arguments against marijuana is that people that use it "will never amount to anything." Now, this is an opinion based on not much at all - I mean, I think we all would like to have the slacker record sported by that notorious pothead, Willie Nelson. But even if the presumption were actually true, the outcome of throwing casual users - and even growers - into prison for long stretches interrupts their lives and gives them a criminal record - pretty much ensuring the exact outcome promised by anti-drug crusaders, at a cost several orders of magnitude greater than doing absolutely nothing about the problems associated with recreational drug use, or even wide-spread addiction.

Indeed, the costs being what they are, and the punitive attitudes toward addicts being what they are, the current culture of prohibition prevents us from doing anything significantly positive about the real problems associated with drug use - and what small initiatives as do exist, such as needle exchanges, which do have very real and measurable impacts on disease and death are met with horror and often federal interference.

Furthermore, that federal interference seems at times to be driven by assumptions that have no foundation in science, nor respect for trained and certified medical opinion. The record of the DEA in regard to physicians who specialize in pain management is particularly troubling; it speaks to some dogmatic or religious presumption that anyone seeking relief for pain is probably lying, and that any doctor who believes such a story is no doubt a willing co-conspirator. That's an insulting and dysfunctional presumption that, aside from anything else, directly interferes with the responsible provision of health care up to the standards defined by the Hippocratic oath. Why? Well, in order to escape being shut down entirely, doctors are forced to manage pain with drugs that are both less effective and more toxic than opioid drugs.

Underlying this fairly obvious abuse of process is an assumption that, at it's roots, is of purely religious origin, that anyone trying to avoid pain - much less seeking pleasure - is acting against the direct will of God, who metes out suffering to the deserving in order to "teach them a lesson," and that - in it's most pure and insistent form, ANY attempt to relieve suffering is against the will of God.

There is a large plurality of people - including deeply religious, conservative Christians - who would name that attitude as being obviously malicious if not evil, for if anything is, the sanctification of suffering as anything other than an individual decision must obviously lead to the insult of conscience.

It requires the suppression of empathy for others - and leads, more or less directly, for people who see no problem with putting persons using drugs for the relief of pain in prison, claiming "A Greater Good" that somehow would justify individuals perishing in utter agony as an acceptable price.

This then leads us to question what possible benefit might justify that cost, assuming for the moment that it was at all defensible to impose such an obviously unfair tax. Hell, let's say that you reflexively resent the idea of being "forced to pay for welfare" on just the bare assumption that most people on welfare will not be capable or willing to "work hard" and "deserve" your charity. Well, if that is your presumption - and note that I'm not agreeing with it, but if it is what you assume, how can you possibly justify the presumption that you impose what may well amount to a literal "death tax" on a small proportion of the population who happen to need certain drugs in order to alleviate pain? They tend to have much shorter lives, may become suicidal, often become reliant on street drugs - because they cannot alleviate their pain legally - and that in turn leads in statistically certain ways down the social toilet. And you pay for that. Every penny. One way or another. Do you really think that's fair?

Untreated, or under-treated pain interferes with life up to the point of shortening it in a solidly statistical sense. The positive effects of reliable pain management are equally measurable, and they have equally measurable positive economic effects. Now, all of these measurable negative effects, personal, social and economic are supposed to be balanced by - what?

It is a superstitious presumption that people who use certain drugs are evil by definition, that their use is somehow "sinful" and that they deserve to be punished. Social theories are like any other - they should have some proof to be taken seriously; and certainly they should never be implemented as policy before there IS such proof. This particular theory has had the better part of a century to prove itself - but the data is overwhelmingly in favor of the Government getting out of the morality business.

Because that's exactly what it is. Moralism. A presumption that a personal choice to use certain drugs is inherently immoral to such a degree that it's reasonable to simply ignore both evidence, personal experience, science, social costs and consequences in the name of a false and failed moralistic assertion. And by "false and failed," I mean that it is a morality that is obvioiously and provably wrong, that believing and living according to it's stictures does NOT bring any inherent benefit.

But wait, it's even worse. Moralism is a religious presumption, quite alien to the rule of law, it must be rooted out. While there is no one particular church that benefits, it does indeed serve only to increase the social comfort zone and underline with state-imposed sanctions the moral teachings of a wide variety of churches and organizations with moralistic viewpoints. It has much the same effect, in practice, of having established a church.

The proof of the morality pudding should be self-evident. The moral course will tend to have a better outcome than the immoral course IF that morality is founded in an ethical substructure that has contact with reality and human nature, if it's correctly, intelligently and humanely explained.

But social conservatives are utterly terrified at the "chaos" that would ensue if that actually occurred, that if they had the reins of government wrested from their hands, if they were unable to send their fanatical agents of propriety out against the "freaks" and "outliers" that prove that their generational lifestyle choices are not superior by definition, that society would collapse.

Perhaps their social structures would - but as they are the most arrogant of all "Welfare Queens," and as the consequences, even to them is simply the cost of having to cope with being proven wrong, I think a chorus of "tough noogies" is in order.

I very much resent being forced to pay taxes to support the establishment of an effective state religion that claims the right to punish me for disproving their assumptions by example.

Of course, a change of this magnitude will have costs of its own; social and monetary. But everything I know, both from an ethical and pragmatically economic view suggests that those costs will be lower in an absolute sense, while bringing significant economic benefits, so we will actually have the funds to deal with the problems that do arise in a much more effective way.

Balance this against the impact of having to abandon a moralistic world-view that makes predictions about consequences that can only be made to come true by the perversion of law and society. I, personally, think it a small price to pay.

I am unapologetic when I assert that nearly any human action with merely individual consequences that is opposed by a social conservative on principle is worth doing, and the more clearly that opposition comes out of either direct religious belief or negative assumptions about human nature, the more absolutely I feel those assumptions should be gleefully contested. Quite frankly, no human progress, no advance in civilization has ever been accomplished save over the objections - and occasionally, over ramparts of dead bodies - of people wishing to impose a more narrow, more authoritarian and usually religiously justified vision that happens to be immensely satisfying and profitable to them.

That's what's actually so hopeful about our current economic crisis. We literally cannot afford to continue to pay the overhead costs incurred by indulging social conservatives. We cannot afford the prisons, we cannot afford to be the world's training ground for torture techniques that will be used to oppress, deprive and interfere with people who would, on balance, be likely to mind their own business and generate wealth were their views and life-choices viewed with indifference by their governments.

So by all means - let us cut taxes. Radically. Let us restrict government to doing things that are of proven worth and benefit to it's citizens. Let us reject all costly and impertinent efforts toward social engineering, let us eliminate all taxes designed to coerce people to behave in ways that please other people without regard to the harm done to those those direct or indirect impositions impose.

It's time for grownups to behave like grownups and demand the sort of government grownups deserve. Those that cannot handle that degree of personal freedom - well, we have prisons and staff, armed forces and some obvious needs for regimented groups of people with shovels and backhoes. Regulated environments can be arranged for those persons that need them and it can be done in ways that truly does advantage everyone concerned - but only if it's done with the intent to benefit of those who really need it, and not because we think they "deserve" a restriction of their liberties due to dysfunctional behavior, faith, color or socio-economic status.

Sane people reject punitive authoritarianism. There's a good reason for this. It creates a large number of crazy people that sane people are forced to deal with, compensate for, care for, avoid or arm themselves against. And you need no better reason than the purely selfish to support this. The arguments are far more compelling for those who genuinely think human suffering, intolerance, institutional racism and the militarization of a society in service of a war against itself is an insupportable evil. It is. But it's not merely evil. It's also conspicuously stupid; and we cannot afford to pay for stupid.

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