The other day I met this sandal-wearing, hipster dude who thought he had all the answers (and questions), but I set him straight when it came to the morality of the state. I thought you might enjoy reading a transcript of our dinner conversation.
McConkey: How’s your soup?
Socrates: I think there’s a fly in it.
McConkey: Okay, the tape is running: So, Socrates, you were saying that you don’t consider taxation to be immoral.
Socrates: Certainly not, how is the state to operate without the funding it gets from taxation?
McConkey: You might as well ask the same question of organized crime. How are petty gangsters to operate without the money they shakedown from local shop keepers through their extortion racket?
Socrates: But you can’t compare the state to local gangsters.
McConkey: Why not? They both make their living by using the threat of violence to take other people’s property.
Socrates: But the state is legitimate; it has moral authority; in democracies it was elected by the people.
McConkey: So, wait a second there, Socrates: you’re saying that a state which meets those criteria is inherently legitimate? It isn’t subject to any further moral or ethical standard?
Socrates: I’m supposed to be asking the questions. And where is my steak tartar?
McConkey: It’s coming; the service is really crappy, here. If you believed that there was no other moral or ethical standard that the state has to meet, then you’d have to say there was nothing wrong with the Holocaust.
Socrates: Oh, come, now. Obviously that’s an entirely different situation.
McConkey: But how? It was the action of a state, legitimated by the constitutionally elected government of the people. And at no time did it break any law.
Socrates: But it was genocide, mass murder.
McConkey: So, there are ethical and moral standards constraining the state; it can’t do just anything?
Socrates: Of course, genocide is not acceptable.
McConkey: So where then do we draw the line? If massacring six million Jews is unacceptable, would the slaughter of 6,000 be acceptable? Or 600? Or 60?
Socrates: No, of course, not. Whether or not we agree to capital punishment, clearly the state cannot just murder people it doesn’t like?
McConkey: I agree, but why not?
Socrates: Hold on, here comes our food. Excuse me young lady, can we have another bottle of wine? Thank you. By the way, Michael, why do the waitresses wear those bunny ears?
McConkey: Shssh, the tape’s running. Just answer the question. Why can’t the state just kill whomever it wants?
Socrates: Human life is sacred. Besides the very raison d’être of the state is to enhance, not destroy human life.
McConkey: Ahhh, now we come to the crux of the matter. Oh, crap, this is really good.
Socrates: Yeah, mine’s good, too. Excellent suggestion!
McConkey: I have my moments. So…where was I? Yes, you say that the only legitimate ground for the existence of the state is to enhance and promote life, not destroy or take it. Here’s where the problem arises. Taxation is precisely the taking and destroying of life.
Socrates: A provocative claim my handsome and most intelligent friend. How do you arrive at such a conclusion?
McConkey: Taxation, we can agree, is the taking of private property by the state. So the question then is: what is property?
Socrates: Well, things and stuff.
McConkey: So, a boulder sitting atop the world’s most isolated mountain – is that property? It is a thing and stuff.
Socrates: Okay, true. I suppose then property is stuff that is owned by someone.
McConkey: Exactly and there are only two ways (aside of theft) for someone to own something: either they create something themselves or they exchange something of their own for something owned by someone else. Hence, there is no property in the absence of a human life to bring it into existence.
Socrates: Well, obviously, no one can own something if they’re not alive.
McConkey: True, but you’re missing my point, dear Socrates. We’ve seen that mere things are not property, but only things created by the actions of living human beings.
Socrates: So it’s not the quality of possessing that makes property, but the quality of acting creatively?
McConkey: Exactly! Once that is clear, the rest should be obvious, once we admit that we’re mortal beings.
Socrates: We only live so long?
McConkey: Yes. And consequently, we have only a finite amount of time, energy and attention to expend in this world. Once we expend any amount it is gone forever.
Socrates: So, creating anything uses up our precision life forces?
McConkey: Yes, but even that doesn’t quite get it right. We don’t just use up our life – perhaps we do that when we go for a hike, say – but property is an enduring embodiment of our life. The tomato I grow in my back yard, the book I write, the money I am paid by an employer for the productive work I provide, are all embodiments of my life. My finite time, energy and attention are literally embodied in these things and stuff: tomatoes, books, money, etc.
Socrates: So, to steal your property is to steal your life.
McConkey: Now you’ve got it. And that’s true whether it’s done by the local extortion gang or the state. It is effectively a form of retroactive slavery. The only difference between the state and slavery is chronology.
Socrates: In slavery your life is stolen in advance of the work; in the state your life stolen after the work.
McConkey: You see my point, then. If you say that it is immoral for the state to take someone’s life by killing them, how is it moral for the state to take their life through the theft, at the barrel of a gun, of the forces that constitute their ability to live: their finite time, energy and attention?
Socrates: A bold and compelling argument, young Skywalker.
McConkey: I hate it when you do that.
Socrates: I love that movie; can we rent it tonight? Hey, want to order some dessert?
McConkey: Pure poison, dude. Pure poison.
Socrates: Yeah, yeah. I’ll get the check.
McConkey: Socrates, are those drachmas?
Socrates: Hey Mikie, pop goes the Euro zone: everything old is new, again.
(All characters in this story [besides me] are fictional. Resemblance to real persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. With apologies to Plato and Louis Malle.)