There is a lot of talk about fair taxes and government spending these days, regardless of which country you live in. European populations riot against austerity measures. The Occupy Wall Street movement protests against the 1% and calls for redistribution of wealth. Social justice advocates argue for more government spending.
The argument is usually framed in terms of fairness. Supporters of more taxation and more spending make assumptions and ask questions. All people, regardless of income, should have adequate housing. All people, regardless of income, should have access to health care. All people, regardless of income, should have access to public education. Is it fair that some people have more and others have less? Wouldn't we all benefit more if there were a more equal distribution of resources and materials?
These are fair questions. They are usually asked by sensitive, good-hearted people. These people are sometimes demonized by their opponents, but this is not necessary. While some proponents of wealth re-distribution are self-interested people with malicious agendas most are not. The assumptions are neither fair nor unfair. As opinions they are subject to critique.
However, there are some important questions asked by opponents. The assumptions themselves deserve examination and justification, and the actions demanded should also be examined and evaluated. There is nothing inherently selfish or short-sighted about doing so. In fact, regardless of where you stand on the issue, you owe it to your fellow citizens to ask and answer the questions to reach wiser conclusions (even if the actions that result are not themselves wise).
Fairness, What is Possible, and Morality
There are at least three concepts to consider. One is fairness. The second is what is possible. The third is what is moral.
Fairness is both a subjective and a logical idea. In other words, it is a matter of opinion and fact. No matter how difficult and intractable the issue, resolution is possible. People of good will can reasonably discuss the issue, compromise somewhat and arrive at a mutually acceptable consensus. Fairness requires, by definition, that everyone get something and nobody get everything.
A good example is slavery. The Founding Fathers of the United States declared that all men are created equal, yet many of the Founding Fathers were slaveholders. As a matter of opinion, on a purely subjective basis, an anti-slavery proponent could argue that slavery wasn't fair, but to make the logical argument against it requires more. In this case the Founding Fathers laid the groundwork for the logical anti-slavery argument. This is an important lesson for critics of the Founders to remember. If all "men" are created equal yet slavery exists, then logically either slaves aren't men or slavery is an equal status. The latter is clearly untrue. The former requires more testing.
A slaveholder could (and many did) argue that slaves were in fact not human. However, slaveholding elected representatives of humans argued that slaves were equal to 3/5s of a white man when it came to electoral representation. This claim opens the door to the argument that slaves are human, and weakened the logical underpinnings of the argument that slaves were not human. Cattle, horses, sheep and dogs were not enumerated to argue for more representation, but slaves were. On this basis it's clear that many reasonable people recognized that slaves were, if not human, certainly not animals. Anti-slavery opponents who subjectively felt that slavery was unfair received logical ammunition from their opponents.
There is more logical ammunition for the anti-slavery position. A mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey. It is infertile. It cannot reproduce itself. This is proof that horses and donkeys are different. Animals that are the same can produce fertile offspring. As an agricultural nation this was common knowledge in the US at the time. It was also common knowledge that slaves and free people (or more precisely, people of African descent and any other human) could mate and produce fertile off-spring. This is logical proof that "slaves" are "men", and so it follows, logically, that if all "men" are created equal, and if "slaves" are men, then slaves are equal to men. It is impossible for a human to be both slave and equal at the same time.
Clearly, on the basis of logic slavery could not exist long-term in the United States unless the citizens of the country abandoned the concept of equality. Nor could slavery exist long-term in any human society that recognized universal equality. Many societies have held slaves and recognized that the slaves were human, but those societies did not recognize universal equality. They decided, subjectively, that slavery was acceptable, and perhaps even fair. For anyone in those societies who felt slavery was not fair the question remained simply one of opinion. This is an important distinction, because the subjective belief that everyone is created equal has important repercussions.
In the United States the equality of man was a core belief of the Founders, and this belief was widely held by the populace. The question of fairness was answered many ways, but in the course of time logic tilted the scales and slavery had to go. Subjective opinion and hard logic combined to determine a solid and consistent public policy value that over-ruled all other earlier concerns.
The second issue to examine is what is possible. Some things are simply not possible, no matter how much we might want them. It could be claimed that all people should be able to live forever. Currently this is impossible, so it is not valuable to debate the merits of the idea. On the other hand, it could be claimed that all people should have access to clean water. This is not the current state of affairs, but it could be achieved. The question becomes one of how as much as one of merit.
The "how" of the question tends to be the important component in public policy and community goals. Many people who agree on the merit of a goal will disagree on how to achieve it, or whether the achievement is worth the effort. This does not mean all people agree on all goals. When they ask "Surely you agree that achieving X is worthwhile?" there are always at least two possible responses. Sometimes people do not even agree on the goal. When this happens there are times when the proponents of the goal ignore their opponents' desires and simply move to the "how" of the issue. All of this leads to the morality question.
The counter argument to more government spending and wealth re-distribution is often characterized as selfish or stupid. Proponents of lower taxes or less spending are either bought-off shills of high tax targets (corporations and the wealthy) or fools who do not understand how higher spending and wealth distribution will benefit them. This allows proponents of higher taxes, more spending and more wealth re-distribution to dismiss their opponents, or more commonly, to profess to not even understand them. It would be better to discuss the morality of the question. Morality, of course, is directly related to what is fair.
Providing adequate housing, health care and public education to everyone requires that someone provide it. In a capitalist society that means someone will be paid to provide it, which in turn means that someone has to pay for the provision of the three things.
Clearly it is possible to provide these three items. There may be an accounting challenge in order to make it affordable, but the three goals are achievable. And, if they are accessible to everyone then clearly, access to them is fair, by definition.
Is achieving the three goals, desirable as they are, moral? This is a more complex question, because achieving the goals requires money, the money must come from somewhere and the spending is subject to the immutable laws of arithmetic. The concept of equality, which makes receipt of the three items fair, is precisely where the morality problem arises.
If all humans are created equal, does any human have the right to impose their will on another without the second party's consent? The answer is clearly no. I cannot morally impose my will upon you, whether by forcing you to act a certain way or by confiscating your property, if you do not consent.
Taxes, clearly, are not voluntary. We can argue that they are immoral as a result of their compulsory nature. The counter-argument is that the social contract allows for taxation because all people born into the society benefit from the taxation. The counter-argument does not stand up to logical criticism. The counter-argument requires that the non-consenting party be re-defined as consenting, or as benefitting, by the proponents of the counter-argument. If the non-consenting party refuses to consent, and/or rejects or refuses to pay for a benefit that they do not want, the proponents of the counter-argument must either accept the non-consenting argument or abandon the shared belief in equality.
To put it another way: I cannot decide for you what does or does not benefit you, or what you do or do not want, at least not if we are equals. We must, as equals in a co-operative society, to respect each other's wishes (difficult as that is in practice). To do otherwise is immoral, based on fairness and logic. It's immoral based on fairness because it is patently unfair to change the underlying assumptions upon which we base free association (equality, in this case). The illogical characteristic of the argument is self-evident.
As radical as it may sound to some people, taxes are clearly immoral. The government forces people to pay taxes. The government punishes people if they do not pay taxes, perhaps through property confiscation, and possibly by imprisonment. Consent of the taxed is not required. Instead of the principle of fairness being paramount, the goal of the taxing powers becomes paramount. Like slavery and equality, the two things cannot exist together. They are mutually exclusive. Taxation becomes theft.
If the social contract argument is laid on the table it's worthwhile considering who the non-consenting party is and how they can possibly benefit. With two living citizens it we can argue that the non-consenting party does in fact benefit from the forced confiscation of his time and property (in essence, his liberty). This does mean consent is not required - it merely establishes the fact of mutual benefit. What happens if the non-consenting citizen is not alive? How can he possibly benefit from access to education, housing or healthcare that used before he is born?
The answer is that he can benefit by inheriting knowledge from his predecessors. As Isaac Newton observed, we often stand on the shoulders of giants: educated people who came before us and from whom we benefit. Of course, this benefit is only a possible one and history demonstrates that universal public education is not required to get the benefit. Housing? An unborn child paying for today's consumption (housing is a deteriorating asset) does not benefit from it. Health care? An unborn child does not benefit from the health care given to someone who lives and dies in a different generation. There is neither consent nor benefit to excuse the immoral taxation of the unborn.
This is only a problem if the costs of housing, health care and education are not paid for by the generation that consumes them. Of course, this is exactly the situation the world finds itself in today. The size of public debt and continued use of unsustainable deficits to create more debt mean that newborns enter the world in debt. Some estimates put the figure at $200,000 for a newborn American citizen.
What is the Solution?
If the issues are fairness and morality, as well as how possible the goals of government spending and taxation are, what is the solution?
The moral solution is to require consent of all living citizens for any goal that requires a sacrifice of any kind from the citizens. This is not as impossible as it seems. It does, however, mean that one portion of the citizenry cannot use the government as an agent in the theft from another portion of the citizenry.
The moral solution also requires that the current generation live within their means. It is immoral to tax, pre-emptively, citizens who have not yet been born.
The fair solution is harder to define, as fairness is a very subjective concept. However, equity of benefit receipt could be compared to the financial contribution made by each citizen. Wealthy people derive benefits from tax spending, and indeed, often generate their wealth more effectively because of government taxation and spending. However, the complaint against tax and spend programs is often not that the rich are over-taxed compared to the benefits that they receive, but that the poor or middle class carry more of the burden than is fair, or we shift that burden to debt.
What's possible? As they say in the construction industry, anything is possible - it's just a matter of time and money. If, as far as time goes, we say we want it now, and as far as money goes, we say we'll let future generations pay for what we consume today, we can have anything that our lenders will allow us to have. If we want to stay fair and moral and live within our means, and that means less spending, even if we raise taxes. Current debt levels mean that we are already leaving too much debt to our unborn children to claim anything close to moral behaviour.