Sunday, March 29, 2009

From Individual Conscience to Tax Boycotts

The vast majority of people pay for social programs and public policies to which they object, and, while most objections are raised for pragmatic reasons, taxes also support programs and policies which many people object to in good conscience (e.g. regime change in Iraq, sex education, even public schooling). This is problematical in any society in which freedom of conscience is an assumed--if also unwritten--precept, but a simple boycott on these taxes is no resolution to the issue.

More than half of the America people have adopted the position that the War in Iraq was a mistake. (Admittedly, more than half supported the war in 2003, but this still makes for tens of millions of citizens who would have preferred avoiding a war fought under the circumstances and principles which were used to justify the invasion of Iraq.) Still, if those who opposed the war in Iraq claim that, because of their position on the war, they should be free to maintain their freedom of conscience by withholding taxes, this may very well introduce an inconvenient precedent: if opposition to one war is reason enough for some citizens to withhold federal taxes, then opposition to any war could be reason enough for other citizens to withhold a similar portion of their income. While this may seem reasonable in the case of Iraq, examples grow more extreme: Should it have applied to former members of the German American Federation, or what about the Copperheads and their supporters? Maybe. But, if nothing else, it is fair to say that cases exist in which this form of dissent would not only be contrary to national interest, but also national survival.

Furthermore, because conscience is held privately and its content is unknown to all but the individual who possesses it, allowing for a conscience-driven boycott on taxes also opens an unintended loop-hole for citizens who merely want to pay lower taxes: While they may or may not oppose a particular war, they know that they oppose their marginal tax rate and, based on this, make their conscience a handmaiden of their financial desires. Many would sincerely wish to withhold taxes in good conscience; the problem is that there is no empirical way of differentiating the sincere from the scoundrels.

This has covered the pragmatic dimension of the issue, but theoretical reasons also exist for opposing tax-boycotts as a form of dissent: any political nation (as opposed to a natural nation with common language and culture but no governing body) is in some way responsible for assigning roles, either through allowance (in which case citizens find their natural positions) or draft (in which case citizens are assigned their positions, natural or otherwise). Generally, the purpose of government is to allow citizens to live in an environment in which they do not have to struggle to maintain their life, liberty and property, but, for this to work in a nation which is larger than an organic community, procedures are necessary for effective government.

American political procedure calls for the executive branch to wage and manage war and the legislative branch to approve or disapprove the declaration of war as well as the funding for duration of it. But both branches of government are elected; in a sense, government of the people, by the people, for the people is still reflected in national procedure, though these procedures are debatably muddled by contemporary forms of media or education. As such, individual opinion is best expressed through the ballot box, rather than through the absence of tax payments. There is no need to conduct a passive revolution because the people are capable of conducting and active (though peaceful) one every two years.

Naturally, this argument assumes that the individual's actions--in a political context--should be subordinate to the will of the community (elections express semi-general will, not individual will), so it is worth inquiring into whether or not this is a valid assumption. Indeed, one may be a crowd, but the very notion of a society--as opposed to a community--is based upon solidarity and cooperation. Government may be meant to insure rights (as was indicated before) but it also exists to curtail the arbitrary freedom or license of the powerful or malevolent (if nothing else, it is nice to know that, if someone sets fire to your house, the fire brigade will show up). Since all benefit from the government performing this task, it is just that all who benefit from the performance help sustain it. The option does remain of going into physical exile (i.e. going abroad) or civic exile (i.e. moving to an American Indian reservation or an Amish community); this is to say that, while boycotting taxes is not an ethical civic option, individual citizens are not exonerated from the moral implications of civic action. It is simply that the morality of the question gives rise to other (more difficult but also more pointed) moral choices.

I realize that I have not devoted much space to the moral side of the question. What, for instance, is it that allows the Amish to refrain from paying taxes to causes that they consider to be unjust whereas a Methodist may also oppose the Iraq War but still has to pay to finance it? One of the reasons was already indicated: the Amish community does not sit under the government's aegis in the same capacity as do other opponents of the war. But also categorical imperative needs to be taken into consideration when the government determines who is or is not exempt. A Methodist or a Catholic may believe that a particular war is inconsistent with his beliefs, but to justify boycotting his taxes, he has to be sure. The only mode of assurance is to articulate an hermeneutic by which it is not only possible to judge the Iraq War as unjust but by which it is also possible to judge every war--or at least every war of a clearly identifiable category--as unjust.

Theories of ius ad bellum would seem to help in these circumstances, but they often only add two additional levels of complexity; first, because the theory needs to be interpreted (always a controversial matter) and, second, because the universal theory then needs to be applied to a particular context. This latter task becomes particularly difficult in a case like that of the War in Iraq: No one can really agree on whether the purpose of the war was to destroy Iraq's WMD program (which turned out not to exist) or to make the Middle East safe for democracy. Unless an individual is willing to accept total pacifism, his rationalizations will almost inevitably devolve into opinion rather than irrefutable fact.

As is indicated by the above argument, there are cases in which boycotting taxes is an appropriate action (i.e. when not doing so would perpetuate action which was in direct violation of a moral absolute), but individual conscience is only the first criterion for a boycott. In other words, individual conscience can only take precedence over an action judged necessary when both an individual and the society can agree that the individual's views on a particular issue on incontrovertible; opinion, however strong, is not good enough.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Taken: Review

No doubt, somewhere along the line, in an interview in one of the few remaining magazines that millions of people still read, Pierre Morel might claim that "Taken" is meant to promote awareness about the ongoing underground human trafficking problem in the ghettos of Western European nations. Maybe. But the movie is actually about American machismo unchained. It is a welcome tribute also (especially considering that the film is French-produced and French-directed).

For a foreign film, it does seem extremely American: The primary language of the movie is English and the Bryan Mills, the film's hero, is undoubtedly an American citizen (though he is played with remarkable fluency by the Irish actor Liam Neeson). The pace is also not unlike a John Frankenheimer thriller--a shootout followed by a car chase culminating in a knife fight, etc. But, unlike so many parallel American action flicks, the makers of "Taken" have decided to throw political correctness to the wind and have included in the cast of villains not only Americans and Frenchmen but also Albanians and Arabs.

This is no small feat given the current political context and the tepid relations between the United States and France in the recent past. But Morel (and the screenwriter, Luc Besson) manage it by sticking to common Euro-thriller motifs: a kidnapped daughter, a father looking for her and, in the process, winning retribution; this is to say that the story is not particularly original, but there is something about "Taken" which prevents it from feeling like Just Another Action Flick.

Part of this stems from the fact that it is comfortable in that role. The screenwriters do not make the mistake of making Bryan Mills into some sort of washed out cliche seeking redemption in liquor bottles or stitching relations with estranged family members. On the contrary, he appears to have been a reasonably devoted father (though he cannot outspend his main competitor, the dreaded stepfather, played by Xander Berkeley) and about his role in the CIA he does not seem in the least bit apologetic. There are no nightmare sequences about torched Sandanista villages or whatever else a Hollywood screenwriter may have felt obligated to include because the film is only engaged in its present action.

Furthermore, Liam Neeson is a perfect actor for this sort of portrayal. He possesses an authoritative presence which is not available with alternative stars (like, say, George Clooney). One has to venture back to the days of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne to find a character who seemed so unflaggingly superhuman; but Mr. Neeson is also an actor who cannot help but be human even while performing Herculean tasks. The audience is never allowed to forget that he is acting as a father first and a Hobbesian second; this is to say that the film does not provide the quintessential image of American machismo, but still, its hard to think of any movie in the last two decades which has come closer.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why Mark Sanford, Ron Paul, etc. Will Have to Change If They Want Things To Remain the Same

Daniel Larison had a post arguing that the greatest liability for Sanford in 2012 will be his opposition to the War in Iraq. I think that any campaign mounted by Sanford in 2012 would be rife with liabilities, but I doubt that opposition to Iraq would be one of those liabilities.

Larison notes that, should the War in Iraq go south, the hawkish Republicans will be able to claim that it was Barack Obama's mishandling of the war which led to our failure at nation-building. I don't quite buy into this. It seems to me that, should a reasonably stable autocracy be established in Iraq after the center no longer holds, the Republicans would be glad to forget about the war altogether. If nothing else, they probably won't want to admit defeat (which would be necessary for them to claim that Obama egregiously mishandled the war.)

It is much more likely that Sanford will fail based solely on his inability to square governance with idealism on the national level. Sanford is now being posed as the sane version of Ron Paul (R-Texas) by those extreme libertarians and paleoconservatives who made Paul's 2008 campaign into an event worth paying attention to. But Ron Paul's campaign was. even self-consciously, a reductio ad absurdum. Ron Paul knew from the beginning that he would not be the next president of the United States.

With Sanford, on the other hand, should he run, he will be running to actually be elected, not just to publicize libertarian/traditional conservative ideas. The American people will understand his opposition to the Iraq War. Even now, most of them admit that it was a mistake.

But the libertarian notion that when everyone is trading everyone is happy is a myth. Money may be the primary engine of human activity when it is scare, but, when it is plentiful, people find other issues over which they can fight. And Sanford will have to take a position on issues like this if he intends to become president.

Osama bin Laden, for instance, brought down the World Trade Centers because of the presence of American soldiers in the Middle East; but there were American soldiers in the Middle East in the first place becauze (fundamentally, if not on a case by case basis) we needed to protect our oil interests in the region. Without oil, half of the nation would starve to death. How does libertarian sensibility grasp that?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Classical Education

This is where the miraculous and creepy elements of classical education meet: