Tuesday, June 15, 2004

A Strange Argument

In response to an argument made by Meghan McArdle against the estate tax, Matthew Yglesias makes the case that one ought to discount anything critical libertarians have to say about government programs, because, well .. they're libertarians.

Interesting case and I'll happily concede that I am not an estate tax expert. One problem with libertarians, though, is that it's hard to know when they're bullshitting you. Point toward an intuitively compelling tax or government program and they offer up some counterintuitive empirical data designed to show that it doesn't work or has perverse effects. But they're not really interested in making it work or cleaning up the perverse effects, they're against this stuff in principle. I remember talking to Jim Henley once about what a shame it was that Dana Gioia was doing a good job at the National Endowment for the Arts since now that it's well-run it's hard to make the case against it. Clever argument, but slightly deranged thinking.

So, back to Meaghan's case, I just don't know if that stuff is all true, but it sounds to me like she's pointing to problems that could be solved, rather than a good reason to just throw up our hands and give up. One thing that does occur to me, however, is that there doesn't seem to be any good reason to tax estates (i.e., dead people) as opposed to inheretances (i.e., living recipients of dead people's money). After all, I don't have a problem with a billionaire dying and deciding he wants to give $5 to each American citizen, the concern is that he's going to give $1 billion to his son.

At any rate, until I hear this kind of argument being endorsed by folks who don't also believe, as a matter of general principle, that the government spends too much money and that we ought to balance the budget through cuts, cuts, cuts, cuts, color me somewhat skeptical of the "no one pays it anyway!" theory.
Now, there are a few points that need to be made here. The first is that while it isn't illegitimate to take into account an individual's political preferences in evaluating the person's arguments, it isn't grounds enough for dismissing them out of hand, either; ideologically motivated, nonsensical arguments are unworthy of consideration not because they're ideologically motivated but because they make no sense.

The second point that needs stating is that unless one is merely a hack working on behalf of a political organization, one ought to look critically on all arguments, whatever their source, even if they're arguments made in support of a position one subscribes to - a quaint notion called intellectualy honesty; reading Matthew's argument, one gets the impression that he wouldn't be in the least sceptical if an argument were being made in support of more government rather than less.

Another issue that needs to be raised here is that Matthew seems to rule out entirely one possible direction of causality when he suggests that libertarians love to point out the failings of government programs only because they have a preconceived dislike of government. While that is probably true on more than the odd occasion, he fails to acknowledge that it just may be that the reason many an individual espouses libertarian viewpoints is because he or she has seen too many government programs fail to live up to their intended goals to buy the notion that the government "cure" is necessarily better than the shortcoming it was intended to alleviate.

A final point that needs stating is that if everyone were to buy into the sort of thinking Matthew's pushing here, there'd be no good reason for anyone of any political persuasion to try to persuade those who believed differently to adopt his or her position: under such a state of affairs, why should anyone who isn't a committed liberal take seriously anything positive Matthew Yglesias has to say about a government program?

I won't pretend to know what Matthew's really thinking, but one interpretation of this extremely poorly reasoned post is that he's encountered an argument he doesn't know how to refute, and yet he's too emotionally attached to the "soak the rich brats" point of view to permit himself to buy into the conclusion. Unfortunately for Matthew, and for everyone else with a penchant for advocating government solutions to perceived problems, the world really is a complex place, and perverse or unintended effects are commonplace; were it not so, we'd all be communists by now, so appealing has the Marxist vision of egalitarianism been to so many. To seek to wish away the reality that effects often fail to match intentions is not the mark of a mind with a strong appreciation of empirical realities. There are lots of things in life that seem "intuitively" obvious but end up being far from true - e.g, the earth is flat, there is such a thing as universal time, gold is an objective store of wealth - and Matthew would be well advised to take this fact on board.