The Nation is Not A Family

From Obsidian Wings, this:

Imagine a group of five people. They’re in a room on the third floor of a building with no elevator, and they have 1000 pounds of assorted stuff to bring downstairs and stack outside the building. What’s the fair way to do this?

1. Everyone could bring down their own stuff. If the stuff is such that it’s really easy to tell what belongs to whom, then maybe that would be the fair thing to do. This doesn’t correspond to taxation at all, but to purchasing. No-one’s life is easier, there are no burdens shared or economies of scale, but it’s easy and fair.

2. Now suppose the group is a band: 2 guitarists, bassist, drummer with a full kit, and the guy who plays the harmonica.

Clearly the equipment burden is distributed very unevenly, and they’ll never get to the gig on time if everyone is only responsible for their own instrument. So they decide that each person takes down about 200lbs of stuff, to distribute the work more evenly than the burden. This is the flat tax: one-fifth of the population (by wealth) takes down one-fifth of the stuff, the taxes. It looks fair: the burden is equally shared, everyone pulls their own weight.

3. But now, suppose the five people are a family:

  1. grandma, age 75
  2. dad, age 45
  3. mom, age 45
  4. son, age 20
  5. daughter, age 10

and they’re taking the stuff downstairs to load into the van and go on a trip together.

The 20-year-old son is probably *much* stronger than anyone else. Grandma may have trouble getting down with much more than herself, and while the 10-y.o. is pretty bouncy, she can’t really take all that much in any one trip. The parents fall in between.

Is it fair if the son ends up bringing down 600lbs of the stuff, while Grandma brings only 30lbs and the others divide up the rest? Yet I assume we’d all agree that this would be the *reasonable* thing to do, even though it means everyone doesn’t “pull their own weight”.

In this metaphor, the strong healthy young son represents the wealthy, the people with the most money=strength. This is *progressive taxation*: we’re all on this trip together, so we help each other out.

The post goes on to explain a completely different justification for progressive taxation, namely the declining marginal value of money. This strikes me as a pitiful defense of progressive taxation and I can’t believe that it is the best or true rationale.

In this analogy the rich are the young twenty year old. They must carry the weight “because they can.” It is fair to ask the able-bodied to do the most because in a sense they are the only ones who can. But 1. think again about what happens in the situation described and 2. think about whether or not a nation is anything like a family.

1. When the five-person family goes up to move the furniture is the son assigned his burden? Do the parent turn to him and say, “You’re the strongest, get to work kid.” Not in my experience. The young son steps up himself. Or rather, you might say that he is influenced to carry the lion’s share. We rely on cultural and social norms to enforce his sacrifice. How is this an argument for forcing his counterparts to sacrifice themselves?

2. A reasonable response, one that exposes the insufficiency of the entire analogy, is that we can’t rely on shaming and cultural pressures because large nations are not families. They cannot be run like families, though many have tried. Organizing large groups of people on the premise that all 350 million of us are one big family creates problems. That goes both for relying on unreasonable expectations of social responsibility to do the social safety net heavy lifting and for pointing to social responsibility to justify use of force. The family is a poor model for a nation.

Fellow countrymen are really strangers, not family or friends. If you are going to expect people (regardless of their ability to do so) to help perfect strangers just because they are on the same side of an imaginary line as you, then you’re going to have to force them to do it. But what you can’t do is justify that force by an appeal to family responsibility. You need a better justification and a probably a better analogy.



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