On Leaving the Lifeboat….

"If you don't want to paddle with your hands, then you can leave the lifeboat. There's a plank. Gee, I wonder how that got there. And here's the end of my sword. Oh look! The end of my sword is getting closer to you. It must like you."

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard these three different formulations of the same general slogan, each offered in objection to the libertarian position:

“I think anyone who doesn’t see the value in paddling can leave the lifeboat.”

“If you don’t want to participate in the world, then you should probably excuse yourself from it.”

“So, you don’t avail yourself of [tax-funded government services]?”

The thrust of the slogan is that those who use publicly-funded goods and services should not object to paying taxes.  I hear this so often that it is high time I concocted a blanket, boilerplate response.  Here it is.  Listen:

First of all, most who resort to these slogans do not distinguish between those who merely object to paying taxes, and those who actually evade taxes.  There have been times when I have neglected to tally up cash payments for tax purposes.  Yet by and large, my tax payments have been involuntarily withheld from paychecks, and I have never failed to file a reasonably complete annual tax return.  I am paddling, whether I see a value in it or not. To my chagrin, I am a taxpayer.  Therefore, under the presumed moral standard of the sloganeer, I am entitled to avail myself of all the publicly-funded goods and services I can hoard.  If to do so would make me a hypocrite, it is only because my standards of equitability are higher than the standards of those who would accuse me of hypocrisy, not because I fail to meet to their standards.

It’s not as if I can always choose whether to avail myself of such goods and services.  Many of the government’s alleged benefits are impossible to avoid.  There is no legitimate way to opt out of Social Security.  I’m compelled by law to participate.  Until the Bell Rocket Belt becomes practical, I can not reasonably vow never to set foot on publicly paved roads.  I did not ask anyone to station U.S. troops all around the world in my name, but there they are.  I can’t opt out of their services.  You can’t leave the lifeboat if you are chained to it, and I recognize no moral obligation to pay for any alleged benefit that others have imposed on me over my objections.

The slogans are often sophistically formulated as some sort of voluntary, opt-out option.  “If I don’t see the value in paddling, then I can leave the lifeboat.”  “If I don’t want to participate in the world, then I should probably excuse myself from it.”  Even if I could leave, there would be nothing voluntary about it. My departure would take the form of involuntary imprisonment:  If I refused to participate “in the world”, then I will be excused from it forcefully, and confined to a prison cell.  If I do not see the value in paddling, I will be thrown overboard, or forced to walk the plank.  A more honest formulation of the slogan would be: If you do not contribute to the plans of those who agree with us, then we will dispose of you. Yet it never quite comes out that way….


"HEY! What are you all working on? Get back to paying your taxes!!! I don't pay you to be productive!!!"

The plans that the sloganeers expect me to join are usually erroneously presented as the only viable option.  Universal health care is analogized to a lifeboat, as if without it, everyone would necessarily drown.  Tax-funded largesse is analogized to the world or to society, as if taxation were the only method through which anything useful has ever been produced.  Individual productivity and voluntary associations, like employment and mutually beneficial trade, are not valid forms of “participation” for purposes of the slogan.  To earn my keep through being productive is not good enough.  The sloganeers expect me to believe that I am not participating in the world until I submit to their preferred involuntary, misguided tax-and-spend regime.

It’s interesting that those who resort to these slogans should want to mention participation.  In this regard, the slogans appear to me to cut against the interest of the very people that the sloganeers generally claim to be trying to help.  If the slogans apply to rich tax evaders, then they apply even better to the poor, the indigent, the unemployed, and the unskilled, and the disabled who have no money to pay taxes, and who often are, in fact, net tax consumers.  Should the armless lifeboater get the heave-ho?  Should the homeless, who benefit from paved road and police protection as well as I do, excuse themselves from society?  Those who insist upon using these slogans should be careful to carve out an exception for the people they are trying to protect.

The final formulation of the slogan should be: If you do not contribute to the plans of those who agree with us, then we will dispose of you, unless you are poor.

That’s an honest proposition.  My respone is: No, thank you.


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