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Is Philanthropy Anti-Democratic? (bostonreview.net)
74 points by huihuiilly 31 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 77 comments



> The dead have no property rights, Mill claims.

Should any contract be void if all of the parties to one side or another die? I think we can at least say "no" if parties on the other side are responsible for the death.

If I make a contract with a mortuary to bury me (preferably) after my death, should they be released from the agreement by my death? It seems like this principle would also do serious damage to life insurance. Isn't a life insurance policy a property right?

Companies and other organizations are sometimes bound by contracts that have only been agreed to by people that are now dead. Is that an argument for not allowing a company to be a party to a contract? Or do we say that a company is a legal person for that purpose, and so since that "person" persists, so should their contractual obligations? If so the issue of control by a dead philanthropist is trivially fixed by incorporation.

I hear the U.S. Constitution described as a social contract. Should it be relevant (as Lysander Spooner believed) that all of the signatories to that contract are dead? Or does democracy nullify the principle? If the last legislator who voted for a law dies, should it have any affect on the law?

With a philanthropy, maybe the solution is to simply transfer ownership to the trustees, who then have the power to amend their own charter as they wish, breaking any hold by a dead hand.


> I hear the U.S. Constitution described as a social contract. Should it be relevant (as Lysander Spooner believed) that all of the signatories to that contract are dead?

Thomas Jefferson, it should be noted, believed something very similar. In a letter to James Madison, having earlier in that letter recounted some (no doubt less systematically gathered than a modern reader would prefer) statistics and concluding from then that the mean remaining life expectancy of a randomly chosen adult was in the neighborhood of 19 years, and having made based on that arguments about the proper duration of validity of public debts argues thus:

“On similar ground it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please. But persons and property make the sum of the objects of government. The constitution and the laws of their predecessors extinguished then in their natural course with those who gave them being. This could preserve that being till it ceased to be itself, and no longer. Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.—It may be said that the succeeding generation exercising in fact the power of repeal, this leaves them as free as if the constitution or law had been expressly limited to 19 years only. In the first place, this objection admits the right, in proposing an equivalent. But the power of repeal is not an equivalent. It might be indeed if every form of government were so perfectly contrived that the will of the majority could always be obtained fairly and without impediment. But this is true of no form. The people cannot assemble themselves. Their representation is unequal and vicious. Various checks are opposed to every legislative proposition. Factions get possession of the public councils. Bribery corrupts them. Personal interests lead them astray from the general interests of their constituents: and other impediments arise so as to prove to every practical man that a law of limited duration is much more manageable than one which needs a repeal.”

https://jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu/selected-documents/tho...


>They are masters of their own persons...

Wise words, from a slave owner.

Better a hypocritical slave owner than not, of course, but I still have a really hard time separating the arguments from the mind that created them.


> Wise words, from a slave owner.

Yes, the slave owner talking to us from beyond the grave about why we shouldn't be ruled from beyond the grave by his dead hand and those of his contemporaries—slave holders and their enablers, every last one—is quite wise.

> Better a hypocritical slave owner than not

Jefferson seemed to live in relative accord with his professed views on slavery and issues surrounding it (which, yes, included that slavery was bad, but also that “freeing” slaves unprepared to survive and sorry themselves as free citizens was bad, and that the ideal solution was for the state to acquire saves and train and then free them.)

Which is not to say that Jefferson's views (other than the “slsvery is bad”) part weren't biased in favor of his own position and perhaps bolstered by some measure of racism, but hypocrisy is less evident.


Imagine if instead of holding the budget hostage people held law hostage.


So here in Texas with have what's called a sunset system, basicly every state agency has a defined life time(I think 7 years) and before the legislative session where they expire(we have a part time lege) they go through a review process where they have to justify their existence and all of their functions. This last one of the sunset bill got held hostage and special session had to be called to make sure this specific agency (in this case the Texas medical board) didn't cese to exist a few months later.


Wow. Compare this with the tweets of POTUS. There's a world of difference. If only modern politicians thought with such due consideration for the future.


> Should any contract be void if all of the parties to one side or another die? I think we can at least say "no" if parties on the other side are responsible for the death.

As a first cut, I'd say it should become void if and only if the death leaves nobody with standing to sue over the alleged breach.

> If I make a contract with a mortuary to bury me (preferably) after my death, should they be released from the agreement by my death?

Under my standing rule, I'd say the contract would still stand under the argument that the people who would otherwise have to deal with disposing of your body were intended third party beneficiaries and they can enforce it.

Alternatively or additionally, there should probably be a special case for contracts concerning things actually involved in your death or in the short or mediate term dealing with the aftermath of your death. The justification for a special case is that as a matter of public policy we want people to make arrangements to handle their deaths, and the ability to make durable contracts concerning that is necessary to promote that.


> Should any contract be void if all of the parties to one side or another dies? I think we can at least say "no" if parties on the other side are responsible for the death(s).

Yes, it should be void, though maybe not quite immediately on death. How could it be otherwise, unless the the contract were somehow binding on person's heirs (either personally, or though the burden if administering an estate that they can't wind down).

> If I make a contract with a mortuary to bury me (preferably) after my death, should they be released from the agreement by my death?

Maybe they'll bury you, but the cemetery doesn't have to maintain your grave in perpetuity after your death:

http://theconversation.com/losing-the-plot-death-is-permanen...


Of course there is a use to such a construct much as philanthropy - the alternative is defacto dynasties essentially - and even an estate tax doesn't do as much good if transferred before death.

Philanthropic endeavors allow for them to choose to push their values after death as a legacy instead of their blood. If they can't do that then it makes their influenced descendants the next best thing.

It may be a "fair for its day" solution compared to others and something that should have some limits. Racial restrictive covenants for housings were decidedly not grandfathered in with changes of laws for a deliberately extreme example.

The cemetery shouldn't be liable for maintaining the grave unfunded in perpetuity but being able to say take a fund for maintaining the grave for 100 years and pocket it is wrong.

Essentially I think they should be allowed to stand when reasonable in changing circumstances.


>cemetery doesn't have to maintain your grave in perpetuity after your death

If the cemetery has charged you more for such service and made it a part of the contract obviously they have to honor it. Of course, there will always be a "reasonable effort" clause. If there is a flood, earth quake or foreign invasion the cemetery might not be able to keep its promise.

I think the underlying principle is not as much about "perpetuity" as it is about whether the contract with dead must be honored even years later. I think it should be and that is the whole point of having contracts. Of course subject to reasonable efforts.


>I think the underlying principle is not as much about "perpetuity" as it is about whether the contract with dead must be honored even years later.

But who's going to enforce this? If the owner of a cemetery stops maintaining a grave, a random person doesn't have standing to sue. In reality what's happening is closer to honoring contracts with the still living relatives of the dead.


The US Constitution is an interesting example; and there is a reasonable case that is has been nullified over time. I keep tabs on a number of libertarians, and the case is that the Constitution failed as a contract with the FDR new deal and the unarguably weird interpretation of the commerce clause.

This doesn't damage US democracy as a whole, because the power sits with the institutions; but that incident stands as great evidence that as a contract the constitution is really more of a set of guidelines than something that the government buys into. It can be overruled by political pressure without formal process.

I personally think there is a case for laws sunsetting after some period of time (30 years?) to prevent build-up of cruft and to deal with generational change.


It's very strange though that there are sections of the constitution that we pay very close attention to. The oath of office and the process of electing the president, for example, is followed to the letter as if the consititution is the source of authority, though we really basically cast it aside for everything else. Have you ever tried to get a trial jury for a traffic ticket more than $20 (which is a civil, not criminal, suit)?

There's a lot of questionable things. The general idea of the constitution and the declaration enshrine the concept that governance is only permissible if with the consent of the governed. Hence the principle of "no taxation without representation". Yet, we do tax individuals who make money under the age of 18, in spite of the fact that we do not recognize their consent (try going to the polls if you're under 18). Governments spend more than they take in (defecit spending) despite the fact that it obligates future generations to pay it back, who cannot, as far as we know with our current model of physics, give their consent for that spending in any direct OR indirect way.


> The oath of office and the process of electing the president, for example, is followed to the letter as if the consititution is the source of authority, though we really basically cast it aside for everything else.

No, we mostly don't.

> Have you ever tried to get a trial jury for a traffic ticket more than $20 (which is a civil, not criminal, suit)?

Like all of the Bill of Rights, the 7th Amendment is a limitation on the Federal government.

Unlike some provisions of the Bill of Rights, the provision of the 7th you raise has not (as of yet) been found to be a component of “liberty” protected by the 14th Amendment Due Process Clause and, thereby, incorporated as a right defended against State action.

Traffic tickets are generally under state law and thus not subject to the provision.


Have you seen all the people celebrating that the supreme court "put limits" on the clearly unconstitutional practice of civil asset forfeiture[0]?

"Hooray they are only going to violate the constitution sometimes! This is a win for civil rights! You go notorious RBG!"

No it isn't you idiots, it's a violation of your rights enshrined in case law and marketed with a positive spin.

We collectively keep choosing reactionary expediency over the rule of law.

[0]https://www.npr.org/2019/02/20/696360090/supreme-court-limit...


It seems to me from my reading of this that the key specific question is about the unique issues that are raised by perpetuity and un-amendability. I'm sorry if I'm misunderstanding your point, but doesn't that result in a different twist on the examples you give?

>Companies and other organizations are sometimes bound by contracts that have only been agreed to by people that are now dead. Is that an argument for not allowing a company to be a party to a contract? Or do we say that a company is a legal person for that purpose, and so since that "person" persists, so should their contractual obligations?

Right but the legal entity making the contract is not dead, and further contracts in perpetuity are commonly unenforceable. In California for example if the contract lacks language on an express or implied fixed term, courts take that to mean it's terminable at will at any time by any party. And other states consider perpetual contracts to flat out violate public policy and thus be completely unenforceable (note this is different from auto-renew-by-default "evergreen" contracts which are totally kosher, any party can simply choose to actively non-renew).

And contracts are not inviolable, there just are consequences for doing so. And the entity is "living" so to speak and may amend itself and adapt to a changing world.

>I hear the U.S. Constitution described as a social contract. Should it be relevant (as Lysander Spooner believed) that all of the signatories to that contract are dead? Or does democracy nullify the principle? If the last legislator who voted for a law dies, should it have any affect on the law?

This seems to really be stretching the point too far. "Social contract" is not some fixed legal meaning at all, I think you're getting into silly levels of abstractionism. Polities are self-perpetuating in ways more basic of legal entities existing within them. And to the point, they're also endlessly amendable by definition and by society at large, not fixed in time by an individual.

>With a philanthropy, maybe the solution is to simply transfer ownership to the trustees, who then have the power to amend their own charter as they wish, breaking any hold by a dead hand.

That seems like one possible way to bring things into line with normal corporations and such, though there are others.

It's definitely a very interesting question though, to consider to what extent any polity should allow and support the creation of perpetual static legal constructs within it, particularly in a democracy. I'm not immediately fully convinced by the article, but I also feel like it's true it's become a recent unquestioned consensus without any modern debate or reflection, and that it deserves such debate on principle.


> This seems to really be stretching the point too far. "Social contract" is not some fixed legal meaning at all, I think you're getting into silly levels of abstractionism.

Then according to the quote in dragonwriter's comment, so did Thomas Jefferson, a man not notable for silliness.


> Should any contract be void if all of the parties to one side or another dies?

Well, in the words of Alexander Hamilton (paraphrased):

"We signed a treaty with a King whose head is now in a basket

Would you like to take it out and ask it?

Should we honor our treaty, King Louis' head?

'Uh do whatever you want, I'm super dead'"


Have to != should. Also, while the dead don't care, the living may be interested in what you do, especially if they're considering entering into a contract with you that may outlive them.


Hamilton's argument was that the treaty was with the old French government, not the new revolutionary government.


It took me a long time to be convinced of this, but the tax-advantaged nature of philanthropy in the United States is regressive and anti-democratic.

The US government basically says: you have to give us X% of your money ... unless you spend it first on something philanthropic. Well the problem is that basically anything that doesn't make a profit can be a philanthropy. It can be your church, your college, a soup kitchen, or an organization that wants to give every stray dog a funny hat.

So if you suddenly become a billionaire, you can just set up a foundation and "tax yourself" by donating the money to what YOU think should happen rather than what the goverment (as elected by others) think should happen.

Furthermore the system of deductible donations benefits the rich much more than the poor. My tax rate is about 40%. So if I donate a dollar to charity I am effectively only losing $0.60. The government was going to take $0.40 anyway. If you make less money and your tax rate is only 20%, then it costs you $0.80 to give $1 to charity.

Some good reading: https://www.economist.com/briefing/2012/06/09/sweetened-char...

P.S. given that our system is what it is, I do donate quite a bit to charity because I can afford it and because I see worthy causes around me.


I was about so say roughly - if not exactly - the same thing. With philanthropy, very wealthy people can significantly alter the priorities of a society, without any consultation with those people that have been democratically given the task to manage societies' agendas.

Small donations don't have that influence unless they add up, becoming again a form of majorities's expression (not necessarily democratic,) but given enough cash in hand, an individual can tip the balances significantly.


I agree that there is definitely a lot in terms of abuse when it comes to philanthropy and, more specifically, thr foundations that are set up. As always, those people who want to will find a way to cheat the system for their advantage.

That being said, I don't think that it is really fair to extend this to philanthropy as a whole. A good idea isn't bad simply because some people abuse it. It just means that the rules need to be defined more clearly.

Tax deductions make sense to an extent as they encourage donation to charities, and the principle does work. Not perfectly, but to an extent.

While there are obvious cases of charities being used to avoid taxes and the like, there are also other examples. The Biill and Melinda Gates foundation is one of the largest funding bodies of scientific reserach globally. Bloomberg's 1.8 billion dollar donation to John's Hopkins helps accessibilit for lower income students.

Of course, philanthropies come with challenges. There's always opportunity cost, there are always other areas of funding that could use the money. There will always be people who diisagree with the use of the money.

Of course, there can be a motivation behind some funding. Bloomberg gave to Hopkins because it's his alma mater. Is that completely fair? No. But let's not pretend that the government in the US is completely unbiased with grant allocation and funding...

Philanthropy should never be the only way money is given to worthwhile causes, and not all causes that are funded will be seen as equally important as others. That does not make it bad, though. Private donations should fill a role that the covernment cannot, in that moment, fill. Perhaps that is funding for smaller, experimental projects that have a higher risk of failing. Perhaps it's projects that are beneficial for one state, but not another. Or projects that do not align with the current goals of the administration (e.g. climate change).

Rich people should not be allowed to use charities as a way to avoid taxes. But not every rich person is evil. Some donations may genuinely be given simply to help causes. Even if it's the soup kitchen. The rules imposed on how these bodies are set up should be stricter, yes. But I think that foundations can provide a good balance in funding allocation to the government.


I think philanthropy is great. It's the tax-advantage of large-scale philanthropy that I object to.

The super rich should give anyway, even without the 40% break.


> given that our system is what it is, I do donate quite a bit to charity because I can afford it and because I see worthy causes around me.

Which is the whole point of the government encouraging donations to charities by giving tax breaks, your worthy causes aren't my worthy causes so would go underfunded if they were up to majority rule. As it is you get to "vote with your pocketbook" which is about as pure as democracy gets.


Unfortunately that's not democracy. It's anarchy for a good cause. In democracy we vote together and then the most-popular thing happens.


One of the best explanations why "philanthropy" and "novel (disrupting), win-win solutions" for systemic problems is highly anti-democratic (and inciting class warfare) is Anand Giridharadas's recent talk[1] at Google[2]. I strongly encourage everyone - especialy anyone employed at Google - to watch it.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_zt3kGW1NM

[2] Google is the perfect venue for this talk.


His book on the topic "Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World" is also a fantastic read.


I don't have time to watch this, can anyone summarize?


It's been a while since I've watched it, but my recollection is of his main point is that philanthropy by the winners (like the wealthy) pushes "win win" change that preserves or enhances the mechanisms that allowed those wealthy people to win in the first place. However, if we truly want to improve society for everybody, we may need solutions where the existing winners lose in some way. Philanthropy led by the winners carefully avoids that.

It's a really great talk, and I recommend you take the time to watch it. I can't do the argument justice.


> However, if we truly want to improve society for everybody, we may need solutions where the existing winners lose in some way.

So, basically, the broken window fallacy?

I don't doubt that philanthropists act out of their own self interest (as do all rational humans) but forcing them to lose seems like just an extension of a zero-sum game argument where someone has to lose in order for them to win in their philanthropising (or whatever the proper word is).


It's not about forcing them to lose, but dismissing all solutions where they don't win. That makes philanthropy more of an exercise in preserving the status quo than a real attempt at solving the problems that it purports to be.


Not that I necessarily agree with it (I'm on the fence) but doesn't sound like it.

Broken window fallacy is saying "if I destroy your stuff, I'm actually doing society a favour". So, damage to you = benefit to society, which is bunk.

This is saying, lets not be led by the nose by people who gain the most from what we are doing - because while it (arguably) helps society a bit, society could overall benefit a lot more from better balanced solutions that aren't stymied by those seeking to reinforce their wealth/power.

A wealthy person may "lose" if we tax them more, but that isn't breaking their window, that's balancing who gets what - which is what we do anyway, middle class already loses when a big company finds a tax loop-hole, to use a trite example.


> A wealthy person may "lose" if we tax them more, but that isn't breaking their window, that's balancing who gets what...

But this is after tax income that they're just spending however they wish. The same arguments were used in the recent article about the superyachts where people were saying society is broken because someone can actually earn enough money to buy one of those things.

I'd much rather have Bill Gates spending his wealth on whatever philanthropic projects he deems worthy than the city taxing me to renovate the baseball stadium down the street "for society".


That argument is assuming government directed 'philanthropy' is more efficient, better directed or somehow less supporting of the status quo than private philanthropy. But private philanthropists got where they were by being good at management and effecting change in the world, whereas government employees did not, so it strikes me that it's likely to be the opposite - governments are less likely to do good things with the money, and more likely to support the status quo.


We all prefer win-win solutions, but not everything in life is like that. Sometimes in order to get justice for one group of people, an overly privileged group has to be knocked down a peg.

Just because Certain People Who Shall Remain Nameless™️ are promoting a toxic zero-sum attitude that unnecessarily divides us nowadays doesn't mean there aren't some things in life that truly are zero-sum.

At the moment, economic justice appears to be a pretty zero-sum proposition. Ending billionaires would end poverty. And there doesn't seem to be a way to end poverty without ending billionaires. (Or at least significantly reducing inequality.)


I heard him on the radio and he pretty much says that a lot of philanthropy and change by the wealthy is done in a way that doesn't challenge their own position. Change is only welcome if doesn't threaten their wealth.


Democracy is not a synonym for "good". Whether something is democratic or not tells you very little about whether it is worth keeping. Most things are not democratic, nor should they be.


I agree with the notion that democracies aren't synonymous with "good", but I disagree that things shouldn't be democratic. The sole purpose of democracies is to make people's problems their fault. Most systemic issues we see today have a root cause in people giving up their ability to vote -- electorally, financially, or otherwise. Keeping things democratic means keeping people's options open and legally, in writing, preserving each person's share in the power pie. IMHO, that's a worthwhile goal in and of itself.


Things shouldn't be democratic. Governments should be.

Both corporations and charitable foundations often emulate democratic governments in some ways, most notably in their shareholder and/or board meetings. There's nothing wrong with emulating the good parts of democracy in other suitable contexts. But I'm not sure whether it's worthwhile to emulate them in every context.

Even when things are run democratically, it is sometimes better to limit participants to those who are directly involved. Would you like some democratic input from the general public as to what happens in your bedroom between consenting partners, for example?


> The sole purpose of democracies is to make people's problems their fault.

Why is this good?

I would say the goal is to reduce problems.

> Most systemic issues we see today have a root cause in people giving up their ability to vote

Could you provide examples? Is this responsible for poverty, war, or poor education?

> preserving each person's share in the power pie

Bit of a mixed bag. Depending on your political leanings, I might give Trump and Brexit as examples of democracies making poor choices.


>Most things are not democratic, nor should they be.

Why not?


The main answer is "minorities". Look at the American South during the Jim Crow era.

Minorities need protection from majorities in democracies. And not just racial, religious or ethnic minorities. Everyone is a minority in multiple ways.

You have hobbies, beliefs, goals and connections that the majority in your country doesn't have. And they are all at risk under a democracy. This is why we don't have a "pure" democracy. This is why the Founders put many anti-democratic features in the US Constitution.

Every right you enjoy is a point where society drew a line and said "this will not be subject to a vote".


For one, it would be a terrible choice for a charity dedicated to helping the poorest of the world. People in democracies tend to vote for their own interests.

The U.S. spends about 1% of their budget on foreign aid. Yet in polls, most Americans think foreign aid should be further reduced [1].

[1] In the following poll of 1012 Americans, 81% thought foreign aid should be reduced and only 18% thought it shouldn't be: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2011/images/01/25/rel2d.pdf


Yes. The anti-democratic nature of philanthropies is a feature not a bug.

> His general argument was that endowments should be permitted, in some cases even celebrated, but that they should never be perpetual and that the state must always retain the right to intervene in a philanthropic endowment. His baseline conclusion: “all endowments are national property, which the government may and ought to control.”

Does this include the ACLU? It's been around for nearly 100 years, has a massive membership, a massive budget, and is the recipient of multi-million dollar endowments. The ACLU does important work advocating against government misconduct and abuses. The ACLU _should_ operate in perpetuity. It provides an important out of band check on government power, regardless of the popular democratic sentiments of a given year or decade.

Property rights are the foundation guaranteeing the ACLU's independence. It is the means by which the government encourages a diversity of institutions. By declaring "all endowments are national property" Mills is undermining this basis.

What Mills really had a problem with was the outsized influence of the church in his time. And he works backwards from that state of affairs to come his conclusions.


Allowing any one group of people to amass so much wealth and influence seems anti-democratic.


They aren't exactly handing it out to "spread the wealth", at least not in the sense you're talking about. They'll still ensure they are ammassing money don't worry.


This is what drives me up the wall whenever Bill Gates comes up. His net worth is double what it was a decade ago. He's not doing philanthropy, he's doing investing.


I mean... The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. If Bill Gates gives away 49% of the money his investments make a year (hypothetically), he makes money, and he gives money away. If he funds the Series A of a biotech company to help it continue its research and the company then gains value, it's not just investing, it's also philanthropy.


He has also pledged to give 95% of his wealth to charity, so most of that net worth increase should end up going to charity eventually.


After he is dead? Does it mean it is moral to kill him ASAP?


Anyone who has invested broadly in the stock market should have more than doubled their wealth from a decade ago


Philanthropy in a general sense? No. People can give whatever they want.

The laws that allow so few to accumulate so much, when the rest of the world has so little? Something seems off about that. Like the systems we've built aren't really working very well, not for everyone (though they're working great for a few.)

Counting on philanthropic efforts to replace services provided by government? Absofuckinglutely. You've just replaced democratically-governed society with "what a couple of rich guys think is a good idea for now". It's hard to be less anti-democratic than that.


Is democracy good? If something has democratic support does that make it right/moral? There was democratic support for slavery in the US at one point, something to keep in mind.

If democracy is not necessarily good and does not bestow moral standing, then does the characteristic of being anti-Democratic automatically imply that it is bad or wrong?


If you believe that democracy is a good feature of government, then policy outcomes (such as, arguably, the existence of billionaires) which threaten the effectiveness of that agreed-upon-good are failures. This is not saying that that which has democratic support is right/moral, it's about allowing the existence of the institution we nominally support and allow for its uninterfered operation.

If, conversely, you don't believe that democracy is a good feature of government, there are bigger things to discuss than the impact of wealthy individuals on that process.

A lot of these discussions take this framing for granted.


> There was democratic support for slavery in the US at one point,

The murderer is not accused by the knife.

Democracy is the mechanism for decisioning. Those who wield it hold the blame, not the mechanism.


This is a helpful thought experiment that exercises what you're describing: [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxation_as_theft#How_many_men...]


> This is a helpful thought experiment

That "thought experiment" isn't really helpful. It just starts with a particular morally-charged framing, and creates a mechanism to push that framing forward towards a conclusion, while discouraging thought about any other principles.

You could probably construct an infinite number of other "experiments" that push towards an infinite number of different conclusions on any topic, like "How many men...does it take to give you property rights? Do you own the car if only you say so? What if a gang of five men say you own the car..."


I would disagree...

I believe the point is to illustrate that you either have inalienable natural rights or you don't -- which is usually the basis of the "taxation is theft" argument -- i.e. you either own the produce of your labor or some other entity owns it and allows you to keep a portion of it out of kindness or whatever.

Not arguing for or against just explaining the reasoning behind their reductio ad absurdum "thought experiment".


This sounds more like wordplay than an argument. It's trying to establish that the word "theft" means any forced surrender of property including tax. But it never establishes why "theft" is bad under this definition. The answers you give to the questions in that thought experiment have no practical purpose - you're just choosing a definition for the English word "theft".

The questions can be meaningful if you replace "Is it theft if..." with "Is it bad if...". Is it bad if one man steals a car? Is it bad if a majority of voters decide to take some money from the rich to build roads and help the poor? Answers to these questions lead to actionable policy. The original questions do nothing but make communication more difficult by creating personal, non-standard definitions of a word.


I can definitely see where you'd get that impression, but that's not the impression I got from it. I don't think he's trying to define or establish meaning of the word "theft" at all. He seems to simply be establishing a baseline for the thought experiment by asking a rhetorical question. Most people would agree that it is "theft" if one man steals a car.

It's similar to a thought experiment I heard regarding abortion, where you start at 1 day and say, "Is it ok to abort at 1 day? what about 1 week? month? 20 weeks? 40 weeks?"

But I could very well be misunderstanding it myself.


There's an important difference between asking "Is it ok..." (to abort/take property/whatever else) and asking "Is it theft...".

In essence, the argument is using our negative feelings about "theft" to distract us from the relevant question of "is it ok/good?".

It's a technique that works for any category of things where there's a spectrum from bad to good and you want to persuade someone that the good instances are actually bad.

To take the abortion example. You ask someone who's undecided on abortion, "Is it okay to abort the moment after birth? What about the moment before birth? An hour before birth? A day? A month? 8 months? The day after conception?"

Phrased this way, the answers are likely to change from "no" to "yes" at some point through the spectrum. The person will likely feel it's okay to kill a single celled zygote with no brain and no mind, but not okay to kill a freshly born baby, and this phrasing makes it easy to acknowledge the difference.

But you can muddy the waters by changing the question from "Is it okay..." to "Is it murder...". After all, if you consider it murder to abort a fetus just before birth, it's not obvious why you wouldn't categorized aborting younger fetuses as murder.

One reasonably answer might be that you could consider killing a fetus/embryo at any age to be murder, but that still doesn't make it wrong to kill at early stages.

A technically correct answer would be it's not murder because our legal definition of murder excludes abortion.

However, people presented with this argument often won't say either of these things, and that's why this technique is effective. It obfuscates the question we're actually interested in ("is it okay?") by breaking it into two parts. It's trying to convince you that 1) killing a fetus is murder, 2) murder is not okay, therefore killing a fetus is not okay. This is an obvious fallacy. If you change what's considered murder to include something that is okay, then you've invalidated 2). However, these last steps of the argument are usually subconscious and people miss the fallacy.

The taxation argument has the same problem. Sure, you can call taxation "theft" if you want, but that does nothing to explain why it's bad. Or we can stick to the official definition of theft, which excludes tax. Either way, they've failed to explain why tax is bad.


Ah ok, I think I understand your position better. Would it be fair to say you disagree with the invocation of the word "theft" because of negative connotations (almost everyone would agree theft == bad)? Would you say that people using that thought experiment are engaging in Argumentum ad dictionarium?

I appreciate the discussion btw :-)


Yeah, that's pretty much it.


As a mechanism of governance, it’s the best we’ve found so far at achieving prosperous, stable societies over a long time horizon. Perhaps the single biggest advantage well-run democracies offer is peaceful transfer of power.


The parent comment is just replying to say that it's anti-democratic. You're side-stepping the question with an orthogonal one.

There's no perfect political system. Despots can be good and they can be bad; they can free the serfs, or they can instigate a genocide. But unlike well-implemented democracies, despots have a single point of failure. What happens when the 'enlightened' despot is wrong?


I wasn't intentionally side-stepping, I was asking an honest question regarding what I perceived to be a presupposition of his, namely that being anti-democratic is equivalent to being morally wrong. I could be misunderstanding him tho, as I did have to infer that from his comment about "rich people" running things.

Yeah it's a good point. If we stipulate that anarchy can't work (which I don't believe necessarily, I'm agnostic on that, but for sake of discussion I'll stipulate), then I can't really think of a better system either (assuming we're actually talking about a direct democracy like Ancient Greece had).

The people can and do get things wrong, but it does seem less likely that the people as a whole will be tyrants than one or a few individuals.


> There was democratic support for slavery in the US at one point, something to keep in mind.

Only if you don't count the votes of the slaves, of course.


It seems to me that in order to conclude that, one would have to assume that everyone in the world had equal access to the very systems of whichever societies made the rich people rich. Absent that, another possible conclusion and policy goal could be to simply keep the current systems and ensure that other people around the world (as well as more people domestically) had access to those very same systems.


I see one of the main systemic issues with philanthropic foundations existing in perpetuity is that they employ a large group of people with essentially no financial incentives to spend the managed money properly, likely increasing over time as the board gradually becomes removed from whatever good intentions and directions the founders had (if they were ever anything other than a tax strategy to begin with). So essentially you end up with a bunch of non-productive white collar jobs parasitizing some managed fund as long as it exists.


As a counterpoint the Howard Hughes Medical Institute was basically a tax dodging scheme up until Hughes died and the new board turned it into a full on "societal beneficial" organization which has done inarguably good work.


If we have to rely on the philanthropy of the super rich to save us, we've already failed, since it means the super rich have locked up the money needed to save us, and can dole it out at will.

If that money weren't locked up with the super rich, a lot of our problems would go away.

So yeah, perpetuating this system, and making it worse, isn't going to end well.

Besides, philanthropy is often merely a way to gain a political goal with a significant tax savings.


I mean... the exact same issue can be said of representative government.


What you said doesn't make any sense.


Yes it does. Representative government has certain people make decisions on how public resources are spent. Every so often (but not so often as to have a direct say in anything) the people as a whole perform a check on their government. However, as it is representatives are the ones who make the decisions.

The representatatives control vast sums of money that are doled out to individuals.

However, representatives are themselves almost always of the upper classes. This is true regardless of whatever other minority groups the representatives may be part of.

A welfare-based representative government means that the poorer classes do end up depending on the government. Thus, representative government in practice consists of rich people doling out money to help poor people who depend on it: the exact institution you criticize.


This is false equivalence bullshit. Representatives can be voted out, and so they have to be responsive to that. Billionaires personally funding things don't have to be responsive to anything. That's the whole difference.




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