This is the first Libertarian Home talk that I have felt compelled to prefix with a health warning. The libertarian movement has an unjustified reputation for being a) cold-hearted and uncaring b) predominantly male and occasionally c) juvenile. I recall Jack of Kent for example defining a libertarian as a liberal who has not left home yet (it is more likely the precise opposite, if you understand the importance of personal accountability in this school of thought).
For those not present, the speaker had written a fictional essay; explaining the serious matter of sexual inequality in the parallel world of Equistan. The problem was caused by men suddenly out numbering women four to one, and the democratic solution was that those lucky individuals found to be enjoying an active sex life were asked to share some of their sex life with people who were otherwise struggling to get laid on their own merits. All the justifications given for tax are applied to “sax”.
The subject matter and the sound of giggling men creates an obvious risk that this video simply justifies critics’ existing impressions of our community. I have by now listened to the video several times over, and was present when the original essay was read aloud to an exclusive audience in Pimlico. At first I cringed, for the above reasons, when hearing my colleagues giggle at the content, but as I listen again (to check the edit, then the render, then the YouTube re-encoding, then again for this write up) I was able to notice patterns. The giggling is rarely if ever noticed when the speaker mentions sexual acts. Rape is not being laughed at in this video. The humour you hear is directed at the familiar justifications given for the notion of “Saxation”. The role of laughter is to dismiss the unreal or uncomfortable, and the very real justifications of tax that the speaker repurposed as justifications for rape needed to be processed in this way. Their unreality needed to be confirmed by laughing together as a group. I think the alternative for the group was anger or despair that the logical arguments presented for saxation through the first 12 minutes are in fact very real arguments for the all-too-real and ugly institution of taxation, an institution that robs the labour of more people than the slave trade ever did.
At least, that’s my amateur psychological explanation, but if you are not convinced then simply listen out for the females in the group from 8 to 12 minutes in. Why would they be tittering away at something that disproportionately affects them? They aren’t, they are laughing at progressive ideas they would otherwise find disgusting.
The second part of the talk drills into the psychology of how people process the ideas of saxation, taxation, theft and rape.
Gregg sets about building a case that the special status of taxation as a moral good in mainstream thinking is an oddity in need of explanation. When considering the table as a whole it is possible to argue that:
- If theft is wrong why is tax okay? (the traditional libertarian argument)
- If rape and theft are wrong why would sax be okay? (Equistan has decided it is)
- If rape and sax are wrong aren’t theft and tax both also wrong?
- If theft and rape are bad shouldn’t tax as well as sax be wrong?
All these permutations are different ways of asking: why does society regard the payment of tax to be morally obligatory? It is certain that it does, for the most part, do so. UK UnCut, Margaret Hodge and even the Conservative David Cameron have all conducted witch hunts against those who might be paying less than others, even when already paying everything they are asked for under the law. The payment of Tax is regarded as beyond good, as essential in fact, to be considered a decent human being.
However Gregg was able to identify commonalities between all the things in the table that appear to justify the case that all four are bad:
Sax, Rape, Tax and Theft all involve an essential conflict of interest in which resistance may become violent. Submission is safer but in any event the preferences of all the parties are not met.
Loss of Autonomy
Sax, Rape, Tax and Theft all involve a loss of autonomy, which is a basic human striving. Since all four acts involve coercion someone’s plans are sacrificed and frustrated for the sake of the plans of others.
Thieves, tax collectors and public and private sector rapists all act on an assumption, held by the person employing force, that his needs or his intellect are superior to those of the other party and should take precedence.
Rapists, tax collectors, perpetrators of systemic rape and common thieves all treat other people as the means to an end. Gregg identifies this as simply undignified, but I think he would agree that it offensive both to the individual and also devalues all individuals in the culture.
Gregg goes on to preemptively deal with some objections to his theory that sax, theft, tax and rape are all evil.
The argument from seriousness, that personal violations are more serious than property violations. This is dismissed as inconsistent with other examples of decisions people might generally make (for example, the decision to sell sex) and also dismissed on principle (since even minor violations of property are still considered theft).
The argument from feasibility, that it is simply easier to tax wealth than sex is dismissed by way of a comparison with the mugging of an old lady or a “muscular gent”. It is easier to mug the old lady but that makes it worse, not better.
The argument from necessity, that tax is really useful and good things can be done with it is not highly regarded by most libertarians who argue that liberty generates useful stuff better than tax-and-spend does. Gregg takes an interesting turn here and rejects this argument on a very different basis: that sometimes rights trump utility. In the case of saxation our intuition is that women’s right of self-ownership trumps the utility of sorting out horny men and that perhaps our intuition about tax being in the opposite category might be wrong.
The argument from incredulity, that it is basically a silly comparison. Tax is a decent traditional social institution and it is ridiculous to make comparisons between good-old tax, the systemic exploitation of women. This is where the talk gets really interesting for me.
Gregg basically accepts the notion (which is false in my view) that morality is subjective. He accepts the Is-Ought dichotomy. He does reject geography and tradition as valid sources of moral standards but accepts a generalised zeitgeist which evolves with debate over time to exclude as ridiculous certain things that were once held to be valid, such as a disapproval of homophobia. He assumes that the more developed West has better moral insight than, say, African society and dwells on Female Genital Mutilation as an example. FGM he argued, is very common in some places in Africa and all that is required is for a more clear-thinking western influence to explain patiently that cutting up clitorises is not okay. We are invited to believe that Africa is like a parallel universe which would vanish in a puff of logic if exposed to better, more scientific, ideas. Gregg suggests that we are living in a similar bubble of taxation supporting primitives who need only have the truth explained to them. The story about saxation is cast in the role of a useful tool to burst our moral bubble and bring reality crashing in. Except, it doesn’t, not on it’s own.
Give me more!
The saxation story is certainly funny. I don’t doubt that it will get people thinking and that people will recognise thier own arguments in the arguments for saxation. But on hearing the talk five or six times – I can’t help but hope for more. The quick tour of moral subjectivist arguments in the 23rd minute reminds me that cold hard reality is a viable source for moral standards and we ought to use it. Hoping that a story about saxation will bring reality crashing in is limited if all you mean to do is bring the reality about tax into play. If you wanted to assert the role of reality as a source of moral standards in all cases, then you are going to need a bigger story.