Among the two or three interesting things I did over the summer was my discovery of a Web site called politicalcompass.org. Apologies to those of you who know the site, but, in brief, it attempts to go beyond traditional characterizations of “left” and “right” and provide a more sophisticated assessment of political philosophies. To this end, it uses two axes: the economic x-axis runs from extreme statist collectivism to extreme laissez-faire deregulation, and the social y-axis runs from extreme authoritarianism to extreme libertarianism. A short test, with a sheaf of debatable but basically sensible questions, will place you in one of the four quadrants and mark you as a member of the Authoritarian Left or Authoritarian Right, or the Libertarian Left or Libertarian Right.
I suspect that most Yalies would like to think of themselves as members of the Libertarian Left, which is exemplified by support for fiscal intervention and social freedom. Or, to put it another way, redistribution of wealth and toleration of different lifestyle choices. Or, to put it another way, undemocratic grand larceny with the threat of violence; because there is no choice about taxation, and the state can summon a great deal of force when it wants to.
Taxation is theft: let’s be absolutely clear about that. I work; I earn a dollar; I have to return 14 cents with little or no (and in my case, no) say over where those 14 cents go. There are always plausible arguments about the necessity of taxation, mostly variations on the theme of “schools and hospitals,” as favoured by my prime minister. There is of course no arguing with this, because it’s a largely sentimental soft-focus point of view, like that of John Edwards, and trying to dispute it makes you seem like the sort of cold-hearted, selfish individual who likes drowning kittens on the weekend. But essentially, arguments for higher taxation boil down to the simple belief that there are people who can spend your money better than you can — and, furthermore, that you can’t be trusted to spend your money properly.
Also during the summer, two friends of mine, both extremely bright and not given to political radicalism, confessed that they were theoretical communists. I entirely agreed; it was, I suspect, not unconnected with our shared nominal Christianity. That is, if we all behaved according to the precepts of the New Testament, we would have practical communism. It was one of the great tragedies of the 20th century that it had to be demonstrated that what is a lovely idea in theory sucks in practice.
The belief that the state should exist to improve society has been the driving force behind most Western governments during the past hundred years. In daily prayers at the U.K. Parliament (yes, we have daily prayers), MPs are exhorted to “keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind,” which is a pretty big task to keep in mind. But secular Americans needn’t get huffy about the intrusion of religion into politics, because all political creeds, and especially those promoting big government, are essentially moral. The whole point behind redistributive taxation is that it claims to serve a moral good (and here I extend apologies to the handful of people who have argued for such policies for reasons of good governance, although it comes back to an unprovable belief in the end).
In the event of higher taxation, the state assumes responsibility for distributing “its” (that is, its citizens’) wealth. To do this, it must firmly believe that, as a 1940s Labour minister declared, “there are some things about which the gentleman in Whitehall [i.e. the government] really does know best.” This used to be described as paternalism; it could euphemistically be called Platonic. It could be called democratic if you stretch the concept of representative democracy to its limit. Basically, what it means is that the leaders of the nation know best. Taken to its logical conclusion, it has precious little to do with liberty. This leads to schizophrenic politics: back home, whilst European governments toy with euthanasia and gambling deregulation, the British parliament, in one of the most historically pointless wastes of legislative time, has voted to ban foxhunting. Not even John Ashcroft would get away with that.
All of which brings us back to the political compass. If they’re being honest, supporters of statist economics want to tell other people what to do. This doesn’t bother me at all: I came down neatly in the Authoritarian Left quadrant (very close to His Holiness the Pope, as it happens). And it was, I think, a typical Yalie who wrote to the News last year and opined that, although the majority of the population was opposed to gay marriage, it was the responsibility of people like us (i.e., the future leaders of the nation) to tell the people that they were wrong. Again, I have no problem with this, but I would be much happier if my fellow Yalies — and especially the Democrats — came out of denial, admitted that they belong in the Authoritarian Left, and stopped trying to have it both ways. Either we govern the people for their own good or we let them (and their money) alone. But not both.
Nick Baldock is a second-year graduate student in history.