Subsidizing taxpayers, do it for the kids...


Take and Give

In "Where Have All the Dollars Gone?" (Feb.), James Payne exposes some of the unspoken assumptions that make government entitlements seem beneficial. He points to the dual illusions of the state as a cornucopia of benefits and as a frictionless machine transferring money from those taxed to those subsidized. He is especially eloquent in debunking the latter.

If we consider the potential productive capacity of the excess baggage we support, we see the cost of taxes rise even further. What if all the tax accountants, lawyers, and agents, the publishers of tax books and software, as well as the time we spend as individuals keeping records and preparing tax forms, were directed toward producing useful goods and services? What if, instead of draining the economy of productive capacity, they were adding to it? What of the capital and hard resources devoted to tax compliance?

And we should not overlook the value of lost leisure and family time. I remember predictions made as I was growing up that with improved methods of production, the work week would shrink to four days. Yet with all the improvements since then, we see more now than ever both parents working to maintain about the same standard of living as our fathers were able to earn for us on their income alone. We work more efficiently and longer, just to feed the tax monster.

Mitchell Stary
New Richmond, WI

Much as I enjoyed James Payne's article, it is evident he still does not get it. Government programs have become a means of employment for government workers. They do not care if a program does what it was supposed to do, or if it does any good at all. That it provides work and income to the administrators, from the presidential appointee to the lowliest mail-room clerk, is its reason for existence.

Consider: With the downsizing of the military machine many Washingtonians will be out of work. What to do? Start a program called Universal Health Care, a great bureaucratic employment vehicle. Unlike the Pentagon, it will not be whiplashed by the exigencies of the nation's defense. It will go on and on forever–not just in Washington, but in every state capital and large city in the nation.

Alan R. Moore
Albion, MI

James Payne did a wonderful job of tackling an issue that has bothered me for many years. The only shortfall was his failure to address one of the most obvious cases of government take-and-give: taxing the income of government workers.

What sense does it make to pay a civil servant, military officer, or government contractor $35,000 from the U.S. Treasury and then deduct $5,250 to $7,400 of it in income tax? The only result is wasted overhead by the IRS to process and verify his tax return. If federal employees simply had their salaries cut by the appropriate amount, it would mean millions fewer tax returns for the IRS to process each year–and a substantial savings in time, money, and natural resources.

James D. Maloy
Columbia, MD

Chip Bok's February cover neatly captured the first point James L. Payne made: The subsidized pay their own subsidies. It might have occurred to so imaginative an artist to illustrate Payne's second point as well: Two-thirds of the subsidy is lost in the "transfusion." But the result would have been a gory picture: blood spurting from leaks in the bottles and tubes, forming a large red pool on the floor.

Or perhaps he did visualize it but, after reading Steve Kuitz's "Déjà Viewing" (Feb.), felt the chill wind blowing from today's would-be censors. Did REASON wimp out in the face of Janet Reno and Tipper Gore? Say it ain't so.

Brian Christeson
Alexandria, NH

Roving Thievery

I can vouch for the validity of the statement in "Casualties of War" (Feb.) that forfeiture is spreading to other offenses. In June 1992 I received a registered letter from a special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accusing me of violating the Airborne Hunting Act and the Endangered Species Act. both of which have forfeiture provisions.

The service believes that flying sailplanes along Colorado's Front Range, an area where raptors nest, constitutes illegal harassment of the birds. This interpretation ignores the fact that both birds and sailplanes have successfully coexisted in the area since the mid-1950s, when a local soaring club was formed; that soaring birds commonly choose to soar with sailplanes; and that annual monitoring by local, state, and federal agencies of all known raptor nests in the area since the mid-'80s has shown all species of hawks to be successful in fledging young, with the sole exception of one golden eagle pair. Nevertheless, the Fish and Wildlife Service agent said the next time I violated the laws my sailplane would be seized. I would also be subject to fines up to $200,000 and a prison sentence of one year in jail under both statutes.

R. F. Whelan
Ft. Lupton, CO

Sleepless in Van Nuys

Much as I treasure each issue of REASON, I confess I am often left discouraged, depressed, frightened, and even sleepless. In the February issue, the excellent pieces by Tama Starr on sexual harassment ("A Reasonable Woman"), by Hannah Lapp on child abuse ("Child Abuse"), and by Steven Duke and Albert Gross on the war on drugs ("Casualties of War") left me with these feelings.

What is under attack now is not just the Constitution, whose basic provisions have been all but meaningless since the New Deal anyway, but the rule of law. If the law cannot provide a guide for action according to which one can tell at the time that a deed is right or wrong and govern oneself in good faith then the definition of crime is at the retroactive discretion of police, bureaucrats, judges, and "victims." When a "perception" by any malcontent becomes the standard of sexual harassment, when Child Protective Service busybodies can remove children from a family on any pretext, and when the drug warriors can evade any constitutional guarantee based on blatant expediency, the moment fast approaches when we must ask if the United States has become a police state in every essential respect.

The facade of democracy does not help. As Thomas Jefferson said: "It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one….As little will it avail us that they are chosen by ourselves. An elective despotism was not the government we fought for."

Kelly L. Ross
Van Nuys, CA

Minor Premise

Virginia Postrel's editorial, "The Children's Hour" (Feb.), was a wonderful exposé of a tactic used by advocates of big government. They increasingly exploit the feelings of parents for their children and thereby put all reason and logic on hold. But this is a tactic that can be used by libertarians to cut the other way.

If all government spending at the federal, state, and local levels is divided into personal income, the ultimate payer of all taxes, the result is over 50 percent. Parents pay more for bureaucrats than to raise their own kids. What percentage of parents would answer yes to the following question: Do bureaucrats deserve more of your income than your own kids? It is always important to learn from the enemy.

Keary K. Ehlers
Arlington, TX

Virgnia Postrel's editorial on children as political human shields was right on the mark but failed to mention the armored assault on the Branch Davidians. According to Attorney General Janet Reno, the use of tanks and tear gas was justified because some federal agents feared children in the compound were being abused. The children all died, of course, but the raid must be judged at least a partial success: Reno can be certain that none of the children is being abused today.

Brian Tillotson
Huntsville, AL

Kids are simultaneously the most protected and the most exploited segment of American society. In both cases the reason is to increase government control of those segments of society which can or do come into contact with children–in other words, just about everything.

Part of the problem is that the government has not decided whether kids are citizens with certain rights and responsibilities, or merely the property of their parents. The law is currently a muddy mix of the two–and any time there is equivocal law, one can be certain that someone with power will use that lack of clarity against the citizenry as a whole.

Mark Kernes
Los Angeles, CA

Virginia Postrel is absolutely correct that "too many activists are using kids as human shields, to hide adult agendas." For the past three years, I've been studying the EPA draft reports on environmental tobacco smoke. In the first draft, the EPA didn't emphasize children's respiratory conditions. On the advice of its Science Advisory Board, the agency did a complete turnaround in its revised draft and made a big deal out of ETS exposure and children's health. Now all we hear is how we must protect our children from ETS.

Martha Perske
Darien, CT

Ancient Insights

Steven Hayward's review of Stephen Holmes' s Anatomy of Antiliberalism ("Ill-Liberalism," Feb.), though workmanlike and challenging, raised my ire. His siding with Holmes against Leo Strauss as an antiliberal seems as facile and superficial as he goes on to show John Rawls's Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism to be. Also, the hit-and-run critique of Fukuyama's The End of History is herd-like and getting a bit old.

Strauss's main point in stressing the importance of the ancients is very much as Hayward put it himself: "To the extent that very modern thought has discarded the classical view of human nature, as both Strauss and MacIntyre argue, both liberalism and republicanism are undermined." Hayward goes on rightly to suggest that a reaffirmation of human nature is the one thing most needful for a rehabilitation of liberalism. But where else has this sort of critique been forthcoming, besides from the "bookworm heroism" of Strauss and his students? Libertarians in general are blind to the extent to which their beloved classical liberalism eroded the very notion of human nature which Hayward agrees must now be recovered.

Another issue which lies in the shadows here is the relation of philosophy to the political order, another of Strauss's, and the ancients', central concerns. For Holmes (and apparently Hayward as well), the self-contradiction of such as Strauss lies in their "high-pitched jeremiads [which] fizzle into tiptoed retreats."

Those are rightly known as ideologues who try to patch together a plan of political action based on utopias or philosophical tracts questioning the first principles of the human world. The life of mind engenders the most human things, and in fact makes possible the political (in the ancient understanding of that term). Philosophy must inform the function of the city and regime; it must never be allowed to degenerate into ideology by being hardened into concrete political programs.

The general misunderstanding of Fukuyama's History, which Hayward and Holmes seem to share, in part stems from this misunderstanding of the place in the city for philosophy. In one sense, Fukuyama was only restating what Aristotle had already resigned himself to in his Politics: Democracy of one sort or another is inevitable. Both Tocqueville and Hegel saw this truth, and Fukuyama in part merely points out that liberalism is the highest, and therefore last, theoretical alternative available as an acceptable and therefore possible regime in the philosophic search for the best arrangement. He carefully notes that most of the world's nations are not now, nor perhaps ever will be, a part of the apex of human political ordering which constitutional liberalism represents.

Harold Kildow
Manchester, NH

Mr. Hayward replies: I am grateful for Mr. Kildow's letter. It was with readers like him in mind that I wrote the review as I did.

I willingly plead no contest to the lesser charge of not directly taking up a cudgel against Holmes's tendentious interpretation of Leo Strauss. But far from "siding with Holmes against Strauss," I thought my criticism of Holmes's view was, though implicit, nonetheless clear enough not only in the passage Mr. Kildow cites but also in the recommendation of the Pangle and Rahe books as proper remedies. At the same time, I do think the charge of "bookworm heroism" is fitting for some (not all) in the Straussian community (a community in which, by the way, I include myself–at least part of the week). Few are willing to venture into the arena of practical politics, chiefly out of a stuffy regard for the distinction between philosophy and the city that Mr. Kildow mentions. Even if they do, then what? Have you ever tried to explain the Straussian view of political life to a real, live politician? I have. It's not pretty. But if the "crisis of the West" is as grave as some Straussians claim, the above-it-all philosophical detachment from the world of practical politics does begin to look like "bookworm heroism."

I plead not guilty to the charge of hit-and-run on Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis, though, to be fair to Mr. Kildow, I could have been more precise by saying that the end of the Cold War has not left the world in the hands of liberalism (rather than liberals). I think Fukuyama is right, but I also see a real prospect that America could join the ranks of those nations that are not "part of the apex of…constitutional liberalism." I base this gloomy view in part on what I've been seeing lately among legal theorists at our elite law schools. In this broader, historic battle now underway, Holmes is an ally, and perhaps even a friend. We can fight with him later about his animus toward Strauss.

Frank Response

Sadly, the appearance of Steve Kurtz's piece detailing attempts to regulate pop culture ("Déjà Viewing," Feb.) coincided with the passing of Frank Zappa. Kurtz is correct to cite Zappa's fight against record labeling as an early version of the current congressional hoopla about TV and video games. That 1985 hearing even included a bizarre excursion into children's toys.

During an exhange with Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), Zappa was asked what kind of toys his children had. With characteristic bluntness, Zappa wondered aloud how that could possibly be relevant. Hawkins said she would be "interested to know." So Zappa invited her to "come over some time" and see for herself. That invitation, which brought snickers from onlookers, made explicit that the contemplated content guidelines would do nothing less than invite dopey politicians into American homes. With Janet Reno on the rampage, that's a point worth remembering.

Jeff A. Taylor
Gaithersburg, MD

Who Needs Missiles?

I've been puzzled for some time now by the pundits who insist we need an orbital Maginot Line to fend off ICBMs. Michael Boldrick's "Going Anti-Ballistic" (Feb.) did nothing to justify the idea for me.

While ICBMs may soon (or already) be available to terrorists, my question is, why would they bother? Surely a nuclear weapon could be delivered to its target by cheaper and more reliable means. Mr. Boldrick not only fails to answer this question, he seems intentionally blind to it. He uses the example of a missile aimed at the World Trade Center–plainly ignoring the recent bombing of that very target. It was carried out using nothing more exotic than a rented moving van. A low-yield nuclear weapon delivered by the same means could level the entire southern end of Manhattan, while our ABM systems vainly searched the skies.

James D. Maloy
Columbia, MD

Mr. Boldrick replies: I believe ICBMs will be the weapon of choice for terrorist states with a grudge against the United States big enough to square with nuclear weapons. First, we have no defense against missile warheads. Second, it's unlikely a bomber or submarine could approach our coastline without detection by air or sea defenses. Also, missiles are easier to obtain than long-range bombers (which require aerial refueling capability to achieve intercontinental ranges) or submarines.

So why not use a truck like the World Trade Center bombers did? Remember, their explosives were derived from fertilizer, which can be purchased without arousing suspicion. Smuggling a nuclear device into the United States is an entirely different project. Anyone crossing our border with radioactive uranium or the highly specialized electronics required to detonate a nuclear weapon would likely meet the FBI up close and personal.

Finally, I don't advocate a space-based Maginot Line. There's no such thing as a perfect defense against high-tech weapons. Space sensors can increase the effectiveness of ground-based interceptors by giving advanced warning of approaching missile warheads. Meanwhile, we are spending U.S. tax dollars to defend foreign cities against terrorist missiles. Why aren't we doing the same for our own?