Taxes Are Good for You

|

I had to read this New Republic piece by Paradox of Choice author Barry Schwartz twice to make sure I had it right, but he appears to be sincerely advancing an argument of the following form: Too many choices sometimes make people unhappy—we get so overloaded with the number of varieties of mustard at the supermarket that we end up just not getting any, even though we would've liked some. So economic redistribution isn't just good for the poor, he argues, but for the rich as well, since it spares them the burden of all those choices. (Or, as Radley Balko might put it, frees them from the Tyranny of Mustard.) Says Schwartz:

[W]e don't really know the point at which increased choice ceases to be beneficial. (Is it at $75,000 of income? $100,000? $150,000? Is it at ten flavors of jam? 50? 100?)…. The point is simply that we now know there is some significant subset of people likely to be made better off through heavier taxation, and that these people reside at the top end of the wealth distribution. Given that a concern for people's welfare has traditionally been one of the chief moral objections to taxing wealth (at least among those sympathetic to redistribution in principle), a policy of heavier taxation for the very wealthy may be the only moral course of action.

I'm hoping this is silly enough on face to make a response otiose, but two fairly obvious points: First, that choice has expanded dramatically over the course of the last generation, and it seems a little early to presume that people won't or can't develop new decision mechanisms to adapt to "option paralysis." Second, it seems pretty likely that the people who choose to devote themselves to high paying occupations—as opposed to less remunerative but more interesting ones like, say, writing—are precisely those for whom more material choices are most subjectively valuable.

Only tangentially related, I did a double take at this claim:

Because the government has a responsibility to ensure that every citizen enjoys a basic level of welfare, it should lower the wealth of some in order to expand the wealth, and therefore the welfare, of others. That, at least, has been the consensus among political philosophers (and the college freshman who take their courses) for the last several hundred years.

That consensus, I imagine, would come as something of a shock to not only readers of classical liberal theorists and modern thinkers like Robert Nozick or David Gauthier, but also to the many egalitarian theorists who advocate equal opportunity or access to resources while explicitly rejecting guarantees of "welfare," a subjective quantity which some deny is even meaningful. (Thomas Scanlon, for instance, favors redistribution, but has a thoughtful critique of the idea of overall "well being" as a desideratum.)

Advertisement

NEXT: The New Debtors' Prisons

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I don’t know where the jam/mustard choices start becoming useless, but its somewhere beyond where the stores I shop at are. I generally decide that one (usually two, since I keep some regular yellow on hand, plus some good spicy brown) is ‘right’ in my estimation of price/snootiness.

    And as for jams, I usually still have to look hard to find the lesser-known fruit jams that I prefer on toast. I really don’t want that Schwartz fellow forcing me into eating Smucker’s Concord Grape for the rest of my life. I’d have to haunt him.

    If people really don’t want choice, why is Central Market the bigest thing to hit the Dallas grocery scene since the checkout scanner. For those outside of the HEB sphere of influence, Central Market is a huge very upscale grocery superstore that attempts to combine about 15 boutique shops into one. Vast selections of middle-to-high end beer and wine (they might sell a little Bud and Gallo, but I haven’t seen it) more vegetables than I know what to do with (because I’m not a cook – not because I’m flabergasted by choice) and any cheese you could ever want.

    If choice is the affliction of the rich, then we seem to be perfectly at home with our sickness. (by the way – I’m not rich)

  2. Responding to this is most definitely otiose!

    But speaking of too many choices, someone separate Sanchez from his Thesaurus, SOON!!

  3. Too many choices as the root of human anguish????Sounds like Mr. Schwartz is a disciple of the Swami in the Monkee’s movie HEAD.

    “We were speaking of belief,
    Beliefs and conditioning.
    All belief possibly could be said to be the result of some conditioning.
    Thus, the study of history is simply the study of one system of beliefs deposing another,
    And so on, and so on, and so on.
    A psychologically tested belief of our time is the central nervous system,
    Which feeds its impulses directly to the brain, the conscious and subconscious.
    Is unable to discern between the real, and the vividly imagined experience,
    If there is a difference, and most of us believe there is.
    Am I being clear?
    For to examine these concepts requires tremendous energy and discipline.
    To experience the now without preconception of belief.
    To allow the unknown to occur and to occur requires clarity,
    For where there is clarity there is no choice,
    And where there is choice, there is misery.
    But then why should anyone listen to me?
    Why should I speak? Since I know nothing!”

    Now if only he’d follow the rest of the swami’s teachings.

  4. Discussion paper no. 1218 at http://www.iza.org is
    somewhat relevant here. It casts doubt on
    the finding that happiness does not increase
    much with resources above a lower middle class
    standard of living.

    The discussion here sounds to me like an
    attempt to offer a theoretical underpinning
    for this finding; my main problem with it is
    that the finding goes back a long way but,
    as Julian notes, choice has been increasing
    a lot over recent decades. Thus, if this
    was the causal mechanism, you would expect
    the shape of the income-happiness to have
    changed over time. My understanding of the
    literature is that it has not.

    So there!

    Jeff

  5. “Because the government has a responsibility to ensure that every citizen enjoys a basic level of welfare, it should lower the wealth of some in order to expand the wealth, and therefore the welfare, of others. That, at least, has been the consensus among political philosophers (and the college freshman who take their courses) for the last several hundred years.”

    The Declaration of Independence states “among these (Certain Inalienable Rights), the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …” The document doesn’t guarantee happiness, because of course, that would be an impossible promise, and there is no such “right” to automatically achieve happiness. I guess the authors and signers of that document don’t count as “political philosophers”?!!

  6. There HAVE to be more important topics to respond to than silliness like this……It’s amazing what people can come up with to justify robbery

  7. My “choice” is not to pay TAXES !
    that`s my Voluntary Compliance

  8. To whom much has been given, much will be expected.

  9. Are you sure this isn’t an Onion piece (or a satire piece written by someone who does or should write for the Onion)?

    The excerpts quoted here sure have that Gilroy aroma.

    Heaven on Earth with an Onion slice! I’m just a Reason-burgher in “Paradox”!

  10. The frightening thing is how good his Amazon reviews are. Maybe responding seems otiose to readers of this website, but clearly some people are endorsing this type of thought. And yes, I had to look it up too.

  11. Too many choices causes anguish.

    Yeah, I can’t figure out whether or not to get off my ass and clean the kitchen or just plop and watch Racheal Ray do her sorta cute perky act around her own kitchen. The agony, agony!

  12. yes, commies are certainly odd bedfellows for you reason folks . . . but at least you know who’s on top!

    i’m sure uncle joe will be here soon to make it go down easier for you

  13. Rachael Ray is hot!

  14. Hmmm, I don’t have cable – but Rachel IS hot.

    Nice slideshow – is her show like that?!?

  15. “[W]e don’t really know the point at which increased choice ceases to be beneficial. (Is it at $75,000 of income? $100,000? $150,000? Is it at ten flavors of jam? 50? 100?)…. ”

    I understand the ‘issue’ of flavors of jams; but what the hell is the problem with $ of income?

    “there is some significant subset of people likely to be made better off through heavier taxation” the author must be joking!

    even Hillary didn’t claim it is for the benefit of the taxed, when she said she was going to raise the taxes for “common good” 🙂

  16. Jamie S,

    I wouldn’t trust Amazon customer reviews from the pre-credit-card-verification era.

  17. Was it in the New Republic that I read, years ago, that high taxes are good for businesses because they force them to become more efficient, to “think outside the box?”

    Taxes: Is there anything they can’t do?

  18. If excessive choice caused by wealth causes moral decay then at what point does it cause it in the statists who collect it in taxes? The most cursory glance at any state budget shows that these people have far too much choice to deal with and we need to protect them by retaining our wealth.

  19. The benefit of the quantity of choice is by nature, entirely subjective but Barry Schwartz not only says that his view is a correct one for others; he is willing to use the power of the state to force his conclusion on the rest of us!

  20. …except that you DON’T have your human rights because of the actions of the government, not even a little bit. Human rights are innate; wealth is socially-constructed.

  21. Can’t believe nobody’s picked up on what almost made me burst out laughing: “and the college freshmen” !? If I didn’t know better, I’d think that this was parody. Onion-worthy, indeed. Seriously, a) what have college freshmen ever agreed on, other than how hard it is to get into the good parties, and b) who cares what freshman philosophy majors think anyway? I can’t help but notice a distinct lack of freshman college essays among the recognizedly great works of philosophy in our history…

  22. A Calvin and Hobbes comic strip addressed this issue several years ago. Calvin didn’t want to go to school because “The more knowledge a person has, the more choices he has to make. The more choices he has to make, the longer it takes to make one. Therefore, knowledge is ultimately debilitating”. This seems to be in the same vein. The more money I have, the harder it is to make choices. Therefore, money is ultimately debilitating. Horsepookey!

  23. I think the premise is silly. We collect taxes because we need the money the for stuff like stop signs, aircraft carriers, and loans to de-lead apartments, etc. With the possible exception of inheritance taxes, the reduction in wealth brought about by tax collection is a harm, that is justified only by the achievement of a greater good via the programs funded by the tax dollars. And even in the case of inheritance taxes, the good achieved by the reduction in wealth has nothing to do with relieving the heirs of the burden of too many choices.

    Besides, with 60 different kinds of frozen veggies in the freezer aisle that cost less than $1.50/bag, the problem of choice overload kicks in way below what anyone would consider wealthy.

  24. Reminds me of an article I saw last year in the Boston Globe’s Sunday “Ideas” section.
    This guy was arguing that your money isn’t really ALL YOURS, because you depend on the state to provide necessary economic structures and civil order. You couldn’t earn your money if the state didn’t provide those necessary preconditions, therefore it’s not just your money: it’s partly the state’s money too!
    So don’t anybody complain about the state taking “your” money: it’s just taking the share it rightfully owned to begin with.
    I thought of writing a letter to the editor, pointing out that if you plug “human rights,” instead of “money” into that argument, you get real ugly results.
    But I’m lazy, and I rationalized that anyone stupid enough to buy that load o’crap wouldn’t have been able to read the article in the first place, since it was about economics, and used big words.
    Besides: when your opponent’s fly is open, why do him the favor of pointing it out?

  25. “The point is simply that we now know there is some significant subset of people likely to be made better off through heavier taxation, and that these people reside at the top end of the wealth distribution.”

    There are so many objections to this idea on so many levels. One is, even if you accept the premise that some would be better off with a smaller income, others would not and taxation makes no distinction between those two sets of people. Second, if someone’s high income is making them unhappy, they are perfectly free to reduce it on their own by either not accepting high pay or giving the excess away to charity. The notion that government must save people from their liberty is despicable.

  26. “Human rights are innate; wealth is socially-constructed.”-joe

    And here I thought after your first post you were actually being fairly reasonable. Oh well.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.