'I Don't Know What Ideological Point You're Trying to Make'


Guerrilla interviewer Jan Helfeld, a devotee of the Socratic method, springs a trap on Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.):

Helfeld: Should the government protect peaceful citizens against people that want to use force to take their money?

Moran: Yes.

Helfeld: Can you live well if other people can gang up on you and forcibly take your money?

Moran: No.

Helfeld: Should the government redistribute its citizens' wealth by forcibly taking money from some citizens through taxes in order to provide goods and services for others?

Moran: If that's the question you're asking, the answer is yes, because the people who are making the wealth in this country are making it as a result of the investment that has been put into the education of the work force that produces their goods, the money that has been put into the roads and transit systems and rails that carry the commerce that produces much of their profit, and the money from their taxes that has gone into the military to protect their wealth.

Helfeld: Did you agree that the government should protect peaceful citizens against people who want to use force to take their money?

Moran: You've asked me that question.

Helfeld: Yes. Did you agree that the government should protect them?

Moran: Yes.

Helfeld: When the government is forcibly taking money from some citizens in order to give it to others, are they protecting—

Moran (standing, removing his microphone, and walking away): I don't know what ideological point you're trying to make, but I've got to go back…I've already spent a lot of time in this interview. Thanks very much.

Moran's explanation of the distinction between taxation and theft—that tax revenue, unlike stolen money, is used to fund services that benefit the people whose money is taken—does not quite do the trick, since he surely would condemn a mugger who took people's money but then used it to buy them a nice meal or a comfortable pair of shoes. In any case, his argument does not really address Helfeld's question, which has to do with the redistribution of wealth, meaning the mugger is taking one person's money and giving it to someone else, perhaps someone poorer and, in the mugger's view, more deserving. If anything legitimizes that sort of forcible transfer, it would be the morally purifying effect of the political process, perhaps based on some notion of democratic consent and legislative representation. Helfeld's implicit argument, of course, is that going through those motions does not change the underlying reality.

That view is a challenge not just to statists like Moran but to people who support any sort of government at all. Going back to Moran's idea that taxes are mandatory fees for the government's services, much hinges on which services are considered legitimate. In his view, they include education, roads, transportation, military defense, and (judging from his legislative record) a lot more. The average libertarian's list would be considerably shorter—perhaps limited to protecting individual rights through police, courts, and a military, on the assumption (rejected by anarcho-capitalists) that such functions cannot be accomplished through voluntary arrangements. Wherever you come down on that issue, Helfeld's apparently simpleminded questions make the important point, against which Moran naturally rebels, that government depends on force and therefore should not be used lightly.

Helfeld did a similar interview with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) a few years ago. More on Moran here.