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Insouciant Extortion Transcendence and Some Praises Of and Objections To ItAt this writing, in the United States of America, the highest one per cent of income earners pay thirty per cent of all income taxes. The highest quarter of income earners pay eighty per cent. Although this means three-quarters of the population is receiving disproportionately subsidized public services, the providers are constantly vilified as not paying their fair share. The confiscators and redistributionists are clearly in control of the apparatus of benefit allocation, and it is a wonder the providers do not simply flee, or relax and live on their savings. Instead of executing such shruggings-off of the disproportionate burden as envisioned by Ayn Rand, most of them simply shrug at the imposition and continue practicing their provident ways.
Victims of unequal impositions, winners typically transcend the extortions exacted from them. Some even exhibit a perverse pride in exhibiting their ability to suffer it undeterred, as if to boast they can earn faster than others dare steal. To paraphrase an old Arabian saying, the dogs bark -- and bite -- and rip away flesh -- and the caravan passes.
The general conduct of the top-income people even more emphatically illustrates that, as most of them say, it isn't really about the money. Many already rich enough to quit, they typically continue working exceptionally long days and weeks. They typically fund philanthropic organizations beyond the levels tax expediency would dictate. Perhaps less eagerly in most cases, they suffer being the most prominent targets of political campaign organizations, to some extent in self-defense against even greater extortions, but otherwise for the same reason the other exactions occur: because they have it, and other people know it and, however congenially, virtually demand it be handed over. Of late, new high-technology and Internet enterprise billionaires have evolved an ingroup culture in which the venture capitalization of risky startups by their would-be emulators is socially de rigeur, a peer-generated voluntary fashion that makes capital available to leading-edge enterprises that would otherwise it hard to attract. And typically, whenever any one enterprise matures or regularizes to a point at which it no longer fascinates them, they take their money off its table and hasten to plunk a substantial amount of it into another, newer game.
This somewhat fanatical dedication to achievement is not a new characteristic. In The Affluent Society, published more than four decades ago, economist-author John Kenneth Galbraith noted its prevalence among entrepreneurs majestic and modest, particularly the penchant for working eighty-hour and longer weeks in pursuit of their projects, and termed it self-exploitation. These people impose on themselves rigors they would be forbidden by law to demand of employees. Again illustrating that something different from avarice is involved is the fact that their pace is matched by certain officeholders at the very top echelons of public service. Former National Security Adviser and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger admonished any who aspired to such offices that preparation, education, and perspective must be complete before assuming them, because, once occupying them, there is no time for contemplation or continuing education left after meeting the constant necessity for application of what one already knows.
Indeed, history furnishes many examples of thoroughly dedicated achievers who were relatively indifferent to wealth per se. If their fascinations produced money, they accepted it, but, if not, they found virtually complete satisfaction so long as they could practice their vocations unimpeded by woeful want -- and, in some cases, even in spite of it. Voltaire, a notoriously restless man who reminded many of a gangly spider, was a brilliant thinker who found it fitting to demonstrate the quality of his convictions by making fortunes and then applying them to projects implementing and demonstrating his doctrines. But his contemporary and intellectual adversary Rousseau doggedly pursued his own visions though constantly hampered by poverty, debt, ailment, and bitter controversies.
What all such people have in common is being thoroughly dedicated to and focused on what they do. They manage to evade, deflect, or ignore distraction and follow their own visions, leaving the world the world in which to do what it will. As such, they exhibit the sorts of qualities idealized by many philosophers. Some may be affable, others irascible, but all essentially exhibit strong, coherent, and composed identities and various sorts of equanimity and self-possession. In ways comparable with a quip attributed to Jesus of Nazareth regarding religious zeal, they give up variegated, willingly-diverted, adequately-rested ordinary lives and in return gain their essential ones. Some achieve fame, some fortune, but all attain essential personal fulfillment. In short, they follow their vocations, their callings, rather than abiding occupations that demand less of them and serve merely to keep body and soul united and indifferently satisfied.
It should be acknowledged that there are those for whom the pursuit of wealth, power, or prestige is in fact the entire object. The late oil billionaire J. Paul Getty, for example, said that from the days of his youth, he believed it his calling and destiny to amass and administer a large fortune. There are many others, however, to whom wealth, fame, or power accrue only as incidental by-products of pursuit of their essential fascinations. The late rock-and-roll icon Elvis Presley appears to have been driven by his muse, bored by purely commercial exploitations of it such as pedestrian motion pictures contrived only to showcase and exploit himself, satisfied and to some extent mystified to find himself wealthy beyond the limits of his imagination, and not much concerned with the fact that, had he but trained himself to manage his career and fortune or evaluate the management that did so, he could have been several times wealthier. Similarly, the brilliant blues shouter Janis Joplin, consumed by her art and her philosophy of dismay, reaped little enjoyment of the money she earned.
The real estate developer and self-explicatory author Donald Trump emphasizes the thrill of conceiving and concocting his projects, "deals", is a motive much stronger than the wealth they generate. Money, he was not the first mogul to testify, becomes only a way of keeping score and enabling ever-more-fascinating pursuits of vocation.
What all people dedicated to vocation have in common is focus on it and relative indifference to everything else. What distinguishes those whose careers generate great income and wealth is that, whether they are attentive, as Getty would have been, or indifferent to it, they affect and improve the economic conditions of great numbers of other people. First, their products or services, to succeed in the marketplace and generate their high incomes, must be ones other people -- usually, great numbers of other people -- deem good buys at the prices offered. Even purveyors of ephemeral delights, such as concert-performing musicians, professional athletes, and stand-up comedians succeed only because people who pay to watch and listen to them believe their money is exchanged for something at least momentarily more valuable than other spending options offer.
Second, by stimulating others to spend when, without attractive enticement, they would not, they also stimulate them to work and earn so they can spend. Marketing blandishments and consumerism are no different in effect from the lashes of slavemasters. They are merely more insidious and congenial in procuring consent to labor. Due to their influence, people who might languish in leisurely and modest contentment find themselves working harder, rendering more economically valuable services, producing value and enhancing the general material wealth pool, or welfare, in order to satisfy the urges to buy and spend induced in them. The entire advertising industry stands on the principle that this works. But commercially successful products and services usually offer attractive values, innovated and configured by the avid devotees of commercial vocations.
Third, they typically and correspondingly offer occupational, sometimes vocational, opportunities to other people pursuing their own ambitions. In this aspect, they are instigators of wealth transfers that operate by reciprocal consent. Employees render value for value received, mostly in institutions constructed by entrepreneurs, and employers, entities generated by entrepreneurs and in many cases maintained by avid professional executives, pay them. By this means even those consigned to occupation for one reason or another at least have a wider choice of occupations and greater earning opportunities than would exist in primitive economies.
Fourth, they submit to the world's characteristic predation and parasitism, voluntary, coerced, and hybrid. It is at this point that they fund start-up enterprises, contribute to charities and political organizations, and pay taxes that provide subsidized services for the majority of their compatriots. In that capacity it is generally acknowledged that they act beneficently, though many scolds envision utterly egalitarian regimes in which the fruits of their contributions would be confiscated for such drastic redistributions as to achieve essentially equivalent if not entirely equal outcomes. But even the existing arrangement, while generally conceived of as salubrious and fitting, subsidizes mischiefs and mischief-makers along with aspiring entrepreneurs and provident enterprises.
Confiscation and redistribution, or redistributions achieved by blandishments, wheedling, and indications of the general prudence and discretion associated with handing over unrecompensed money in quasi-voluntary contexts, all insulate the majority of the population from knowing the costs of things. Most of us benefit from more highways, air traffic control facilities, firefighting organizations, schools, roadways, and hundreds of other infrastructural amenities and services than we pay for. If our tax burdens seem heavy, they are still not equivalent to the services we receive. Most of us believe we pay fairly for what we get, but in fact most of us receive significant subsidies all along our ways. That is what the condition in which the minority of taxpayers render a majority of the tax revenues means.
Whenever this is pointed out, most of us are inclined to become huffy, defensive, and indignant about it, reflexively spouting gouts of rationalizations, justifications, and alibis, often building to a retort indicating we are doing our shares and more, and those who have more should be doing more for us than they are. This sort of self-righteous, other-castigating polemic is simply an instinctive primitive survival and sustenance technique, a component of the parasitical strategy for preserving and promoting self-interest. The organism resists and counterattacks whenever its welfare is threatened, even in consequenceless palaver. Since humans learned speech, bluster, posturing, denial, and obfuscation have served self-interest. A suggestion of obligation implies a duty to pay more or consume less, threatening the net benefit level enjoyed by the specimen. Threat engenders primal fear, and fear is the source of anger, which powers all manner of inaccurate but self-serving expressions.
As a practical matter, there is no great social peril inherent in subsidizing and enabling legions of posturers. As the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Progressives, (as distinguished from two later and much more leveling Progressive parties and particularly from the current adopters of the label), knew, at some level of public-spirited beneficence, wealthy people actually serve their own best interests by making donations that improve conditions around them. Public health initiatives, for example, abate pestilences, which are notoriously unrespecting of fences surrounding mansions. Educated labor forces are more efficient and productive ones, and educated populations tend to be less volatile than hordes of benighted peasants. So long as the providers, motivated by their own acumen and by noncoercive discourse and exhortations, control the allocation of distributions to the general welfare, the altruistic enhancement of same tends to find optimal levels. It is when the recipients seize control of the means of enforcing redistributions that troubles begin and real dangers begin to loom.
That is not easy to see. Even absent demagoguery, it is common to propose that certain public amenities would be beneficial, that all should contribute to them, that experience indicates many who can will not, thus contribution must be made mandatory, inevitably imposing arrangements whereby those who have more or are earning more, contribute more than others. Donations, like jobs, do not flow from poverty or bare adequacy. When this rationale is accepted, a moral pretension is injected. This proposal is "good"; it is the duty of all to sponsor the "good"; therefore requiring each, according to ability and regardless of consent or the lack thereof, to perform that duty is a corresponding and incidental "good." Or, if it be asserted that confiscation without consent is an evil, it is retorted that the end justifies the means. As we know, that is a rationale characterized by a notorious tendency to break loose and wreak havoc, particularly when its reins are controlled by the prospective recipients of the "good" so identified. Bluntly put, greedy, self-righteous impatience for benefits assail and can curtail the only processes by which they might be satisfied. Tritely put, it is entirely possible to kill the geese laying the golden eggs.
In any case, a bridge built by confiscatory extortion is likely to rise more quickly than one funded by voluntary contributions, and so seem to support a conclusion that the end does justify the means in that case -- and that there are no doubt many other cases in which the same would hold true. It is also true that one, or a coalition of ones, can acquire acreage more quickly by slaying its owner and occupying it by force than by earning the money to buy it. The expedient of enforcing contributions is rather like that of thermonuclear weaponry: possibly of net benefit in a few situations, but constantly threatening apocalypse whenever employed or even considered. Quite revelatory is the phenomenon apparent whenever forcible confiscations are accomplished: The marauders immediately declare any similar enterprises on the part of others utterly immoral and unjustified. Drastic measures, they proclaim, have served their only legitimate purposes. The means are not in turn to be deemed justified by any others' ends: au contraire!
Populations, as Boris Pasternak noted in Doctor Zhivago, typically have an astonishing tolerance for misery. Advocates of the principle that words are equivalent to actions are disputed by many observers other than those who drafted and ratified the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Especially in a society founded on liberty, in which almost all can and an instructive number do reach the summits of wealth and distinction, the rest, however they may alibi, acknowledge the fact that they have chosen what they wanted in life, usually more tranquility and continuity and less improvement in fortune. But that remains true only so long as they are left unagitated and unorganized. When demagogues see opportunity in cultivating their alibis until they become envies and resentments, and showing them illusory visions of voting, militating, and arranging to receive something for nothing, or something for a price far below cost, they empower those demagogues to get up to mischief. At initial levels, the mischief is tolerable: a brother-in-law installed in a sinecure, a contributor favored with a sweetheart government contract, a plush office here and a government automobile, possibly with driver, there.
The problem is that these people are insatiable, always figuring the system can stand a little bit more distortion. Very early on they create their own environment, one far removed from and essentially uninformed about the processes whereby wealth and value are produced. As far as they are concerned, wealth comes from taxation, legislation, and public administration. They have a vague notion that taxation extracts wealth from productivity, and hardly any idea of the toil and disciplines necessary to make productivity happen. Especially in a prosperous country, they come to see wealth as a country boy sees wild blackberries, something that springs up spontaneously and is there for the picking.
One famous awakening from this delusion was that of former U.S. Senator George McGovern. Following an unsuccessful presidential bid, he retired to Minnesota and attempted to start a modest business. It failed. He subsequently acknowledged that legislative provisions he had advocated and been proud to see enacted had made it impracticable for him to start and operate his business. By contrast, most public servants never experience any such encounter with fundamental economic realities, but manage to spend lifetimes in artificially supported careers, convinced they know all that it is important to know about what sustains them, and even more convinced of their superior qualification to prescribe for everyone else. Some who do recognize the true nature of affairs simply find it easier and more lucrative to continue to exploit the opportunities available than to try to restore validity to the arrangements. Some are so outraged by any example or advocacy of the actual nature of economic processes that they simply pronounce them unacceptable and try to tear them down, heedless or deluded regarding what might follow the demolition. And still others espouse Utopian illusions and call themselves noble if they devote their lives and energies to fighting the good, hopeless, heedless fight to bring them into being at any cost.
All of these people thrive on the fruits of extortion, that is, excessive and usually misapplied exactions from sources of value, that is, wealth, wherever they can find them. They proliferate in prosperous times because, collectively, society can indulge their pocket pickings. But when they become too numerous and avaricious, they initiate and then exacerbate hard times. Rather than acknowledge what many of them do not suspect, that their functions are of secondary or lower importance and humbly recede, they invariably organize discomfiture and use it to justify even more counterproductive measures to make matters harder on everyone else, all the while congratulating themselves for their caring, compassion, concern, and dedication to straightening things out. In short, they choke and ultimately disintegrate viable economies, killing with the cures they impose by force and intimidation.
When economies prosper and fuel their aggrandizement, they exploit that to the maximum, often spending beyond revenue realized by rationalizing that good times will last forever. When economies falter, they guard their prerogatives by brute force, and typically inflate currencies and create mountains of public debt on pleas of dire social necessity, imposing more taxes and hobbling regulations wherever possible. Eventually they impose stagnation and despair, and retreat to positions of unique privilege, as happened in Middle Kingdom China, Shogunate Japan, Brahmanic India, Middle Age Europe, and, lately, at the hands of the top political echelons and the nomenklatura of the Soviet Union. At this time, the People's Republic of China is attempting to emerge into economic viability while still being drained by the bloodsuckings and obstructions of persistent denizens of the political Leviathan -- as is the Russian Federation.
In point of fact, the United States of America is unique in that, in comparison with other nations, it has allowed enterprise to operate relatively free of the machinations of such people. That is, very simply, why it emerged as and remains the foremost economic power in the world. But even in the presence of prosperity, the parasites and predators burgeon, trading on cultivated resentments and airheaded propositions, dangling prospects of ever more commodious amenities before a deliberately diseducated and credulous population.
The insouciant transcendence of all of this on the part of the minority of the population that sustains it is not, after all, inconsequential. Equanimity and peace of mind are largely acquired at a cost of obliviousness. History teaches that, in due course, the blithe perpetrators of diseconomies will after all overburden the system they now only impede, and then use brute force to reserve citadels of privilege and security for themselves. Those who accept such environments, personally transcending them by energy and industry while at the same time preserving them with their subsidies, are not blameless.
The indifferent shrug and easier-to-pay-the-extortion attitude are, after all, insufficient techniques with which to protect and promote the general welfare. If the burgeoning of counter-productivity continues at current growth levels, indeed, if much dysfunction already instituted is not reversed, it may at least be necessary to demonstrate the Randian style of shrugging, to stop feeding Leviathan for a day or few.
Nothing exceptionally dramatic would be required. Renegotiating compensation packages slightly downward or, in some cases, reducing taxable profits by small price cuts, would serve the purpose very well. Moving investments to lower-interest or even no-interest accounts for a while would have the same effect. If the pernicious instituted dogma is that the well-to-do can and must serve the public by giving more and making do with less, the same rationale supports measures that actually would, by their secondary effects, promote the general welfare and refresh validity in the economic structure. Depositing money at no interest, selling for lower profit, and similar measures would not only diminish the tax takes and deprive confiscator-redistributors, but it would first free up more wealth in the general economy. Then it would hamper the processes of confiscation.
There is no need to beat the stubborn public-sector mule with any drastic, violent, or possibly unlawful measures, the last of which would actually empower him to retaliate. All that is necessary is to show him the crop until he understands the message. He bets his masters will continue to overfeed him in return for lethargic performance and occasional bruising kicks due to prosperous indifference or possibly to fear he will kick more and work less if provoked. Said mule needs an injection of arrogance antibiotic.
The economist Milton Friedman, whose analyses attracted much controversy and a Nobel Prize, and whose specific prescriptions demonstrated an exceptional trait of working quite well, maintained that the only way to reverse the diseconomic depredations of a public sector establishment grown overbloated, obtuse, and arrogant is to constrict its food supply by reducing its revenue intake. Pending realistic, that is, drastic, tax reduction, the only lawful way to do that is to reduce earned income so as to shrink the income stream from which taxes are extorted.
That exhortation can address itself only to those who now contribute eighty per cent of the revenues, those with the highest earned incomes. In self-interest but also in the real interest of the other three-quarters of the U.S. income earners, they must curtail blithe transcendance of the predatory process and lend a hand in the common struggle. The pain of tolerating disproportionate confiscations falls mainly on those struggling to improve their circumstances, those not yet really able to transcend the depredation and pay the tax man with no more distress than is reflected in a rueful smile.
In one popular motion picture, its theme a fictional account of professional football, one player advised another that understanding the game is not equivalent to winning it. We might now add that winning the game personally is not the same as sustaining it. From the largest winners many of us hope to join, we call for a little help while the stadium remains standing.
Radical Positivists of the world unite, and make it a better place for all!