A Divided Society

The media consistently tells us how divided we are as a nation and how the divisions among is are increasing.  If this is the case, it would serve us well to ask a few questions as to why and how this happened.

If we are more divided than ever, and I would submit that we are – why?  One of the reasons can be found in the the latest news about who pays taxes in this country.  Just last week, we were told that for 2009, 47 percent of Americans will pay no federal income tax.  According to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, original estimates for 2009 were that 38 percent of Americans would be exempt from federal taxes, but the “$787 billion economic recovery package . . . included a host of new or expanded tax breaks.”

While the burden on some in society was increasing exponentially as a result of skyrocketing government spending, the burden on others was removed completely.  Exempting nearly half the population from any liability to support government spending and increasing government dependence, while demonizing those paying the bills, isn’t going to bring us together as a nation.

According to Aristotle, the duty of a mature legislator and statesman is to pull against the natural human tendency to want to undermine the wealthy and preach the redistribution of their wealth.  “Demagogues are always dividing the city into two, and waging war against the rich. Their proper policy is the very reverse: they should always profess to be speaking in defense of the rich.”  This conclusion came to him as he studied nearly 160 types of constitutions in dozens of Greek city-states, and observed and recorded their successes and failures.  

It works to the benefit of a demagogue to have a deeply divided society, to pit the 47 percent of non-taxpayers against the 53 percent who labor for their support and their benefit in society.  Equalization of outcome leads to a place where eventually, no one can be (or is willing to be) successful enough to foot the bill.  After all, it is the 53 percent from whom the federal services flow, as well as the welfare benefits and “tax refunds,” often EITCs (Earned Income Tax Credits) that aren’t really refunds at all, but cash transfers.  We wouldn’t want to explain that to the non-payers, let them just believe it’s all coming from the “government.”

According to economist Milton Friedman, the use of political channels, as opposed to the market, for the provision of resources leads to the straining of social cohesion.  The reason for this is that markets allow diversity, while government policies require conformity.  In Capitalism and Freedom, he states that the more extensive the range of issues we attempt to solve through political means, the greater the strain on the “delicate threads that hold society together.”  He goes on to say,

The wider the range of activities covered by the market, the fewer are the issues on which explicitly political decisions are required and hence on which it is necessary to achieve agreement.  In turn, the fewer the issues on which agreement is necessary, the greater is the likelihood of getting agreement while maintaining a free society.

Thus, the more extensive the range of issues attempting to be resolved through coercion (force of law) as opposed to individual choice and market forces, the greater the conflict in society between those who desire conformity to their ideas and those who desire freedom.

Pretty straightforward to me.

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