Progress Means Respecting People’s Rights

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published April 27 by Grand Junction Free Press.

Last week self-proclaimed “progressives” rallied at the state capitol for higher taxes. But there’s nothing progressive about forcibly confiscating other people’s wealth. Real progress comes from respecting people’s rights and banning coercion—the initiation of force—from social relationships.

The tax-hikers build their case on obfuscation. Consider an email distributed on Tax Day by the absurdly named ProgressNow Colorado, more accurately identified as CoercionNow. This group led a “proud to pay” taxes campaign, claiming that taxes produce “smart, educated kids,” fix “potholes and shaky bridges,” leave the state better than we found it, and affirm that “we’re all in this together.”

Somehow CoercionNow failed to mention that its members are “proud to pay” taxes to finance corporate welfare, bail out banks and auto unions, finance “nation building” exercises around the world at fantastic cost to U.S. life and productivity, incarcerate fellow citizens for actions that violate nobody’s rights, persecute ebook publishers, enforce wage controls that devastate employment opportunities for the poor, stop grocery stores from selling regular-strength beer (and enforce thousands of similarly absurd “regulations”), and create widespread dependency.

But let us focus on the more positive tax expenditures that CoercionNow cherry picks. The idea that government-run schools produce especially “smart, educated kids” is laughable, especially in relation to the enormous cost. What we’re really producing are rich, politically powerful “public” unions that back the “progressive” agenda.

True, some teachers in government schools are excellent, and some classes help students learn what they need. But U.S. schools regularly lag behind those of other nations, and often they utterly fail the poorest students. If we want to see education thrive and effectively serve the needs of students, we must introduce free markets in education. Then parents, who normally will finance their own children’s education (rather than pay a lifetime of taxes to educate other people’s children), will have both the ability and incentive to ensure their children end up in great schools. And individuals can contribute to voluntary charity programs to expand the opportunities available to the poor.

As for roads, the gasoline tax is supposed to link use of the roads with their financing. Insofar as the government operates various services (and the matter of whether it should operate roads lies outside the scope of today’s column), it should finance them through use taxes. Those are far different from the redistributionist schemes of the “progressives.” CoercionNow’s reference to roads is merely a bait-and-switch: the group advertises the paving of roads for the purpose of expanding the welfare state.

Beyond education and roads, CoercionNow turns to bromides and vague generalities. “I want to leave Colorado better than I found it.” Who doesn’t? The best way to do that is to expand liberty. “We’re all in this together.” Does the “this” refer to a free republic or to the Greek-style socialist hellhole the “progressives” wish to create?

Notice CoercionNow’s biggest lie: they claim to be “proud” to pay their own taxes, but what they’re really after is to force others to pay more taxes. After all, nothing is stopping members of CoercionNow from paying as much of their own money as they want to the government. Nor is anything stopping them from financing any private charity.

Let us return to fundamentals. The source of all significant human progress has been the growing recognition of the rights of the individual, however sporadic that has been. Unfortunately, no government anywhere on earth has ever fully protected individual rights—though the United States, grounded on the individual’s “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” has come the closest. It is time for us to complete the task our Founders started.

The protection of individual rights and the banishment of coercion are flip sides of the same coin. In order to protect individual rights, we must keep the individual safe from the initiatory force of others. In a proper society, no one may murder another, rob from another, claim the property of another through fraud or broken contract, bind or restrict anyone except to lawfully protect others’ rights, or damage another’s property.

When government protects individual rights, prosperous civil society can thrive. Individuals can live their own lives by their own judgment. They can remain alone when they want and join others when they want. They can work and produce as they deem best, using their own resources and those others grant them through voluntary contract. They can keep the fruits of their labor to spend, save, invest, or give away as they deem best. The only legal restriction is that no individual may initiate force against another.

We’ll know we’ve made real progress when no one dares express “pride” in calling for the initiation of force against others. True champions of progress, prosperity, and peaceful human relations proudly advocate the abolition of coercion and the consistent protection of individual rights.

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