Commentary

Trying to Silence the Rebels Within

Many years back I was a candidate for a Congressional Fellowship that was administered by a group of prominent academic philosophers. I had made it into the final list of three and flew East to be interviewed, which would decide the matter of who gets the position.

When I sat down in front of the group of philosophers the chair, the now deceased Edmund L. Pincoffs from the University of Texas at Austin, asked me, “What would a libertarian, who wants to restrict the scope of government to basic protection of individual rights, have to advise anyone in Congress? Isn’t that quite incongruous?” My answer was along the following lines: “Well, I am one of a not entirely negligible number of Americans with that viewpoint, which itself has a solid tradition in our country, so any member of Congress may benefit from learning of this position, maybe even become convinced it is right.”

I was reminded of this experience by a letter to the editor written to The New Republic. The magazine had published an essay, by Peter Beinhart, about Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin. The writer recalled that Tauzin had been featured on ABC-TV giving a lecture to a group about how to evade U.S. taxes by taking advantage of overseas tax havens. Given this dastardly act, the author of the letter joined hands with Mr. Beinhart who called for the resignation of Tauzin, only this time on the grounds that he was “teaching the wealthy how to evade taxes.”

As the coup d’état, the author of the letter wrote: “If everyone took advantage of this overseas haven, who would pay his salary?” Oh, my, what a clever question this is. Something like that of the famous philosopher who thought he’d really tripped me up with his question about what a libertarian might say to a member of Congress.

To start with, tax havens are legal — so far. Anyone advising their use is within the law of the land. Freedom of speech is also legal and explaining to people how to be a rebel — in this case regarding paying the extortions government forces upon us — is something anyone is legally free to do. But even if it were somehow illegal, whatever has convinced people like the author of the letter that someone who violates a law must, necessarily, be wrong? Sometimes it is the law that’s wrong and the rebel who is right.

Furthermore, suppose we all managed to escape the extortionists — would this put those who get paid by government in some kind of moral quandary, necessarily? Not really. Getting benefits from a bad practice or institution is only wrong if one supports it and isn’t willing to give it up once it is abolished. This is especially true when the extortionists have locked things up so tightly that one just cannot escape from benefiting from the extortion itself. Furthermore, in the United States, where democracy remains, more and more, the way things are decided, rebels and revolutionaries may have to join the government in the effort to overturn its immoral, unjust laws. Rep. Tauzin may well be waiting for that golden moment when we are no longer being robbed of our resources, at which time he will gladly leave his post and return to the far more respectable private job awaiting him in the world without the coercive state.

But no. The champions of pure (or “strong”) democracy fail to appreciate that one feature of their own system is that all have a chance to challenge it, perhaps even successfully. Or maybe they do appreciate it but wish to hide this fact from us because in the pure (or strong) democratic regime the only chance of beating the system is to first use it to restrict its scope.

In other words, Tauzin and some others, like Rep. Ron Paul, may be among those who want to reduce the scope of governmental power over our lives from within government itself. Entering the palace and weakening its power can be an honorable thing, if that palace is being used tyrannically. Certainly weakening the massive taxing power of government—whereby the rights of millions of individual citizens are being violated regularly—is such an honorable thing. Let’s commend those, also, who are willing to fight the tide of government corruption—meaning the growth of the power of the state over us — from within the halls of government itself. Let us hope that they will not, like so many of their colleagues, succumb to the temptation to join members of the majority there who do not give a hoot about our rights and only want to use their immoral powers to subdue us on April 15th year after year, and even silence those who would oppose their wicked ways.

Tibor Machan is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.