"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Oppression (Not!)

Well, kids, I hate to spoil a beautiful day (and it is a picture perfect spring day over here!) by bringing up unpleasant subjects, but I just can't help myself. Waiting in my inbox here in Think Tank Land this morning was an essay (forwarded to everyone) by libertarian thinker Tibor R. Machan entitled "Republicans Are Disarmed." The gist of it is that Democrats win points for having greater moral ground in public debates over fiscal procedures but that Republicans could beat them if they reframed their own arguments for cutting taxes and spending in moral terms as well. Machan writes:
If the Republicans took a principled stand against extortion and defended the idea that it must be those who own the resources who decide what should be done with them—whether to give it to the needy or invest it in productive endeavors, for example—then there would be a chance for them to win this argument.  For, while people often sympathize with compassionate intentions and policies, they generally do not sympathize with coercing others to make them compassionate.  Indeed, they sense that one cannot make other people do what is right—they must choose to do the right thing, whatever that happens to be.
Oh, OK. I forgot that taxes that fund things like food stamps and Head Start and services for the mentally ill and disabled were a form of extortion. Oops! Oh, and taxes that fund public education and police and fire departments -- yeah, wait, I really feel like I'm being coerced into paying for those things!

Hmmmm.  This whole idea bears greater and more serious reflection. If it is only "those who own the resources" who should get to "decide what should be done with them," does that mean that the more resources you own, the greater say you have in how the government spends "your" money? Isn't that sort of the same thing as buying votes?

Man, and here I was thinking it was those Barak Obama socialists whose ideas weren't compatible with democracy!

Where does a mere working person with limited means like me fit into Machan's picture? I guess in the grand scheme of things, what I earn and what I pay in taxes is pretty small, comparatively speaking. Maybe I shouldn't even consider myself one of "those who own the resources." After all, it's only wealthy people who "own the resources," because if you're merely an employee (public or private) who works at a job rather than an employer who creates jobs, you ARE a resource but you don't "own the resources."

And if you don't own the resources, then you must be one of those in need of compassionate policies -- you know, like laws that permit you to organize with your fellow employees and collectively bargain for even more compassionate policies from "those who own the resources." And, surely, those who do own the resources will choose to do the right thing and extend to us the largess of their sympathy. Surely, "those who own the resources" will know what the "right thing" is, "whatever that happens to be." Surely, they won't simply choose to do whatever the right thing is, relatively speaking, only for themselves. Above all, whatever they may choose, we cannot -- through laws and taxation -- ever compel them to contribute to society against their will, for they would resent our demands rather than sympathize. And then they would resist and rebel...maybe even revolutionize, just like the Founding Fathers. Ah, voila, the Tea Party!

Comrades, is it really sympathy that you seek?

But I digress before I've even gotten around to the primary subject of this post. The paragraph of Machan's piece that stood out to me the most was this:
The entire history of political oppression rests on the theme that important goals, like helping the needy, require oppressing people, forcing them to labor for the greater good, for society, for the public interest.  It has almost always been a ruse, of course, but it is difficult to rebut unless one has a sound alternative, namely, insisting on everyone’s right to decide how one’s labor and resources should be made use of.  It isn’t about wealth but about choice! 
 Read that first sentence over one more time, folks.  Yes, overcoming political oppression (like what? slavery? poverty? sexism? racism?) requires "oppressing" other people by forcing them to give their resources -- that they earned with no help from anybody else -- to the greater good of "compassionate" policies that assist those less fortunate.

Now, there are any number of things wrong with this paragraph, but what caught my attention was the circular way in which "oppression" is used. The term is usurped and used against people who are actually oppressed -- in the traditional way the term is defined -- by those whom one could only laughably describe as such.

The OED defines "oppressed" as "dowtrodden; unjustly kept in a position of subjection and hardship; persecuted." Going all the way back to the 16th c., the term is almost exclusively associated with the poor or otherwise unfortunate, as in these examples from then to the present: "Ovirredyn with a carte-wheel, The chyld oppressyd lay in the streete deed" (1500); "The Hollanders were one hundred years since a poor and oppressed People" (1687); "Who protects the Fatherless, or supports the oppressed Widow?" (1726); "The injured and oppressed representative of the lower orders" (1840); "The feelings of the oppressed people have never been more bitter" (1952).

I don't know about you, but when I think of oppression, I might think about: America's history of slavery and the legacy of that history that lives on, reflected in today's race-marked socioeconomic patterns .Or I might think about what it's like to be a woman or girl in Afghanistan. Can you even imagine? Or, I might think about child labor, what it's like to be working in a factory 12 hours a day before you've reached your tenth birthday. I might even think of the working poor right here in the U.S.

The jarring contrast between these examples of real oppression and the image below of the "oppressed" conjured up by the Machan paragraph speaks volumes:
Image credit: CMT 2011, from Celebrity Apprentice)

You may not be as wealthy as Donald Trump, but if you live in the United States today, you are not "oppressed" because you have to pay taxes for programs and services you find objectionable -- even if you're paying ten times my current salary in taxes. You're no more oppressed than I am for having to pay taxes out of my modest salary -- indeed, I would argue, felt more keenly -- to fund foreign wars I find objectionable.

You may be unhappy, but you're not oppressed. And you're damned straight neither sympathetic nor compassionate if you think about yourself in this way. Why should anyone trust you to "choose" to do the "right thing"?


  1. This rebuttal is very weak. It needs to translate the author's position into terms that hardly express it. But if you are intent on keeping extortionists in power, why not do whatever you can, right?

  2. Hi Tibor! What a treat -- an unexpected one -- to have an author visit.

    I suppose we'll have to agree to disagree. Please do read some of my other posts. You'll get a better sense for the context of my response to your essay.

  3. So it is either you are in Stalin's or Hitler's concentration camps and are oppressed, or not in them and then you aren't oppressed at all. Bunk.

  4. No, that's neither what I said nor implied.

    However, I do think that wealth generally insulates people from what I would consider to be real oppression. Paying taxes -- to the degree that you still have plenty of money left over to live a very comfortable life -- is not a form of oppression.

    What I'm disagreesing with you on here is your definition of oppression. I see the free-market position on wealth and taxes as a separate issue -- and I think that talking about wealthy people as oppressed actually does NOT help the argument that lower taxes are good for the economy and therefore good for society as a whole.