I’ve Stopped Supporting Government, Now How Shall I Oppose It?

A friend writes…

Heh heh. Sounds like you’ve called my self-righteousness and raised me. The money bit is pretty obvious and up-front. It is positive, direct, measurable support. But that does beg the question: to overuse an overworked political metaphor, could I congratulate a German who lived through the Reich managing to avoid taxes the whole while but not in any more active way interfering with its activities?

I’ve stopped my active support of the government, but I could certainly be doing more to actively oppose it. As for education and propaganda, these Picket Line pages have a pathetically small readership given the amount of energy I put into them, but what I hope to accomplish is to leave a trail that folks can follow should they so choose.

I think I can see where you’re going with your line of argument, but you’re just sort of hinting at it. It sounds like what you’re saying is something like this: “If you’re going to live your live according to some sort of altruistic-like ethics, how can you go half-way? How is any inefficiency or luxury justifiable when the alternative would be to help to further your cause? And if your answer is that you’ve got your priorities and sometimes your personal luxuries take precedence, then would you please shut your pie hole and stop with your sermons about responsibility and ethics, because the rest of us have got our priorities too and we’re doing the best we can?”

I’d like to see you wrap your criticism up a little tighter and throw it at me again, ’cuz this sounds like an interesting nut to crack.

I think that I’m hoping to appeal less to a desire for moral purity, and more to just a reexamination of how you (or anyone else) is actually living in relation to the more nuanced and smudgy principles you (or anyone else) already operate under.

I’m not going for purity, myself. At least not in this project.

What I did instead was just to bring my life into sharper focus and realize that I wasn’t living it the way I wanted to. Specifically, I was giving a great deal of actual material support to an organization whose actions were abhorrent to me. , I gave a few hundred dollars to Amnesty International, a few to the EFF, a few to the Drug Policy Foundation. And I felt pretty happy about that. But it took me a long time to even acknowledge that I gave fifteen thousand dollars to the IRS .

I didn’t have to take a vow or pursue sainthood or anything like that, I just had to honestly come to grips about what I was doing with my life. Then I saw that it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with it, and I started doing something else.

Taxes are so cleverly hidden away — swiped from your paycheck before you even have time to miss ’em — so gradual and so ubiquitous, that it’s easy to pretend they’re not really aspects of your life so much as they are natural phenomena or something. But there’s a weird double-consciousness about them. Ask someone what their salary is, what they “make,” etc. They’ll almost always tell you their before-taxes salary.

They’re able to believe almost simultaneously that it’s their money, they can take credit for earning it, it belongs to them and it was never their money in the first place, they have no blame for where it goes or how its spent, and they don’t miss it.

I hope to help provoke people to reintegrate this double-consciousness, to feel wholly the actual facts of their situation. Then I hope to fight the temptation to hide from this by making explicit the various justifications people use to pretend the truth away. Then I hope to demonstrate

  1. that to the extent that you are paying taxes you are actively and positively and willfully supporting the government,
  2. that if you feel that the government is doing rotten you should consider withdrawing that support, and
  3. it’s not all that hard, see?

Here’s what I try to tell myself: “When you’re making a decision about something (say, whether to get a pitcher of beer down at Zeitgeist) — try to estimate the actual effects of your decision, as well as you are able, and without trying to sweep under the rug any of the facts about it. Then decide whether given the totality of that, what you actually want to do, and do it. Then, in your spare time, work on reducing as much as possible the convenient justifications and fact-hiding methods you use, educate yourself more about the way the world works, and become more honest with yourself about your actual ethical beliefs as opposed to the ideal ones you like to think you have but don’t actually practice with consistency because they don’t in fact match your desires.”

Usually these fact-hiding things come in two flavors:

One: A flaw in your reasoning or perceptual skills — there are a gazillion of these (optical illusions are a category). Marketers exploit ’em by the handful. Humans are full of cobbled-together reasoning methods and sensory kludges that are easy to exploit. You just gotta keep your skepticism up and keep testing out and examining your ideas. (The book Inevitable Illusions is a fun catalog of some of these flaws.)

Two: Self-dishonesty about motives and ethics and such. You believe that you’re motivated by X, yet you do an action Y that seems to contradict that motivation. Rather than honestly integrating the two, you lie to yourself about the nature of action Y to make it fit. The best cure for this is relentless self-criticism, which can be done painfully and involuntarily through a bad trip or some sort of life crisis, expensively and painstakingly slowly with psychotherapy, or steadily with practice and enough self-esteem to put up with how goddamned humbling it is.

Chances are you’re right now living roughly the life you want to be living. In the areas you perceive it to be in conflict with your ideals, you probably just plain don’t have those ideals, or you do have them but they’re superseded by other ones you don’t want to acknowledge as such. In some other areas, you’re probably hiding from facts you’re afraid are there because they either do conflict with your ideals in frightening ways, or they don’t conflict with your actual ideals but do conflict with the ideals you’d like to think you have and you’d rather not notice the contrast. Or not. But that’s one way I fool myself, anyway.

Hmmm… what would make me go back to being a government supporter? I don’t know. I think I’d know it if I saw it. I don’t much support government at all in the abstract, so it would come down to a cost/benefit sort of thing. If the government was harmless enough, even though it was stealing money from me and my friends, I might still throw taxes at it if that’s what it took to make enough money to do something cool enough to offset the uncool things the tax money was doing.

On the other hand, the government could force me to support it, either by literally putting me in irons with a whip at my back or by forcing me to pay taxes even on the first dollar I earn. I guess in the second case, there’d still be the option of trying to evade the gov’t in the underground economy or some such. But you see what I mean — at some point the gov’t can make not supporting it sufficiently painful that supporting it would become the better option.

So I could be brought back into the system either way, I suppose. Claire Wolfe said something like “we’re at an awkward point where it’s too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards.” But we’re also at a point where the state is too evil to actively support, but not so evil that support cannot be withheld.