Tag Archives: civilization

Tax and Regulate

A dislike of taxes and regulations are the hallmarks of those with a libertarian bent. These concepts are somehow subsumed in the socialism is bad, capitalism is good rubric. The problem is this is a gross oversimplification that fits well on a bumper sticker but is a terrible way to determine ones voting preferences.

Taxes come in several flavors: regressive sales taxes, property taxes, progressive income taxes, et al. Although you hear lots of complaints about taxes, few complain about the services they provide: National defense, police and fire protection, highways, schools, etc. Supreme Court Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr famously said: “I like paying taxes, with them I buy civilization.”

Before you reject voting for or against taxes, consider how the tax is structured. Sales taxes lean most heavily on those least able to afford them, whereas progressive income taxes rely on those that need the services the most. Police protection is a little like insurance, the more you have to protect, the more you should pay for the protection.

In a similar vein, regulations are important tools for civilization. They protect us in ways that are impossible to do individually. Clean air and water, climate stability, highway safety, and food and drug safety are just a few.

Another oversimplification is the capitalism-socialism dichotomy. The two are complexly entangled. Generally, I would agree that capitalism is a noble ideal, Adam Smith’s invisible hand can guide a market – but not without oversight. Unfettered capitalism is really anarchy. A perfect example is the black market for heroin. A lot of money can be made, so what if people die from violence and the use of the drug itself?

A capitalist needs to recognize that there have to be constraints to trade that preserve societal goals. Laws and regulations are a necessary evil of capitalism, necessary to civilization. If we can democratically agree on those laws and regulations then capitalism is the bee’s knees.

A little more difficult discussion is the value of socialism. The strict definition for socialism is an economic policy where the means of production are owned collectively, where collectively can refer to the government or simply organized groups, from workers to shareholders. Ironically the hallmark of capitalism, the corporation, can be publicly owned and therefore constitute a socialist enterprise.

If you want to consider socialism where the government is the collective, look no further than police protection. Here the state employs the “workers.” Even here it doesn’t disallow capitalist alternatives such as mall cops and bouncers. Even at the federal level where national defense is involved, we have private contractors participating.

Closer to what folks may call socialism is government management of some aspects of society. Medicare and Social Security come to mind. These are wildly popular and effective entitlement programs – the recipients are entitled to benefits by way of previous payments into the system.

At or near the top of making America great is our public education system. We could do better by increased funding and more equitable distribution, but all in all we would be much worse off without it.

The long and short of it is that the arc of civilization is cooperation. As long as we democratically determine what kind of taxes pay for what kinds of regulations, we have civilization, and civilization is a good thing.

Dr. Bob Allen is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Arkansas Tech University.

appian way

Civilization and Highways

Arguably the greatest road builders in the history of civilization were the Romans. Their highways were constructed mainly for military purposes and extended across much of Europe and into North Africa. Over 50,000 miles of hard surfaced roads were built using their greatest invention, concrete. Construction of the highway system began with the Appian Way in the third century BCE. Segments of this and other Roman highways exist to this day.

roman-roads-map

roman-roads-map

Another grand highway system of yore was constructed by the Incas across the highlands of the Andes. The Inca Trail ran for some 14,000 miles across rugged mountainous areas. The system was built for both commerce and especially for messengers who carried information throughout the Inca Empire. The roadway extended from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago, Chile. Along its course it occasionally exceeded 16,000 feet in elevation. Parts of this 600 year old roadway are currently used by hikers to access Machu Picchu.

inca trail

inca trail

More recent but still historic is the German Autobahn. This was the first controlled access highway. Begun across Germany, mainly in the 1920s-30s, it allowed for rapid transit and at the same time provided an important public works project which helped Germany climb out of the disastrous depression following their defeat in the first world war. Although endorsed and expanded by Hitler, the autobahn had little purpose for the Nazi war machine during world war II. Rail transport was more important in fuel poor Germany. The autobahn became important at the end of second world war as it greatly impressed General Eisenhower who traveled much of it after the war.

Autobahn

Autobahn

Colonel Eisenhower had experience with highways before the second world war. After WW I, he participated in an experiment to transport military equipment across America. They used the Lincoln Highway which stretched from New York to San Francisco. The 3000 mile trip took 62 days. The partially paved highway caused much damage to the vehicles in the form of flat tires, busted axles, and general damage to the drive trains of most of the vehicles.

In 1956 President Eisenhower pressed congress for the construction of a highway system similar to the autobahn. “The old convoy had started me thinking about good, two-lane highways, but Germany had made me see the wisdom of broader ribbons across the land…” he wrote in his book At Ease.

Societies benefit greatly by large scale transportation projects. They provide not only for important commercial and military transport but also are important for the jobs created in their development, construction, and maintenance.

It appears we have lost sight of this vision. Several dozen highway projects in here in Arkansas have recently been canceled because of the lack of funds in the federal highway trust fund. Even worse, a bill has been introduced in the 2015 state legislature, HB 1781, which would allow the state highway department to simply walk away from several thousand miles of state highways. We’re abandoning our highways because we don’t want to pay for them. Because we don’t want to pay the taxes, we simply give up on an important part of civilization.

“I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.