The Price of Civilization



This is a quote most often ascribed to the US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It is inscribed above the entrance to the headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service (pictured above).

Personally I am inclined to agree with the economist Don Boudreaux,

‘Clearly taxes are something we pay because we are not civilized’

I think we all like to assume that we are civilized. Its an adjective we ascribe very easily to ourselves (polite, courteous, well mannered, civil and decorous) but may be reticent to assign as a trait unto others, often holding them to much higher standard.

We also tend to justify our own uncivilized actions because the recipient of this behavior didn’t deserve it. Civility is to be guarded and meted out sparingly and then only to those deemed worthy, perhaps with the expectation of some quid pro quo.

I think a common misconception is that libertarians are all anarchists and tax abolitionists. While this fringe does exist I think most libertarians would be reticent to rip the heart out of the status quo and would be more likely to compromise on a system that offered less tax, less government, spend transparency, essentialism and freer markets, all done because they feel this will help more people than the current system.

As a thought exercise imagine for a moment that we didn’t have to spend that percentage of our collective budget on the enforcement of civility in our society.  Self regulation as it were, as opposed to the law and order apparatus and the various armed forces that all exist to ensure a level of genteel cooperation in human affairs through the threat of loss of liberty or violence of action. All achieved through a sophisticated and incentivized scheme that we ourselves pay for.

What bizarre behaviour. And what could be done instead, not only with that money, but also with that time and energy we waste pursuing this artificial state of civility.

Of course utopian musings never helped anyone in the trenches of realpolitik. But perhaps we can agree that all humans have the capacity for cooperation and civility. We just choose not to always use it. And while just one person remains opposed to civilization the scaffolding (in some form) must remain in place.

I’m weary of saying that if we can imagine it, it could potentially exist at some point in the future. It feels a little like Saint Anselm’s ‘Perfect island’ ontological argument to me. Which I used to vehemently oppose. Still I do believe we are on the cusp of some sort of sea-change. Liberalism is slowly… (I don’t want to say dying) morphing into something else and while I feel a lot of those potential iterations could be really ‘stagflationary’ for humanity (and some even downright bad) I remain optimistic that liberty and personal autonomy will eventually come out on top.

I will keep my fingers crossed.