Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Response to Sam Harris

Sam Harris is my favorite of the so-called "new atheists." I enjoy his writing and style of argumentation. I noticed that he had an op-ed at The Huffington Post called, "A New Year's Resolution for the Rich." Not surprisingly I was less impressed by his foray into political commentary. His article is long, and does have some good points, so hopefully you will bear with me.

After identifying himself as a member of the rich, Harris writes of the extention of the Bush tax cuts,

those of us who have been so fortunate as to actually live the American dream--rather than merely dream it--have been spared every inconvenience. Now we are told that we will soon receive a large tax cut for all our troubles. What is the word for the feeling this provokes in me? Imagine being safely seated in lifeboat, while countless others drown, only to learn that another lifeboat has been secured to take your luggage to shore...
First, and most obvious, you are not receiving a large tax cut. Tax rates are simply not going up. There's a difference. And the rates affect everyone across the board, not just the wealthy. Second, feel free to voluntarily pay more taxes.

Harris goes on with the typical liberal whine about "income inequality."

We now live in a country in which the bottom 40 percent (120 million people) owns just 0.3 percent of the wealth. Data of this kind make one feel that one is participating in a vast psychological experiment: Just how much inequality can free people endure?
Why does it affect you in the slightest how much other people earn? It isn't something to be "endured" at all. It's also pretty funny that he mentions "free people," since the supposed solution to income inequality involves stealing more money by force from the wealthy. Apparently his idea of freedom is being free to have the state decide what you should earn.
And yet over one million American children are now homeless. People on Medicare are being denied life-saving organ transplants that were routinely covered before the recession. Over one quarter of our nation's bridges are structurally deficient. When might be a convenient time to ask the richest Americans to help solve problems of this kind? How about now?
Ask all you want. But taxation has nothing to do with asking.
It is easy to understand why even the most generous person might be averse to paying taxes: Our legislative process has been hostage to short-term political interests and other perverse incentives for as long as anyone can remember. Consequently, our government wastes an extraordinary amount of money. It also seems uncontroversial to say that whatever can be best accomplished in the private sector should be. Our tax code must also be reformed--and it might even be true that the income tax should be lowered on everyone, provided we find a better source of revenue to pay our bills.
Exactly. Having just written these lines of wisdom, however, he then writes,
But I can't imagine that anyone seriously believes that the current level of wealth inequality in the United States is good and worth maintaining, or that our government's first priority should be to spare a privileged person like myself the slightest hardship as this once great nation falls into ruin.
He might want to expand his imagination, and put aside the fetish about income inequality. There are plenty of people who don't see income inequality as a significant problem, particularly because income levels are not fixed, and we have legal equality of opportunity in the United States. It isn't a matter of "maintaining" the situation. It just is. And the nation is hardly "falling into ruins." It doesn't help an argument to include wild hyperbole.
American opposition to the "redistribution of wealth" has achieved the luster of a religious creed. And, as with all religions, one finds the faithful witlessly espousing doctrines that harm almost everyone, including their own children. For instance, while most Americans have no chance of earning or inheriting significant wealth, 68 percent want the estate tax eliminated (and 31 percent consider it to be the "worst" and "least fair" tax levied by the federal government). Most believe that limiting this tax, which affects only 0.2 percent of the population, should be the top priority of the current Congress.
I find this hilarious. Here's someone with a religious-like fetish about "income inequality" accusing people who oppose forcible redistribution of wealth of holding a religious creed. He also makes the mistake throughout this entire article, [pointed out by Mike Farmer in link #3 of today's HOT5.], of assuming that the poor are a static class.
The truth, however, is that everyone must favor the "redistribution of wealth" at some point.
Not true, obviously. There are people against all forms of taxation.
To make matters more difficult, Americans have made a religious fetish of something called "self-reliance."
Apparently anything that gets in the way of socialistic wealth transfer schemes is now a religious fetish. These leads into the typical left-wing argument that the wealthy have had greater opportunity and luck, and therefore "owe" society more of their money. As usual, this argument is combined with an apparent oblivious disregard for the fact that the wealthy already pay by far the most taxes.

But then Harris advocates something different.

Some readers will point out that I am free to donate to the treasury even now. But such solitary sacrifice would be utterly ineffectual, and I am no more eager than anyone else is to fill the pork barrels of corrupt politicians. However, if Gates and Buffett created a mechanism that bypassed the current dysfunction of government, earmarking the money for unambiguously worthy projects, I suspect that there are millions of people like myself who would not hesitate to invest in the future of America.
I have no problem with some sort of voluntary effort by the rich to invest in improving the country. There is already plenty of philanthropy from the very rich. A new major effort would certainly be welcome. Harris advocates spending such a massive donation on two things: education and clean energy. For education he suggests making college free for people who can't afford it. I think that's a bad idea.

A college education isn't automatically a good thing. There are plenty of people in college who learn very little, and basically come away with pieces of paper saying they are college graduates -- creating an illusion that they are somehow more valuable in the workforce. They aren't. It would be much more effective to invest in alternative ideas about education, covering things not normally taught in our schools. People need to be taught how to create wealth, such as how to form and operate a business, take an idea from the idea stage to patent and production, methods of raising capital, real estate fundamentals, and investment strategies. I certainly wish I'd learned those things when I was young.

As for clean energy, I'm all for private investment in new methods of energy. If a consortium of philanthropic rich people could somehow transform the U.S. into a nation that needs less fossil fuel that would be great.

I am aware that a proposal of this kind is bound to seem quixotic. But what's to stop the wealthiest Americans from sponsoring a 21st Century Renaissance? What politician would object to our immediately spending a trillion dollars on improvements in education and energy security? Perhaps there are even better targets for this money. Let Gates and Buffett convene a team of brilliant people to lay out the priorities. But again, we should remember that they could scarcely fail to improve our situation. Simply repaving our roads, the dilapidation of which causes $54 billion in damage to our cars every year, would be better than doing nothing.
Overall this article offers a major disconnect. Sam Harris starts out with the typical liberal complaints about income inequality and the tax structure, implying that we should jack up tax rates on the rich and redistribute wealth for the greater good. But he ends by calling for a massive voluntary effort by the wealthy to invest in America's future. No thanks to the former, I'm with him on the latter.


  1. The real Ellsworth Toohey:

  2. Who are these rude weirdos? Great post UNRR

  3. I think they are all the same guy, a mentally-disturbed individual who posts silly threats on various atheist blogs.

  4. "Sam Harris is an evil person."

    Nonsense. Having some ideas you (or I) disagree with doesn't make him evil. Wrong is not the same as evil.

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