Blogs > Liberty and Power > A Horrible Idea From Walter Williams

Sep 17, 2004 3:15 am


A Horrible Idea From Walter Williams



Walter Williams has a column in today’s Washington Times with an idea so bad I can scarcely believe it came from him. Williams writes “So here's my idea. Every American regardless of any other consideration should have one vote in any federal election. Then, every American should get one additional vote for every $10,000 he pays in federal income tax. With such a system, there would be a modicum of linkage between one's financial stake in our country and his decision making capacity.”

Williams’ notion has two major flaws. In his piece he voices concern over the number of people who no longer have any federal income tax liability. Worry over this growing phenomenon prompts the above suggestion. Perhaps, Professor Williams would sleep better a night if he took into consideration that most of the people who would fall into the only one vote category support the federal government through substantial Social Security payroll taxes. Since the money collected by the payroll tax is immediately either spent outright or turned into government bonds and then spent, this federal tax differs in no substantial way from the federal income tax.

The people in the multiple vote category have a cap on how much payroll tax they pay. Why should they have more say about that tax than those who are paying a much larger percentage of their income to satisfy it? Also, demographics will demand frightening increases in the payroll tax without a change in the system. Someone who gets fifty votes under Williams’ plan is not going to feel a fifty percent cut in benefits too much. For another person, who has only one vote yet has still been paying into the system for years, it could be catastrophic. That person should have less of a voice?

Secondly, Walter Williams’ plan seems to ignore the fact that what government does with the money is much more important than how much it takes in. Let us take two groups of people, one in the single vote category and one in the multiple vote class to illustrate this point. Representing the owners of only one vote will be a platoon of soldiers, commanded by a sergeant, stationed in Iraq. None of these people are earning enough to qualify for extra votes. The Board of Directors of the Halliburton Corporation will stand for those with multiple ballots.

In the same instant of time the single voters are traveling down a road near Fallujah thinking about the very real possibility that any second they may be blown to bits by a roadside bomb. Meanwhile, the board members, many of them with double figured numbers of votes and all of them in full support of the war, are in a meeting being served absolutely exquisite pastry by two very beautiful administrative assistants. Some of them are worried that the meeting could last too long, thus making them miss their tee time. Does anyone really believe that the board members have more of a stake in what our government decides to do than the soldiers.

Now, Williams in his column expresses a fear that the wealthy do not have enough influence over the actions of government. If he asked himself the following question it might calm him somewhat. How many times has a member of the Board of Directors of the Halliburton Corporation attended a thousand dollar a plate fundraising dinner for some politician and how many times has a member of a platoon of soldiers in Iraq been present at such an event?




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Keith Halderman - 9/21/2004

If public employees form a union then the government should refuse to acknowledge or bargain with that union. If they strike the government should fire them just like Ronald Reagen did the air traffic controllers. There are literally millions of public employees many doing destructive things, that I do not want to pay, and all of them ultimately receive their paycheck at the point of a gun. They should not be able to use the strike as a further tool of coercion.


Charles Johnson - 9/19/2004

"If it's just an accounting fiction, then why not exempt them from taxes in the first place?"

Better yet, why not extend the offer to everyone? Give everyone the option to choose between (a) voting and paying taxes, or (b) giving up their vote and not paying taxes.

(Of course, I'd prefer (c) not paying taxes, not having to deal with the State at all, and replacing it with voluntary associations, some of which might operate by votes of those who choose to become members. But in the meantime this seems like a bargain that could have many benefits.)


Charles Johnson - 9/19/2004

Thanks to Skip for the comments. A couple of points, though, in reply.

1. The claim that employers can use force against employees who breach their employment contract is not necessarily an unreasonable claim (although, more on that below); but it's <em>not</em> the claim that Keith seemed to make above. What Keith seemed to be arguing is that government employees <em>as such</em> don't have a right to strike (whether working on a fixed contract or at will) and that unions of them shouldn't exist (to which again, the main clarifying question I want to ask is: what do you do if they try to form one?)

2. If you do sign a fixed contract, and then in the midst of that contract walk out (say, because you're dissatisfied with how you're being treated), it's clear that the employer has every right to <em>fire</em> you (and to use defensive force if you try to force your way back onto the job). And it's also clear that if you've already been paid for work you refuse to do, the employer has the right to take that back (by a civil suit, if necessary). And further that if your breach created some additional costs above and beyond what it would have cost to finish the job if you'd stayed, they can sue to recover that. So far, fine.

But as far as I know the existing contract law doesn't (and, I think, <em>shouldn't</em>) authorize your employer to sue you for anything other than to recover the pay for any work left undone and for any extra costs imposed by the breach.

All this means, in the end, is that even if you are on a fixed contract (and it's worth pointing out that teachers are pretty unusual amongst government employees in having contracts to be employed for some fixed period of time), you do have the right to <em>strike</em>--just not the right to <em>steal</em>. (Even if you walk out on a fixed contract, it would seem absolutely astonishing that your employer could get the police to take you out of your house at gunpoint and <em>force</em> you to do the rest of the job you walked out on--or that they could throw you in prison for having breached the contract...)

I hope this helps clarify what I mean, a bit, when I talk about a right to strike.


Skip Oliva - 9/19/2004

"Let's say that I'm a government employee (perhaps a teacher, since teachers' associations often come in for a pretty hard drubbing) and I decide, for whatever reason, that I just can't stand working under the current conditions that I am employed under. Thus, I refuse to work and tell the boss that I am only willing to continue doing my job if certain conditions are met.

Unless you would make the astonishing claim that the government has the right to use violence to force me to work (or to fine me or throw me in jail for not working), you hold that I have a right to strike."

I would say that if the employee was under contract, he cannot unilaterally disavow said contract, and that that employer would be within his rights to use force to guarantee performance. There is a difference between striking because a contract has expired without a new agreement in place, and a "preemptive" strike while employees are still under contract.


Skip Oliva - 9/19/2004

"If it's just an accounting fiction, then why not exempt them from taxes in the first place?"

Fine by me. It would certainly make the nature of their employment clearer to the general public.

"And I can't imagine why you would exempt political appointees from disenfranchisement."

Well, you could exclude them if you wish. My thinking is that since political appointees are by design temporary government employees, they don't pose the same threat that permanent, civil service employees do.

Another way to look at it is, every presidential has their lineup of political appointees ready to go if they win--in effect, their votes cancel each other out. Permanent employees, conversely, are a fixed voting bloc that can swing an election one way or the other. Furthermore, you might have a political party that advocates a reduction in government (none such party exists right now, but it's still possible), but civil servants have every incentive to expand their fiefdoms at taxpayer expense.


Charles Johnson - 9/19/2004

"I have always agreed with Calvin Coolidge when he said there is no right to strike against the public good."

Let's say that I'm a government employee (perhaps a teacher, since teachers' associations often come in for a pretty hard drubbing) and I decide, for whatever reason, that I just can't stand working under the current conditions that I am employed under. Thus, I refuse to work and tell the boss that I am only willing to continue doing my job if certain conditions are met.

Unless you would make the astonishing claim that the government has the right to use violence to force me to work (or to fine me or throw me in jail for not working), you hold that I have a right to strike. Of course, the boss also has a right to hire a scab and tell me to take a hike; the question is whether I need the job more than the boss needs me, or the boss needs me more than I need the job. So it goes in the world of labor negotiations.

But if I have a right to strike individually, it seems no less clear that I have every right to talk with my fellow workers (speech being, properly, free) and decide that we are all fed up and we are all going to walk away until our conditions are met. We might even get something done this way: if workers join together to demand a better deal with the boss, it may well be that it's harder to replace most or all of your workers than it is to strike a bargain with them. If so, then we have simply gotten the boss to agree to a better contract than we had before by hard bargaining and by exercising, or making it clear that we can and will exercise, our right to strike. Then we would have formed what is normally thought of as a labor union.

I don't see, as of yet, what any of this has to do with either government employment or "the public good". (Nor do I think these are reliably the same thing!) Everyone has a right to strike, and it's unclear to me how it could come about that even though each of us individually has a right to strike we don't have a right to do it together.

You might say: fine, but government agencies should never make deals with workers trying to unionize; they should just try to cut deals individually, and fire them straight away if they decide to strike. Fine, but that's also a right that any employer should have in a free society; it hasn't got anything to do with what rights the workers do or don't have, and it hasn't got anything to do with whether they are "striking against the public good" or not.

Maybe I'm missing something. What, exactly, do you mean when you say that there shouldn't be any public employee unions at all? If people try to form one, what should their (government) employer do about it? If they decide to strike (which you apparently claim they have no right to do), what should happen to them?


Jonathan Dresner - 9/18/2004

If it's just an accounting fiction, then why not exempt them from taxes in the first place?

And I can't imagine why you would exempt political appointees from disenfranchisement.


Keith Halderman - 9/18/2004

Yours is a much better proposal. I have always agreed with Calvin Coolidge when he said there is no right to strike against the public good. Therefore, I do not believe there should be any public employee unions at all.


Skip Oliva - 9/18/2004

I would prohibit government employees--aside from political appointments--from voting. As Mises once said, a government bureaucrat paying taxes is an accounting fiction. There is a basic conflict when those dependent on the public treasury are permitted to participate in the political process. The civil service unions are now among the most powerful members of the AFL-CIO, and we all know how devestating the teachers unions are at the state and local levels.


Jason Pappas - 9/17/2004

I understand Williams’ concern. I once toyed with the idea of a house of representatives with on vote per person and a senate with one voter per dollar of taxes. But my conservative side tends to oppose any tampering with the constitution without overwhelming motivation and considerable study.

By the way, your Halliburton example isn’t really fair in a number of ways. I prefer to note that government favors to one corporation come at the expense of others corporations. Thus there is some reason to hope that other big taxpayers will not align with them in the “Senate of Taxpayers” of my example. And there are others for ideological reasons ... Mr. George Soros, for example. However, it is fair to say that established corporations will gain favor at the expense of start-ups - corporations which we may never see.

We both could go on with Williams’ scheme or my own toy-model but obviously you are dead right to warn of the dangers – most which we can’t even predict.


Robert William Sperry - 9/17/2004

How about you get one vote per dollar that you are willing to give the government. Every vote allows you to determine how the government will spend one dollar.

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