A Question

October 14, 2008 – 2:57 pm by Kel

For many of our readers here, it may be surprising to find that I am a veteran. It's not really something I bring up often, and typically when others do, I try to change the subject. I do have a post planned for the near future that addresses some of this, however. I enlisted when I was seventeen primarily because I knew that otherwise, I would have little chance of attending college. In hind sight, I may have been able to complete my degree with loans and the such, but the money I received from the Army helped significantly (and by money, I actually mean the $30k I had saved up during a year-long deployment in the current war, though the actual GI Bill portion was a nicer kicker every month).

Ever since the point in my life in which I seriously began to consider issues of liberty and reached my libertarian awakening, I have sometimes grappled with the fact that my education was funded with immorally extracted money. The only real way I've come to terms with it is in the knowledge that the money the government has given me will be extracted back in around three to four years of taxes alone. My working life will be significantly longer than that, so I'm still on the losing end of this deal.

However, with the recent market implosion, and with me still renting, the opportunities to buy a house seem greater than ever. As a veteran, I am eligible for a loan through the Office of Veteran Affairs. I will admit, I don't know the details very well as of yet, and before I start to look into it, I need one very important questioned answered for me.

Is it immoral for me to utilize this government faculty, though the general populace cannot? Does my argument above - that the government will make me pay many times over what I extract from them - still apply? Or is my above argument even valid in the first place?

I will say that my first instinct is that any interaction with the government is agreeing to it's validity. That is, by taking money from them, I am either willing to accept dirty money or agree that it was gotten morally. But my secondary instinct is that since the government is willing to extract my property from me at the end of a gun, I should pounce on any opportunity to take it back. What is your instinct?

Your thoughts are quite welcome.

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  1. 8 Responses to “A Question”

  2. With the government nationalizing the market you might as well get your loan while you can. They will steal from you faster then they give you money anyways.

    I could make an arguement both ways so in the end it is your gut instinct that has to decide.

    By Azrael on Oct 14, 2008

  3. Kel,

    A few things to maybe break this into smaller pieces, all of which are interesting to me.

    First, your trail of proper ownership of the loan money has broken down. Your idea seems to be that the money is stolen from taxpayers by the government, but maybe that's not too awful since you'll pay the government back later without fail.

    But wait! Paying back the government via taxation does NOTHING to restore the money from the party it was stolen from in the first place. All it does is give it back to the state, which can then use it a second time, equally as illegitimately as it did the first time when it loaned it to you. The victim is never made whole.

    Next, your guarantee of ability to repay is unsecured by anything of negotiable value. If I were the taxpayer-lender I would want a tangible object of value pledged as collateral for the loan by the privilege-taking borrower. A pledge of future taxes presumes things like that college will better the student as a person, that the student will survive college, that the student will remain in the country after college, that the student will not become a full-time agorist, etc., none of which are guaranteed in any way. Any number of things could happen that lead to the loan becoming irredeemable and therefore utterly forfeit by the government -- wups, there we go again, I meant to say "forfeit by the taxpayer"; in short, still stolen.

    You ask if the fact that others can't utilize this state privilege should color judgments to be made about your use of it. This is a separate matter from the core question. It has parallels with the question "if everyone can do it, does that make it right?" I suggest that we ought to answer that question in the negative, and that therefore we say it doesn't matter whether or not others are granted this privilege, and it's immoral for other reasons anyway.

    Another interesting and derivative question: suppose we conclude that your taking a loan of $X from some program results in a detriment to taxpayers of a utility factor, n, times X, $nX. If instead of taking the loan you simply stole $nX directly from the treasury, would that be a greater or lesser crime than obtaining the same funds by a different route? How one answers this question has revolutionary potential.

    By Mike Gogulski on Oct 14, 2008

  4. Mike,

    If I follow what you're saying correctly, I believe you align with my first instinct. I've been wavering between the two all day.

    First, I think I misstated my original assessment. Originally, I was able to pay for college mainly because during my time in the military, I was sent over to Iraq for a year. In that time, being trapped in a country I was "defending", I had little to spend my money on, and thus after a year had saved up around $30k to pay for college. My question eventually became thus: Should I return this money on a moral stance because it was ill-gotten? I eventually decided that I should not on the simple reason that the money would be extracted from me even if I didn't return it. But even if we did decide that I should rid myself of these ill-gotten funds, I think we can both agree that returning it to the government (who will in turn turn around and commit more evil with it) would be a poor course of action as well. Perhaps I should, over the course of the next few years, donate a sum of $30k to some institution that stands in defiance of the state. This seems like an interesting avenue to me, and after some consideration and budgeting, I just may do this.

    Secondly, I apologize for the point about if others can or cannot utilize this privilege. This was a post that I pounded out in about five minutes before leaving work, but reading it now, I too agree that whether or not others can use this facility is completely irrelevant to its morality.

    It is noteworthy that upon further inspection of the VA Home Loan program, I have found that there is no actual loan from the government. Instead, a private lender loans me the money and the state guarantees a portion of it. Essentially, the state becomes my collateral in case I default on the loan. However, there are limitations. For instance, there is a cap on the closing cost percentage against the lender. If a lender wanted to charge me a 2% closing cost, the state would tell them they cannot, or else risk not having the state's guarantee. So there is still an element of force involved in the sense that several terms of the loan are dictated by the state.

    As for your last question, this is certainly interesting. To overly simplify your question, you are asking, "Is it wrong to steal from a thief." To which I answer: "It depends on what you do with the money you have taken." If you keep it for your own selfish good, then you are no better than the original bandit. However, if you return the stolen property to its rightful owner, than you are using equal and just force to correct an original initiation of force. However, in the case you mention, returning the goods to the rightful owner would be a horrible convoluted mess. More so, in the situation that originated this question, I would be using the goods and services for my own personal gain, which I've already mentioned as unpalatable.

    However, let me frame the question differently. Knowing that a robber would eventually take $x from you over the course of your lifetime, is it wrong to in turn take $y < $x from him first? I think I will answer that question with a yes - though you will eventually have that money taken from you, if you take it first, then you are the originator of force.

    All this has me leaning towards not using the VA program.

    By Kel on Oct 14, 2008

  5. So, I thought about this some more.

    First, if you plan to make a $30k donation to the cause of liberty, bravo! Should you be obligated to do that? No, I don't think so, largely for the reason I outlined (you'll never make the victim of the original theft whole again).

    The situation you describe is a bit different from the one I reacted to above. In this case, the state is just acting as guarantor for the loan, which means that in terms of the loan itself, the taxpayer suffers nothing assuming that you repay as contracted. However, the same objections apply as above about the risk, and it's possible that for whatever reason the state is acting in this case to make a risky loan possible which would be uneconomic in a truly free market. There is one direct cost to taxpayers, though, regardless of your repayment, and that comes in the form of the bureaucratic overhead for administration of the program, whatever branch of government it's coming from. The taxpayers do get dinged for that amount, though the amount might be very small.

    The "is it wrong to steal from a thief?" question is really interesting. There was one analysis that I believe Rothbard gave somewhere which said "not really", reasoning about a man (X) who took a horse from a horse thief (Y) who had recently stolen it from a victim (Z). Now, I believe there is a case to be made as follows. If Y takes the horse in order to return it to its rightful owner, Y has certainly committed no offense. What if Y takes the horse without the intention to return it to the rightful owner? Trickier question, so let's look at a boundary case of the previous, simpler question and see if it sheds any light for us. Imagine that Y sets out to find the rightful owner of the horse, and on eventually arriving (perhaps years later) at Z's ranch, finds that Z has recently died leaving no legal heirs. Who, then, is the rightful owner of the horse? I think the answer must be that Y is the rightful owner in this case. In legal terms we might say that title to the horse devolves upon Y by virtue of Z's death and Y's possession at the time of death. Now, if a new person, W, came along during Y's quest to locate Z, could W take the horse from Y and not be a thief? Well, no! I haven't thought this out entirely thoroughly myself, but these thoughts point me in the direction of saying that once Y liberates the horse from the thief, X, the horse rightfully becomes Y's property. Certainly X's claim to valid title to the horse at the moment of Y's theft of it is less illegitimate than Y's claim.

    To your last question, I agree with your conclusion. We cannot make reasonable judgments about the morality of action taken today based on mere expectations of others' actions in the future. Our actions today must be right in and of themselves if we are to be consistent.

    Finally there's one more thing. My goal with respect to the state is to cause it to disappear. In terms of this specific loan-guarantee program, if everyone eligible for it refused to take it, then the program itself would likely disappear in short order, and part of the state would be laid to rest.

    Note that I'm presenting only one side here. I think that there are some arguments that could be made in the other direction, saying "take the loan", I just don't care to make them, myself :)

    The one thing I know for sure is that if I were examining this question for myself, I would want a diversity of opinions to look at. You might, for example, want to submit this as an "Ask Dr. Anarchy" question: http://radgeek.com/tag/dr_anarchy/

    By Mike Gogulski on Oct 15, 2008

  6. wups, change "Y's theft of it" to "Y's liberation of it" :)

    By Mike Gogulski on Oct 15, 2008

  7. Kelly,

    First, regarding the VA home loan program:

    On the one hand, it's easy to be real reflexive and answer these types of questions with, "No, don't deal with the State any more than absolutely necessary, ever!" and conclude you shouldn't have anything to do with it. Since the State dominates our lives through no fault of our own (and, in fact, despite our many efforts to fix this), that's not only impractical but not even necessarily philosophically rigorous.

    On the other hand, sometimes libertarians can only be just and consistent by refusing to take certain moneys from taxpayers, or refusing to support certain State programs by participating in them.

    I'm not 100% clear on how much extra government you would be contributing to by taking advantage of this program, and how much potential taxpayer money you'd be parasitizing (perhaps very little, as Mike indicated above), but my first impression is: If it would be wrong for me or Mike to participate in this program, it is also wrong for you to.

    We are all going to be robbed at gunpoint to pay our taxes for many, many years to come; we are all going to suffer more than we benefit from the State, its thievery, and its predation. The fact that the monetary benefit you (might) gain from this will surely be taken from you and then some over the next few years does not differentiate you from any other American.

    As for the $30,000 you saved up while you were in Kuwait and Iraq, that is more difficult. It's not as easy as choosing to accept or refuse a tax break; if the government will offer to take less of your money, then of course you'll accept the tax break! But this isn't a matter of the State taking $30,000 less of your privately earned money over, say, a decade; this is money you got directly from the DOD for military service in place of what you would have earned at a private job during, say, your first year out of college (which would have come a year sooner if not for the tour in Iraq).

    So, on the one hand, the Army took over a year of your life that could have been spent productively, and they had damn well better compensate you for it (by which I mean the taxpayers are forced to compensate you); on t'other, you enlisted in the Army Reserves voluntarily, not being a libertarian back in high school and not knowing you'd be sent to Iraq. So while I have a hard time blaming my friend for "taking" $30,000 of taxpayer money, taxpayers like me and Mike certainly aren't to blame for it.

    Three hundred million other taxpayers are, though, because they are benighted enough to vote for military interventionism year after year...so really you're taking from other thieves when you take from taxpayers...

    So to answer your question, I don't know.

    By John on Oct 15, 2008

  8. A lot of people might disagree, but I received unemployment checks while I was unemployed, for pretty much the same rationale. If you don't do it, someone else will. At least you understand the nature of the beast.

    I don't think there's a satisfactory answer to this question.

    By David Z on Oct 17, 2008

  9. Good point, David... and I took mine, too.

    By Mike Gogulski on Oct 17, 2008

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