The Adam Smith Institute Gets Morally Relative

May 25, 2012

Over on City AM, Eamonn Butler, the Director of the Adam Smith Institute, has written an article about what he calls the ‘powerful moral arguments’ against taxation. It’s fairly standard Randian demagoguery about taxation being confiscation through force, the use of force being necessarily evil; clearly, no-one should ever try to section a libertarian even if they’re a danger to themselves.

Butler also argues that people who disagree with what the Government does with their money are being forced to pay for things they don’t agree with. This is absolutely true, and a good thing too: if Government had refused to collect taxes during World War 1 because conscientious objectors didn’t want their taxes to be used to fight the dastardly Hun, we’d be part of the Second Reich. One of the downsides of living in society is that you’re prevented from doing absolutely everything you want, because other people have opinions about how things should be done. Adults realise this and figure out how to work with others to achieve the majority of what they want while comprising where necessary; children join the contemporary Republican Party.

This is because, quite fundamentally, moral claims are not relative when you’re the person making that moral claim. If you think doing a particular thing is good, then you think it’s good regardless of whether someone else thinks it’s bad. If you and that other person have to get along, then you need to find a way of compromising over this. If both of you think your moral claim should be privileged, then you’ll compete to find a way of implementing it. In a democracy, this often takes the form of competing over the right to implement a moral claim as part of law. In this context, the compromise is that you both sign up to a system that adjudicates the competition: democracy.

However, Butler seems to be saying that because all claims are relative to the person making them, allowing one moral claim to win out is bad. This is classic moral relativism, but in itself it involves a moral claim: that any form of non-individual moral adjudication is bad. Luckily, for those of us who disagree with this claim, it’s repeatedly lost out in the competition we run to determine who gets to implement their moral claims. By pushing it in the pages ofCity AM, Butler seems to want to get into this competition.


Butler also goes for the now classic claim that higher taxation means people give less to charity, based on two data points: the US and the UK. This has been repeated so many times it’s almost become a trope, but is it really the case?

Let’s map out this by using the Heritage Institute’s figures for percentage of GDP made up of Government spending in 2012 and the comparative data of the John Hopkins Centre for Civil Society Studies from between 1995-2002. While the distance between these two dates is a factor, comparable data for 1995-2002 is not readily available. The length of time the JHCCSS study covers should provide a useful average that we can extrapolate, however, especially as the relative figures for the US and the UK are broadly in line with the figures that Butler uses.

This is Government spending as a percentage of GDP against share of GDP made up by charitable giving:

It should be immediately obvious that there’s no relation, and indeed the correlation between the two is 0.13, implying if anything a tiny positive effect. However, the relationship between Government spending and volunteering as a percentage of GDP is more interesting:

The correlation is relatively higher at 0.44, implying that people in countries with a higher share of Government spending as a percentage of GDP are more likely to spend more time volunteering. This would imply that voting for a higher tax take by the Government is related in a positive way to people being willing to spend their own time working for society.


One Response to “The Adam Smith Institute Gets Morally Relative”

  1. acidandamnesty said

    Alternatively, societies which decide collectively to provide social welfare via the state will also more likely than not contain more people who are willing to volunteer individually, or have a culture which encourages it.

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