Fill in the blank: “He who dies with the most toys _______________.”
If you answered “dies,” award yourself full credit. If you answered “wins,” read on and revisit your answer when you’re finished.
My wife and I just sold our house in the suburbs and bought a cheaper, smaller house in the city. We’re thrilled about getting rid of a lot of clutter and being able to go places without having to drive. Between now and the beginning of fall semester, we’re waging an all-out war against clutter: material clutter, mental clutter, and the physical “clutter” around my waistline. We’ve always been very good about getting rid of stuff, and we’ve never been particularly attached to possessions, but this is different: I think we’re in the process of becoming minimalists.
Why would a family that doesn’t care much about having a lot of stuff care if the tax man takes a big bite out of their annual earnings? It comes down to control. Yes, there are a lot of benefits we get from government spending—I’m currently working on a project financed by a federal grant, we have roads and sidewalks and police and firefighters and the like—but in many cases the government has decided to substitute its own wisdom for mine. What if I don’t want to subsidize corn or terrorize people who use certain drugs (I type as I take a sip of caffeine-laden coffee) or build a stadium or a museum even in my district? It’s easy to effect change if a store like Walmart or Target or Publix or Costco isn’t providing me with a good value proposition: I can take my business elsewhere. It’s a lot harder to take one’s business elsewhere when governments are concerned, and “it could be worse; you could live in Haiti” is cold comfort.
There’s a second issue here, as well, that gets at our aversion to stuff. We do like to travel, yes, and we like the occasional nice meal (be advised that my standards for a “nice” meal are lower than most—“nice” in my book is “any restaurant where someone actually brings you your food” and “very nice” is “any restaurant that doesn’t have a kids’ menu”). There’s a lot of good we want to do in the world, and I question the presumption that the government is in the best position to define for us what good is and to use our money to (try to) bring it about. I’m also troubled by the assumption that people are too selfish and short-sighted to make these good things happen voluntarily but virtuous enough to elect people to make good things happen using violence.
I earn money and plan carefully to shield it from taxation because I want to make sure the change I make in the world is both effective and consistent with my values. Personally, I want to have an inflation-adjusted net worth of at least $1 million by age 50—not so I can indulge my appetites or buy bigger and better toys, but because I want to pay forward the generosity of those who have helped make my world possible. In a truly humane society, that wouldn’t be mediated by an organization with a gun under the table.