A common sentiment among proponents of government and centralised authority is that “taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilised society.” In reality, however, the state’s hunger for tax revenue and control directly undermines well-intentioned humans’ efforts to be civil to each other.
Punished for helping strangers in need
In Navi Mumbai, India, the police recently fined a car owner two thousand rupees. His offence? He offered a ride to strangers who were stranded in the rain. From the Hindustan Times’ summary of the shameful incident:
“Nitin Nair, an employee of a finance consultancy in Navi Mumbai, said he was fined near Airoli Circle last Monday and the on-duty officer took his driving licence for offering [a] lift to three men, who were stuck at a bus stop during a downpour. Nair said the officer issued him an e-challan and asked him to collect his licence from the chowkie (police station) after paying fine.”
Apparently, it is illegal in India for private car owners to offer rides to strangers. The police later issued a “clarification,” noting that they only penalise motorists who they believe “might take money from people,” which is considered an offence.
“Only a vehicle with a yellow number plate (tourist vehicle) can charge passengers. We have observed that drivers charge anywhere between thirty to fifty rupees for dropping people to Panvel, Belapur, Kharghar and Vashi from Airoli junction,” said a traffic police officer, according to the Times.
As if that makes things any better. Even if not every motorist is penalised, the fact that anybody driving with passengers can be stopped at a police officer’s whim and questioned and treated like an outlaw is enough to discourage people from helping those who need a ride.
This is especially troubling during monsoons. When it rains heavily in Mumbai, public transportation virtually shuts down, and it is next to impossible to get an auto-rickshaw or a cab. In such cases, most people rely on assistance from good samaritans such as Mr. Nair to get around.
The government, however, cares more about the license fees and tax revenues it gets from commercial transportation services than it does about people being able to get where they need to on time. In its zeal to collect taxes, it is willing to leave thousands of people stranded.
A pervasive problem in the “land of the free”
Punishing acts of charity is by no means a problem unique to India. In many American cities, for example, it is illegal to feed homeless people, at least until one has obtained a costly permit. For example, the city of Tampa, Florida, requires people to have one million dollars in liability insurance and pay an additional sum of money to the local government for permission to feed the homeless.
Governments say they do this for health reasons. If the food is not government-approved, according to their logic, homeless people will die of food poisoning. In Kansas City, Missouri, for example, the police bleached over four thousand pounds of barbeque food because it was from an “unapproved source.” More than three thousand people went to sleep hungry that day.
NPR explains that the real reason governments don’t want people feeding the homeless is rooted in greed for more revenues, mainly from tourism. If homeless people regularly congregate in public areas in search of meals, tourists might not visit those areas. Governments care more about revenues they can generate from the tourism industry than they do about ensuring everyone has enough to eat.
In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, regulations dictate that sites for feeding the homeless must be restricted to one per city block, and interestingly, at least five hundred feet away from residential properties. I’m guessing the latter is to ensure higher property prices so the local government can collect more property taxes.
Feeding aside, even sheltering the homeless is illegal in many places. Consider the church that was fined twelve thousand dollars for allowing homeless people to sleep inside without a room and board permit or the time the Los Angeles government seized tiny houses from homeless people, all in the name of “health and safety.”
Government greed discourages both big and small business
Civilisation is best defined as people helping each other and working together to create a better life. This need not necessarily take the form of charity. As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, most people unintentionally help others purely out of self-interest. Business activity is even more important than charity for a civilisation to function. Even charity relies on surplus wealth, which can only come from profitable business endeavours.
Government action prevents and punishes acts of charity, as we see so consistently. It also punishes businesses through taxes and regulations. Every time a government taxes the sale of a product or creates a regulation, it pushes up the price of that product, leading to the fulfilment of fewer people’s needs.
But this does not just affect big business. Governments routinely shut down children’s lemonade stands or kick out food trucks serving hurricane victims because they did not pay for the required permits first. Clearly, governments refuse to let people help each other unless they can derive some form of tax revenue out of it.
Statists often tell us that “taxes are the price we pay for civilisation.” The truth, however, is that civilisation is the price we pay for taxation as we sacrifice goodwill and human compassion to fund the state.