11/15/2012 03:19 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2013

The Bodhisattva's View of Tax Policy

The Constitution of the United States, as we learn in high-school civics class, is based upon the social-contract political philosophy of the English philosopher, John Locke. Two of the fundamental assumptions upon which Locke constructed his theory are that everyone has the fundamental rights of life, liberty and property, and that the best way to ensure that the government does not infringe upon these rights is to apportion governmental power among three roughly equal and independent bodies -- executive, legislative and judicial branches. An additional, very important assumption of Locke's theory is that people are fundamentally selfish and will pursue their own interests at the expense of others if they have the ability to do so. Locke believed that apportioning the governmental powers among these roughly co-equal branches would provide "checks and balances," and that these checks and balances would prevent rulers from exercising tyrannical government power so as to violate the fundamental rights of life, liberty and property. The U.S. Declaration of Independence also drew upon Locke's political philosophy, but, rather than asserting that all men have the rights of life, liberty and property, it revised Locke's list of rights to eliminate the right to property, replacing it with the right to "pursue happiness." Perhaps, the large land-owning Founding Fathers were not comfortable with the idea that everyone has the right to property. It's quite obvious when someone lacks property, but when one views those with little or no property as having simply not been very good at "pursuing happiness," it's much easier to blame the victims of economic policies that patently favor wealthy property owners.

Locke did not explain to how much property one has a right. The earlier English social-contract theorist, Thomas Hobbes, defended a much clearer right to property. Among the "laws of nature" he defended was that no one is entitled to accumulate property in an amount that results in anyone being left without the property necessary to provide for the basic necessities of life. In Hobbes' theory, a law of nature is a precept which we must follow in order to maintain a peaceful society. The Founding Fathers did not adopt Hobbes' political theory as the theoretical foundation for the U.S. constitution, because he argued that divided sovereignty leads to war and that security and liberty are best secured when one person wields all the political authority. It is unfortunate that he argued in favor of one-man rule, because his laws of nature are, in general, very reasonable and defensible. Hobbes wrongly believed that citizens, themselves, are able to check the power of the government, because of their capacity to revolt. Hobbes reasoned that if a government were to violate the laws of nature, the peace that a government is formed to secure would be disturbed. Hobbes, like Locke, assumed that people are selfish, and he claimed that all men are glory seekers, competitive and diffident of one another. Because of these assumptions, he argued, men would find it reasonable to contract with one another to put government power in the hands of one person charged with maintaining the peace by enforcing his laws of nature. Hobbes' social contract theory was, thus, based upon "the principle of enlightened self-interest." Fortunately, not all and men and women are competitive, diffident glory-seekers, and all of those who are can overcome this flaw.

It is quite obvious that neither Hobbes nor Locke devised a political system that can prevent violations of human rights. Hitler, Stalin and numerous other absolute rulers have committed atrocious violations of human rights and wielded sufficient power to suppress rebellion. The Framers were quite concerned with the problem of political factions -- as well they should have been -- because they realized that the Lockean political system they devised could not prevent a majority political faction from pursing their selfish common interests at the expense of others and violating human rights in the process. The abuse of power by majority factions is called, "the tyranny of the majority." U.S. constitutional rights and judicial enforcement of them are supposed to prevent the tyranny of the majority, but they have not. Unfortunately, Supreme Court Justices can be members of factions and be appointed and confirmed by office holders elected by factions.

I argued in my blog, "The Bodhisattva's View of Same-sex Marriage", that denying same-sex couples the right to play the role of spouse denies them access to benefits heterosexual couples enjoy, and that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violates the principle of universal, unbiased love. Same-sex couples are currently being denied access to the role of spouse in most of the United States of America by a political faction made up of people who share the mistaken belief that only same-sex couples are morally entitled to marry. When judges have properly ruled against majority tyranny in marriage equality cases, the faction-tyrants on the right have called them "judicial activists" and accused them of illegitimately "legislating" from the bench. Every extension of previously-denied rights to a despised minority in the United States of America has overcome the tyranny of a political faction. If we accept that it is a violation of human rights to retain surplus property when others have less than the amount which is necessary to support a meaningful human life, we shall have to conclude that a political faction in the United States is currently tyrannically violating the rights of the less fortunate citizens of the country.

From the Bodhisattva point of view, Hobbes' right to property is a valid right, but it is justified by applying the principle of universal, unbiased love -- not the principle of enlightened self-interest. I cannot possibly love others as I love myself if I want to retain for my own selfish purposes property that is needed by others in order to lead a meaningful human life. The basic necessities of human life are adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care and the leisure time necessary to engage in spiritual practices. The conservative ideology that maintaining historically low tax rates for the wealthy is the best way to ensure that everyone has a job that provides them the basic necessities of human life has been tried and proven false. Purchases of 30,000-square foot homes, 8,000-square foot "vacation shacks," million-dollar yachts and elevators for car collections have not and will not ever generate well-paying jobs for everyone that provide the basic necessities of a meaningful human life.

The best way to solve the problem of factions and prevent the tyranny of a majority is to develop a society in which most people love their neighbors as themselves and determine what counts as a right on the basis of the principle of universal, unbiased love. Bodhisattvas should work toward the goal of developing this kind of society in the United States of America. Fortunately, most people in the United States pay at least lip service to the principle of universal, unbiased love, so Bodhisattvas should be able to find Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Hindu allies; indeed every major religious tradition espouses the principle of universal, unbiased love, and this principle is also widely embraced by people who do not consider themselves religious. Political philosophers who want to help create a society in which human rights are respected have been very foolish in not embracing and defending the principle of universal, unbiased love. Instead, they have been attempting to defend human rights on the basis of conceptions of rationality divorced from the cognitive-emotional experience of universal, unbiased love. I am not going to argue the point in this blog, but it is irrational not to love everyone as one loves oneself. This irrationality is caused by what Buddhists call "the delusion of self-grasping ignorance."

We can love everyone as we love ourselves, because true and lasting happiness is not a zero-sum game -- it is open to everyone at the end of a correct spiritual path, and we need each other to reach the end of this path. Many defenders of the low-tax ideology present themselves as defending Christian values, yet they tenaciously espouse and defend a right to accumulate vast stores of "treasures where moth and rust consume" (Matthew: 6:19). However, Jesus was correct when he asserted that our real treasure is to be found where moth and rust do not consume -- at the end of a correct spiritual path. Our social policies should ensure everyone has the minimum requisites of a meaningful human life, so that we all can pursue the real treasure found at the end of a correct spiritual path. Our social policies must be designed to ensure that everyone has meaningful work that provides the basic necessities of human life. This will require investments in education and infrastructure, and, at the present time, it may require work programs similar to those of the Great Depression. We also must set the minimum wage so that those being paid at this rate earn what is necessary to lead a meaningful human life.

President Obama has asked the wealthy to pay a little more in taxes. The Bodhisattva's view is that we should require the wealthy to pay more in taxes, because no one can successfully pursue happiness by storing up treasures where moth and rust consume. The nation requires more tax revenue to address the nation's fiscal problems and, by doing this, we can advance toward the goal of guaranteeing that everyone has the property necessary to lead a meaningful human life. In his victory speech on November 6, President Obama wisely stated that our nation's policies must be based on the values of love, charity, patriotism and duty. In the coming struggle over the issue of whether the wealthy should pay a higher tax rate, religious leaders should explain that the principle of universal, unbiased love -- loving one's neighbor as oneself -- justifies that they should pay at a higher rate. By making this argument, we can advance the spiritual welfare of those who are wealthy just as much as those who are not. Pursuing happiness by loving others as you love yourself is the path to true and lasting happiness. "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24).