How to Measure Government Oppression

G. Stolyarov II
Issue CLXXIII - October 3, 2008
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Many people equate the amount of government spending with how oppressive that government is. This is not necessarily the case, however.

Consider two hypothetical governments. Government A spends 1 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on equipping terror squads that go around randomly brutalizing innocent civilians among the government's own subjects. Government B spends 50 percent of the GDP on buying giant purple lollipops for children. Taxpayers do pay more to sustain Government B than Government A - but can any sensible person say that Government B is more oppressive? Would any sensible taxpayer prefer the high likelihood of being killed and brutalized to the payment of 50% of his income to the government? Neither is desirable, of course, but which is worse?

Clearly, what matters with regard to government oppressiveness is not just how much money the government spends, but also what the government spends its money on.

The issue of measuring how oppressive a given government is can be complicated even further. Not only is the amount of government spending not a direct indication of oppressiveness - but two otherwise identical governments can differ dramatically in how oppressive they are based on the technological environment in which they operate.

Consider two governments, C and D. Each government has the same tax rate and tax code. However, computers have not yet been invented in the country of government C, and each taxpayer must spend many hours and perhaps days filling and filing paper forms which he often does not understand - simply in order to pay the government! Most taxpayers have to spend additional amounts of money paying tax preparation services in order to even have a chance of filing their tax returns correctly. Under government D, however, there is a thriving high-technology market, and numerous online tax filing services have emerged, many of which will fill out tax forms quickly and for free based on inputs of rudimentary income data.

The taxpayers of government D are much less affected in their lives by the government than the taxpayers of government C, even though both governments have identical tax and regulatory structures.

I propose two fairly simple criteria to determine how oppressive any given government is vis a vis its subjects. I will phrase these criteria in the form of questions.

Criterion 1 - Time Criterion. How much time does the government require of its subjects? 

Criterion 2 - Pain Criterion. How much pain do the government's subjects have to endure on account of the government?

Time spent on account of the government includes any of the following:

A) Time spent on regulatory compliance, including filling out forms, meeting with government officials, and fulfilling government regulatory mandates.

B) Time spent on work the income for which goes to pay taxes to the government.

C) Time spent in "service" projects required by the government, including but not limited to military conscription, mandatory "community service," and jury duty. Note that any work for or under the direction of a government that a private individual entered into by choice - such as voluntary military or community service - does not count here.

D) Time spent waiting in a line or queue or experiencing any kinds of procedural delays on account of government policies and regulations.

We have elaborated on the Time Criterion. Now we will delve more deeply into the Pain Criterion.

Pain experienced on account of government includes any of the following.

A) Death.

B) Physical injuries, permanent or temporary.

C) Physical pain that does not lead to physical injury.

D) Physical or emotional discomfort of any kind.

E) Invasion of one's privacy.

F) Restriction of one's movements.

G) The foregone opportunities to preserve or improve one's health which are foregone as a consequence of government regulations and prohibitions.

While it is hypothetically possible to reduce all factors constituting the Time Criterion to a common unit of measurement, this is not the case with the Pain Criterion. Not all kinds of pain are commensurate with other kinds. For instance, I would prefer any amount of physical discomfort to death, and I would prefer any amount of emotional discomfort to physical injury. Moreover, pain is not commensurate with time - in the sense that I would rather spend my entire life filling senseless bureaucratic forms rather than die or be seriously injured.

How might it be possible to resolve these complications and get a clear view of government oppression?

While it is impossible to express multiple kinds of pain (including death) with a common unit of measurement, and likewise impossible to express certain kinds of pain in terms of money or time, it is possible to ordinally rank different kinds of pain as always better or worse than other kinds.

For instance, death is always worse than any other kind of pain. Moreover, irreparable physical injuries are always worse than reparable ones. Likewise, physical pain is always worse than emotional pain, provided that the emotional pain does not bring about physically self-destructive behaviors in the person experiencing it.

So I propose the following ranking of pains, from least to most tolerable.

1. Death

2. Permanent Physical Injury

3. Temporary Physical Injury

4. Restriction of Movement

5. Loss of Privacy

6. Emotional Abuse

7. Discomfort Not Involving Physical Pain (e.g. the discomfort brought about by excessive heat, crowded waiting rooms, traffic jams, foul odors, etc.)

Any higher-ranking pain is automatically worse than any lower-ranking pain. Thus, a government that inflicts any pain of rank 2 on persons who do not deserve it is automatically worse than a government that inflicts only pains of ranks 3 through 7.

Now we come to the issue of reconciling the Time Criterion and the Pain Criterion of government oppression.

The issue concerning us is that the Time Criterion is purely cardinal and measures government oppression in terms of the amount of time the government demands of any subject - directly or indirectly. The Pain Criterion, on the other hand, is purely ordinal and has no measurement units for pain. Rather, it simply consists of an absolute ranking of pains and a normative conception of some pains as being absolutely worse than others.

But if we can put wasted time within the ordinal ranking of pains, then our complication will be resolved. Hence, I propose the following principle.

Wasted time is the least of possible pains. Wasted time does not kill one, permanently injure one, or even necessarily entail emotional abuse. It does not need to involve stress or vicissitudes such as those present in a crowded room or a traffic jam. A bureaucrat can even (possibly) make his office reasonably comfortable for those who wait to see him. (This is in part what makes American bureaucracy tolerable by comparison to many bureaucracies around the world.)

Thus, I propose to put wasted time at the bottom (at number eight) of the ordinal ranking of pains I presented - unless the wasted time results directly or indirectly in higher-ranked pains. For instance, a government policy (under socialized healthcare) that denies a person treatment for a life-threatening cancer should not just be condemned on account of wasting time. Rather, this policy causes death (the worst pain) and therefore ought to be condemned on that account.

Based on the deliberations above, I hereby present a unified set of criteria for judging the oppressiveness of governments. Whenever faced with any government at any level, one needs to ask the following series of questions (hereafter denoted as QN, with N being the number of question. The answer to QN will be denoted as AN).

Unless otherwise noted, all the criteria below apply to the government's own subjects only and to innocent people only, where innocent people are defined as people who have not initiated force against others or people who have initiated force but are receiving a punishment disproportionate to the magnitude of the force they initiated. These qualifications avoid messy issues such as capital punishment for murderers and collateral damage in war, which are simply beyond the scope of this simple schema.

Q1: Does the government kill innocent people (among its own subjects) directly or indirectly?

(A1: Yes) implies that this government is the most oppressive and evil institution possible. We will call this government tier-1-oppressive.

(A1: No) implies the need to go on to Q2.

Q2: Does the government cause irreparable physical injury to innocent people?

(A2: Yes) implies that the government is tier-2-oppressive.

(A2: No) implies the need to go on to Q3.

Q3: Does the government cause temporary physical injury to innocent people?

(A3: Yes) implies that the government is tier-3-oppressive.

(A3: No) implies the need to go on to Q4.

Q4: Does the government restrict the movement of innocent people among its subjects?

(A4: Yes) implies that the government is tier-4-oppressive.

(A4: No) implies the need to go on to Q5.

Q5: Does the government invade the privacy of innocent people among its subjects?

(A5: Yes) implies that the government is tier-5-oppressive.

(A5: No) implies the need to go on to Q6.

Q6: Do government officials or agents emotionally abuse innocent people among the government's subjects?

(A6: Yes) implies that the government is tier-6-oppressive.

(A6: No) implies the need to go on to Q7.

Q7: Do government policies impose discomforts upon innocent subjects of the government - including but not limited to crowding, traffic jams, foul odors, excessive noise, extremes of heat or cold, non-long-term-damaging hunger or thirst, and a deprivation physical comforts and entertainments that these subjects would have otherwise had?

(A7: Yes) implies that the government is tier-7-oppressive.

(A7: No) implies the need to go on to Q8.

Q8: How much time must an innocent subject of the government spend on account of government policies - directly or indirectly? This includes but is not limited to time spent working to pay taxes to the government, the amount of working time that is wasted on account of inflation, as well as the amount of time spent in waiting for government officials, regulatory compliance, or the fulfillment of government mandates. Each subject will, of course, be deprived of different amounts of time by the government.

(A8: Some positive magnitude) implies that the government is tier-8-oppressive, with magnitude oi for each individual innocent subject i, where oi is the amount of time subject i loses on account of the government.

For an imperfect aggregate measure of tier-8 government oppression, we use O8 = iΣoi, i.e., the sum of the oi for all individual innocent subjects i. While this measure would be highly difficult to conduct in practice, I expect that this will not be necessary with regard to most governments, because they are on much higher tiers of oppressiveness. A world with only tier-8-oppressive governments would be a wonderful world to live in, indeed.

(A8: Zero) implies that the government is not oppressive. This is a government that requires no time from its subjects and inflicts no pain on them. This is the ideal good government to strive for, and to support and perpetuate such a government some subjects may justifiably choose to voluntarily contribute their time and exertions.

Some might object to my hierarchy of pains by claiming that it is based on my individual subjective preferences for some kinds of suffering over others. This I will readily grant. But no escape can be had from such a recourse, because the very term oppression is normative in nature - connoting clearly undesirable behavior. Thus, there is no way to avoid invoking normative criteria in determining whether a government is oppressive. After all, for someone who loves murder, a tier-1-oppressive government might be the best possible institution. I only say that I regard such a person as my enemy and the enemy of mankind and encourage others to think the same way regarding him.

If I were to assume any normative ideas other than those that I hold in creating this model, I would have created and advocated a normative model with which I disagreed. What would be the use of that - even to me personally? Moreover, I am confident that many reasonable people will agree with the specific hierarchy of pains I presented.

Moreover, I readily acknowledge that the procedure outlined above is a rough overview, and a lot of specific clarification is necessary in judging any particular government to determine to which tier of oppressiveness it belongs. My purpose here was to establish a more sophisticated way of thinking about government oppression, because the conventional way of simply measuring government spending as a fraction of GDP does not suffice. I welcome any recommendations regarding how my approach might be refined or improved.

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This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA's Statement of Policy.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.