A Righteous Lie
by Carolyn Ray
Date: 11 Jul 98
Copyright: Carolyn Ray
Ragnar taught us that destruction of "public property" was OK because there is no such thing as "the public," and property stolen from one party does not belong to another. He taught us that tax evasion is OK because tax is theft. But let us note that the situation in Atlas Shrugged is quite desperate, and the rebellion is in full swing.
Now consider a few of my friends, whose names will be changed herein.
Lucy's father claims Lucy as a dependent (even though she is in her late 30's) so that he can get a tax break. In addition, he has bank accounts set up in her name, where he hides his own savings, because the interest income of dependents is safe from tax.
Steven's father claims Steven as a dependent too, and has him listed as a full time employee at his business. Steven has worked at the office part time a couple of summers, but otherwise he never even helps his father with work he brings home when Steven is in town for a visit. When his father wants to get him a gift, he buys him the sort of thing which can be claimed as an office expense.
There are several questions which arise in the ordinary mind. Is this the right way to act toward one's government? Is this the right way to behave toward one's fellow tax payers? Is this the right way to use one's child?
I will not deal with questions from the ordinary mind here. My interest is only in this question: Is this the right way to treat oneself?
It seems to me that this is not the right way to treat oneself. There are two main reasons. The first is that it damages one's own integrity. The second is that it sets a wretched example for one's child, whose welfare is a significant part of a good parent's happiness.
How does tax evasion damage one's integrity? After all, if the government is wrong to take one's money without permission, how could it be a problem to take steps such as these to keep thieves away from it? Is it not rather an act of heroism in the tradition of the righteous pirate Ragnar Daneskold of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged?
People who look for the problem in the relationship between the taxpayer and the government confuse the issue and ignore the fundamental facts of individual human psychology. The issue is not that the government or the relationship are illegitimate or evil, and as such can or should be harmed.
The issue is that any lie, any deception, any evasion corrupts the integrity of the person who engages in it. In the cases described above, there are several lies being told ("I am an honest, upstanding citizen who pays taxes but has a dependent child who has a private bank account that she doesn't access and that I use for my own expenses."). There is the further evasion of the knowledge that this is in fact an instance of dishonesty, upon which a veneer of respectable rebelliousness and self-righteousness is painted to ease a reproachful conscience.
Part of the harm that comes to me when I am literally forced to lie when my life or vitally important values are threatened, is that I now have to live with the falsehood a hole in my integrity. The human mind needs wholeness and consistency in order to thrive; the mere fact that I made a hole in it in order to avoid some greater evil does not entail that there is no hole.
Consider an analogy. If I will die unless I have a heart transplant, I thank my lucky stars that I live in an age when such a procedure is possible. But the mere fact that the transplant will save my life does not erase the fact that the surgeons will damage the integrity of my body I will still have to recover from shock, sawed bones, slashed arteries, and weight loss. The trade off is certainly worthwhile in this case. Similarly the trade off is worthwhile if I can scare off a would-be attacker by telling him that I have a gun. Nonetheless, the mere fact that I lied for a very good reason does not erase the fact that I lied.
In extreme cases, extreme measures are required. It is just as right to lie to an attacker as it is to go ahead with a transplant. But just as I cannot fool my body into being whole by going for a brisk run the day after surgery, so I cannot fool my mind into integration by going about my honest business after I lie. In both cases, definite courses of action are necessary to heal the wound.
Unfortunately, it is uncommon for people to take seriously the damage done to their souls; most people do not believe any damage is done, especially if they can tell themselves that the lie was for a good cause. Since they can still go for a brisk run or write an essay the day after they tell a lie, it seems that no harm is done at all. And the more lies they tell, the more evidence they collect that they can feed falsehood into my mental world without ill effect. In fact, the lying gets easier every time!
All this is bad enough for average amoralists, who have not yet realized that ethical principles are necessary for a healthy mind; at least these people can assure themselves that dishonest behavior is not forbidden as far as they are concerned, and an odd sort of integrity is preserved in other words, it is an honest mistake. For people who have accepted ethical systems which include honesty and integrity not just as psychological facts but as fundamental principles and goals, the consequences are much worse. They have purposely introduced falsehood into their minds, they are aware that they have done it, and they are aware that their ethical systems forbid it.
Beware the righteous lie, especially the chronic righteous lie, such as must be maintained in order to evade taxation. You don't get something for nothing, ever.
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