I was out getting my mail one day not long ago when I noticed several of my neighbors in the street talking. I stepped across the street to be neighborly and see what the neighborhood gossip might be.
“Hey, let me tell you about the new idea we’ve been talking about,” said Karl. He’s sort of the intellectual in our neighborhood. I’m not sure what he does, but he spends a lot of time at the library working on a book. “We’ve decided that we need a neighborhood swimming pool for our street. I figure we can have it ready to go by the time it’s warm enough in the spring.”
“Sounds great, Karl,” I said, “but wouldn’t that be pretty expensive?”
“None of us can afford it alone,” Karl said, “but if we put our resources together, it shouldn’t be so bad.”
The other folks all seemed to think it was a good idea, so I told him I might be interested if the price was right. They told me they’d let me know what they figured out, and I went back home.
A few days later, there was a knock at my door. It was Karl and a couple of his friends.
“I have great news,” Karl said. “We took a vote and decided to move ahead with the community swimming pool project. We’ll be letting you know how much you owe as soon as we have the figures all put together. Isn’t that great?”
I admit that I’d liked the pool idea, but I was a little miffed that they had decided without me, so I asked why I wasn’t involved in the vote.
“We were sitting over at my place talking about it and there were six of us there,” Karl said. “Since there are just 10 houses in the neighborhood and all six of us agreed it was a good idea, that was clear right there. Six out of 10 were already in favor, so majority rules and we’re going to do it. You’ll love the plan we have picked out.”
I thought about it for a minute and it didn’t sit well with me, but Karl was right. Everybody knows that majority rule is the only fair way to decide anything. It really wasn’t the greatest time to pitch in on a project like this, but since I was only one of 10, I could find a way to foot 10 percent of the bill. So I didn’t object any further.
About a week later, I noticed Karl and some of the neighbors marking off the spot for the pool with somebody I didn’t know, so I stepped over to see how it was coming.
“The doors to the clubhouse will open here to give better access to the area for the loungers,” the stranger was saying. “I can arrange it so everybody in the pool will be able to see the big-screen TV from that area so they can watch and soak up the rays at the same time.”
I was introduced to Billy Bob, who I was told was the contractor selected for the job.
I told Karl and Billy Bob that I was surprised to hear talk of a clubhouse and big television and such. I thought we were just building a nice little swimming pool.
“That’s what we were thinking at first, too, but Billy Bob here has shown us we were thinking too small,” Karl said. “It turns out that all the neighborhoods building pools these days include a clubhouse. We couldn’t afford to be seen as not keeping up with the latest trends, you know. Besides, that’s what the majority wanted. I figured you’d agree, but since the majority already agreed, did it really matter?”
I admitted that he was right. Everybody knows that majority rule is the only fair way. And I had liked the pool idea. I wasn’t happy about seeing the cost rising, but I was still only one of 10 houses, so I could deal with paying a tenth of the cost. I didn’t see how some of the other families were ever going to be able to afford it, though. Several people were unemployed because of the bad economy and a couple more had really low-paying jobs. But I figured if this is what everybody wanted, they’d all figure out how to pay their tenth of the cost, too.
Billy Bob said the project was going to cost about a million dollars, which was far more than I’d ever expected, but I figured I could swing the $100,000 somehow. I have the nicest house in the neighborhood and I do pretty well for myself, so if they could do it, I’d find a way, too.
Just two days later, Karl came to my door again.
“Hey, we’re ready to start work on the pool project, so I’m going around to collect the checks,” Karl said.
I’d been expecting it, so I was prepared. It hadn’t been easy to re-arrange my finances and find the $100,000, but I’d done it without borrowing. I was happy about that part. I told Karl I just needed to know the exact amount. Karl looked at the paperwork he was holding.
“Well, according to this, your portion comes to $700,000,” he said.
I thought I’d heard him wrong, so I asked him to repeat that. He did, but I still heard the same number. I told Karl that I was confused. Surely the pool’s cost hadn’t jumped to $7 million without me knowing about it. My one-tenth share of the $1 million budget should only be $100,000.
“Well, that’s just not the way it works, you know,” Karl said. “The cost is $1 million, but we use what’s called progressive taxation in figuring what everybody owes. Five of the households don’t have much income right now, so we’re not asking them to kick anything in. You make the most money and you live in the biggest house, so it’s only fair that you pay for most of it. I mean, you can afford it and we can’t. It’s only fair.”
My head was spinning. I wasn’t prepared for shelling out $700,000, but even more than that, I couldn’t understand why I was paying 70 percent of the cost, but I only had 10 percent of the say in what was done.
“You can’t expect the little guy to pay for things,” Karl said. “It’s only fair that we take from everybody according to what he has and what he earns. Everybody knows that. And since the top 10 percent pay 70 percent of the taxes in the country, it’s clearly fair.”
I pointed out that I didn’t have 70 percent of the decision-making, so that didn’t seem right.
“One man, one vote,” Karl said. “Everybody knows that’s the only fair way. When it comes to money, progressive taxation is fair. When it comes to power and voting, you can’t have any more say than anybody else. You wouldn’t want people to think you were greedy, would you?”
I told Karl that I definitely didn’t want anyone thinking I was greedy. He was right in everything he said. The tax system takes money according to how much you make — and punishes earning money — but power went to everyone equally, whether they paid anything or not. It must be fair and just. Everyone said so.
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” Karl said. “That’s all you need to remember. Hey, I like that. I think I’ll use that in my book.”
I realized that Karl was right. Majority rule was fair. And it was only fair that rich people like me paid our “fair share.” I’d have to borrow money so the free-loading neighbors could use the pool. I could see already that they were going to be using it more than I was, because I was going to have to work harder to pay, while most of them had little or nothing to do.
But the more I thought about it, I realized this was right in line with the political principles this country is all about. I couldn’t object or I’d be nothing but a greedy man who wanted to keep his own money.
Majority rule was the only right and moral way. Everybody said so. I’d always believed it. So surely this was fair. Right?