Is It Better to Be Free in Hell or Pay Taxes in Heaven?

Published on

Is It Better to Be Free in Hell or Pay Taxes in Heaven?

"Anyone who has a lot of information, thinks a lot, and by thinking increases his understanding of a situation will have not less but more trouble coming to a clear decision. To the ignorant, the world looks simple. ...Once we gather a little information, however, we run into trouble. We ... become more acutely aware [of] what we don’t know. This probably explains why we find so few scientists and scholars among politicians. It probably also explains why organizations tend to separate their information -gathering and decision -making branches. ... to provide decision-makers with only the bare outlines of all the available information so that they will not be hobbled by excessive detail when they are obliged to render decisions."

Dietrich Dorner, The Logic of Failure, 1988

Naturally, we Democrats aren’t doing very well at organizing in support of our goals for a better world: we’re Democrats. Democrats are by nature disorganized – largely because we are diverse, independent, curious, thoughtful, skeptical, compassionate toward all and loyal to the wider community. This lack of organization shows that with everyone participating we’ll naturally make good decisions for the good of the whole community. We only need to get the Truth out to those ignorant, misguided others ...

Er ... what about those others?

Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
Satan, speaking in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1667
What with immigrants stealing American jobs and tax dollars, Wall Street stealing our homes to pay executives, gays getting married, "death panels," forced abortions, intolerable taxes, plans to socialize health care, and a liberal media – to say nothing of a President with no birth certificate, wars and bailouts we can’t afford, the myth of global warming undermining the cheap energy we need for our cars, plastics, and air-conditioners, and the government pushing unfunded mandates down our throats, we’re living in Hell. But as long as we have guns, we call the shots: better to be free and armed in Hell than to serve in a socialist Heaven and pay taxes to the government.

* * *

We are social creatures, bound together by our dependence on one another. Our young are born helpless, and take years to learn the skills and technologies of living. The fundamental systems that make our lives possible are also social: language, writing, religion, trade, laws, money, governments.

Yet we’ve made ‘socialism’ and ‘socialist’ dirty words. We prefer the idea of ‘community’ – in the abstract. In practice, we’re pretty picky about it, especially when it impinges on our personal freedoms: at present more people seem to be bound together by the notion of "Taxed Enough Already" than by sharing a concern for people without health care.

What constitutes community? Does it include women, poor people, brown people, non-Christians, illegal aliens, gays, socialists, or people who don’t speak English?

Community falters when people believe they shouldn’t have to pay taxes for schools, safety forces, or environmental cleanups. Communities are damaged when people are forced out of their homes by predatory lending practices. There’s little community where children go hungry, or seniors can’t afford medicine. Community is badly skewed when everyone is free to carry a weapon and kill anyone they think threatens their life or well-being, but half the population is not free to terminate pregnancies that threaten their lives or well-being.

Somehow we have to find a way to live between the constraints community imposes on our individual freedoms, and the destruction of community by the pursuit of assorted freedoms, including freedom to exercise authority over facts and reality, to sell insurance and refuse claims, to exploit the resources of the planet.

So far, our efforts at participatory democracy and balancing freedom and community aren’t working. Collectively, we have neither the freedoms nor the communities we need to survive the consequences of our individual and collective actions. Unless we agree on some courses of action on global warming, energy, desertification, population, nuclear weapons, and war, one or another of them will do us in. Even worse, even if we agree, we risk choosing actions that won’t work.

No doubt our society is a mess – a vast cacophony of interests and values, cumbersome and ineffective political and social systems, profit-driven media and communications. We have no broadly shared vison of what a good society would be like, let alone Heaven. Too many of us find our society hellish – not the white men showing up with assault rifles at political meetings (they are having too much fun for Hell) but the poor, the jobless or homeless, and those excluded from the human family.

Martha C. Nussbaum, (in The Clash Within, 2007) has suggested that each of us needs to reconcile in our hearts the respective values of freedom and community: "...the real struggle [of] democracy is within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality ..." )

That’s only a start. We really need to make democracy work. It’s possible that some effective democratic systems will grow out of the technical revolution in communications – Internet, blogging, text-messaging and all citizen journalism. Democrats, for all their disorganization, look like a better bet for democracy, but not one that presently has much political or emotional appeal.

I take scant comfort in Dorner’s counsel. We as a national community aren’t making good decisions and are now on the cusp of deciding that the Hell of the present system of private health insurance is preferable to any government program, and that the Hell of war, torture and terrorism by poor brown people is best managed by war, torture and terrorism administered by affluent Americans.

Freedom or community? Domination or compassion? NIMBY or neighbors? Guns or taxes?

Caroline Arnold

Caroline Arnold retired in 1997 after 12 years on the staff of US Senator John Glenn. She previously served three terms on the Kent (Ohio) Board of Education. In retirement she is active with the Kent Environmental Council and sits on the board of Family & Community Services of Portage County. Her Letters From Washington has been published as an e-Book by the Knowledge Bank of the Ohio State University Library.  E-mail:

Share This Article

More in: