The Power Of Community And The Trap Of Opt-Out

from Seth’s Blog

In Colonial America, they had private fire departments. If you didn’t voluntarily pay your dues, the firemen wouldn’t put out a fire–they’d watch your house burn and make sure it didn’t spread to your neighbor’s house. [or this!]

While this is a vivid way to ensure that everyone pays their dues, it’s such an inefficient way to support the fire department that it was replaced with the smarter alternative: a smaller tax on everyone, automatically collected. Even if a few manage to avoid paying their share, the blanket protection, which also leads to fire inspectors and building codes, clearly makes the case for universal protection.

We don’t let citizens opt out of paying their taxes, because community works better when group consensus leads to group action. It’s more efficient to provide services this way, and far more important, it creates a culture of ‘us’, which changes behavior from selfish to generous.

There’s a balance, neither extreme works. It’s up to us to think hard about where the (unstable, hard to find) balance lies.

More here.

Posted in Ideas and tagged , , .


  1. Tiger Tyagarajan brings up a good point about stakeholders vs. shareholders. Gary Vaynerchuck, in his 2011 book The Thank You Economy, talks about the necessity of thinking people first in business and providing value and support to everyone. The best companies have always had this mentality, but we are leaving an age where the shareholder had too much power, and this adjustment is well needed. Stephanie Linnartz mentioned how you can now check into a hotel without seeing another human. I wonder what the social ramifications of that will be as even travel won’t guarantee social interaction. Alicia Tillman brought up how companies are taking a more holistic look when hiring, and people are more than their resume. It is an interesting grey zone that makes way potentially for some discrimination or biases and privacy concerns as employers take a deeper look into what makes them tick.
    I would agree with Dana Settle on the importance of EQ in a company, but I deeply disagree with “diversity on teams as a performance metric.” That would create a situation where a team hires less capable people because of their skin color at the expense of the customer and the consumer. It is also not genuine diversity. If there is a problem with racism on a team that isn’t going to be solved by quotas. I also don’t like how forced diversity treats people like numbers for the company’s diversity pie chart. Diversity is important because it exposes people to different ways of thinking. However, if it isn’t natural, it won’t have that effect and can divide people into groups instead of bringing them together.
    This is a corporate affirmative action, a practice that has been repeatedly proven incapable of providing results and detrimental to the individual accepted in the name of diversity. The problem is even greater amongst peak performers. We are lucky enough to have any genius mathematicians and we don’t need to artificially challenge the process for finding them because we are looking for a particular combination of races. Let the standard be a mathematical capability for mathematical genius, not the color of their skin. It can be easy to say that if someone is against equal representation, they think that one race or gender is lesser than the other. That completely misses the point. Race does not affect capability and should not be taken into account in the hiring process. But there is also more to life than race. A combination of other factors likely affects the outcomes of any group unrelated to their skin color. In gender, the most egalitarian, equal nations in Scandinavia have the least diversity of outcome despite opportunity equality. That’s because different genders, for better or worse, are biologically predisposed to like or dislike certain things. So boiling everything down to a metric of diversity hurts the company, the team, the individual, the race, the consumer, and society as a whole, and I disagree with Dana Settle.

    • I posted my response on the wrong blog post. Dont see a way to delete it, but here is the actual comment.

      I would agree with Seth that it is more efficient to provide certain services communally. As Seth says, we need to find a balance between independent freedom and community obligation. To approximate the appropriate balance, we need to define Seth’s culture of “us.” Who is us? Is it our family, friends, neighbors, nation, or simply a fellow human? Global thinkers might think we need to support all human beings, nationalists might think about America, libertarians might think of social institutions. Depending on the problem depends on how big the “us” is. America has the coast guard, not an individual navy for each coastal state. Townships have fire departments and police stations, for bigger crimes the state police, and the worst crimes the FBI, DEA, and rotating cast of other three-letter agencies. Looking back in history, we can see a trend of “us” increasing in scope and shifting in terms of who the “us” is.
      America’s social institutions encompass the social fabric that ties us all together and makes up civil society. Individuals would give their time and money to churches, clubs, foundations, ethnicities, and more. When individuals fell on hard times, they would find support in the community they helped to build. Today, we see decay in these institutions with potential causes ranging from political polarization and social media to increasing federal power and changing social standards. It is a complex issue with dire consequences. We see cries today for the socialization of healthcare, insurance, higher education, housing, and more, but go to an activist and ask them what they in their own lives to provide these services to people in need o those they care about. The answer always seems to revolve around the government not providing the service. That does not answer the question, and it is a circular argument. The same group proposes exorbitant taxes on the wealthy while being ignorant that they are not far off from the wealthy they despise. The secularization of “us” might be called for in America to create a sense of personal responsibility. Interesting, because in an age of polarization, the answer might be smaller, tight-knit, however, separated groups. Individuals are less inclined to make demands from their locality and feel a greater obligation to support one another. It would also change the rhetoric from “us” vs. “them,” the all virtuous oppressed against their vague nonexistent oppressors, to simply “us,” the people you know and love that you have genuine and human interactions with. When those social institutions thrive, they create better human beings and creates order.
      Social institutions cannot solve all issues, and this topic is far too large for me to do it any justice, and the challenges ahead for our institutions are great. However, if we want to continue in America with the constitution as intended, we need social institutions to survive. America was designed to have government coexist with social institutions formed by the people for the people as a check on government power. If we choose to forego social institutions and hand their responsibility to the government, we will surely be disappointed in the result.

  2. Taxes in America is a problem that is being faced everyday from both parties in the House of Representatives and Senate. In the beginning of the blog it hit me that the man was right in saying that if you were to not pay taxes to your county how do you expect them to help you when your in need. These taxes to the states, country, and county help with more than just paying people for there service to work. The taxes help with improvements in towns and roads while also putting up that stop light that everyone complains about never working properly. The United States is always fighting on how taxes are done because it is not equal for everyone and people in certain classes either end up paying more then others or less. If you think about it, why would it make sense for a middle-class family to pay the most taxes when the rich make plenty of money and poor has not enough to even eat at night. This country was built on helping everyone and the route we are going it is a me only mindset. No one likes taxes anywhere you go and that is the truth. If we think about how New Jersey is different from New York it has people wanting to buy less in New York due to the tax alone. I do not believe that there should be a universal tax but I do think that it should be based off how much you make a year because it is not fair for the rich to be paying less than everyone else. Money brings out a lot of bad in people and we see that everywhere we go. No one wants to pay others the money they earned but when you see the benefits it brings how can you think to not help out a little. Overall, taxes in the United States need to keep changing with the people but in a way that is efficient because as of now the route we are taking is not working. The rich are getting richer, the middle class is taking a beating and the poor is barely surviving. They say it is a totem pole, but the pole is not evenly distributed throughout.

  3. Seth’s post provides a wonderful perspective on the need for community and the part that taxpayers play in it. Even though we may not live in the times of townspeople voluntarily paying for the fire department, surely many of our taxpayers would prefer that. Seth is correct, group consensus leading and community action leads to a sense of us and less selfishness. However, there is definitely a fine line to the extremes.
    Taxes are without a doubt a necessary evil, as some may call it. Maybe a long time ago it was possible to just pay police or fire departments voluntarily. And they could watch your house burn or get robbed because you chose not to pay. But today taxes pay for much more then local response departments. For example, all of our roads and infrastructure across the country are paid through the taxpayers money. If we opt out of paying taxes, would we then be opting out of using any of the roads for transportation? Maybe someone that does not drive does not want to pay for the highways. But the foods that they purchase probably travel across those roads to get to their local supermarket. Another example is many empty nesters or adults without children feel as if their taxes should not be paid toward the education system. Although for us to advance as a country we need to educate the youth. If we all picked what we wanted to pay for, the country as a whole would not get anywhere.
    However, Seth is correct that there is a fine balance. We need to trust that our government that is in charge of the taxpayers money, are spending it in ways that will benefit our communities as a whole. In today’s times, I feel that local, state, and federal government’s sometimes have their own agenda, and may not spend money always in the best interest of community. This is sometimes what makes it a hard pill to swallow.

  4. This article brings to light a very individualistic mentality that I had never considered before. The Colonies’ early laws to enforce taxes, like that of allowing a non tax-payer’s house to burn down for not paying for such a service, are bizarre and yet not entirely surprising. Perhaps early America functioned as such due to their experimentation with power since their freedom from direct monarchical rule, however it seems to really exemplify an exaggerated version of current day US political ideals. While the point of the article was to express the benefit of viewing the country as a community and having a culture of “us”, it reminded me of all of the ways that the US isn’t a collectivism and the individualistic politics that have been discussed in light of the upcoming election. One could apply a similar perspective when considering America’s opinion of universal health care or other democratic-socialistic programs. It is interesting that the idea of community and paying taxes so that everyone’s safety is ensured is so welcomed in the case of fire safety and not of everyday well-being. As the article suggests we must find a balance between the extremes, however creating a culture of “us” can help “change[s] behavior from selfish to generous”.

  5. The power of community and the trap of opt-out is analogous to so many social welfare problems because it’s extremely broad and applicable to a wide variety of issues. The first thing that comes to mind when I consider the alternatives of group responsibility or opt-out philosophy is the concept of universal healthcare in the US. It begs the question of how far you can stretch the concept of collective responsibility before people start to cry socialism. It’s a curious problem because Seth Godin makes a compelling point for eliminating opt-out practices and supporting collective responsibility to increase the efficiency of funding programs and concepts that benefit the public and eliminate painful losses to individuals. Additionally, blanket tax collection and protection in the context of fire fighting makes perfect sense, so why not more extensive implementation extending to healthcare and other public welfare initiatives?

    The efficiency arguments alone for covering basic services that could easily be paid for and regulated through tax funding are abundant even if they aren’t a grand overarching universal healthcare plan fully funded with no copays. There is an intermediate use for these blanket protections that could help save on some huge expenses. One example that comes to mind is Ambulance Corp. fees. The model for ambulance emergency response is largely the same as police and fire departments in that they are accessed through 911 and dispatched via the same call center. It’s quite interesting than when you look at the costs of call response for each of the three emergency branches. The fire department responds and works free, the police respond to you at no charge, emergencies that require an ambulance can and will cost thousands of dollars and are rarely free. The evolution of collective funding and protection for the other emergency branches over time such as the Fire Department, which Seth directly references, are all the more telling of a deficiency in medical emergency response funding. I think applying this same funding structure to medical emergency response via ambulance and medevac would be beneficial to society as a whole and stop the common response of people who are grievously injured but choose to find alternate transportation to hospitals to avoid the expense of an ambulance.

    If the efficiency derived from blanket protection that Seth argues for can be applied to more functions and services, I believe that we would be able to scale back the overall tax collection for funding those services to a level lower than current service costs. This is making the assumption that the services aren’t abused but the gains from universally funding more public services can’t be overlooked when you consider the historical gains achieved from making these same changes to previously private services and opt-out style systems of the past. The trick would be to find the greatest value balance and determine what services would cost more if they became universally available. However, I think Seth’s argument merits consideration in the current climate of healthcare crisis and fear that have called into question the costs associated with the current medical service sector. The ideal community that would protect all aspects of public service might be unrealistic but the identification of key services that currently cost exorbitant amounts of money shows that there is plenty of room for improvement before creating an overly subsidized communal nation that would be closer to the socialist ideal.

  6. America’s taxes are a big problem that many people have to face every day. In the blog it was stated that when taxes are not being paid by most americans so it led to the question of what gives you the right to ask for help when needed by those who get paid from taxes such as police officers, firefighters, teachers, the government etc. Taxes help towns be fixed with roadwork and make sure that the country is running. America is always trying to find better ways for taxes to be paid in a more equal way that everyone could contribute and so it won’t be an issue. Obviously taxes are not easy and no one likes to pay them but as people who live in America must pay taxes and pay their share. Taxes should be paid on how much you make in a year not determined on how old you are, if you are single or how many kids you have, it should be based on how much can you provide to the community/government.

  7. Taxes are undeniably an important part in any working community. It is through tax revenue that all layers of government are able to complete their tasks and perform their duties. Although taxes play such a significant role in a functioning community, many people understandably do not like paying them. I hold the belief that some forms of taxation are merely theft placed under the guise of being necessary government revenues. Income tax, for example, is a concept which gets under my skin. How can income tax not be thought of as theft? Simply because I earned an income, the government has some sort of self-proclaimed right to reach into my pocket and rob me blind? And if I decide to not fork over a large chunk of the money that I went out and earned, then I get thrown into prison because I did not give Uncle Sam his cut. Property tax is another form of taxation which I find ridiculous. The mere fact that I have expressed my right to own property in a free country somehow warrants the government to take more of my income? It simply does not make sense to me.

    Although I have my gripes about some forms of taxation, I still hold the belief that some taxes are completely necessary and are therefore absolutely justified. The example in Seth’s Blog with the fire department is a great example; it is best that everyone pays a tax in order to have universal protection by a service that the community pays for. It is also imperative that the government receives tax revenue for technological advancement, space exploration, disease control and prevention, and an efficient social safety net. How much tax revenue the government receives and how the money is allocated is a topic which is often disputed.

    Even though the government collects massive amounts of money from tax revenue, somehow, the government manages to muddle their responsibilities. When COVID had started, the government was not prepared to handle the outbreak. Hospitals did not have enough beds or ventilators; there was an overall shortage of supplies needed to assist those who were affected by the virus. One might ask: even though you have collected tens of thousands of dollars in taxes per year, from a single middle-class family alone, you still do not have enough equipment in hospitals to take care of people in an unprecedented event such as this one? Where did all the tax money go? What was it being used for? The government never provides answers to critical questions such as these. In New Jersey, it seems to me that tax revenue is often pocketed by greedy politicians who only act with their own self-interest or it is used to repave the same stretch of road every year to make it seem like the money is being used effectively. I can tell it is the same stretch of road because it is always being worked on, traffic always piles up around that area, and even though that road in particular is pretty well paved, there are countless other roads that are cracked, broken, and have potholes that would throw my brother off his motorcycle if he goes over it the wrong way.

  8. Seth’s Blog post on taxes was very interesting to me. What he said about the fire department was a good analysis of why it is necessary to have taxes mandatory, “If you didn’t voluntarily pay your dues, the firemen wouldn’t put out a fire–they’d watch your house burn and make sure it didn’t spread to your neighbor’s house” While this is pretty extreme that they would watch their house burn, the principal is logical. Not paying taxes if we had the option to not, would just be simply selfish. Paying taxes builds a sense of community and benefits everyone as a whole, whether they realize it or not. Just like when they had private fire departments, if you were to not pay the sum of money you could not reap the benefits and you never know what could happen or when you may need it. Taxes benefit the community and significantly raise the standard of living. As much as everyone complains about paying taxes, as a society I do not believe we would be as advanced and well off if it were not for taxes. While many see New Jersey’s taxes as outrageously high, I think there are many aspects people do not realize that affect these tax costs. Being the most densely populated state in America, it costs a lot more to keep things running and keep the standard of living where it is. Without taxes, our country would suffer. Taxes allow the government to meet and keep the demands of our society. They contribute to economic growth, the health system, public education and so many other sectors of the government. Taxes undoubtedly strengthen our nation’s economy. Taxes provide communities with protection by funding the police and fire department as well as security on the national level. Without taxes I would not have been able to receive the public education that I did, which set the foundation for furthering my education and career. A lot of people are quick to complain and be angry about taxes, sometimes understandably so, but when you think about it we could not have a functioning society without them.

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