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8/25/2004

Taxation as Slavery

At this otherwise uninteresting post at Reason's, blog, where the comments are now closed, commenter raymond m makes the trite libertarianism that income taxes are slavery. Here is his comment in full:

slave 1. A person who is held in bondage to another; one who is wholly subject to the will of another; one who is held as a chattel; one who has no freedom of action, but whose person and services are wholly under the control of another.

slavery 1. The condition of a slave; the state of entire subjection of one person to the will of another.

2. A condition of subjection or submission characterized by lack of freedom of action or of will.

Bondage 1. The state of being bound; condition of being under restraint; restraint of personal liberty by compulsion; involuntary servitude; slavery; captivity.

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.

Is the taxpayer subject to the will of another? Does he have freedom of action insofar as his services are concerned? If he fails to provide the service the state requires, does he risk being wholly under the control of another?

Must he submit to the the will of others? Is he restrained, compelled?

And when the draft is reintroduced (and there is talk of this)...

Comparing taxation to slavery both demonizes a necessary government power while diminishing a real moral atrocity.

How is taxation as it is practised in most countries a "necessary government power"?

Do governments get their just powers from the consent of the governed?

The legitimate powers of a government come from putting into a common pot certain natural rights which the individual may not be able to exercise fully. The individual still holds these rights, but he lends them to his agent, the government. (Paine)

Can a government legitimately do what the individual cannot?

If an individual steals from me or forces me to work for him, isn't this an "atrocity"? If the state does it, is it any less atrocious?

Does the fact that one is not aware of the violation of his fundamental rights or acquiesces to it make the violation any more acceptable?

There are degrees of horror. I'll grant you that. But any persuasive argument in favour of the sort of taxation you people are talking about can, with little difficulty, be extended to the question of the draft. And the draft is, in my opinion, about as horrendous a moral atrocity as is possible to imagine.

Comment by: raymond_m at August 25, 2004 05:27 AM
The italicized wisdom is mine. First, an outline of the rebuttal to this argument.

1. Taxes do not violate property rights. Property rights are dependent morally on reliance interests, and actually on the provision of a government remedy for violation. There is no property right to something if the government doesn't sanction one's domain over it. Taxes do not take away a legally cognizable property. At worst, it is damnum absque injuria.

2. Taxes are in fact essential to maintain the regime of property rights. There are no property rights without government activity, and that activity needs to be funded. This is part of the rationale underlying progressive taxation: those who benefit most from the contours of our property protection regime can be fairly expected to pay for their significantly larger benefit.

3. "Redistributive" taxation is not redistributive, it alters the initial distribution. Because there was no initial entitlement to the taxed revenue, it was never distributed to the taxed person.

4. Social programs are part of the regime that strengthens property rights. All social programs have one background goal that strengthens property rights: increasing domestic stability. They have disparate particular goals that strengthen property rights: encouraging ownership, enhancing education, combating crime, improving public health. This compromise was much more clear to Scoop Jackson Democrats who used the war on poverty as an anti-communist strategy. It is the idea of interest convergence, explained by Derrick Bell.

The argument can be deepened, but it is not even particularly radical, except in the age of free-market fundamentalism, where our contingent, fairly arbitrary economic system is believed to be derived from tablet. For moderate formulations, see Sunstein and Holmes, The Cost of Rights, or Murphy and Nagel, The Myth of Ownership. Also see Hohfeld.

Now to the particulars of raymond m's argument. He begins with a definition of slavery. This is nice, but irrelevant except as a rhetorical introduction to a semantic argument.

He then proceeds with what he thinks are a series of questions with obvious answers. Is the taxpayer subject to the will of another? He must assume that the answer is obviously yes, but it isn't nearly so clear. First, our government is at least moderately democratic, which implies a degree of self-governance, which blurs the self/other dichotomy as applied to government. Two, he must somehow suppose that it is possible not to be subject to the will of another. If one person decides to violate your interests, however defined, a person is subject to the will of another. Even the threat of such a violation entails subjection. Richard Hale still has the best formulation of this argument. Does he have freedom of action insofar as his services are concerned? Yes. Unless one adopts a theory of freedom derived from natural law or a problematized theory of freedom like that in Hale, there re no impediments to his freedom, merely higher costs associated with it. If he fails to provide the service the state requires, does he risk being wholly under the control of another? Presumably, this means can he be incarcerated for not paying taxes. Yes, but he can also be incarcerated for infringing private property interests, through the state. Does this make every person the slave of property holders? In a sense, yes, it does, but only in a sense that trivializes slavery. The two remaining questions are redundant.

The draft is a separate question, one I would be happy to debate. I have largely mixed feelings about it.

How is taxation as it is practised in most countries a "necessary government power"? It's contours are contingent, but its existence is necessary. Do governments get their just powers from the consent of the governed? In a sense, yes, that legal construct is the source of governmental legitimacy. That legitimacy is what makes taxation distinct from slavery.

The legitimate powers of a government come from putting into a common pot certain natural rights which the individual may not be able to exercise fully. The individual still holds these rights, but he lends them to his agent, the government. (Paine) I like Paine, more than anyone I know. But to read him thusly is painfully anachronistic, not to mention out of context. Libertarians affix the libertarian ethic of Paine to the moral sensibilities of John Adams, producing a Frankenstein monster. Paine's libertarianism was coupled with a radical support for democracy, he was a major player in the French revolution, and he was branded a scoundrel by the original Federalists.

Can a government legitimately do what the individual cannot? Yes, of course it can. People can negotiate about property interests, they can't define or create them, which government can and does do. If an individual steals from me or forces me to work for him, isn't this an "atrocity"? For theft, not necessarily. It may be an injury, but it is just entirely possible that it is a legal injury without real harm. Forced labor is somewhat different, though the idea of wage labor isn't terribly different from this, absent a guaranteed minimum income. Both are bad, but their wrongness is relative, and neither describe taxation, which is neither theft nor forced labor. Does the fact that one is not aware of the violation of his fundamental rights or acquiesces to it make the violation any more acceptable? There is no violation of fundamental rights, the only fundamental rights are those protected by the constitution (which was amended to allow income taxation, if anyone wants to fall back on an enumerated rights position), and of course acquiescence to rights violations changes their character. It's called consent, which makes an activity not a rights violation. A person may have an exclusive right to property, but if they let someone else borrow it, they aren't having their rights violated.

There are degrees of horror. I'll grant you that. But any persuasive argument in favour of the sort of taxation you people are talking about can, with little difficulty, be extended to the question of the draft. And the draft is, in my opinion, about as horrendous a moral atrocity as is possible to imagine. I disagree that the draft is a moral atrocity, but the analogy here is inapposite, so we don't need to go there. The draft entails military service, which enters a whole new discussion about the prudence of militarism.

Another commenter had this to say:
Hey Dave - nice blather that ignored every point I made, but pretended to address them. Do you practice at such evasion and smearing, or does it simply come naturally to you?

Come on - if you are going to take the perspective of the House Slave and try to justify the actions of your slave master to a bunch of abolitionists, at least present an ARGUMENT. As it stands, you post's reliance on logical fallacies simply indicates you do not have a leg to stand on - and that you KNOW it.

In other words, you abdicate the argument without ever participating in it.

Thanks :)

Being generous, and assuming you are merely ignorant of the link between slavery and taxation, I will suggest you try reading. On this topic, a good read is from - gasp - an ACTUAL slave - Frederick Douglass. He makes quite clear the fundamental link you 'poo poo' with your off handed and unjustified dismisal.

Comment by: RadCap at August 25, 2004 06:51 AM
I hope this contribution counts as "participating" in the argument. The most frustrating thing about arguing with libertarianism is how they cloak their fundamentally emotional, sentimental arguments in a rhetoric of reason, fact and rights. Given their detachment from reality, their "idealism," to put it charitably, they are more reliant on appeals to visceral sentiment than either liberals or conservatives.

 

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