There’s an argument you get a lot from either Libertarian-types or Republican economic-conservative types in general, which goes something like, “My money’s my money, and it’s not only a bad idea (in a pragmatic way) for the government to take it, it’s morally wrong.” The argument is that taxation is non-consensual taking of money with the threat of force, and as such, is no different than any other non-consensual taking of money with the threat of force … theft, in other words.1
I’m not interested in arguing whether or not progressive taxation is a good idea, or whether higher or lower tax rates are the way to go … not here, anyway. I’m just addressing this argument, that taxation (especially progressive taxation) is morally suspect.
My argument is essentially that America is a club, with a membership fee.
It’s a club dedicated to wealth creation.2 Members of this club get access to an infrastructure and institutional support that allows for better wealth creation than most similar ‘clubs’ around the world, but as part of that, the club charges a fee.
Now, the good news is, the fee charged varies with how well the club’s methods have worked for the wealth creation of the individual … they only start charging larger fees when the club’s program is really successful for someone.
And, if it turns out that you don’t like your membership, you’re free to leave the club at any time! The only thing you can’t do is take advantage of the infrastructure, security, and programs the club offers without paying your membership fee. You can’t be a free rider, in other words.
The most obvious objection is, “hey, I never signed up for any damn club.” And that’s true. By virtue of the way countries work, most people are born into one, rather than going country shopping and choosing carefully.
That having been said, I think that this is where we discuss childhood, a period in which you learn the rules of the club, bear few of the costs, and receive only a limited set of the club benefits.
During this period, your, “trial membership,” to the club, you learn when a full membership will accrue, what the benefits are, and what the costs are. You get to test-drive membership for 18 years. There are no secrets or surprises. You get a trial period in which you learn the rules. You get an opportunity to decide to live elsewhere.
If, granting all of that, the club works out really well for you, you make a lot of money, and the club bills you for your membership … well, it’s hard to muster much sympathy. If you keep living here and reaping the benefits, you’ll be expected to contribute to the upkeep.
The crux of my argument is that there are arrangements much like the governmental arrangement that exist (or might reasonably exist) as a matter of private initiative, and that Libertarians generally find these arrangements unproblematic.
Another argument for the involuntary/morally suspect nature of taxation is that the cost of changing country (or government) is so high that it ought not be considered a voluntary option. I’m somewhat sympathetic to this, but I have to ask those who agree with this argument whether they consider most work arrangements voluntary?
I have no hard data on this (of course), but I’d wager good money that the number of people who would like to relocate to another country but are stopped by the cost of doing so are absolutely eclipsed by the number of people who would like to leave their jobs but are stopped by the cost of doing so. More people feel, “trapped in their jobs,” than, “trapped in their country.”3 So, yeah. If you’re arguing that it’s involuntary for me to go to work every morning, maybe I agree, but I’m surprised that you’re4 making that argument.
The second argument is that even if the individual were to decide to change location, there are no ‘cost-free’ or non-taxing alternatives … from a libertarian point of view, you must choose between taxation and … taxation. Thus, the availability of relocation is immaterial.
Unsurprisingly, I don’t find this very persuasive either, in terms of determining how voluntary things are. The fact that nobody will give you a corned beef sandwich for free doesn’t make it somehow involuntary when you buy it. Nor does it make it more involuntary if all available food costs money.
The final argument goes to the initiation of force. “Wait, Myca! A simple club doesn’t have armies and policemen and the IRS ready to KILLLLLLL you if you skip out on paying its dues!”
My response? Sure it does. If you commit theft of services or trespass (which is what continuing to use club facilities without paying club dues is), then you’ll be arrested. Because a private actor will rightly consider your actions the initiation of force, and will respond by getting the government involved. My understanding has always been that Libertarians stood in favor of government protection of the enforcement of private contracts. The fact that your health club doesn’t have armed guards doesn’t mean that they can’t get some there with a single phone call. This is a distinction without a difference.
Please do not comment unless you accept the basic dignity, equality, and inherent worth of all people. (And please keep this on topic)
- For examples see Taxation is Robbery or Nozick’s Parable of the Slave [↩]
- Note to my friends on the left: I’m not saying this is awesome, but I think it’s true. [↩]
- This only goes for countries like the US in which emigration is essentially unrestricted. I’ll happily agree that North Korean taxation is theft. [↩]
- The “Libertarian you.” It’s like the “royal we.” [↩]