In his article, "Ethics and the Holidays," Jim Fedako makes a point that should be familiar to any libertarian worth her salt:
...when I advocate for the state to force my neighbor to pay for my desires, I am advocating for nothing less than theft. While I am not toting the gun, my well-armed partner, the state, is.
We've all heard it before, and we'll undoubtedly hear it again. But there's something about the whole "Taxation is theft!" thing that makes me uneasy. I mean, don't get me wrong: I think there's something very fishy about the way that societies around the world are presently organized, and I think that if we really sat down and asked ourselves how we really wanted to live with each other, we'd come up with an answer that would look a lot different than what we currently have. But there's something about simple "proofs" of our current order's evil nature that makes me uncomfortable. So in this post, I want to explore the idea that maybe things aren't as simple as the "Taxation is theft!" crowd seems to believe. I've touched on this issue before in this post and this post, but I wanted to give it a little more thorough a treatment here so I can either be done thinking about it or give myself reason to believe that I don't know what I'm talking about.
First, why might somebody think that taxation is theft? The answer is pretty simple. It's pretty safe bet that at no point in the past did any government official ever do anything productive with your land property on behalf of the government. It's also pretty certain that when your land property was incorporated into the United States government's territory, no one came over to the then-owner and said, "Hey there; would you like to sign your land over to the new State?" (That is, assuming that anyone even owned that land at the time.) The same thing is probably true of the land on which your workplace is located, and the land on which your firm's customers are located, and the land on which your suppliers are located, and so on and so forth. Aside from its declaration of sovereignty over all of that land, some might note that there is basically nothing that the government has done to generate any sort of claim to ownership of any of it.
And yet, when you get your pay check from work, you and your employer are expected to set aside a portion of your earnings to be sent to your overlords. The same thing happens when you buy something from someone else, when someone gives something to you, when you sell an ownership stake in a company, etc. If you refuse to do these things, you'll hear about it -- politely at first, and then a little more firmly, and so on until the next thing you know, you're sitting in jail for tax evasion and your relatives are ashamed that you would dare to be such a corrupt and unsavory fellow. On what grounds? Because the government claims the role of sovereign, and you'd better pay up. That sounds a lot like theft.
But we libertarians have grown accustomed to a pretty standard response: If you don't like it, then you should giiiit out! There are a number of replies to this assertion, but I want to look a little more closely at the intuition behind it, and ask, if I don't like it, should I really git out?
The first thing to notice about the "If you don't like it, you should git out!" line of thinking is that it seems to imply that you are voluntarily "in" some sort of group, and you are free to leave if you want. Usually, when we are told to git out for not liking something, it's because we're part of some organization or collection of people who are comfortable with the terms of their association, and don't want that status quo to be upset by some dissenter in the minority. Basically, the idea is, "Well we like things just the way they are, so if you want to do something different, go do it with someone else." This is the same line of thinking that leads people to confront anarcho-capitalists with the view that "If the State is so horrible, why don't you go move to Somalia?" Thieving or not, a number of people seem quite happy with their governments, and don't want their lives fundamentally altered by some overzealous social reformer trying to ram a particular conception of freedom down their throats.
In stark contrast, the "Taxation is theft!" line of thinking is predicated on the idea that your being "in" your current set of circumstances is very much not a product of your free choice. Government, it is supposed, has been forced upon you -- you are the victim of a hostile takeover! -- and in demanding to be rid of taxes, you are simply asking to be given back what was yours in the first place.
But is this really a fair appraisal of the way things actually happened? It seems to me that there is some serious room for doubt. Most of us do not live on land that was owned by our families since the establishment of the United States (or whatever country we live in). Somewhere along the line, we or someone who came before us purchased a piece of property which had been incorporated into the State, knowing full well that in doing so, we were entering into a set of arrangements with our local, state, and federal government. Between the original settlement of the land hundreds of years ago and the time we bought it (or our parents or benefactors did), there was almost certainly some expropriation, but it typically did not happen to us (or, typically, anyone we can point a finger at). In an important sense, then, we "came to the harm."
The proponent of the "Taxation is theft!" mindset may note, however, that even if everyone "came to" their relationship with the government, it nevertheless does not have a legitimate existence; its territorial claims are almost universally rooted in tacit submission at gunpoint, and so we ought to throw off the shackles of State servitude and build our future on the basis of voluntary associations. Not only is the State an illegitimate entity, they could argue, but it is the institutionalization of the violence of the many against the few. An enlightened and reasonable society would recognize that the State is evil -- a stationary bandit -- and cut it off at the roots.
But then we remember that life isn't necessarily about living in a theoretically ideal society. Jim Fedako opens his article with a perfect illustration:
It had to be the time of year. How else can I explain it? Regardless, there I sat in an inner-city recreation center, enjoying a children's holiday program when this thought disturbed the performance: I do not mind my tax dollars paying for this.
The reality is that for most Americans, this sentiment is not a strange exception. People are proud of their local public schools, professional sports teams, and state universities, though they pay out the nose for them whether or not they ever make use of their services; they laud the highway system and electricity infrastructure that is built and maintained for them with subpar quality and at exorbitant expense; they celebrate their homeless shelters and low-income housing, even if they sometimes actually perpetuate or exacerbate the very problems they were meant to solve; they take comfort in their state-run prisons, in spite of the astronomical recidivism rate, unconscionable inmate conditions, and incredible expenses; they feel safe because they know that they are protected by their police force and military, even though the majority of people targeted by both groups are innocent of harming anyone. They don't want to live in a grand social experiment; they want to live the way that they're used to living. A case could be made for their being sheep-like in some ways, but the fact remains that if you take a sheep out of its pasture, it's still a sheep.
What's more, if asked how they would want to associate with each other if granted their freedom from the government, most would probably describe a set of social institutions very much like the ones they already know. So here's a question to consider: if most people would probably voluntarily form the kinds of communities they already live in if given the choice, are we so doctrinaire as to force them to go through the hassle of actually doing that? Can't we just let them keep the institutions they already have? If we don't like it, might it not actually be best to git out?
I think the answer would be a little more clear if gitting out were easier. As it stands, gitting out doesn't simply mean going off and finding an empty space in which to set up shop, out of the way of other groups. Let's say I moved into the forest somewhere with a few like-minded people and started up a community where we could live the way that we chose to. Presumably, that would be "gitting out" in the relevant sense. But if they wanted to, government officials could show up at the gates of my new community and demand to know when we were planning on paying taxes for all the transactions going on in our town. And heaven forbid we should start trading with the outside world!
If gitting out meant that I had to find an unoccupied space where I could live without bothering anyone, I think it's fair to say that if I live in a town where most people like their existing system of governance, then if I don't like it, I should git out. But if it meant that I would have to buy a plane ticket to Somalia, then I think it's pretty fair to cry foul. Why, the ardent libertarian asks, is it fair for the State to follow my into the forest and demand that I pay it taxes, even if I want no part in it?
And it's here that the crux of the issue comes back into focus: the "statist" would respond that it's because I live "in the State's territory." In our story, I just went out into the uninhabited forest and built a new life for myself where I was not materially impacting anyone. As a Lockean might say, I enclosed unowned land out of the commons by incorporating it into my plans and goals, where no one was using it in any appreciable sense before. So on what grounds does the State have a legitimate claim to the land I just settled?
Now, I'm generally hesitant to invoke Locke because I think that the vocabulary of the Lockean homesteading framework is often too clumsy to capture the nuances of plausible conceptions of property. But this seems like it's a paradigm case of Lockean engrossment -- that is, of someone staking a claim to a part of the commons that they cannot use for any productive end. In this case, we are implicitly saying that the State has claimed an ownership title to all of the land within a particular area, even though the agents and members of the State association have not so much as seen large swaths of that land (especially if we limit ourselves to living people associated with the State), never mind put them to productive use. As John Simmons writes in his essay "On the Territorial Rights of States":
...the spirit of Locke's theory of property is, I think, consistent with allowing that modest common holdings of land can be legitimated by the exclusive use of the commons by society's members for gathering, recreation, or shared activities, independent of any "common consent" to this that other societies may have given. What the spirit of Locke's account condemns--rightly, I think--is the familiar practice of states' declaring as the common property of their members (perhaps on the grounds of their "manifest destiny") vast and unused spaces, simply to facilitate defense or future settlement and expansion.
Of course, I don't expect any arguments to be won by appeal to something Locke or Simmons said. But I do think that it's important to consider whether it's really appropriate for those who consider themselves part of, say, the United States to want to follow dissenters into the forest and demand that they pay "their share" of taxes, or else ship off to Somalia. If a group of people didn't like the way that their society was organized, and sought to independently make a new life for themselves more in line with their own ideals, wouldn't it be sort of unbecoming to insist on having an active say in the way they did things, or to demand that they continue to contribute to the causes that we believed were important but that perhaps they rejected? Wouldn't it be sort of fair to compare something like that to the United States trying to tell Canada what to do, or demanding that its citizens pay taxes to the American government? I think the reasonable and civil thing to do would be to agree to part ways peacefully, and to seek interactions on mutually beneficial terms while keeping our hands to ourselves.
So in closing, it will be useful to wrap up what's been said so far. First, I pointed out that the "Taxation is theft!" case is kind of weak when we acknowledge that people voluntarily bought the land on which they live, and knew that it had been incorporated into the State before they bought it. I further suggested that because most people living in centrally ordered communities are perfectly happy with their social arrangements, and because destroying those arrangements would likely disrupt their lives in really undesirable ways, it might be best for dissenters to try to find their own way without demanding that everyone else change on their behalf. But finally, I argued that if people want to do that, then they should be allowed to without having the other members of the State following them and demanding that they still participate in State affairs and be subject to the State's rulings. In making these points, I hope that I have shown why the extremely simple way in which the issue of taxation was addressed in Fedako's article was inadequate, and that a more reflective stance would both acknowledge the importance and legitimacy of the centrally-funded children's program he was enjoying, and insist that while those who don't like it should git out, it's important that really we let them do that if they choose to.
Please see Brainpolice's response to this post on the Polycentric Order blog, and my reply here.