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Friday, January 07, 2011

Tom Woods Illustrates My Point Very Nicely

Over in a heated discussion at Free Advice, I am happy to say that Tom Woods has joined in to support my view that "taxation is theft" is a terrible libertarian argument for convincing non-libertarians, because it already assumes a libertarian view of the State, and is therefore circular.

Tom makes an analogy to slavery: Of course, he points out, arguing "slavery is kidnapping" to, say, Aristotle goes nowhere. Aristotle is simply going to respond, "No, kidnapping is taking someone who has the right to be free against their will. But, as I have shown in my writings, slaves do not have that right."

To argue against the pro-slavery person, it does no good to keep saying "Slavery is kidnapping." No, what one must argue is, "These people you treat as slaves, in fact, ought to be treated as freemen." Then you won't even need to make the kidnapping argument; it will be obvious.

And so it goes with "taxation is theft"; that only makes sense after one has already decided (for some other reason) that the State is illegitimate.

Thanks for the support, Tom!

9 comments:

  1. Astute comments.

    The issue cuts right to questions about philosophy of ethics.

    If two people (a libertarian and Keynesian, say) wanted to seriously debate, they would have to ask:

    (1) Is there an objective theory of ethics?

    If one person does not believe in objective ethics, then the debate is already over: it would become an argument about whether ethics is objective or subjective. Also, anyone who believes that morality is subjective can just appeal to David Gauthier's Morals by Agreement and come up with some contractarian theory in which, if a majority of people assent to living by certain rules, then this is perfectly defensible ethics.
    If one takes David Gauthier's Morals by Agreement as a method for ethics, then modern social democratic states already have a majority that supports basic principles like progressive taxation, so it appears to have ample justification.

    But the statement "taxation is theft" seems to require that some objective ethical theory is true, however, so:

    (2) If both people agree that ethics is objective, then what ethical system is true?

    Our morality cannot be justified by an appeal to nature: that is why most natural rights/natural law based ethics collapse, and why natural rights ethics in the Rothbardian or Randian tradition won't fly.

    In my opinion, the workable objective theories of ethics that are not obviously flawed are Rawl's human rights ethics, or rule consequentialism utilitarianism (as in Brad Hooker, 2000, Ideal Code, Real World, Oxford: Oxford University Press). Some claim that a modern form of Kantian ethics is defensive, though I have my doubts.

    Since taxes are levied to provide public goods and services (e.g., universal health care in all industrializied nations except the US), it is not difficult to justify them morally under Rawl's human rights ethics or rule consequentialism.

    Also, since in every ethical system some values will conflict, where does human life and the preservation of human life rank in these systems?

    The belief that taxation is theft obviously implies that property rights are absolute or at least high in value. But why on earth should property rights rank above human life? Under rule consequentialism even the initiation of force involved in taking wealth might be perfectly justified, e.g.,

    (1) If a village of 100 people has one well which is in the possession of one man, who suddenly refuses to give water to anyone else, and there is no rain or any other water and people are dying of thirst, can the dying people use force against the man (but not kill or wound him) to take what water they need just to survive? (leaving him of course with his proper share).

    If a person said "no," I would conclude that the person is morally bankrupt (since I regard rule consequentialism as defensible theory). If yes, then it is obvious that rule utilitarianism allows the use of reasonable force to take some reasonable amount of property, if people's lives or welfare are at stake.

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  2. "If a person said "no," I would conclude that the person is morally bankrupt (since I regard rule consequentialism as defensible theory)."

    Although I'm not a rule utilitarian, you are absolutely correct -- theories of absolute property rights are morally abhorrent. (Aquinas reached the same conclusion as you without being a rule utilitarian, btw.)

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  3. Out of genuine interest, do you

    (1) Think there is a convincing objective theory of ethics, and

    (2) What theory do you support?

    My own review of ethical theories as applied to economics is here:

    http://socialdemocracy21stcentury.blogspot.com/2010/10/economics-and-ethics-brief-survey.html

    Regards

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  4. "And so it goes with 'taxation is theft'; that only makes sense after one has already decided (for some other reason) that the State is illegitimate."

    While I understand your broader point, I disagree with this statement. That taxation is theft follows once one has concluded that a state has no claim on its people's resources.* A state's legitimacy, in turn, depends in part on whether it perpetuates itself through theft. The dispute boils down to a debate about property rights: who is entitled to what, and subject to what qualifications?

    (Of course, if one defines "state" as an entity that—in addition, that is, to other attributes—has the right to claim a part of the resources of its people, then the conclusion that an entity is a state indeed destroys the "taxation is theft" argument. But one must still settle the property-rights issue in order to determine whether an entity is a state, and so the result is the same.)

    * — In using the term "people's resources," I mean only to denote the things they possess, or would possess in the absence of taxation. Hence even a stolen watch is, in my usage, a "resource" of the thief (albeit an increasingly obsolete one)—the phrase speaks to the issue of actual control, and not any normative question of property rights.

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  5. I am sure I am a rare case but the argument that taxation is theft did convince me to abandon statism.

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  6. "And so it goes with 'taxation is theft'; that only makes sense after one has already decided (for some other reason) that the State is illegitimate."

    While I understand your broader point, I disagree with this statement. That taxation is theft follows once one has concluded that a state has no claim on its people's resources.* A state's legitimacy, in turn, depends in part on whether it perpetuates itself through theft. The dispute boils down to a debate about property rights: who is entitled to what, and subject to what qualifications?

    (Of course, if one defines "state" as an entity that—in addition, that is, to other attributes—has the right to claim a part of the resources of its people, then the conclusion that an entity is a state indeed destroys the "taxation is theft" argument. But one must still settle the property-rights issue in order to determine whether an entity is a state, and so the result is the same.)

    * — In using the term "people's resources," I mean only to denote the things they possess, or would possess in the absence of taxation. Hence even a stolen watch is, in my usage, a "resource" of the thief (albeit an increasingly obsolete one)—the phrase speaks to the issue of actual control, and not any normative question of property rights.

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  7. "That taxation is theft follows once one has concluded that a state has no claim on its people's resources.* A state's legitimacy, in turn, depends in part on whether it perpetuates itself through theft."

    Fine, but you can work from its legitimacy to its claim on people's resources, e.g., IF the State is vital to social order, THEN every member of society has an obligation to support it, and THEN it has a legitimate claim to people's resources.

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  8. I don't doubt it happens, nothing. And the argument "property is theft" has no doubt turned some into communists as well. Whether an argument is good and whether it works are separate questions.

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  9. I suspect this works fairly often with certain people -- namely, among Americans who have a gut feeling that their government is crooked. They already accept a tacit premise that might actually be clarified by encountering the the notion that taxation is theft. It's possible to work one's way up -- if that's really the right direction -- from an empirically, if anecdotally, grounded distrust of government to libertarianism and mock-philosophical Lockeanism.

    Unfortunately, political opinions arrived at in such a slipshod fashion probably won't stand up to a serious intellectual test. The ease with which many young people go from realizing that something is wrong with their society and government to becoming libertarians or anarchists reminds me of a friend of mine who was a quick, enthusiastic convert to evangelical Christianity. He was dazzled by crude theology because he had never studied anything like it before. (He was an engineer.) But once his studies in other fields taught him to reason more rigorously, he lost all faith and became an outspoken atheist. A more supple and sophisticated theology would have stood his faith in better stead.

    A quick hit of stripped-down Lockeanism is maybe not the best way to make reliable converts to libertarianism, even if it seems to be good for short-term numbers.

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