My gift to you may be qualified

Let us say I have a mansion in the Hamptons. I'm feeling generous and decide to give it to you, but on a condition: I may have the use of it 10 weekends a year.

Certainly there is nothing unjust about me coming to use the house on those ten weekends, correct? In fact, if you try to deny me the use of the house, it would be you who is in the wrong, and I would be justified in using the law to make you to meet your obligation to me. And it would be utter nonsense if you claimed that in doing so, I was "stealing" your property "at the point of a gun."

Well, property rights are a gift to all of us from the civil order that we found pre-existing us upon our birth. As Rousseau notes, outside of civil society, property rights do not exist, and all we could have is mere possession: we have a good in the same way an animal has its kill, until someone stronger comes along and takes it from us.

The gifts we have received from the pre-existing civil order come with an obligation, and that is that we do our part to support it, by, for instance, paying taxes. As Clint Eastwood noted in El Dorado, failing to pay your taxes is the same thing as stealing. And if you steal, you shouldn't be surprised if men with guns get involved in your life.

66 comments:

  1. Do you ever wonder if you would have been an apologist for slavery?

    I don't ask this to be inflammatory. I've found your writings compelling regarding accepting reality as it stands and being pragmatic about promoting change. I've shared similar thoughts in debates about feminism.

    But I often end up feeling like I could have taken the same stance in support of slavery. There has to be something to counterbalance what is pragmatic with what is just.

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    1. Matt I don't understand: the whole point of this post was to show why taxation is just, not why it is pragmatic to pay up!

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    2. Or rather I should say, why taxation is not inherently unjust. Certainly some taxes and some levels of taxation can be on just.

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    3. "Certainly some taxes and some levels of taxation can be unjust"

      How do you draw the line between just and unjust taxation?

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    4. I meant pragmatic in the sense of "pragmatic politics" as you used it in your book. I see the radical abolitionism from times of American slavery (and modern radical anarchism) as being opposed to this.

      My concern is: couldn't this same line of reasoning have been used to show how slavery was not inherently unjust? It provided a stable civil order in which blacks and whites could coexist, conferring benefits to both (at least from one point of view). Obviously it's unjust to be unnecessarily cruel to your slaves...

      Tradition might tell us what type of society works, but can it tell us what is just?

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    5. How do you draw the line between giving your kids an appropriate level of chores and enslaving them? How do you draw the line between having a few drinks to relax and becoming a drunk?

      You use your best judgment.

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    6. Matt I believe I specifically dealt with the issue of injustice within a tradition in the book.

      But in any case, this post does not rely on tradition at all: I deliberately framed it in the style in which libertarians like to argue these issues.

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    7. "You use your best judgment"

      who do you think should make the judgement in the case of taxation? Are you in favour of democracy?

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  2. Gene, I think Matt is asking a good question. No, we're not saying, "Gene is a racist!!" But I definitely see his point, that the way you're dealing with an-caps could easily have been used by anti-abolitionists. E.g.:

    "These critics of our social order try to reduce complex political issues down to sound bites, like, 'It's horrendous to have men with guns hunt down other human beings who run away.' But my abolitionist friends have no problem if men with guns retrieve their runaway cattle when it strays onto another's property. So they should drop the emotional rhetoric, and acknowledge that we have a mere disagreement over property rights. They should stop making this a 'moral' issue. Everyone in the debate is moral, given the assignment of property rights each person believes in."

    You don't see how that's your side in the modern debate, whereas the Rothbardians in rhetoric are comparable to the abolitionists in the 1850s?

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    1. This is your excuse for not actually dealing with my argument above, which is entirely a *moral* argument?!

      Wow, I've really got you on the ropes, hey?

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    2. And a better comparison for Rothbardians is to Marxists in 1900.

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  3. How can the conditions of the mansion gift be unjust?

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    1. You're welcome.
      (should have left out "How" in the question)
      If it doesn't make sense to talk about unjust conditions when giving away a mansion, but it does make sense when talking about taxes, the property rights gift from the government must be different in some way, or?

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    2. No, the mansion gifter could be unjust: he could trash the place every weekend he stays!

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  4. This is really amazing: my argument above says nothing about "complex issues" or being pragmatic and not moralizing.

    This is a straightforward, simple moral argument: taxation is morally justified. Dodging taxes is morally culpable.

    How in the world does this get turned into "Gene, you are muddying the waters with this talk of pragmatism and complexity (neither of which I mentioned) and are ignoring justice!"???

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    1. Admittedly, my previous comment was not precisely on-topic and muddied the waters by attempting to generalize over several of your arguments. I had hoped to provide more value by focusing on the forest rather than the tree. For me the common thread is: could I apply this argument in defense of slavery?

      Most of us agree that "the gifts we have received from the pre-existing civil order come with an obligation" (even ancaps, for which the obligation is solely the respect of property rights). The point of contention is exactly what manner of civil obligation is just.

      If you are born a slave, are you obligated to remain a slave?

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    2. Is your slave-status a good you have received from civil society?

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    3. And see GB's comment.

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    4. Yes and no. The forced labor is the price you pay for the benefits you receive. Food, housing, protection.

      Goods that, as a black, you would otherwise be unlikely to secure (according to racist defenders of slavery at least).

      I hope this wasn't a clever trick to get me to be the one to defend slavery!

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    5. Matt, you are missing the entire central point of my argument above: you would have NO property if not for civil society. (And furthermore, you are always welcome to give up your property and leave it when you want to.)

      Would the slave have no ability to labor if not for the slave-owner? Does the slave-owner allow him to opt out any time he wants to stop getting all of the "benefits" of slavery?

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    6. Is the point essentially that civil society is more fundamental than property rights?

      If so, then why stop at property rights? Why do we even have the rights to our own bodies? In the state of nature, someone stronger could always come along and enslave us.

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    7. Yes, we only have property rights due to civil society. It is not a negation of property rights, it is a statement of their basis!

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    8. And yes, it is due to civil society that we have a right to be free from bodily interference. And that is why there is nothing wrong with modifications of that right by civil society, so that we might, say, be forbidden from selling our body for meat.

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    9. I'm with you so far.

      So why is slavery unjust?

      We could make an appeal to a lack of equality, as Mr. Bananas does, but equality is also not something that exists in the absence of civil society.

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    10. I must admit I am not following you at all Matt. We establish civil society to enhance the flourishing in liberty of individuals, through establishing things like property rights and freedom from bodily harm and constraint. Your question seems to be, "So why not use that institution to strip individuals of all their freedom and rights?"

      I don't get it.

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    11. What let's say I point out the parents are necessary to the existence of and important to the flourishing of children, and therefore there was nothing wrong with them asking the children to do some chores around the house.

      Your question seems the equivalent of "So then it would be ok to beat them, enslave them, and sell their bodies for sex?"

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    12. <>

      I'm a bit perplexed by this as well. If "civil society" can decide we should be free from bodily interference, upon what grounds should civil society be prevented from deciding that Group A is not free from bodily interference should they decide it necessary/desirable?

      As an aside, you did answer the question I raised in another thread:

      <>

      Social contract theory.

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    13. I did not say that civil society "can decide" we should be free from bodily interference: I said that it in fact is the creator of that right.

      I recommend civil society as it creates things like property rights and rights against bodily interference, that promote the flourishing of its members. You ask, "Ok, so why shouldn't it act to crush the flourishing of some of its members?"

      Well, duh, because then it would be negating the very reason for its existence?

      And I don't recall invoking any social contract anywhere here.

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    14. And yes Stephen, I address a previous question of yours in this thread. And I am happy to discuss it here. I just don't want any discussion I ever start to be open to everything I might ever have mentioned: I would have to duplicate my views again and again in dozens of threads!

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    15. My interpretation was that if civil society is creating rights it can create them however it sees fit. (Unless you are simply defining "civil society" to mean a society which creates rights in a certain manner.)

      Why doesn't this simply reduce to *might* (however society decides to define it) make right? What is inherent in *civil society* that says it exists to create property rights and rights against bodily interference that would apply equally to all?

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    16. I did not say that civil society "can decide" we should be free from bodily interference: I said that it in fact is the creator of that right.

      I recommend civil society as it creates things like property rights and rights against bodily interference, that promote the flourishing of its members. You ask, "Ok, so why shouldn't it act to crush the flourishing of some of its members?"

      Well, duh, because then it would be negating the very reason for its existence?

      And I don't recall invoking any social contract anywhere here.


      In other words, laws and rights are social in their nature. This is a matter of fact and not a statement that society is permitted to uproot these institutions all willy nilly. But the fact that it can't uproot these institutions at will doesn't imply these are "natural rights" as the navelgazers, uh, I mean "apriorists" would like to conclude.

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    17. "My interpretation was that if civil society is creating rights it can create them however it sees fit."

      Well, that interpretation was silly, ok?

      "I gift you my mansion: and to show your thanks, I get to live in it full time, plus I take over your house and you are my slave!"

      Civil society exists for a reason, Steve.

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    18. Paraphrasing the argument as I understand it:

      * We like civil society because it gives us things (including but not limited to individual rights) that promote the flourishing of its members.

      * Individual rights come from civil society, but so do the state and taxes. If you like the former you ought to accept the latter.

      * Slavery also comes from civil society, but we oughtn't accept it because it clearly runs contrary to the reason we like civil society to begin with.

      If I have this correctly, it seems that whether or not some institution is a product of civil society doesn't tell us much about its morality. Defenders of slavery argued that the institution was better for the flourishing of society, many even for the slaves themselves.

      Hence my question of how we know that slavery is wrong, without appealing to a stronger notion of individual rights than has commonly been held throughout most of history? Do we just learn through experience what amount of individual rights works best? (perhaps that's true, but it feels unsatisfactory)

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    19. No Matt not correct. Do you have time for me to ask you a few questions?

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    20. Yes, you've been charitable with me. Fire away.

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    21. Let us say you really love to fish but have no water on your property. Meanwhile there is a creek on mine. I say, "Matt, you can come fish in my stream, but here's the deal: one fish out of five you catch is mine, ok?"

      Does that seem fair?

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    22. Yes (given that we both accept that you can and do own the stream).

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    23. But let's say instead I let you fish, then I grab all five fish, chain you in the basement, and make you work for me. Does that seem fair?

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    24. Clearly that is not. That wasn't our deal.

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    25. Let's say I offered it to you as a deal: would you take it?

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    26. Right. Taxation is like my first deal, slavery like my second. I am wondering why you are having difficulty seeing that acknowledging the first deal is ok doesn't mean we have to accept the second one.

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    27. I might quibble with the analogy: in neither the case of taxation or slavery does anyone voluntarily accept the deal. They inherit the deal from the social order they are born into. If rights come from society then a slave has no starting premise of self-ownership, and thus no capacity to accept or reject such a deal. I am not sure if this is on point or just nit-picking at the limitations of the analogy.

      I fully admit that acknowledging taxation is okay doesn't mean we have to accept slavery. That logic only makes sense if our starting point is absolute and uncompromised individual rights, and you've done a great job pointing out how that starting point doesn't really hold up.

      But in the absence of absolute individual rights, is there a difference in principle between taxation and slavery? If so, what is that principle? If not, how do we draw the line such that taxation is okay and slavery is wrong?

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    28. Yes, there is a difference: the slave is threatened with physical violence if he tries to walk away from the "deal" he is "offered." But property owners are free to abandon their property and go live in the wilderness, untaxed, if they don't like their deal.

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    29. And from another viewpoint, we may look at it this way: the reason for civil society is to promote the flourishing of all of its members. But slavery hampers that flourishing, for both the slave AND the master. Therefore it is contrary to the ends of civil society to permit slavery.

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    30. If the difference is the ability to walk away from the deal, is that equivalent to saying that the principle of self-ownership takes precedence over any "deal" inherited from civil society?

      That would lead to the question of why we believe in self-ownership and not property rights, but I'm not equipped to debate that. I'm mainly interested if you would accept that any principle has primacy over the social order we inherit.

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    31. And from another viewpoint, we may look at it this way: the reason for civil society is to promote the flourishing of all of its members. But slavery hampers that flourishing, for both the slave AND the master. Therefore it is contrary to the ends of civil society to permit slavery.

      While we're on this subject, could you possibly do a post on how civil society and the promotion of human flourishing tie into the legitimacy/justification of government? The topic is interesting to me and you've touched upon it before in these three posts.

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    32. "the reason for civil society is to promote the flourishing of all of its members."

      So I was correct, you are simply defining "civil society" to mean a society which creates rights in a certain manner. My interpretation wasn't "silly," you're simply choosing a different set of priors and building upon it.

      "the slave is threatened with physical violence if he tries to walk away from the 'deal" he is "offered.' But property owners are free to abandon their property and go live in the wilderness, untaxed, if they don't like their deal."

      How is abandonment not effectively a 100% tax rate?

      The property owner has three choices:
      1. Pay the rate as provided by 'society.'
      2. Pay effectively 100% (abandonment).*
      3. Face physical violence.

      There's a reason that even people who rabidly oppose taxation still tend to pay it.

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    33. "So I was correct, you are simply defining "civil society" to mean a society which creates rights in a certain manner."

      Wow, so you say something completely different than what I said, and say that proves how you were "right": no, you first formulation of what I was saying was absurd. And this one doesn't even look the same! And neither is equivalent to the words you put in quotes!

      "How is abandonment not effectively a 100% tax rate?"

      Yeah, you don't like the deal that enables you to own property, then you don't get to own property! Why is that mysterious? Don't like your mortgage deal? Walk away from your house. But you can't both not pay your mortgage AND keep the house!

      And note, if you try to do both, you will "face physical violence."

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    34. I didn't say it, Gene, you did.

      "the reason for civil society is to promote the flourishing of all of its members."

      By this, can there be a civil society that doesn't promote the flourishing of all its members? You've simply defined away the issues I noted.

      Unless you are arguing that a 100% tax rate is just, then the choice is pay the tax as prescribed, pay an unjust tax, or face physical violence. This is not slavery but it certainly sets the stage for a less than equitable negotiation with the 'justness' resting on the 'civil society' constraint that may or may not operate in the real world.

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    35. I said what you quoted. I did not say the ridiculous meaning you assigned to what you quoted.

      "By this, can there be a civil society that doesn't promote the flourishing of all its members?"

      Ah! So if someone says to you "The reason for doctors is to heal their patients," you will say they have "defined away" the problem of bad doctors?!

      I really don't have time for such nonsense, Steve.

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    36. Never mind that you could just sell your property and pay way less than 100% taxes, what don't you get about the deal you are offered? Pay taxes, get property rights. Pay no taxes, get no property rights. Why do YOU think it would be just to opt out of your duty but keep the privileges that go with it?

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    37. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    38. {\rtf1\ansi\ansicpg1252
      {\fonttbl\f0\fnil\fcharset0 ArialMT;}
      {\colortbl;\red255\green255\blue255;\red34\green34\blue34;\red255\green255\blue255;}
      \deftab720
      \pard\pardeftab720\partightenfactor0

      \f0\fs26 \cf2 \cb3 \expnd0\expndtw0\kerning0
      \outl0\strokewidth0 \strokec2 Ok, Steven, I warned you, but since you seem determined to waste my time by repeatedly generating your own idiotic misinterpretations of what I have written: Bye!

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    39. Gene, I can assure you that I'm not trolling or trying to waste your time (or mine). If I take the time to participate in a thread, I'm trying to understand your position so I can learn.

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    40. Wow, weird code in that previous comment, hey?

      OK, one more time, Steven: I just explained to you why I am doing nothing like what you are saying I am doing. I gave you the same sentence I used, but with "doctor" substituted for "civil society." I asked does uttering this sentence mean one has defined "doctor" as "someone who always helps the patient. You recognized it does not.

      Well, substituting the word "civil society" for "doctor DOES NOT CHANGE THINGS! To declare that "the purpose of X is Y" DOES NOT MEAN that one has defined X as always achieving Y! If I say "The reason for starting a business is to make money," that does not mean I have "defined" anyone losing money as not being in business

      And, I find that you keep straining to put this interpretation on what I have written, when I keep telling you that is not what I meant, to be bizarre.

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    41. Steven, this post is inspired by our "discussion": http://gene-callahan.blogspot.com/2014/06/a-favorite-ideological-game-oh-so-what.html

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    42. With all the font references in the code, I assumed you might have found an avatar giving me ‘the finger.’ (chuckles)

      I’ve been thinking about this off and on today (rare slow day at work).

      First, let me clear up something. I am not an AnCap. I have very strong libertarian leanings and I spend a lot of time arguing from an AnCap perspective because I’m kicking the tires, so to speak. At this point, I would say I am undefined with a lean toward more limited governmental powers the larger its scope.

      Second, you are absolutely correct that not achieving an end does not negate the reason for attempting it.

      However, I would argue that substituting “doctor” for “civil society” does change things.

      As far back as the Hippocratic Oath we have a general understanding of the reason for doctors. They may or may not be good at achieving those ends but we have a general end in mind. Is that the case for civil society? Is there a centuries-long historical record that indicates the reason for civil society is to promote the flourishing of all its members? Not to my knowledge. In fact, anything that is roughly approximate to such an end is a very recent phenomenon in human history. Clearly, property rights existed long before society was ready or willing to work toward the flourishing for all members – or even consider it. Until very recently, this was pretty much standard operating procedure for humankind – and still is for a lot of the world. If the reason for *civil society* is to promote the flourishing of all its members then only recently and in limited places has there been *civil society.* (There is an argument that we’ve been trending in that direction…)

      So, when you give your reason for the existence of civil society, my first thought is that this is a new (relatively speaking) interpretation and one that isn’t exactly universal – and is subject to all sorts of problems even in the places that loosely operate by it now. History certainly seems to indicate that the governance of civil society is to provide for the flourishing of “us”( meaning whoever has the power).

      Now, if you want to argue that this *should* be the desired end of society I won’t argue at all but I will ask, “Why?” (Not to disagree but to hear your answer.) Upon what grounds would you assert that this ought to be the desired end? I think you can make a utilitarian argument and an economic argument but I’m not sure how you can make an ethical argument (absent simply defining unethical as violating the utilitarian/economic argument) without an appeal to rights (or the supernatural).

      Said differently, I can see how you could argue that too much infringement upon others is sub-optimal, but I’m not sure I can see how you could argue that it is *wrong* other than to create a tautology.

      Again, as I tried to make clear, I’m NOT saying your interpretation and application are *wrong.* I’m just trying to understand them via very brief thread posts.

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    43. Gotta be brief, but:
      "My" claim of civil society's purpose is just as old as the Hippocratic oath, since it comes from Plato and Aristotle!
      2) That it is an ideal often missed by a long shot no more discredits it than does the long persistence of blood letting discredit the Hippocratic oath.
      3) It is an explicitly ethicsl ideal, so why you think I can't employ it to draw ethical conclusions is a mystery to me.

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  5. When defenders of slavery argued that slavery was good, Lincoln replied that none of them wanted to enjoy the good of it by being a slave.

    When defenders of taxation argue that taxation is good, are they willing to enjoy the good of it by paying taxes? Oh wait, yes they are! Another bogus analogy bites the dust.

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    1. Samson, I'd like to make your most recent comment a guest post: is that OK?

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  6. "The Remissness of our People in Paying Taxes is highly blameable; the Unwillingness to pay them is still more so. I see, in some Resolutions of Town Meetings, a Remonstrance against giving Congress a Power to take, as they call it, the People's Money out of their Pockets, tho' only to pay the Interest and Principal of Debts duly contracted. They seem to mistake the Point. Money, justly due from the People, is their Creditors' Money, and no longer the Money of the People, who, if they withold it, should be compell'd to pay by some Law.

    All Property, indeed, except the Savage's temporary Cabin, his Bow, his Matchcoat, and other little Acquisitions, absolutely necessary for his Subsistence, seems to me to be the Creature of public Convention. Hence the Public has the Right of Regulating Descents, and all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the Quantity and the Uses of it. All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it." — Benjamin Franklin, 25 December 1783 (Source)

    "It is a moot question whether the origin of any kind of property is derived from nature at all… It is agreed by those who have seriously considered the subject that no individual has, of natural right, a separate property in an acre of land, for instance. By an universal law, indeed, whatever, whether fixed or movable, belongs to all men equally and in common is the property for the moment of him who occupies it; but when he relinquishes the occupation, the property goes with it. Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society." — Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, 1813 (Source)

    I'm sure this'll make some heads steam.

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  7. Taxation would be somewhat like slavery if you had a privileged class of tax receivers (who paid no taxes themselves) compelling an inferior class to pay them taxes. The tax receivers would then spend the taxes as they wished (which might include services to the inferior class to keep them in good working condition). The injustice would lie in the unequal legal status of the two groups and the illegitimate power one group has over the other.

    But when a community decides to make taxation a civic duty of all its citizens, who have an equal say in how those taxes are spent, this is not unjust. There is no injustice in a common obligation to support the society you choose to live in.

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  8. In reply to Gene: Go right ahead. I'd be honored. (Sorry if this is a double post. I don't think I hit "Publish" on the first one.)

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