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Taxation as Injustice

An open letter to Matt at Curiouser and Curiouser as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!

Taxation is Theft Dear Matt,

Since you are ultimately responsible for my predicament, having first suggested I take up blogging, it seems only fitting that one of my first blog letters (dare I neologize to bletters?) should be addressed to you. And since our last discussion hinged around your libertarian views upon taxation I thought this would be an appropriate topic for this missive.

I do have quite considerable sympathy for libertarian politics, since I too hold rather liberal social values, and I also agree that strangling some of the power out of the State apparatus (‘smaller government’) could be a wonderful thing were it achievable. Nonetheless, I find libertarian politics to be just as troublesome as the liberal and conservative politics it dances between. One initial problem is purely pragmatic: libertarianism is only ever likely to be a minority interest in our current mythological climate, and as such it effectively risks removing intellectuals from effective political engagement more than it is likely to productively advance any of its own agendas. (I’m using ‘mythology’ here in the sense I use it in Chaos Ethics; as a marker for the various competing stories within the various social imaginaries – it do not intend it to be read as a derogatory term).

While living in Tennessee during election season, it was easy to predict the proportion of Ron Paul signs in front of houses in relation to the number of mainstream Republican placards: it was always about one-in-ten, the same as the ratio of nerds in the population. Then again, minority parties can be valuable as heralds for an issue, as happened in the late 80s here in the UK when our tiny Green Party got enough support to force all the other parties to finally adopt environmental policies and appoint Environment ministers and the like. Of course, this quickly returned the Greens to obscurity – but in so doing they had actually won a great victory for their cause. We too often equate political success with election: as the current coalition in parliament demonstrates for the Liberal Democrats, the converse is just as likely.

You seem to cleave closely to the libertarian maxim that ‘taxation is theft’, which is not a position I favour on this issue. It has the desired effect of stressing the moral horror libertarians feel about handing over money to Big Government under pain of arrest, but the counterproductive consequence of alienating everyone who views taxation as necessary for the delivery of public goods such as defence, healthcare, welfare, education, policing, and infrastructure. I’m setting aside here the slightly messy definition of ‘public good’, and also the question of art as a public good, even though I should like it to be thus. The basic point is that there are some services that are difficult to provide without resorting to a collective apparatus such as the State, and these cannot effectively be delivered through markets without creating further problems.

Now the basic problem with the ‘taxation is theft’ mythology is that it is built on a fascinatingly strange perspective on contemporary life that views everything only from the perspective of oddly atomistic individuals, whose wealth is just, and an oddly total State, whose income is unjust. Actually, both those forms of wealth become unjust under certain mythologies, and private ownership of wealth is certainly not inherently just. What’s more, as soon as we take into account the public goods the State is actually delivering, it becomes harder to see these two competing fiscal factions as unconnected. Were it not for the State-provisioned infrastructure, for instance, most commerce – individual or otherwise – would be impossible, and police enforcement is similarly required to allow for the very possibility of private wealth. Taxation on this view (which is idealised but not completely removed from actuality) is payment for provision of services rendered – to not pay taxes would be close to theft, since it would be to become a free rider, as the terminology goes.

The wider problem this reveals – and the reason I think taxation is the wrong pressure point for action – is that national politics tend towards an endless disagreement over which public goods the State should provide, and the allocation of funding therein. Republicans in the US, for instance, want lower taxes but do not desire a smaller State apparatus because they prioritize defence as a public good – both militarily, and in terms of policing. Democrats, conversely, tend to prioritize healthcare, education, and welfare – all the ‘bleeding heart’ public goods which Republicans sometimes deny are necessary, and certainly don't value like defence. The same basic pattern recurs in almost all democracies. But because the main political rivals, wherever you happen to be, all want State provision of public goods of some kind, the attack on taxation runs up against insurmountable resistance – almost everyone has something they want the State to provide, and cutting off the supply of money that bankrolls it is broadly inconceivable.

I would much prefer to see productive discussion on the problems of public goods than rhetoric targeting taxation, per se, especially since only productive dialogue on the former (were such a thing possible!) could lead to the latter. On this front, I would draw your attention to an interesting paper on public goods problems by the unlikely-named Jonathan Anomaly for a salient perspective. He suggest that “the link between public goods and public policy cannot be forged without moral reflection on the proper function and scope of government power”, and this is a view that we both agree upon. I suggest it is better to foster intelligent debate on the complexities of the specific public goods problems than to tilt at the windmill of taxation.

However, my suspicion is that unlike many who cite the ‘taxation is theft’ maxim, your primary political concerns and motivating ethical values are not centred upon wealth at all. I rather suspect this is a classic boardgamer's response to a strategic problem: you see many crises you would like resolved as hinging upon the power of the State, then calculate the strategy required for effective interdiction. Taxation on this sort of boardgamer view is the weak point to be exploited in order to gain victory over the State. On this, I agree – if everyone's values were in alignment but the State resisted change (and as one of our mutual friends attests, the civil service is always primarily a force for maintaining the status quo!), a mass refusal to pay taxes would be a dominant strategy. But this is only the case when everyone is in accord. This, of course, never happens in practice!

The other side of your objections to taxation, I believe, are a much greater cause for concern. You suggest that the injustice of taxes is epitomised in the fact that force can be used against individuals in order to demand compliance, that taxation is (if you will) extortion. Now the aforementioned counter-arguments in respect of public goods could now hypothetically be taken into account by allowing individuals a choice of institution when it comes to provision of public goods, as we discussed last time you visited. Actually, this already happens with healthcare and education in certain countries. Alas, I fear that this solution would prove nightmarishly complex in practice – especially in the context of infrastructure and defence, which cannot easily be devolved to multiple institutions on our current images of what these goods entail.

In the specific case of national defence, however, the problem becomes intractable because of the demand (which many view as justified) that the apparatus of State can conceal a great deal of its actions from public scrutiny on grounds that their effectiveness would be compromised were they public knowledge (‘national security’). This troubles me greatly, because the net result is that States feel bankrolled to pursue purely consequentialist strategies in the name of ‘defense of the realm’, even when these violate the moral values of the soldiers who have pledged their lives in service to their nation, and thus to the people the nation mythically symbolises. (I deal with this in a couple of chapters in Chaos Ethics that I don’t think you’ve had a chance to read).

It is in this – the dishonour of nations – that my political concerns are increasingly focussed, since everything I discover about the use of drones in assassinations and the murder of innocents brings grave shame upon the armed forces of the United States. I am not as quick to demonize military service as certain liberals, since quite a few of my friends and family members (including my father, who never saw action, and father-in-law, who served in Vietnam) have been part of the armed forces. Yet it is one thing to take a share of my earnings for the provision of public goods I either agree upon, or accept that I have a minority view of. It is quite another to force me contribute towards bringing shame upon those who honourably serve by betraying their values through cowardly and indiscriminate attacks upon innocent people. If defense serves to uphold the conditions for maintaining our national mythologies, it cannot plausibly do so by destroying the moral values those national mythologies depend upon for their justification. Although most of the tax taken from me goes to the British government, who are not currently involved in disgraceful robotic exterminations, even one cent is too much to pay towards these kinds of atrocities.

Of course, as someone leaning towards libertarianism, you are probably against the national mythologies anyway. I certainly have been in the past. But with the fracturing of most of the other mythic commonalities between people, and the gradual realisation that the sciences cannot be elevated to the role of priesthood without disasterous consequences, the national myths are the last remaining point of commonality we can count upon. (Furthermore, appeals to Human Rights and so forth must be made via the national mythologies, or they devolve into natural rights appeals – Jeremy Bentham's “nonsense on stilts”). It is part of what it means to be British to admire the incredible achievements of the RAF in defending this nation from the Luftwaffe – and if we are honest about what the mythology of being British in the context of armed conflict is supposed to mean, it should also be a point of shame that we firebombed Dresden in 1945. Rather than abandoning the national mythologies, perhaps it is time we started deploying them in defence of the moral values for which they are purported to stand? War without honour is extermination – there is far greater injustice here than in taxation.

I hope this letter finds you well and that you will come and visit Adria and I in Manchester before the new baby arrives and our lives devolve into total carnage once more!

Wishing you the very best,


Matt has not replied yet.

No-one else has replied yet.

A Republic of Bloggers

wax seal During the Enlightenment at the end of the 17th century and the start of the 18th, a disparate group of intellectuals in Europe and the United States engaged in a long-distance discourse that became know as the Republic of Letters, or Respublica Literaria. It was one of the first transnational movements, and scholars have endlessly debated its relevance and influence upon the dramatically proclaimed Age of Enlightenment it heralded. Personally, I feel no need to explain this in terms of cause and effect – the Republic of Letters was simply the written discourse of a movement that was changing the way people thought about their relationship with the world.

It is a seldom noticed fact that while anyone who can read and write could write a letter, very few actually do – and fewer still in our current era, what it is tempting to call the Age of Distraction. Letters, rather than say postcards and other friendly waves expressed in writing, involve a kind of engagement that has become rather rare these days. A letter invites a response, asks us to think about something, requests insight from another perspective... Letters are conversations at a slow enough pace to allow the correspondents to think a out what they are saying. I would like to suggest that it takes a particular kind of introvert to engage in letter writing in this sense – a quiet soul not content to bury themselves in just their solitary activities, but willing and able to reach out in words to another, similar person. I love a good conversation in a pub or bar, or at a conference, or even on a long journey, but as enjoyable as these forms of discourse may be for me they cannot adequately substitute for the pleasure of the letter.

Up until 2000, I wrote letters extensively – to old school and university friends, to my lover (now my wife), to family... After this, I began to fall out of the habit for various reasons – partly reflective of a change in my circumstances (to that of both husband and company-owner), but also mirroring the gradual replacement of pen-and-paper with email and text messages, the demise of the post office as the bastion of communication in the wake of the digital connectivity of homes.

Yet in 2005, that all changed. A friend of mine from my time in London insisted I should try blogging. He could not give me any well-defined reasons for my doing so, it was more an intuition. In July, I took the plunge and began writing a blog most mornings, more or less stream-of-consciousness. But in no time at all, I was engaging with other bloggers – discussing shared interests, exchanging ideas, and (perhaps most surprisingly) arguing productively – something UseNet forums had not managed to deliver. When you trap a bunch of geeks inside a virtual room, sparks soon begin to fly, and before you know it it’s bedlam. But the blog was a more personal format – it clearly belonged to one voice while being open to everyone. While vicious arguments did occasionally break out, the blog owner could draw these away with new posts, and disgruntled visitors did not have the equal territorial claim of a forum and thus eventually fell silent.

I had joined the Republic of Bloggers, but it was already there when I arrived, and I cannot even take credit for the name, since one of my regulars here at Only a Game explicitly drew my attention to the connectivity between blogs and the Republic of Letters. A scattering of intellectuals across the globe, engaged in discourse on almost every conceivable topic, listening to and speaking their minds. It was an incredible, heady experience, one that I still treasure.

However, over the years I began to move away from discourse and into monologue. The blog became a place to draft material that would end up in books and papers, and the sense of an exchange of letters fell away. This was doubly unfortunate for me, since at this point I had also ceased to write letters, except to my favourite aunt, who sadly passed away recently. Although I recently blamed the decline of the blog clusters upon the rise of more immediate (and shallower) forms of communication such as Facebook and Twitter, there was another factor I had not considered: we just stopped talking too each other. We were seduced by the simple validation that the social networks gave us, we began scoring shares and retweets instead of communicating for the sake of the discourse itself.

But my sense of things suggests that the Republic of Bloggers is still out there – we just stopped participating in it. Partly this will be because we got older, had more responsibilities and less time. It is unthinkable that I could spend two hours each morning blogging like I used to, for instance! But also, we were seduced by the virtual water cooler conversations of Twitter and its ilk, the MUD chat room elevated to a global scale. We stopped caring about the discourse for its own sake and slipped into more comfortable distractions instead.

Yet for those of us who write and think in a certain way, there can be nothing more satisfying than the letter – no matter what form it is rendered – and Google+ and the like cannot offer this, even though they can be used to signpost to it. My realisation late last year was that to get back what I was missing meant more than lamenting that the social networks were better at maintaining (shallow) engagement than the blog clusters – it meant getting back to what blogging had really meant to me, beneath the vanity of being the locus of attention for a while. It meant getting back to writing letters, even if those letters were to be posted to a blog and ‘delivered’ by tweet or email. And fundamental to a letter is that it is addressed to someone.

This year, I have vouched to return to the Republic of Bloggers by writing letters to the other blogs in my own peculiar cluster. I shall endeavour to do so every month if I can. It is a small thing, but it is of great importance to me, and worth the effort it entails. The Republic of Bloggers is here for anyone to join, but it is not for anyone – it is for the letter writers, those who live in their writing as much or more than they live in their immediate worlds. You know if this is you. And if it is, you owe it to yourself to write letters, write letters to and for people, write more than just the engaging articles that people read, but write to discuss what cannot be fulfilled by thought alone. This is the Republic of Bloggers. I hope you will join me there.

Fifty Differences Between The Desolation of Smaug and Tolkien's Work

Caution: contains indescribably massive spoilers for both The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and the book, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again - don't say I didn't warn you! 


The second of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of The Hobbit is in the cinemas now, but is it a faithful adaptation of the book? And are the new films faithful to Tolkien’s wider mythology, known as his legendarium?

In order for an adaptation to be faithful, the spirit and content of the source materials must be respected. Generally speaking, if the spirit is maintained, the content can be altered (sometimes this results in improvements to a story). What’s more, it is possible to keep the content and alter the thematics – some Shakespeare adaptations have attempted this, such as Julie Taymor’s film version of The Tempest.

On this basis, I maintain the claim I made previously in respect of An Unexpected Journey: although The Desolation of Smaug makes a great prequel to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, it isn’t a faithful adaptation of the book nor of the legendarium, although it is a better adaptation of the legendarium than of The Hobbit, since that particular book has such a specifically fairy tale feel (usually explained by it having been written by Bilbo). Broadly speaking, the tone, theme, and spirit of The Hobbit are all being altered in the service of creating a prequel to Jackson’s first Tolkien film trilogy – and I think this is the right thing for him to be doing, more or less. It’s what fans of those films would want, at least. But the geek in me cannot resist a little bit of nitpickery about the new movie…

Thirty Changes Between the Film The Desolation of Smaug and the Book of The Hobbit

  1. The goblins are now orcs and continue to pursue the company beyond the Misty Mountains.
  2. Radagast appears as a character, rather than just being mentioned briefly.
  3. Mirkwood messes with the minds of the company; they don't simply get lost.
  4. Stones are not used to fight the spiders (although the use and naming of Sting is accurate to the book – one of the few things that is!).
  5. As if by magic, Legolas appears! (Although as Thranduil’s son, this is consistent with the legendarium at least).
  6. An entirely new she-elf character is invented.
  7. All the dwarves are given some personality, instead of functioning like the Nine Brothers in Kurasawa's classic Sanjuro i.e. as one collective character.
  8. The Elvenking doesn't just like white jewels, he has specific white jewels he wants from the treasure hoard under the Lonely Mountain.
  9. The barrel escape becomes a fight sequence against orcs.
  10. One of the dwarves is injured.
  11. The company meet Bard, who takes them to Lake-town.
  12. Lake-town is under an oppressive regime and do not immediately welcome the company.
  13. Lake-town has something called a 'dwarven wind-lance' (that serves as a plot device for the next movie).
  14. The black arrow is not Bard's personal relic, but custom ammunition for a 'dwarven wind-lance'.
  15. Bard has a daughter as well as a son.
  16. Bard's son reveals the weakness in Smaug's chest to the company.
  17. The weakness in Smaug's chest is linked to Girion's attack on Smaug to strengthen Bard's role in the story (in the book, Bilbo tricks Smaug into showing his chest, and he notices the weak point personally - which directly leads to Smaug's death via the thrush).
  18. The people of Lake-town blame Girion for their plight (or at least can be rhetorically persuaded to do so).
  19. The people of Lake-town are not immediately cognisant of the prophecy regarding Durin's Folk (this facilitates a reveal with Bard as he connects the dots).
  20. Three dwarves remain behind in Lake-town (to provision characters for the third movie's dragon fight).
  21. The gate into The Lonely Mountain opens under different conditions in order to create an new dramatic failure-into-success scene.
  22. The Arkenstone is elevated from a sacred relic of Durin's Folk (one of seven dwarf families) to an instant "King of All the Dwarves" plot device.
  23. The Arkenstone is no longer a cut jewel, but instead resembles a Simaril (which - despite popular fan theories - it cannot be).
  24. Bilbo does not steal a cup.
  25. Smaug discusses the Arkenstone with Bilbo for the purposes of foreshadowing (although most of the conversation between Bilbo and the dragon is very close to the book - the other thing the film doesn't change much!).
  26. Smaug does not attack the secret entrance to the mountainside, and there is no discussion about whether to close the door, nor is the secret entrance destroyed.
  27. Bilbo is not concerned about the thrush listening in on his conversations with the dwarves (in the book he suspects – correctly – that the thrush is intently learning all it can).
  28. The dwarves fight Smaug inside the Lonely Mountain in an elaborate and over-the-top action sequence (in the book, the dwarves never encounter Smaug, only Bilbo does).
  29. Legolas comes to Lake-town and has a dramatic fight with orcs there.
  30. Smaug tells Bilbo he is leaving for Lake-town (in the book, there is some mystery about where Smaug has gone)

Twenty Changes Between the Film The Desolation of Smaug and Tolkien's Legendarium

  1. Azog does not die in T.A. 2799 but survives until T.A. 2941 (the year of The Hobbit's events), 142 years later.
  2. The Third Age Mirkwood is given the hallucinogenic properties of the First Age Mirkwood (which is about a thousand leagues north and six thousand years in the past).
  3. There are warrior she-elves among the Sylvan elves (Tolkien has no female warrior elves).
  4. The White Council don't know Sauron is in Dol Guldur (in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings it is explicitly stated that they know this 90 years before the events of The Hobbit).
  5. Gandalf and Thorin meet in The Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree a year before the events of The Hobbit and discuss Thráin and the Arkenstone (this would have be mentioned in the Appendices if it had happened).
  6. Gandalf visits the tombs of the Nazgûl.
  7. Gandalf travels with Radaghast the Brown during the quest to regain Erebor (although this is not precluded by the legendarium, it is not explicitly mentioned in the chronology).
  8. Gandalf is not incapacitatingly terrified of Sauron (in the legendarium, Gandalf - in his previous life as the Maia spirit Olórin - is reluctant to become incarnate in Middle-earth because he is so afraid of Sauron).
  9. The White Council do not plan to attack Dol Guldur (according to the Appendices, they plan this during the Quest of Erebor).
  10. Dol Guldur is enchanted to make it appear deserted.
  11. Gandalf suicidally decides to enter Dol Guldur alone, even though he has a fair idea of what he will find there, and that it is beyond his powers to defeat it.
  12. Sauron and Gandalf meet (in the legendarium, they never do).
  13. Sauron and Gandalf talk (in the legendarium, pretty much no-one in the Third Age does in person, although some - including Saruman - do so via palantíri 'seeing stones').
  14. Sauron and Gandalf fight (in the legendarium, absolutely no-one in the Third Age does, and it would be certain death to try).
  15. Sauron has an unspecified reason to keep Gandalf alive (of course, pragmatically, Gandalf can't die until encountering the Balrog named Durin's Bane...)
  16. Sauron does not abandon Dol Guldur simply because he has finished making his plans (this explanation is provided in the Appendices).
  17. Gandalf is captured by Sauron.
  18. The possibility of reconciliation between dwarves and elves is implied far earlier than the friendship of Legolas and Gimli (which in the legendarium is presented as effectively unprecedented).
  19. The Battle of Five Armies (in the next film) is implied to serve as cover for Sauron's relocation to Mordor, rather than being unconnected (although this is a logical alteration of the chronology).
  20. The movie credits say “Based on the Book by J.R.R. Tolkien”, meaning The Hobbit, but the film draws just as much from the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings and The Quest of Erebor, and makes most of the rest up out of whole cloth.

I will say this for The Desolation of Smaug, though – I haven’t had such fun trawling through the sheer minutiae of an adaptation in many a long year!

For Graeme Strachan - he made me do it!

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