Taxation as Injustice
January 28, 2014
An open letter to Matt at Curiouser and Curiouser as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!
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.
I think what you need is a counter slogan: Taxation is investment.
That seems to me to be the nut of your argument. Taxes are investments in the future earnings and well being of the taxed.
Of course, investments are always open to argument, since they are by their nature both personal and future-focused bets. Just witness a family debating where to invest the evening's limited dining out budget with regards to maximizing the fun investment. Yeah, that never goes well.
Posted by: David Thomas | January 28, 2014 at 10:29 PM
Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I like "Taxation is investment" as a counter-slogan - although I suspect Matt (to whom I wrote the letter) might then point out that it's an odd kind of investment that is beyond your control...! :o
All the best,
Posted by: Chris | February 03, 2014 at 01:59 PM
I think I get it;
The suggestion that 'taxation is theft' is futile because whether or not it is theft by definition, the suggestion creates non-productive fractures in societies which history has proven can only lead to disfunction and conflict. We do need a system for non-voluntary, communal investment if we are to function as a society.
What we should do instead of criticising the notion of tax is criticising its implementation; not that we are making communal investments, but which specific investments are being made.
I suppose 6 years of hindsight is a significant advantage, but I think is fair to say this concern has only become more relevant in recent years.
Posted by: Aaron | January 27, 2021 at 11:23 AM
You provide a wonderful summary for this frankly quite hard to read piece! Even as the author, my thought processes here are hard to stay in the saddle for. You're absolutely right, anyway, that my view of taxation is that we ought to be criticising how the tax money is spent rather than trying to attack the notion of tax, since nobody has yet proposing a way to have all public goods delivered without something like a nation state as intermediary.
And I thoroughly agree that the concerns voiced here have not lessened! After 2020, it is hard not to be utterly disgusted at the way public money can be squandered.
Many thanks for commenting,
Posted by: Chris | January 27, 2021 at 11:42 AM