Is Taxation Akin to Theft and Slavery?

The notion that taxation is theft and a violation of property rights is quite common, especially in libertarian circles. (A less extreme version of the argument claims that taxation may be a justified limitation of property rights but its level should be kept as low as possible because of concerns for economic incentives).

The classic justification of this rejection of taxation is a reduction ad absurdum: if a state can tax its citizens, how much can we reduce the group of people and still hold that this group can impose taxes on its members?

There are many variations of [this argument], but one begins, for instance, with the example of a man stealing a car, which most people would regard as unethical. It then proceeds to make slight changes to the story, with the identity of the thief gradually shifting from one man, to a gang of five men, to a gang of ten men who take a vote (allowing the victim to vote as well) on whether to steal the car before stealing it; … to one hundred men who take the car and give the victim back a bicycle; to two hundred men who not only give the victim back a bicycle but buy a poor person a bicycle as well. It ultimately challenges the reader to say how big a group needs to be, and what characteristics it needs to have, before the immorality of theft becomes the alleged morality of taxation. (source)

Taxation is not only rejected because it’s viewed as a form of official and legalized theft. It’s also viewed as a form of slavery. Robert Nozick, a famous libertarian, has argued that taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.

Nozick starts from the reasonable assumption that people own themselves. Self-ownership also means that people own their talents and labor power. He then continues with the Lockean argument for private property: we produce goods by mixing our labor power and talents with elements of the material world, and by this mixing we generate ownership of those modified elements of the world. If the government taxes our income, it takes away – or steals – parts of what we own through our labor. But the government doesn’t just steal things from us. Because our labor and talents have been incorporated in the things we own – and we own them because of this incorporation – taking them from us means effectively that the government owns our talents and labor, and hence owns us. Taxation means that the government takes away our self-ownership. And that’s slavery. It also means that the government uses people as means rather than ends, violating Kant’s maxim.

If you’re convinced by this kind of reasoning and agree that taxation is slavery, forced labor and theft, then you’re morally allowed or even obliged to resist taxation and rebel against government. And you’re likely to be a libertarian.

However, you may also want to consider a few counter-arguments.

1. There’s first the issue of value pluralism. Private property and self-ownership are undoubtedly important, but not so important that they trump all other values. Hence, they can be limited to accommodate a balancing with other concerns.

2. The rejection of taxation becomes morally difficult when we consider the purpose of taxation, or better the – substantial – part of taxation which serves the welfare state and the realization of economic rights. Economic rights are primarily a duty of charity, as I’ve argued here. The state, with its welfare mechanisms, should only intervene when citizens don’t (sufficiently) help each other. And it needs taxes to do that. Taxes are the enforcement of the duty to charity. Which is why tax fraud, tax evasion and certainly the principled refusal to pay taxes are particularly reprehensible: the existence of taxes is already a stain on the reputation of mankind, because taxes exist as a consequence of the fact that people deny their responsibilities. Denying the duty to pay taxes is a double moral failure.

However, some libertarians go along with the first part of this argument and accept that people have a moral duty to help others (others who are starving for example). However, they deny that this creates a right. So, ideally, these libertarians would not commit the first prong of this double moral failure, in which case the second prong could not occur. And yet, in the non-ideal world, libertarians – and others – do commit the first moral failure, i.e. do not live up to their responsibilities to help others. Subsequently, libertarians and others who follow Nozick, are doomed to commit the second moral failure as well. What’s more, they can’t even call it a moral failure because according to them starving people don’t have a right to demand our help (the fact that we have a duty to help doesn’t necessarily give them a right to our help). Such a right would be incompatible with self-ownership. It would mean stealing our goods and our labor power and talents. It would mean using us as a means for their survival. In my view, the claim that the duty of generosity doesn’t create a right to generosity is a simple artifact invented to guarantee the supremacy of property rights.

3. Nozicks reasoning about self-ownership and property is shaky, as he himself admitted:

why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so its molecules… mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice? (source)

4. Given the importance of talents in the libertarian argument, and the refusal to have people’s talents “harvested” for the sake of the minimal welfare of those without talents or otherwise unable to fend for themselves: is it not evident that there’s an injustice involved in the distribution of talents? Nobody decides freely to be born without talents, so the absence of talents is nobody’s fault. Should you be forced to suffer for something that is not your fault? In addition, is there not a small possibility that people are rewarded for the wrong talents and that some talents are not sufficiently rewarded? If all that’s the case, then the claim that the state can’t use the proceeds of your talents for the benefit of others becomes a lot weaker: if those proceeds could just as well have gone to other talents or the talents of others (in part at least), and if your talents are just a matter of luck, why should you have a right to keep those proceeds?

5. And finally, is it not somewhat gross to compare the fate of a taxpayer to the fate of a slave? A taxpayer retains many of the freedoms a slave can only dream of.

Crime and Human Rights (10): Does Being Tough on Crime Reduce Crime?

The human right issues created by incarceration are evident, I think: locking people up means taking away a number if not most of their liberties, most obviously their freedom of movement, freedom to work, political freedom in some cases, and privacy. Other rights violations are also common, even in the prisons in rich countries such as the U.S.:

  • juvenile incarceration
  • the substandard conditions in which many prisoners are kept (Federal prisons in the U.S. hold 60% more prisoners than they were designed for)
  • the forced and unpaid labor prisoner often perform
  • the common occurrence of prison rape.

Some people clearly deserve to be put in jail, and often that is what is required in order to protect the human rights of their (possible) victims.

However, the “tough on crime” policies enacted in the U.S. and the resulting explosion in the numbers of U.S. citizens who are in prison (the U.S. has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world) go beyond what is required for public safety and the rights of victims. The causes of this explosion are numerous.

  • There’s the war on drugs, of course, which leads to excessively tough penalties, sometimes even for victimless crimes (the illegal sale of prescription painkillers for instance). Some of the penalties for drug “crimes” are tougher than the sentences for violent crimes.
  • There are other acts that are in essence victimless and need not be criminalized, and yet result in incarceration in the U.S. (e.g. importing rare orchids).
  • Sentences in the U.S. are too long. Many crimes come with mandatory minimum sentences, taking away judges’ discretion and their ability to take into account the specific circumstances of a crime. “Three strikes and you’re out” lead to life sentences for sometimes trivial crimes.
  • Some laws, especially laws regulating the conduct of businesses – are so vague that people have a hard time steering away from crime.
  • Prosecutors are often allowed to slice up a crime into a series of different crimes, each coming with a minimum sentence.
  • Parole conditions have been toughened, and people are regularly put back in jail for non-criminal violations of these parole conditions.

The cause of all this is probably the race to the top going on between politicians who are all promising to be tougher on crime than the next guy. Some judges in the U.S. are elected and engage in the same kind of bidding.

The question is: what are the benefits of this toughness, and what are the costs? Regarding the benefits, the homicide rate has been going down in the U.S., but it has since two centuries and it’s not clear that the tough policies introduced during the last decades have contributed much to the decline.

Bert Useem of Purdue University and Anne Piehl of Rutgers University estimate that a 10% increase in the number of people behind bars would reduce crime by only 0.5%. In the states that currently lock up the most people, imprisoning more would actually increase crime, they believe. Some inmates emerge from prison as more accomplished criminals. And raising the incarceration rate means locking up people who are, on average, less dangerous than the ones already behind bars. (source)

Regarding the costs: the prison system in the U.S. is extremely expensive, sucking away funds that could be used much more productively elsewhere, particularly on policies protecting human rights such as education. It’s also money that can’t be spent on better crime detection and better policing. It’s well-known that swift justice and high “catch rates” deter more crime than harsh penalties. If you want to be tough on crime, you shouldn’t necessarily choose the option of putting a lot of people away for a long time. And questioning the high incarceration rates in the U.S. doesn’t mean you’re weak on law and order.

High numbers of inmates also reduce the chances of rehabilitation: more prisoners means relatively less prisoners who can take advantage of the limited resources dedicated to vocational training and other activities that make it more likely that prisoners can become normal and non-reoffending members of society once they get out. Together with the phenomenon of prison as a “school for criminals”, this is likely to create a perverse effect: being tough on crime can actually increase crime. People should think hard on the way in which they choose to be tough on crime, and should consider if some crimes need to be crimes at all.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (11): The Economic Case against Human Rights and Democracy

Some authoritarian governments claim that human rights and democracy have to be sacrificed for the sake of economic development and economic progress. Here are some of the reasons given in support of this claim.

Discipline in production and consumption

Discipline in production and consumption is believed to be more important for economic growth than freedom. This discipline requires discipline in general in society, and therefore also a strong state. The exaggerated attention to rights instead of duties is incompatible with discipline. Duties are much more useful in economic development than rights. Instead of wasting scarce resources on consumption, people should moderate themselves and resources should be used for necessary investments. In addition, the free choice of labor is less important than the ability of the state to direct labor towards certain development projects. There may even be a rationale for forced labor.

And finally, if you want economic development, wages need to be low, union activity needs to be minimal, working hours need to be long and perhaps you have to turn a blind eye to child labor. None of this is possible in a democracy that tries to respect human rights.

You need a strong state for all of this, able to force people to be disciplined in both consumption and production.

Discipline in politics

You also need a strong state able to implement and enforce long term plans. Economic development requires consistency, coherence, long term planning and so on, all of which is incompatible with democracy and rotation in office. A democracy doesn’t look further than the next election and is unable to plan economic development. Democracy is the national equivalent of the shortsighted consumer spending everything instead of investing for the future. A democratic government will take measures which guarantee the short term interests of electors and elected, even if these measures are detrimental to the long term economic well-being of the nation.

A strong state doesn’t have to fear election results and can focus on long term planning. It has the power to enforce certain measures which are unpopular in the short run—for example because they imply limits on short term consumption, because they redirect funds towards long term investments or because they entail labor planning—but which yield great dividends in the future.

On top of that, human rights promote individualism and egoism because they are claims of the individual against society. Together with adversarial democracy they hamper national cooperation and harmony which are necessary for economic success.

Radical, not temporary, incompatibility

So according to this narrative, political freedom and human rights have to be rejected because they are by definition incompatible with economic development. And perhaps even with prosperity as such: they may not even be a luxury which poor countries cannot afford yet and which are useless when bellies are empty; they are even less than that. If you choose freedom, then not only will it be impossible to escape from underdevelopment – it will be impossible to maintain prosperity.


Now, what can we say against this? Let’s take the different arguments in turn. If you assume that discipline in consumption and production is a good thing, then you basically create an export dependent economy. It’s well known that domestic consumption drives economic growth (see also here). If consumption is discouraged (and savings and investments encouraged), and if wages are low and working hours long, then you may get an initial boost in the economy, but this is no strategy for long term success. Not only does it imply dependence on exports and hence vulnerability to shocks occurring in the economies of the trading partners; it also keeps living standards low. And that can hardly be the purpose of economic development. China has clearly understood this and is trying to boost domestic demand (see also here).

The utility of child labor is obviously shortsighted – no economy can prosper without an educated citizenry – and the need for planning and long term consistency in economic policy is also a dubious argument. Centrally planned economies aren’t known for their successes. The state is not necessarily the most appropriate engine for development. Investment and planning decisions are probably best left to the market, and those investments that are best done by the government don’t require an authoritarian form of government. I don’t see how a dictatorship is better placed to plan transport infrastructure or energy provision for example. On the contrary even: the lack of transparency in a dictatorship makes it likely that such investments turn out to be corruption machines.

The argument that democracies are too fickle and shortsighted for economic planning and investments is also a bit weak. It’s difficult to deny that a democratic government, because of the way it comes to power, has more legitimacy and is therefore better placed to take difficult and unpopular decisions. People are more willing to accept or live with unpopular policies if they have a government that can be forced to justify its actions in public. Besides, the point is moot because most authoritarian leaders aren’t the long term planners and do-gooders they are supposed to be: most think only of the short term, namely their own short term financial profit.

What about the lack of cooperation, harmony and unity of democracies, and the selfishness cultivated by human rights? First of all, it’s not evident that national cooperation and harmony are best for economic development. Maybe individualism, entrepreneurship, inventiveness and doing things different are more important. And secondly, why would we assume that human rights are necessarily individualistic and selfish? There can never be an exaggerated attention to rights at the expense of duties. There are no rights without duties. And many so-called individualistic human rights create strong groups (freedom of religion, tolerance, freedom of association and assembly etc.).

Also, why would we have to think that democracy is more adversarial than autocracy? The democratic procedures for changing governments create social stability because they help to avoid revolt. Authoritarian harmony is often only skin deep – if it exists at all – because it’s based on suppression of differences. Things that are suppressed have a habit of popping up later in a more violent form.

The point is that human rights and democracy are magnificent weapons in the struggle for economic development rather than a luxury which poor people can’t afford or a false blessing which will render every economic achievement impossible or short-lived.