06 Jan 2011

Defending Coolidge and Libertarianism

Shameless Self-Promotion 76 Comments

At Mises.org this week I was a defense attorney. First for Calvin Coolidge:

As far as federal income-tax rates, it’s true that Coolidge took the advice of his Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon, to cut them. But that was because they had been raised to an absurd level during World War I. As this history shows, even the rate on the lowest bracket jumped from 1 percent in 1913 to 6 percent by 1918. Moreover, someone who made $20,000 in 1913 paid 1 percent in federal income taxes, but because the brackets were redefined, someone earning the same money income in 1918 paid a whopping 20 percent in federal tax. (Note too that from June 1913 to June 1918 the Consumer Price Index rose 50 percent, so that a given money income purchased far less in actual goods and services.)

In contrast to this onerous burden created under Woodrow Wilson, during the Coolidge years the bottom bracket’s tax rate was brought down to 1.5 percent by 1926, while an upper-middle-class (though hardly “filthy rich”) household earning $20,000 saw its tax rate slashed to 9 percent.

As far as fiscal responsibility, Coolidge was superlative, perhaps second only to Andrew Jackson, who literally paid off the national debt (as well as slew the central bank). Coolidge had a much more modest success, in that he ran budget surpluses every year he was in office.

Then today I defend libertarianism from Christopher Beam’s critique:

The standard moral objections to theft and killing don’t magically disappear just because a group of professional liars reclassifies them as “taxation” and “national defense.”

76 Responses to “Defending Coolidge and Libertarianism”

  1. Blackadder says:

    If taxation is theft then it is a very weird sort of theft. I’ve been robbed a couple of times, but I’ve never sat down afterwards with my copy of TurboTheft and calculated whether the thief had stolen too much from me and, if so, send off some forms to the thief so he will send me a refund check. The whole process bears a greater resemblance to paying dues for your Homeowners’ Association, or some such thing.

    The typical response is that if you accept the libertarian philosophical framework then it turns out taxation really is theft, regardless of how things might look on the surface. But that’s question begging. The whole issue is whether we should accept the libertarian philosophical framework or not. Pointing out that framework has lots of implausible implications is not much of an argument in its favor.

    • Richard M says:

      “The whole issue is whether we should accept the libertarian philosophical framework or not”

      Whose ‘we?’ I accept it, but it doesn’t matter – I am compelled to pay dues to a ‘homeowner’s association’ I don’t want to support. If you or others don’t accept it you are free to form your own ‘homeonwer’s association’ and extract ‘dues’ from one another. Please don’t compel me to join.

      Somehow, because you (and others) do not yet accept the ‘libertarian framework’ of voluntary association, then this means libertarians have to accept yours, along with all of its “implausible implications”?

      • Blackadder says:

        Richard,

        Either taxation is theft for everyone (even if they don’t think it is), or it is not theft for everyone (even if some people think it is). The fact that you accept the libertarian philosophical framework and believe taxation is theft doesn’t mean that it is theft for you, any more than the fact a Marxist thinks it is stealing to charge people to buy bread means it is stealing to make him pay for bread.

        • Gene Callahan says:

          Blackadder, this very simple point collapses the anarcho-capitalist moral case at a touch. And that is why people choose not to hear it.

        • Jeff Gough says:

          I am honestly trying to understand why this “collapses the anarcho-capitalist moral case at a touch.” Is this meant to be a wide-sweeping claim about moral relativism, i.e. libertarians believe one thing, Marxists believe another, therefore neither of them are correct? Can you elaborate?

          I can understand why you and others would have disagreements with “anarcho-capitalists” about legitimate property claims and the morality of enforcing them. Admittedly, there are very difficult questions surrounding these issues with few obvious answers. But I don’t see how pointing out that Marxists and libertarians disagree gets you anywhere towards collapsing either side’s “moral case.” Why couldn’t one of them be objectively correct?

    • Silas Barta says:

      If taxation is theft then it is a very weird sort of theft. I’ve been robbed a couple of times, but I’ve never sat down afterwards with my copy of TurboTheft and calculated whether the thief had stolen too much from me and, if so, send off some forms to the thief so he will send me a refund check.

      Pardon me, Blackadder, but I’m having a hard time understanding why you think the Byzantinism of a process is relevant to whether you consider it theft. If muggers gave back a portion of their muggings before leaving you, based on some bizarre algorithm, would you say, “hm, wait a sec — that doesn’t feel like a _real_ mugging”?

      The typical response is that if you accept the libertarian philosophical framework then it turns out taxation really is theft

      Well, I think crucial issue *is* which philosophical framework is correct — but why on earth do believe that the lack of TurboTheft or TurboMug software bears on that question in any way whatsoever? Is it just a convenient red herring for you, or …?

    • Jeff Gough says:

      “Pointing out that framework has lots of implausible implications is not much of an argument in its favor.”

      I’m curious. Do you really think that if you pressed Bob on the issue he wouldn’t have an answer as to WHY he believes taxation is theft? More generally, could you name a libertarian who thinks that by simply stating “taxation is theft” she has delivered the only argument necessary for its defense?

      It’s “not much of an argument” because it’s not meant to be a self-contained knockout punch exempted from any elaboration or justification. Every ideological movement has its own shorthand rallying cries, if you will. The fact that, if pressed, this shorthand cannot serve as the ONLY argument, that it would take a much deeper explanation of property and rights and aggression, etc. really isn’t news.

      • Blackadder says:

        Do you really think that if you pressed Bob on the issue he wouldn’t have an answer as to WHY he believes taxation is theft?

        I’m sure he would have an argument, but it would rely on explicitly libertarian premises.

        Bob is basically saying “hey, all we libertarians do is apply the normal rules regarding theft to the government.” Lots of libertarians make this argument. But if you press them it turns out that the “normal rules regarding theft” are actually explicitly libertarian rules regarding theft, which non-libertarians do not accept.

        • Jeff Gough says:

          I still don’t know if I really “get” what you’re saying. Honestly, I would like to know.

          Libertarians and non-libertarians disagree about the legitimacy of certain property claims and the morally permissible extent of one’s right to enforce them. I’m with you there. But I just don’t see how pointing to this disagreement shows how libertarians (or non-libertarians for this matter) are objectively incorrect in their views. Are you trying to claim that they must be unanimous in their views otherwise no one is correct?

          • Blackadder says:

            Jeff,

            I wasn’t critiquing the libertarian philosophical position, I was critiquing a particular type of argument made in favor of the position.

            For example, if someone says “the sky is blue, therefore libertarianism is true” that is a bad argument. If I point out that this is a bad argument, it is no answer to say I haven’t proven libertarianism is false.

          • Jeff Gough says:

            “I was critiquing a particular type of argument made in favor of the position”

            My point is that I do not know any serious libertarian who thinks the phrase “taxation is theft” can stand alone as an “argument made in favor of the [libertarian] position.” Do you have examples of serious libertarians making the case for libertarianism to a non-libertarian crowd and simply stating “taxation is theft” as an argument without any other explanation as to why?

            Maybe you have thousands of links; I don’t know. I’m just asking.

          • Blackadder says:

            My point is that I do not know any serious libertarian who thinks the phrase “taxation is theft” can stand alone as an “argument made in favor of the [libertarian] position.”

            Bob didn’t simply state “taxation is theft.” He said that if you apply our everyday notions of what constitutes theft to the state, then it is clear taxation is theft (several other people on this very thread have also made this type of argument). *That* is the argument I was criticizing, not the mere assertion that taxation is theft, but the argument that taxation is theft because it fits our ordinary everyday notion of what theft is.

          • Gene Callahan says:

            Come on, Jeff, let’s be real. Of course, no libertarian has as her ONLY argument that “taxation is theft,” but it is presented all the time as a knock-down argument against statists: “Ah, so you’re in favour of theft!” Kinsella does that all the time.

          • Jeff Gough says:

            Okay, if “Ah, so you’re in favor of theft!” is used as some sort of knock-down argument by itself, I understand your frustration. That would be a bad argument.

            Do you have a specific example of this? Maybe a blog post or something?

        • bobmurphy says:

          I understand why you (and Gene) think you are being incredibly neutral and reasonable, and we have our heads up our butts. But you are wrong. Our butts are too small for that.

          Suppose my Uncle Jack takes $50 from me at gunpoint. I say, “Hey that’s theft!” He says, “No it’s not, I’m family.”

          I say, “Jack, suppose a stranger came up to me, and at gunpoint took $50. You’d agree that was theft, right?”

          “Of course,” says Jack.

          “So then I am just applying the standard rule to your scenario. If we don’t make special exemptions for family, then you are clearly robbing me.”

          “Ah, you’re just begging the question,” Jack says, as he checks Crash Landing. “All you’ve proven, Bob, is that if family members don’t have the right to take $50 at gunpoint, then they’re stealing. No one is disputing *that*. What I’m saying is that I *do* have the right to take your $50 at gunpoint, because I’m family. So it’s not theft. Now pay up before I send a drone to assassinate you.”

          Who likes Jack’s take in this exchange? Who thinks I am being unreasonable?

          • Blackadder says:

            Bob,

            I agree that in your hypothetical Uncle Jack is robbing you. Is it because he has a gun pointed at you? Presumably not. After all, the IRS doesn’t point a gun at me when I’m doing my taxes.

            No doubt you’ll respond that while the IRS may not literally have a gun to my head, implicitly the threat is always there, because if I don’t pay then yada yada eventually men with guns will show up and make me pay. But that’s true generally. Let’s say I go to a restaurant, eat a nice meal, and then the waiter shows up with the bill. If I refuse to pay then yada yada eventually men with guns will show up and make me pay.

            The reason Uncle Jack is robbing me isn’t that he’s pointing a gun at my head; it’s that I don’t owe him the money.

            Most people, however, believe that taxes are something you owe to the government. So if you don’t pay them, *that’s* stealing, not the other way around. Maybe they are wrong about that, but you can’t prove this simply by pointing to examples where people take money that clearly isn’t owed to them.

          • Jeff Gough says:

            A bit of devil’s advocate: My guess would be that eliminating the “special exemption” for government officials is what Gene views as a, (quoting Gene from below), “distinctively non-everyday libertarian perspective.” Thus, you cannot arrive at the conclusion that taxation is theft using only “everyday” reasoning.

          • scineram says:

            Do you owe him $50, Bob?

            • bobmurphy says:

              Yes, because he and his brother–last Thanksgiving–said, “OK everybody, listen up! Everyone in here is each going to pay one of us $50. Now by a show of hands, who wants the recipient to be Uncle Moe? OK–I count 14. Now, by a show of hands, who wants the recipient to be me? OK–I count 18. Thanks everyone, I’ll be around in January to collect my $50. And I’ll bring my gun in case you forget that you owe me.”

    • David L. Kendall says:

      No question begging going on, Blackadder. Belong to a homeowners’ association is voluntary, which makes paying the dues voluntary. Paying federal income taxes is not voluntary in any meaningful sense.

      Prof. Bernardo de la Paz asks in Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, under what circumstances would two (or 2 million) people have warrant to do to another what everyone agrees one person has no warrant to do to another.

      Compulsion of any kind is immoral. I guess you know what that makes our federal income tax.

      • Blackadder says:

        Compulsion of any kind is immoral.

        I doubt you really believe this. For example, if I walk into your living room and refuse to leave, I’m guessing you think it’s okay to compel me to leave.

        Belong to a homeowners’ association is voluntary, which makes paying the dues voluntary. Paying federal income taxes is not voluntary in any meaningful sense.

        I have two responses, First, paying HSA dues is not voluntary in the sense that if you want to live in the geographical area of the HSA you have to pay the dues. If you don’t want to pay federal income tax you can likewise renounce your citizenship and leave the U.S.

        Second, even if paying income tax isn’t voluntary, it doesn’t follow that it is wrong. For example, in contracts law there is a doctrine known as Restitution whereby a person may be required to compensate another for expenses taken to protect his life or health. For example, you come across a car accident. I am bleeding and unconscious. You drive me to the hospital and during the trip, I bleed all over your upholstery. The law says that in such a circumstance I am liable to pay for the cost of cleaning your car, even though I never agreed to do so, or even asked you to take me to the hospital. Now I’m sure that this doctrine would have made Rothbard burn with outrage. But having been in a first year contracts class when the doctrine was explained, I can report the typical reaction was that this made perfect sense. Not only is it not immoral to make me compensate you even though I never agreed to do so, but it would be wrong for me *not* to compensate you. I would, in some sense, be cheating you.

  2. Tom Woods says:

    If taxation is like homeowners’ association dues, it is a very weird homeowners’ association. It charges me dues even though it never got my explicit consent. I never actually joined anything, yet it thinks it can take whatever portion of my income it wants, and blow it on all kinds of immoral things.

    • Blackadder says:

      Let me add, Tom, that I’m a big fan of your books.

    • Gene Callahan says:

      And it’s funny Tom: the grocery store keeps insisting I PAY for my food, even though I never explicitly consented to the property regime that declares that food to be the grocery store’s.

      • Tom Woods says:

        They are obviously tyrants at that grocery store, since the two cases are so fundamentally similar.

        • Gene Callahan says:

          Good evasion, Tom!

        • Gene Callahan says:

          Now, I understand what happened was that Tom was flummoxed, so he checked the LVMI escape manual, and it said, “Hit ‘em with the sarcasm ray set at stun and slip away while they’re recovering,” but in case the analogy is not clear, it is this: we are born into a world of obligations, rules, etc, to which we never consented. I never consented to the rules of English grammar, and yet I must follow them if I wish to be comprehended. I never consented to all of these property lines drawn on maps, yet I must heed them or I will be arrested for trespassing. I never consented to being born an American, yet I can never escape having been so born. I did not consent to have the parents I do, and yet I am still obligated to honor them.

          In fact, Tom, there is one quite famous figure in literature whose chief characteristic is to deny all obligations to which he did not consent, and, most specifically, his obligations to his Maker as a creature. I think he appeared in a long poem by Milton, for instance.

        • Jeff Gough says:

          Gene,
          This is actually one of the clearest posts I have seen from you on this general issue. I am glad to see it laid out more explicitly.

          I think I see your point that in order to be part of this group, whatever the group is, there will probably be aspects of its membership you do not like. Okay, I see your point there (I think. Correct me if you’re meaning something different.)

          But, are you saying someone has a moral obligation to follow rules as long as a sufficient number of people around her do the same? Specifically, you mention not consenting to having a specific set of parents, yet you are “still obligated to honor them.” How far does this go? A young black slave in South Carolina in the 1820′s might not have consented to his specific master, but given that people around him accepted (to some degree) this social arrangement was he “obligated” to honor his master? If not, what moral framework are you using to arrive at this distinction?

          By the way, I’ll officially be on record as stating that I do NOT believe you condone slavery. But, if slavery is an absurd example, you’ll have to explain why because accepting it as one of the obligations someone could be born into seems like a pretty straightforward conclusion from your post.

          • Desolation Jones says:

            Jeff, I don’t think Gene’s point was that’s it’s okay as long as everyone else does it. He should have followed his parents example with a conditional like he did for the rest of his examples for it to make any sense.

            If you’re still underage:

            “I did not consent to have the parents I do, and yet I am still obligated to honor them if I don’t want to live out in the street with nobody to feed me”

            If he’s old enough to have a job

            “I did not consent to have the parents I do, and yet I am still obligated to honor them if I want to keep my personal ties with them”

            Obviously, he doesn’t really think hes obligated to honor them if doesn’t want to. The key point is that he has a choice.

            The big difference with slavery is that you don’t have any choice. Slaves can’t just renounce their slavery and leave that life behind them. You on the other hand, can renounce your citizenship anytime you want and leave the US.

            If you take the opposite “libertarian” end of the parents issue, then it’s morally wrong for parents to force you to do anything. Obviously libertarians don’t believe this. I think when it comes to parenting, you have to take a pragmatic stance over a moral one.

          • Jeff Gough says:

            “Slaves can’t just renounce their slavery and leave that life behind them.”

            Well, I agree that the cost of renouncing slavery in the South was extraordinarily high (e.g. abandoning family, risking harsh punishment) but it certainly wasn’t impossible. As risky as it may have been, there was a choice. Otherwise, the Underground Railroad would be a difficult historical phenomenon to explain.

            “Obviously, he doesn’t really think hes obligated to honor them if doesn’t want to. The key point is that he has a choice.”

            Are you saying Gene’s point is to remind libertarians that they have a choice in paying taxes and if they decide not to there will be consequences? Why would he even bother to make such an obvious point? What libertarian disagrees with this? For some reason, I don’t think that’s what he was trying to say.

          • Jeff Gough says:

            After re-reading his post it seems to me Gene is saying:

            Look, obligations to the government aren’t the only thing you haven’t explicitly consented to. But unless you want to denounce all of the other rules and obligations you’re born into then you libertarians should quit whining about the government!

            Maybe this is an incorrect interpretation, but if it’s true I am curious to know if this is the same standard Gene would hold against a Southern slave in the 1820′s. Would the fact that a slave doesn’t also denounce having to speak English to be comprehended be grounds for dismissing his denunciations of slavery? If not, why hold it against the libertarian or anyone else for that matter?

            In other words, if there are rules and obligations someone hasn’t explicitly consented to yet nonetheless finds innocuous or perfectly legitimate, e.g. having to speak English or having to pay a grocer, how does this take away from the validity of her claims that other rules and obligations she hasn’t explicitly consented to are illegitimate and immoral?

  3. Blackadder says:

    Tom,

    I didn’t say that governments were homeowners’ associations, only that they were like them. The libertarian claim, by contrast, isn’t that taxation is somehow analogous to theft but that it just is theft.

    It’s true that the process for becoming a citizen is different than the process of joining a homeowners’ association (or at least it’s different for some people; there are millions of naturalized citizens who did explicitly join up; do libertarians not think taxation is theft for them?) On the other hand, if you want to resign your citizenship you can. You might have to leave the country, just as you wouldn’t be able to live in the geographical area governed by a homeowners’ association without belonging to the association, but you wouldn’t have to pay your “association dues” anymore.

    • crossofcrimson says:

      I can understand and almost appreciate the general “is taxation really theft” line of criticism. It seems like the same general line of criticism that Gene Callahan has been presenting as of late (and if I’m somehow misrepresenting his stance, I apologize). But I’m not sure it gets us anywhere, philosophically speaking, because you could lay that criticism at the feet of any person – regardless of their particular political or ethical philosophy. In this way, almost any moral supposition imaginable is question-begging in the strictest sense. It’s not ingenious to point out that thrashing a person is wrong to someone only because they believe that thrashing a person is wrong…whereas others might think differently. You’re merely illuminating Hume’s Guillotine.

      I think the more ingenious argument to present to libertarians (and I believe Gene has also alluded to this line of thinking) is to ask if, in some circumstances, doing something morally wrong could actually be the correct or “right” thing to do regardless (ie: consequentialism to some degree). In other words, even if we accept the idea that taking someone’s possessions by force is wrong (morally), could taxation be justified nonetheless because the ends justify the means. You could make similar arguments for killing innocent people in war, etc.

      Now, we could have a deeper conversation about what constitutes property and whatnot. But what I think is striking to most libertarians is that a good number of people generally agree on concepts of private property (at least to a fair extent) and yet instead of simply taking the consequentialist position when pressed they seem to deflect the question of theft altogether. Most of the time they aren’t combative to the extent that they believe the government has a good reason to take your stuff – In a lot of conversations they won’t even hold it as an analog to theft. They’ve pushed it so far into the realm of “this is for the greater good” that they don’t even see aggression in it – even the people who agree that taking something from an innocent individual is theft.

      So, again, although I think left-leaning libertarians and anarchists of similar persuasion can press the definition of property and aggression back to first principles (and that discussion can be had), I think what strikes us most is the majority of people who generally agree with our tenets and yet are so bogged down by the ends that they refuse to even recognize the ill-nature of the means.

    • David L. Kendall says:

      Which country is it that doesn’t compel it’s citizens (under threat of force, I might add) to pay taxes?

      • Blackadder says:

        David,

        All countries compel citizens to pay taxes. Most, however, do not compel them to remain citizens. Likewise, homeowners’ associations do not compel people to be members, but they do compel members to pay dues.

      • Desolation Jones says:

        The cliche answer is Somalia.

  4. Gene Callahan says:

    ‘t me make sure my point is clear: There is a strong moral presumption against the practices we call “taxation” and “war,” because they involve systematic acts that would be obvious crimes — i.e., theft and murder — if we analyzed them from an everyday perspective. Now there are various political philosophies that try to neuter this conclusion, yet most of them rely on the crucial plank in their reasoning that taxation and war are necessary evils.’

    Well, Bob, this view is arrived at by not reading any political philosophy. Let’s take, for instance, Catholic social teaching. Wars of aggression are an unadulterated evil. Wars of self-defense, on the other hand, are a good, not a “necessary evil.” (Yes, you’d prefer you didn’t HAVE to fight, but given your country is being attacked, defending it is not evil at all.) As is government itself, along with its ability to tax, given the fallen state of the world.

    Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke, Hegel, Green, Voegelin, Oakeshott, Rawls, Dworkin, Schmitt: The view you attribute to “most” political philosophies does not adequately characterize any of the above.

    It, in fact, captures the view of exactly ONE group: non-anarchist libertarians.

  5. Gene Callahan says:

    “I think the more ingenious argument to present to libertarians (and I believe Gene has also alluded to this line of thinking) is to ask if, in some circumstances, doing something morally wrong could actually be the correct or “right” thing to do regardless (ie: consequentialism to some degree).”

    I’ve never argued this and I’m not a consequentialist.

    “But I’m not sure it gets us anywhere, philosophically speaking, because you could lay that criticism at the feet of any person…”

    You could “lay the criticism” at the feet of anybody that they are baby killers. But that doesn’t mean that everybody is one!

    In fact:
    1) A major libertarian persuasive tactic is to proclaim “Taxation is theft!” but
    2) As Blackadder notes above, this is true ONLY AFTER one has accepted a libertarian property rights stance; so
    3) One is circular nonsense as a persuasive argument. (That doesn’t mean it is never rhetorically effective.)

    In fact, contra Bob, if you analyze taxation “from an everyday perspective,” it is certainly NOT theft. It is only when analyzed from the distinctively non-everyday libertarian perspective that it appears so.

    • crossofcrimson says:

      I’m not point-blank accusing you of being a consequentialist per se, but you’ve presented such arguments in other conversation (I can’t attest to if they had anything to do with your beliefs or not). I believe one such argument involved having a serious wound while being outside by yourself in the woods, seeing a cabin – with nobody inside – and seeing a first aid kit on a table…asking if it was “right” to break in and use the first aid kit even though it violated the libertarian premise of non-aggression. I know that’s not exactly how it went, but I don’t have time to search for the comment in question at the moment. If I’m confusing your comment with someone else’s, again, I apologize.

      “You could “lay the criticism” at the feet of anybody that they are baby killers. But that doesn’t mean that everybody is one!”

      And this is where it starts to break down to me. If this was truly analogous, the presentation would be more along the lines of:

      X killed a child. X proceeded to launch a rocket at a terrorist who was using the child as a shield while threatening to kill a nearby group of people. X knew the innocent child would die in the attack, but believes he did what he needed to do to save the lives of other innocents. We KNOW he killed the child (just as we know government proceeds to take our money by force or at the threat of force). The question is, “Is X a _murderer_ – in the criminal sense (as the analogous question would be, “Is the government taking your money _theft_ – in the criminal sense”).

      But to label it as such only brings you back to Hume’s Guillotine (once again). Someone who blatantly kills children (even for no reason) could wager the same argument against anyone who opposed his actions – which is precisely why I said such an argument gives no advantage to any particular political philosophy – nor does it degrade any particular moral or political philosophy any more than it degrades all of them.

      In other words, of course if you have a completely different understanding of property, etc., you will have a different moral conclusion. But I don’t think that most people _do_ have a largely different stance on property in general. I’m saying that I think they have similar views on property, but defend taxation on consequentialist grounds (“necessary evils”)…and so vehemently so that they often refuse to address the ill-nature of the means. If the majority of people refusing to recognize taxation as theft had a completely different paradigm regarding property rights in mind, then the social, cultural, and political customs, traditions, and laws that we have regarding private interaction would be 180 degrees out of phase with that understanding of property – but clearly this isn’t the case for _most_ people.

      Most people still believe that “non-government” individuals stealing their wallet or squatting on their land is an egregious violation of individual rights (precisely because they believe in property as such). So while, again, many left-leaning libertarians may have perfectly deontilogical political views and still do not perceive taxation to be theft based on a different understanding of property, I don’t believe that to be the case for the vast majority of people who still very much live their daily lives through and by a more traditional sense of property but suddenly seem flummoxed by its implications when the individuals they are dealing with wear a badge or a funny hat.

      • Gene Callahan says:

        “I’m not point-blank accusing you of being a consequentialist per se, but you’ve presented such arguments in other conversation (I can’t attest to if they had anything to do with your beliefs or not). I believe one such argument involved having a serious wound while being outside by yourself in the woods, seeing a cabin – with nobody inside – and seeing a first aid kit on a table…asking if it was “right” to break in and use the first aid kit even though it violated the libertarian premise of non-aggression.”

        1) I don’t care about any such “premise.”
        2) I did not defend breaking in *even though it is immoral*, I contend there is nothing immoral about breaking in under such circumstances — a totally different argument.

        “I’m saying that I think they have similar views on property, but defend taxation on consequentialist grounds (“necessary evils”)”

        Well, then, you would be wrong. Did you see Gran Torino? Clint Eastwood confessed to a priest near the end, “Once I cheated on my taxes. And that’s the same thing as stealing.”

        That’s what most people think.

        • crossofcrimson says:

          “2) I did not defend breaking in *even though it is immoral*, I contend there is nothing immoral about breaking in under such circumstances — a totally different argument.”

          Fair enough. As a libertarian I contend there is nothing immoral about killing under certain circumstances (self-defense for instance). I’m sure you’d find this analogous.

          “Well, then, you would be wrong. Did you see Gran Torino? Clint Eastwood confessed to a priest near the end, “Once I cheated on my taxes. And that’s the same thing as stealing.”

          That’s what most people think.”

          Yes, I’ve seen (and own a copy of) Gran Torino. I’m not going to argue with the fact that most people have never questioned the norm of taxation enough to frame it any other way. They’ve lived their entire lives with that as a reality. Hell, I find a large amount of people are apolitical to begin with. To them, it’s just a given (and as has already been brought up, so was slavery). And yet the reason that line of questioning is so effective (for libertarians) in conversation is precisely because 1.) People do generally do treat the forceful taking of property as theft in their every-day lives. 2.) They do not believe that being a government official gives you any inherent rights beyond what being a human bestows on you. 3.) Upon trying to reconcile what taxation really means they often get caught up in arguments about how no force is involved because most people don’t refuse to pay.

          I’m not saying that their _conclusion_ is much different than what you’ve laid out. But it certainly doesn’t seem like it’s because they believe in some alternate theory of property rights or the like. I’m more inclined to believe that most people have never really tried to think through the ethics of the situation at hand. Many people simply accept the world as it is, and never question why they “owe” any particular thing to anyone…especially when it’s going to spell trouble for them legally or otherwise.

          To be perfectly clear here, I’m not pretending to know why people come to the conclusion that it is their duty to pay taxes. But from what I’ve witnessed, it doesn’t seem to be because they have some completely different system of property or the like in mind, but rather that they are either consequentialists or they have inconsistent views…or at the least unexamined views.

  6. Gene Callahan says:

    An analogy:

    A thirteen-year-old child is playing X-Box on the couch. Hos mother comes in the room and says, “Johnny, I told you to do the dishes.”

    He responds, “Oh, so now I’m your slave!”

    From “an everyday perspective,” this is about as convincing an argument to most people as is “taxation is theft.” But to an angry thirteen-year-old kid, it sounds really good.

    And that captures libertarianism: a political philosophy that appeals to the angry thirteen-year-old inside all of us.

    • Tom Woods says:

      During most of human history, arguments against slavery would have been greeted exactly the same way as you are greeting arguments against taxation. Why, it’s only “man-stealing” if you accept the abolitionists’ crazy presuppositions involving “natural rights.” But whoever heard of this newfangled idea? What’s more, society couldn’t survive without slavery, and we can cite many impressive names in its favor.

      • Gene Callahan says:

        Fine, Tom. But libertarians can’t BOTH claim:
        1) Our “everyday” reasoning clearly demonstrates that taxation is theft; AND
        2) OF COURSE the idea that taxation is theft appears crazy and far out!

        • KP says:

          That sounds fair. Libertarians should claim:
          Taking our “everyday” reasoning further (or far out!) will demonstrate that taxation is theft.

      • Gene Callahan says:

        By the way, Tom, I thank you for offering the excellent slavery example in support of the position Blackadder and I are arguing here.

      • Jeff Gough says:

        Hold on, Gene. In a comment above you admit to me:

        “Of course, no libertarian has as her ONLY argument that ‘taxation is theft,’.

        Yet in this post you link to above you say: “To argue against the pro-slavery person, it does no good to keep saying ‘Slavery is kidnapping.’…And so it goes with ‘taxation is theft’”

        This seems to be a pretty clear implication that there are libertarians, that when pressed to explain why “taxation is theft” they simply keep saying because “taxation is theft.”

        Do you have any examples of this? Seriously, maybe you have a hundred. I would like to see them.

        • Gene Callahan says:

          Jeff, see Knoxharrignton just three comments (right now) below!

        • Jeff Gough says:

          I’m with you to a certain extent, however, he does go through the trouble of defining his own view of theft, viz. “taking that which does not belong to you by force or threat of force” and then asserts his view as to why he has legitimate property title to his wages, viz. because it’s money “which is earned by my labor.”

          Now, you may say those are terrible definitions that only a libertarian would accept and you may claim that ‘essentially’ you view it the same as merely repeating the claim that taxation is theft, but he has at least went a couple layers deeper in explaining his position, defining his terms, answering why. At least in taking this route (rather than quite literally and robotically repeating that taxation is theft) he and a non-libertarian could stumble upon their underlying differences on property rights, the use of force, etc. and converge on a productive debate.

          I don’t want to drag this on because I see your point, I just think you may be overstating it.

    • Dan says:

      That analogy doesn’t hold water. It would have to go further. If the kid decided that he was going to refuse to do the dishes and resisted sufficiently and the mother decided to plug him that it would be a proper analogy. Does a mother have the right to murder her son if he doesn’t do as he is told and resists her?

      • Gene Callahan says:

        Well, Dan:

        1) No one ever has a right to murder anyone. Because “murder” means “wrongful killing.”

        2) If the mother tries to send him to his room and he draws a gun on her and is about to fire, she sure does have a right to fire first. Similarly, the State does not kill you if you don’t pay your taxes. It fines you. THEN, if you still refuse to pay the fine, it sends men to imprison you. THEN, if you resist those men by threatening them with a gun, they may shoot you if necessary.

        So the analogy holds water just fine.

        • Dan says:

          Well, Gene

          1) Does the mother have the right to lock her son in a cell if he doesn’t do the dishes?

          2) If not, why does the State have this right and why do they have a right to kill if someone defends themselves against this imprisonment?

          3) Are there any taxes you would consider theft?

          By the way, I hate your views when in my eyes they tend toward “statism” but I do love the way your arguments usually force a more challenging and thought provoking assessment of ones own views.
          I started reading Walter Block’s book with Four Arrows, Differing World Views in Higher Education: Two Scholars Argue Cooperatively about Justice Education, last night and have nearly finished it. I haven’t been able to put it down for more than a few minutes since I started it. I think this type of book is right up your ally. I would love to see a Dr. Callahan and Dr. Murphy book along this format.

          Out of curiosity, what is your view on property rights? Is the State the legal owner of all the property in its area and we are just paying our dues? I’m not trying to be a jerk but I just don’t know what your view on property rights is.

          • Blackadder says:

            Does the mother have the right to lock her son in a cell if he doesn’t do the dishes?
            If not, why does the State have this right

            I don’t want to speak for Gene, but I somehow doubt he thinks the state has the right to put you in jail if you don’t do the dishes.

          • Dan says:

            I guess that is one way to twist the point. What I am getting at is in his scenario would the mother have the right to imprison her son for not doing the dishes? If she doesn’t have this right then by what basis does the State have the right to force us to pay taxes or go to jail or die? That doesn’t seem logically consistent to me. Why does the child not have to follow the dictate of the mother with her having the force of imprisonment or death if he doesn’t follow? Why do only a group of politicians get to swing that kind of weight behind their dictates?

            Taxes imply that I have property that is owed to the State. What property is that I owe to the State? Some might say because the State is needed to provide military, police and courts then you owe the State for providing these services. Most go much further in the list that the State “must” provide and thus the taxes you owe are even higher. It is justified because these monopolies are supposedly necessary. It isn’t even an option to opt out unless you expatriate and go live under some other State. I reject that because I believe that these services would be better provided by the free market. In my opinion, the non-aggression principle and homesteading property rights is not only morally correct but proven to be the most economically beneficial to all by Austrian economics like Dr. Murphy. So I reject taxes as immoral and inefficient. The only way my view could be changed is if someone were to show to me a way to define property rights that doesn’t violate the non-aggression principle and justifies the State. Too that I would say good luck.

      • knoxharrington says:

        You’ll have to excuse Gene – he is not taking his meds right now.

        Most libertarians understand that children represent problematic cases for libertarian rights theories but what we are talking about here, with Gene muddying the waters, is adults being treated as property and the analogy that taxation is theft. Both imply taking that which does not belong to you by force or threat of force – why that concept gets muddled with the grocer offering bread from his store, etc. is beyond me. If I don’t have a choice but to give over that which is earned by my labor – taxes – then it is taken by force and is theft. Just ask a group of people – the next time your in a position to do so – if by a show of hands it would be ok to take 40% of the money out of a subset of the group’s wallets to give to the homeless. I have never encountered a group that thought that was acceptable behavior. I then say why do we think it is acceptable on a larger scale, i.e., the state. Ordinarily the shields go up but sometimes people get it.

        • Blackadder says:

          You’ll have to excuse Gene – he is not taking his meds right now.

          Are you saying that to accept libertarian arguments one must be medicated? :)

          • knoxharrington says:

            Touche. No, just that Gene tends to gravitate to tangential, distractionary issues rather than grappling with plain-meaning.

            Then again, I’m not taking my meds right now either.

          • Gene Callahan says:

            Yes, backadder, I do believe that is the thrust of knoxharrington’s argument.

            But, more fundamentally, knowharrington is one of many who have found it necessary to attack me personally, since I used to “get it,” and that I don’t now MUST be a sign of insanity, as otherwise they might be tempted to think through their position.

          • knoxharrington says:

            Sorry, Gene. I was trying to make a joke. I don’t care that you “deviated” from the received orthodoxy I was just saying that referring to consensual exchanges and parent-child relationships muddies the water rather than providing the clarity that is needed. The plain meaning of theft is taking that which does not belong to you – usually by surreptious means. I guess the better word would be robbery because that involves force or its threat. The point is that if my body or property is taken by force it involves robbery and is not legitimate no matter whether votes or some other decision procedure is followed in an attempt to justify it.

            Don’t be so thin skinned – we are all Rodney King’s here.

          • Blackadder says:

            knoxharrington,

            You say: The plain meaning of theft is taking that which does not belong to you – usually by surreptious means.

            Let’s say I do my taxes and calculate my tax liability at $10k. I, however, don’t want to pay that much, so I under-report my income such that I only have to pay $5k.

            Now suppose we describe this scenario to the average man on the street, and ask him whether the situation described is a) the government stealing $5k from me, or b) me stealing $5k from the government. What do you think the typical answer will be?

          • knoxharrington says:

            “Let’s say I do my taxes and calculate my tax liability at $10k. I, however, don’t want to pay that much, so I under-report my income such that I only have to pay $5k.

            Now suppose we describe this scenario to the average man on the street, and ask him whether the situation described is a) the government stealing $5k from me, or b) me stealing $5k from the government. What do you think the typical answer will be?”

            I’m sure that the typical answer would be the one you are looking for – that it is theft from the government. Unfortunately, we are not talking about what is believed but what is correct. The typical person in the street may think that the Iraq war was necessary to stop “terrorism” – does that mean his correct or is that just what he believes?

            That is the whole point of groups like FEE and others – educate and show the connections. I am under no illusion as I have children – we can lead them to the water but we cannot “make them drink.”

          • Blackadder says:

            knoxharrington,

            The reason people would say that I am stealing from the government is that they think *I* am taking something that doesn’t belong to me. They might be wrong, but it’s not because they don’t believe that theft is wrong or because they haven’t thought through the implications of what that means. The disagreement is about what belongs to whom.

          • bobmurphy says:

            Gene wrote:

            But, more fundamentally, knowharrington is one of many who have found it necessary to attack me personally, since I used to “get it,” and that I don’t now MUST be a sign of insanity, as otherwise they might be tempted to think through their position.

            No Gene, you have just shown that you haven’t read anything from the Western canon.

            Throughout Greco-Roman history, all societies have recognized that people who leave a well-established group and then act contrary to the group’s goals and interests are to be shunned or worse. Hence the pejorative words “traitor,” “rat,” “fink,” etc.

            Indeed, if we study history, we see that some of the worst villains were not actually the ones who caused the most damage, but the ones who had switched sides. E.g. Benedict Arnold.

            And of course, if you had ever read Dante, you would know the common link of the 3 people who are suffering the worst punishment at the lowest circle of hell.

            [NOTE TO ONLOOKERS: I am being facetious, giving a dose of the medicine I get out of the Callahan cabinet.]

    • Robert Greenwood says:

      I don’t know about you, but I don’t sit around playing X-Box while the state provides me food and shelter.

      I think a more accurate analogy would be:

      A 30 y/o orphan who built his own house and grows his own food is approached by a strange man claiming to be his father. The man demands compensation for giving birth to the “orphan”. The orphan having never met the stranger refuses. The strange man calls some of his friends and they kick the orphan out of his house and eat all his food. The orphan resists so they either lock him up in a cage or shoot him.

      What right does the orphan have to his labor? After all, some stranger claims to have given him life.

      • Blackadder says:

        A 30 y/o orphan who built his own house and grows his own food is approached by a strange man claiming to be his father. The man demands compensation for giving birth to the “orphan”. The orphan having never met the stranger refuses. The strange man calls some of his friends and they kick the orphan out of his house and eat all his food. The orphan resists so they either lock him up in a cage or shoot him.

        Yeah, I’m sure the average person thinks that is *exactly* what the state is like. U.S. Government? Never heard of em.

        • knoxharrington says:

          Check out A. John Simmons – Moral Principles and Political Obligations, Princeton University Press. Great book that deals with a lot of these issues. Simmons is an academic philosopher and not particularly an “ax-grinder” that you encounter among partisans of my type.

          Encountering Simmons’ work – On the Edge of Anarchy, The Lockean Theory of Rights, Justification and Legitimacy (a collection of essay from journals) and the aforementioned – proved to be real game-changers for me (among the other usual suspects).

        • Robert Greenwood says:

          I didn’t say my analogy was spot-on, just more accurate than Gene’s regarding today’s state of affairs. Gene is characterizing adults as property or wards of the state, duty-bound to obey all orders, those of whom do not like being ordered around are merely whiny brats. My analogy describes the point of view of self-supporting individuals being forced to support others against their will.

          Also, I think the reason our country is in so much trouble is because the average person does not understand the dangerous powers of the US Gov. I believe the majority of Americans have not understood for several generations. Simply stating that the average person would not agree with me is hardly an argument.

        • Gene Callahan says:

          Right, Blackadder. Because, you see, the language Mr. Greenwood (for whom the 30 yr. old orphan is clearly a sock puppet) speaks was invented by him right inside that house. And he chopped down all those trees himself, and transported him along roads he himself paved. And, while doing so, he was protected from robbers by a system of laws he himself devised, enforced in courts in which he is judge and by law officers who are… all him!

          So the idea that he might have some obligation to which he has not voluntarily committed himself for these bounties is absurd.

          • Robert Greenwood says:

            The analogy about building his own house was not intended to devalue the division of labor but to represent supporting oneself without subsistence from the state. The intent of the analogy is simply to point out the coercive nature of the state. The state is not a loving, nurturing parent, intending only the best for me. The government is a collection of power-hungry individuals who believe it’s their job to “run” the country.

            Regarding the state’s role in infrastructure and protection/law enforcement, the anarcho-libertarians argue that the private sector could provide those services adequately if not better than the state. I am not presenting an argument for this as I am not fully convinced myself (although I like the concept).

    • David L. Kendall says:

      I disagree. Libertarianism is a political philosophy that appeals to the morality inside all of us.

      It is immoral to compel another sentient human being. It is immoral because compulsion of Joe by Bob rests on Bob’s assertion that Joe is nothing more than Bob’s property. That can’t be right, of course. Bob’s assertion immediately grants Joe reciprocal rights.

      Humans have ontological value. Coercion of Joe by Bob denies that value for Joe.

      Compulsory taxes rest on the false claim of one set of people over the property of another set of people, with their consent. That’s immoral.

  7. Daniel Hewitt says:

    Even though I do agree with the argument that taxation is theft, I happen to agree with Blackadder/Gene about the ineffectiveness of this argument, which is why I never use it. Blackadder has, for the most part, confined himself to attacking the effectiveness of the argument. Gene’s attempts to attack the argument itself are actually undermining Blackadder’s point.

  8. bobmurphy says:

    Holy cow! I stay away for 16 hours to do a crash course in study guide writing, and next thing I know there are 53 comments on this post.

    I just assumed it would be Gucci handbags saying, “i like your excellent informative post!”

    I’m not sure which is worse.

  9. Eli says:

    Gene, you wrote:

    ” And he chopped down all those trees himself, and transported him along roads he himself paved. And, while doing so, he was protected from robbers by a system of laws he himself devised, enforced in courts in which he is judge and by law officers who are… all him!
    So the idea that he might have some obligation to which he has not voluntarily committed himself for these bounties is absurd.”

    No, it is not absurd. I never asked the government to provide any of these “services” or contracted with them in any way so there is no reason I should owe them payment for it. In fact I would much prefer if the government *didn’t* provide these services because they make it difficult or impossible for private sector alternatives which would be a huge improvement over slow, corrupt government courts and unjust legislation.

    Analogously, if I come over to your house and mow your lawn without asking you, I have no right to then demand payment for my services and threaten to have you thrown in jail for objecting. I also have no right to take money from you if you hire someone else to mow your lawn, nor can I extract money from your hire and make him jump through bureaucratic hoops.

    Blackadder, you wrote:

    “The typical response is that if you accept the libertarian philosophical framework then it turns out taxation really is theft, regardless of how things might look on the surface. But that’s question begging. The whole issue is whether we should accept the libertarian philosophical framework or not.”

    The issue is not accepting the libertarian framework per se, it’s about how do you define theft. I consider theft to be taking someone’s property without their consent, or with consent coerced under threat of violence, when that person had not violated any contract they had voluntarily entered into. Based on this definition, taxation is theft. It is possible to accept this definition and not be an anarchist, which I suspect is the case for many people, even though that is a morally inconsistent position to take.

    “Either taxation is theft for everyone (even if they don’t think it is), or it is not theft for everyone (even if some people think it is). The fact that you accept the libertarian philosophical framework and believe taxation is theft doesn’t mean that it is theft for you, any more than the fact a Marxist thinks it is stealing to charge people to buy bread means it is stealing to make him pay for bread.”

    Suppose there’s a slave who thinks he has it pretty good. He gets 3 meals a day, a place to sleep, and gets to work out in the sun all day. Is he less of a slave because he doesn’t see himself as one? ..maybe. But does that provide any moral justification for keeping others enslaved who are vehemently opposed to it? I would say no.

    ” If you don’t want to pay federal income tax you can likewise renounce your citizenship and leave the U.S.”

    This argument begs the question because it presupposes that the government has a legitimate claim on my earnings. Why should I have to vacate my property for refusing to pay “protection” money? I should not be punished for government aggression.

    The government is not some sacred entity where different moral rules apply; it is comprised of people who should be held to the same ethical standards as anyone else.

    ” For example, in contracts law there is a doctrine known as Restitution whereby a person may be required to compensate another for expenses taken to protect his life or health. For example, you come across a car accident. I am bleeding and unconscious. You drive me to the hospital and during the trip, I bleed all over your upholstery. The law says that in such a circumstance I am liable to pay for the cost of cleaning your car, even though I never agreed to do so, or even asked you to take me to the hospital.”

    This is an interesting case, and I agree with you here that the accident victim would owe money. However, this scenario is markedly different. The accident victim is unconscious. It is reasonable to assume that if he had been able to give consent to be driven to the hospital, he would have, upholstery expenses and all. This analogy does not hold with government; the government is not saving us from the brink of death, and we are not incapacitated. In your example, if the person had been conscious and said “please DON’T drive me to the hospital, I’m fine” but you force him in your car and do so anyways, you would no right to demand restitution. Likewise, we anarchists are yelling for the government to stop “helping” us, despite their claims that it is for our own good.

    • Blackadder says:

      ”If you don’t want to pay federal income tax you can likewise renounce your citizenship and leave the U.S.” This argument begs the question because it presupposes that the government has a legitimate claim on my earnings.

      Exactly. If the government has no legitimate claim on my earnings, then taxation (of my earnings) is theft. On the other hand, if the government does have such a claim, then it’s not theft. The idea that if taxation is illegitimate then it is theft is hardly an astounding one.

      I agree with you here that the accident victim would owe money.

      And yet, doesn’t this meet the definition of theft that you just gave?

      The accident victim is unconscious. It is reasonable to assume that if he had been able to give consent to be driven to the hospital, he would have, upholstery expenses and all.

      A newborn baby is not unconscious, but is not able to give or withhold consent to becoming a citizen, with all the rights and obligations that go along with it. We assume that a newborn would have chosen citizenship had they been able, just as we assume that the person lying by the side of the road would have agreed to pay for the car cleaning in exchange for being taken to the hospital. It’s true that there is a small minority in each case who will at least claim after the fact that they would have chosen differently. In the case of citizenship, we actually allow them to get rid of their citizenship once they reach majority if they wish, and we don’t even require that they pay any restitution for any of the benefits they have received up to that point (and it is silly to claim that an 18 year old has received *no* benefits from government services, as if they never used the roads, used government currency, etc.; even if you thought that such services could be provided more efficiently by the private market this wouldn’t mean you haven’t benefited from them, anymore than proving someone else could have transported you to the hospital more cheaply means you don’t have to pay the guy who actually did transport you).

      • Dan says:

        This keeps going in circles. I think the ancap view on the non-agression axiom and homesteading property rights, if taken as true, clearly shows that taxation is theft. So obviously ancaps believe all taxation is theft but it isn’t as if we are ignoring the explanation of why its not some group of politicians property. So it is pointless to tell an ancap that he is begging the question when he says taxes are theft. They answered the question and if you choose to ignore the literature that is not their misstep. Refute the non-aggression principle or homesteading property rights if you disagree with them but why is it question begging if you don’t spell out the entire libertarian manifesto before you call taxation theft in an article? It isn’t as if he wrote a book that said taxes are theft and proceeded without ever justifying it. He wrote an article and sourced to a number of free market alternatives to the State in areas such as money, law, and defense. If question begging means I have to spell out entirely all of my beliefs every time I say something I believe to be true then I’m not going to be able to get much done.

      • Eli says:

        Blackadder,

        “And yet, doesn’t this meet the definition of theft that you just gave?”

        Even though the unconscious person did not give their consent, we can reasonably assume he would have if he was able to. This is admittedly a fuzzy scenario, but it is not an analogy for government providing services. We as people are fully cognizant and able to consent, and yet the government demands money from us even when we don’t consent. As I mentioned, a more accurate analogy would be if I found a person after a car accident who said “Don’t drive me to the hospital, I’m fine” and forced him into my car and then demanded payment. Or take the example I replied to Gene with: I can’t just sneak over to your house without your permission, mow your lawn, and then demand compensation for my services.

        “A newborn baby is not unconscious, but is not able to give or withhold consent to becoming a citizen, with all the rights and obligations that go along with it. We assume that a newborn would have chosen citizenship had they been able, just as we assume that the person lying by the side of the road would have agreed to pay for the car cleaning in exchange for being taken to the hospital. ”

        I choose to be a citizen of the US because it comes with benefits [i]given[/i] that the territory I live in is controlled by a government with a monopoly on violence. Freedom was never an option. This would be like saying that a slave owes labor-hours to his master because he eats food provided by the master and sleeps in shelter provided by the master. Last analogy (I hope): this would be like saying that if I vote for Ron Paul I am condoning a federal government and taxation; I don’t, but freedom was never a choice.

        “and it is silly to claim that an 18 year old has received *no* benefits from government services, as if they never used the roads, used government currency, etc.; even if you thought that such services could be provided more efficiently by the private market this wouldn’t mean you haven’t benefited from them, anymore than proving someone else could have transported you to the hospital more cheaply means you don’t have to pay the guy who actually did transport you).”

        I would *NOT* have to pay the guy who transported me if he forced me into his car despite my protesting and he blocked off the road so no other (faster and more comfortable) cars could stop to help me.