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Why Taxation Is Neither Theft Nor Slavery

Being billed for government services isn’t theft, but property itself is…

Occasionally you hear people on the Right, or just grumpy small business owners, asserting that taxation is a form of legalized robbery. Some even compare it to slavery—Grover Norquist, commenting on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s plan for a 70 percent marginal tax rate on multi-millionaires, asked: If “slavery is when your owner takes 100% of your production… what is the word for 70% expropriation?” Right-wing libertarians sometimes quote Frederick Douglass talking about how his wealth was taken by his master in order to grouse about having their wealth taken by their own “master,” Big Government.  

It’s hard to think anyone who says this really believes it. In this country, slavery was a condition under which people could be beaten to death if they refused to work, under which women could be raped, their children sold away from them. A slave could be told to do a task and punished for not doing it, a slave could be prohibited from marrying or forced to marry. Ocasio-Cortez proposed that if you earn over 10 million dollars per year, every additional dollar should be taxed highly in order to save humanity from the existential crisis of climate change. To compare these two situations seems to me to involve such a detachment from reality that I hardly even know where to begin. It trivializes the harms of slavery, by comparing the condition of the slave to the condition of the present-day American super-wealthy—the freest, most privileged people in human history. If you think high marginal tax rates are slavery, then I’m sure you wouldn’t mind changing places with an actual slave. After all, it’s the same. They wouldn’t be losing anything, right? And if they think they would be losing something, well, that something is precisely the difference between having to pay your taxes and being a slave.

I could make you a list of about 400 ways in which being taxed is not like slavery. For one thing, you get to vote on tax policy! If slavery involved getting to choose your government, getting to choose which labor you did and for how long, and having a large pile of money, it might look more like the situation of the contemporary rich. But those things were, uh, not features of the system. Nevertheless, serious philosophers on the right have argued that taxation is a form of “forced labor.” Harvard’s Robert Nozick made the argument that taxing someone means forcing them to work. Here is a libertarian paraphrasing the argument, explaining why it follows logically from the principle that people “own themselves”:

[I]f you do believe in self-ownership you must agree that this means that people own their time, talents and labor. Nozick argued the standard Lockean argument for private property that we produce goods by mixing our labor and talents with resources and goods in the natural world. This mixing generates the ownership of the items we have modified and made valuable. Now, if the government taxes our income it is taking away our time, talents, and goods produced by our labor. Taxation is the taking of our labor and talents by force which means that the taking means effectively that the government owns our talents and labor and so owns us. According to Nozick (and so very many others), taxation means that the government takes away our self-ownership which is called slavery.

There is so much slippery sophistry in this one paragraph that I am reluctant to even begin unpacking it. First, the “standard Lockean argument for private property” is bonkers, based far more on assertion than reasoning. The question it tries to answer is: How do “unowned” things come to be “owned” things in the first place? Or, since a property right is “the right to exclude others from use of a thing, by force if necessary,” the question is: How come people have a “right” to exclude others by force from things that were once held in common by all? The world was once unowned, but now people have private property. Why did they get to declare things their property? Now, historically speaking, they declared things their property largely by seizing them from those who were using them. But this makes the foundations of private property rights seem very shaky, hence the argument that people obtain property by “mixing their labor” with unowned things.

The “labor mixing” theory is vague and unhelpful, for reasons ably explained by Matt Bruenig in a charming Socratic dialogue between an ordinary rational person and a delusional maniac who thinks you can come to own something (i.e., to restrict other people from using it by force) by “mixing” your labor with it. If I go into a public forest, and I carve a tree into a totem pole, do I now own the tree? After all, the totem pole is a fruit of my labor. What if I carve my name into it? If I open a can of soup into the ocean, spreading the soup far and wide, do I own the ocean? Who decides when I have put in adequate labor for a thing to become mine? This idea that you can claim pieces of the commons and call them “yours” is what led P.J. Proudhon to declare that “property is theft”: By fencing off a park and calling it mine, I am stealing it from other people. They used to have access to it, and now they don’t.

The philosophy of property rights is important, because the big holes in it make angry conservative appeals to “entitlement” somewhat nonsensical. If I live on stolen land, taken from a people who held the land as a commons, what on earth am I talking about when I say that it’s my land and that I’m entitled to the fruit of the labor I put into it?

Here’s Nozick elaborating:

Seizing the results from someone’s labor is equivalent to seizing hours from him and directing him to carry on various activities. If people force you to do certain work, or unrewarded work, for a certain period of time, they decide what you are to do and what purposes your work is to serve apart from your decisions. This process whereby they take this decision from you makes them a part-owner of you; it gives them a property right in you.

I am not sure why “seizing the results from someone’s labor” is “equivalent” to “directing him to carry on various activities”: Stealing someone’s wallet means they’ll have to work some more if they want to have the same amount of things as before (or they’ll have to sit around and wait for some more capital income to accrue), but they won’t be punished or killed for not laboring. Theft and forced labor are different, and while this is an argument that taxation is theft, it’s not a good argument that it’s forced labor, because the labor… isn’t forced. We do have legalized forced labor in the United States, actually, thanks to the 13th Amendment (which explicitly permits slavery as punishment for crimes), but it is in prisons rather than boardrooms.

Is taxation theft, then? Well, first, I want us to be careful: Deciding whether taxation is “theft” doesn’t actually tell us whether taxation is justified. The word theft is used to imply that taxation is illegitimate, but it could be that taxation is both a kind of theft and is completely acceptable. How? Because Jean Valjean was correct to steal that loaf of bread. It wasn’t “not stealing.” But it was fine. Unless you believe property rights are absolutes, that there is no other moral consideration that can override them, then we have to weigh the “sanctity of ownership” against other factors like “people’s lives.” Even the staunchest libertarians do not think property rights are absolutes—and if you press them on where to draw the line, they squirm, as you can see in this fascinating exchange between libertarian Bryan Caplan and socialist Elizabeth Bruenig. Caplan says that obviously, if something he owned were necessary to save the universe, his property rights wouldn’t trump everything else. But when she asks him “Why?” he flounders and sputters until the moderators steps in to save him. (Read the Current Affairs review of Caplan’s book here.) He struggles because once he announces a principle for why certain outcomes are bad enough that they justify overriding property rights, it won’t take much to make the case that today’s socialists are justified in seeing widespread material deprivation as bad enough to trump property rights. 

I don’t think the question of whether taxation is theft is particularly relevant, then, because I am somewhat of a utilitarian who thinks a more important question is what differing conceptions of rights produce in terms of justice. And I don’t think respect for the property rights of the wealthy is morally justified. A friend of mine is a teacher in the Detroit school system. She tells me that her kids are bright and gracious and wonderful, but they are poorer than you might realize. Many go to bed hungry, and are hungry at school. Many are homeless and do not know where they will be spending the night. They do not have changes of clothes, they pass out in class because they couldn’t get any rest. You can’t ask them about what toys they like to play with, because they don’t have them.

Now, Jeff Bezos has a net worth of $140,000,000,000. He could change every single one of these children’s lives with the money he makes in about nine seconds. I do not really give a damn whether we decide that it’s “theft” for the state to seize a portion of this wealth, because whatever value we might assign to respecting property rights is outweighed a thousandfold by the needs of others. The “utility” differences are staggering: an amount of money that is literally negligible to a billionaire can be of immeasurable assistance to someone who is rationing their insulin. (The justice of massive expropriation is clear regardless of where we come down on taxation being a form of “legalized robbery” or not.)

But there are still good reasons why it’s not sensible to refer to taxation as a kind of theft. For one thing, taxation is foundational to a functional market economy. It’s impossible to imagine a world in which everyone received their “pre-tax” income. The government is critical to the existence of the economy: Property rights are enforced by courts, money is issued by the government, the military “protects” us. There is no world in which “pre-tax” income could ever meaningfully belong to its recipients, because without taxes, there is no government, and government is necessary to create the roads, sewers, streetlights, courts, etc. that make obtaining the income possible. The hand of government in creating the economy is present in myriad ways people don’t notice. Consider “limited liability” and bankruptcy protection, two ways the state interferes significantly with “property rights” in ways favored by business. A corporation is incorporated, it makes money because it exists within a legal structure established by the state, with a set of legal protections afforded by the state.

There is a dimension of the “taxation is theft” argument that I think is worth mentioning: the interesting conception of “force” involved. The argument is quite simple: Taxation is a threat—give the Leviathan your money or go to jail, and if a private citizen did that they would be a mugger. But there’s another important aspect to this: Not only are you not forced to earn an income or be rich, but you could always go and live somewhere else. Perhaps a floating artificial city, perhaps Bermuda, perhaps the moon. There is an important argument that if you choose to continue living in the United States, you accept its social contract.

You could immediately object by saying that this is not a meaningful “choice”: A dictator could say “I haven’t restricted free speech by banning newspapers, because they could always go and publish in some other country.” Not everyone has the ability to go and live on the moon. Funnily enough, this is kind of a “leftist” argument: “Choice” is not just a matter of whether you consent, but about the pressures that cause you to feel like you have to consent. It’s actually what leads us to argue that capitalists are the ones committing systemic theft, by forcing you to work longer hours than you would have if they hadn’t used a portion of your productivity to make other people rich. People on the right say that you “consent” to your employment conditions, but for poor workers that’s no different from saying that you “consent” to the restrictions on your speech imposed by a dictator by choosing not to flee the country.

We can imagine the United States as one big “company town,” or a block of residences governed by a condo association. The “free market” argument is that you don’t have liberties at work, or rights against private entities, because you contracted with them. If Facebook owns the city, and you live there, then you can’t complain about the rules Facebook imposes. You can’t say that Facebook’s security officers violated the 4th Amendment in searching you, because the 4th Amendment doesn’t apply to private entities. Corporations, as Elizabeth Anderson has written, are kind of private dictatorships: By stepping onto their turf, you obey their rules, and you don’t have any kind of democratic decision-making power (as you do with the United States government). You can’t vote for your boss.

Let’s accept, then, that the left theory of coercion is correct: Just because people enter an institution “voluntarily,” doesn’t mean they lack rights vis-a-vis the institution, even if the “contract” says so. Wouldn’t that mean taxation is theft? Now, part of me wants to strike a bargain: If conservatives will say that employers steal surplus value from employees, I will say that taxation is theft, albeit perfectly justified and democratically voted-for theft that is returned to you in the form of countless important services. There’s another element to choice, though, which is that choice depends on your “meaningful capacity to do otherwise.” The ability of a rich person to leave the country and go work elsewhere is greater than the ability of a poor person to do so, because money is power. (And rich citizens do sometimes give up their citizenship to avoid taxes.)

More importantly, though: I do not believe that billionaires have any property right in their wealth in the first place. They have a legal right, but that doesn’t mean very much. Legal rights are created by laws, and so if you change the laws you change the rights. The question is whether there is some kind of “natural” entitlement to wealthy people having their vast wealth, and there isn’t. (Property is, after all, theft to begin with, and just because you managed to obtain something lawfully under a legal system set up by people in your economic class doesn’t mean I have to respect your natural right to it.) This is not to say that I believe nobody deserves to have their possessions protected: As I say, I am somewhat flexible and pragmatic in my approach, meaning that I do think people without much wealth should have their things treated as their things and respected, but I don’t think people with a lot of wealth should have that same presumption. I think property, a.k.a. the right to use force to exclude others, should exist to the extent necessary, and the less you have, the more necessary it is to be able to exclude others from using the things you have. Some socialists draw a distinction between “personal possessions” and “private property”: They think people should have their possessions, like heirlooms, clothes, a bicycle, respected, because these things are for personal use. A factory, on the other hand, is not for personal use, and should be held in common by its workers. Now, don’t ask me to start putting every object on earth in one or the other of these categories. But it’s a place to start in trying to distinguish the differences between Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Washington Post (which enables him to tell people what to do, and fire them if he likes) and my ownership of my cravat (which entitles me only to wear it). 

The “highway robber” analogue for the taxman only works if the highway robber, after taking your wallet, gave you an old age insurance plan and saved your house from a fire, and also gave to the poor, and also you could vote him out if you didn’t like it, and also he only robbed you if you had money to spare and checked what your income was and only took an amount you could clearly live without. Oh, and he didn’t threaten to kill you, but just to put you in jail until you followed the rules everyone else follows (because I’m a prison abolitionist, I don’t like this part). Oh, and you’re allowed to leave his forest if you don’t like his rules. Essentially he’d be Robin Hood, but democratically accountable. Whether he’s a thief or not, philosophers can argue about endlessly, I’m sure. But words like “robbery” and “slavery” simply do not apply. The aspects of those acts that make them so appalling are simply not present in a typical tax regime, and it’s nauseating to hear the most pampered and freest people on earth complaining that they are being subjected to a wrong because they have to contribute some pittance to schooling for the children of the people who built the roads and bridges they drive on. Give me a break.

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