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Taxes=Slavery?

I mean to spend some more time posting my own thinking in this space, so far I’ve been hesitant to post any research related posts; I have some ideas in the pipeline, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. I’m always more comfortable responding to arguments rather than starting discussions.

At any rate, that old libertarian/objectivist standby that taxes are a form of theft or slavery is back on this internets, this time Karl Smith is linking to a post from Bryan Caplan. Quoting from the Smith post, here’s the argument in a nutshell:

Suppose there are ten people on a desert island. One, named Able Abel, is extremely able. With a hard day’s work, Able can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island. Eight islanders are marginally able. With a hard day’s work, each can produce enough to feed one person. The last person, Hapless Harry, is extremely unable. Harry can’t produce any food at all.
Questions:

1. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to support Harry?

2. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?

3. Do the bottom nine have a right to tax Abel’s surplus to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?

4. Suppose Abel only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day. Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?

How would most people answer these questions? It’s hard to say. It’s easy to feel sorry for the bottom nine. But #1 and #3 arguably turn Abel into a slave. And #2 and #4 clearly turn Abel into a slave. I suspect that plenty of non-libertarians would share these libertarian moral intuitions. At minimum, many would be conflicted.

And the response I left:

The problem here is that we know full well the solution to this parable in the real world and we ought not to think that hard to understand. No, almost nobody not already infected with libertarian/objectivist thinking would have any problems forcing Abel to help Harry. Nobody. I’ll go further and say that half the problem is a framing device which by now anyone who considers themselves honest thinkers should have built some resistence to. Calling the least able person “hapless” involves (a priori) a moral injunction against him.

What do I mean? Well, what if Harry is “hapless” because he is injured or maimed or, say, autistic? What would people decide then? Obviously, society would shun any who have the resources to help but refuse to do so. Abel would be a pariah. Either Abel would have to “buy off” the others to stay in their company, or he would have to support Harry himself. This is how real people behave.

You can call this slavery if you want, but its a really strange notion when you come to it (as Karl suggests, this is why slavery is difficult from a metaethical perspective, but I want to duck philosophical arguments as much as I can). The issue here is that Abel has the “right” to be lazy and feed only himself, but the group also has the “right” to define the “price” of admission into the in-group. This price is what we would refer to as a “tax” and if Abel wants to be part of society he’d better pay it. As the Greeks understood, we are all “slaves” to the law (a point that DeLong has brought up on numerous occasions).

More broadly, this is a very common framing I hear from Libertarian types and yet its deeply flawed. You can talk all you want about “voluntary exchange”, but ultimately Abel wants to be part of a group but has no “property right” over the group any more than anyone else. So, what Abel wants is to exchange his extra resources for a position in the group and the group wants the resources to feed its unable members. This is a mutually beneficial exchange, but Libertarians want the rest of us to see it as somehow salacious; rather it is Abel who wishes to free-ride.

Incidently, here’s a link to DeLong’s “Freedom is Slavery” point which he attributes to the Greeks.

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  1. May 13, 2012 at 2:09 am

    Thanks for the interesting points of thought.

    As for the desert island analogy, would it be your position that the group collectively owns and controls the island and that is why they are right to enforce their rules?

    If so, I don’t see that there is necessarily anything wrong with thinking that people can enforce certain rules on property they have ownership rights to.

    The problem seems to be that libertarians seem to believe that property rights are more difficult to establish than merely planting a flag, so to speak. So while libertarians may believe that particular people own parcels of property in America (or the island in this case), I don’t think they would agree that those individual parcels of land are owned by America. I understand you might not agree with that distinction, but do you understand where libertarians are making that distinction?

    Also, where you said that “almost nobody not already infected with libertarian/objectivist thinking would have any problems forcing Abel to help Harry,” do you think most people would be willing to personally exercise force against Abel if they were physically up for the task? I am speculating, but I suspect that they wouldn’t.

    • BSEconomist
      May 13, 2012 at 9:58 am

      The mistake that you’re making is in thinking that there are property and control rights that exist independent of the collective. To understand what I mean, it is helpful, I think, to step back from island analogy and think about the real world.

      The United States sets control and property rights for its citizens. We do this because there are advantages to individual ownership of property; if you are familiar with libertarianism I shouldn’t need to go through that. In many other countries, however, property rights are ill-defined–although I think the importance of this is generally overblown many hypothesize that insufficient property rights hold back many societies. To go back to the island, property rights are one of the advantages being in the group for which Abe might want to join.

      As for whether or not the group “owns” the island, my response is that this is not really a well-posed argument. The group allocates and enforces ownership rights between the group members and mediates ownership within the group. If Abe doesn’t want to be part of the group than the group has no reason to protect any of Abe’s claims to ownership. Stealing from Abe would not be “illegal” in other words (although I haven’t introduced a legal system yet). That doesn’t mean that the group “owns” the island but if the group tries to lay claim to anything of Abe’s you would in general expect conflict between Abe and the group. To illustrate, if Iraq (the “collective”) wants to lay claims to the oil in Kuwait (“Abe”) it sends in the tanks and starts pumping the oil for itself (I make no claims that this is “moral”; I only want to illustrate the problem of property rights across groups).

      Finally, I don’t think people would be willing to force Abe to help Harry–as I said the group would threaten to expel Abe, but that’s it. Having said that, there are times when force would be acceptable (although no one would find it tasteful). If Abe joined the group with the understanding that he would help others of the group in need, but then reneged on that obligation so he could sit in his hammock sipping coconut juice than the group can and should use sanctions, perhaps even violence, to enforce the original agreement. This is the reason that its OK for the state to use the threat of violence to enforce its laws (and taxes)–if you can rewrite the agreement at will than the agreement is meaningless. Most people, including libertarians, are fine with the use of violence against law-breakers.

      • May 13, 2012 at 4:36 pm

        Thanks for your input. I had some concluding thoughts.

        The mistake that you’re making is in thinking that there are property and control rights that exist independent of the collective.

        The group allocates and enforces ownership rights between the group members and mediates ownership within the group.

        I don’t want to be difficult, but I am not sure what the first portion of the quote above means. If you are saying that the principle of rights only has meaning within a social context, I would agree. Also, I agree that it would legitimate and worthwhile to defend our rights collectively.

        If you mean that rights are allocated by the collective, it would seem that the only rights the collective could allocate would be those rights that were previously delegated to it by the people who form the collective.

        I suppose another interpretation is that rights are simply a social construction, making them more akin to discretionary preferences. If that’s the case, I don’t understand why one preference has more moral authority than another. I understand that only one code of social conduct can prevail within a given territory at a given time, but that would just seem to show that no use of force has moral authority.

        If Abe joined the group with the understanding that he would help others of the group in need, but then reneged on that obligation so he could sit in his hammock sipping coconut juice than the group can and should use sanctions, perhaps even violence, to enforce the original agreement.

        As I understand it, supporters of the social contact theory typically use this line of thought when saying that one’s presence in a territory constitutes agreement with the social contact. I can understand that line of thinking, but it seems to take for granted that the collective or government has legitimate jurisdiction over the territory, which is the very point some libertarians are contesting.

        To illustrate, if Iraq (the “collective”) wants to lay claims to the oil in Kuwait (“Abe”) it sends in the tanks and starts pumping the oil for itself (I make no claims that this is “moral”; I only want to illustrate the problem of property rights across groups).

        I agree that is one of the benefits of forming a government. And even if people were perfectly moral, there would still be honest disagreements that need to be resolved. I think the question is what the rules governing people properly consist of.

        Most people, including libertarians, are fine with the use of violence against law-breakers.

        I guess it would depend on the law. I don’t think most libertarians would find it acceptable to use force against people simply for smoking pot or crossing political borders without the government’s permission.

        Anyhow, thanks for the discussion. Take care!

    • BSEconomist
      May 13, 2012 at 6:04 pm

      Those are interesting thoughts. I’m in a bit of a hurry, but I’ll try to reply quickly–I think we’re largely in agreement, but I see a couple of minor differences.

      WRT your first comment, I would say that rights don’t exist outside the collective both because the collective allocates rights to individuals and individuals delegate to the collective the rights which are to be enforced. This does make rights, in my view, a kind of social preference. Although that’s a bit of a narrow view.

      Rights, unlike other preferences, are allocated at the “beginning” of the life of the collective and should be understood as a form of commitment device. The problem is that in the event of reneging on the part of the collective (i.e. a democracy becoming a dictatorship) an individual can expect to be at a serious disadvantage. The possibility of a renegotiation of the social compact, then, creates a hold-up problem. My view is that “rights” are social preferences that are so important that they must be protected from this eventuality.

      For your second point, I would ask what constitutes legitimate control of territory? The collective controls what it says it controls–the collective itself defines what a property right means.

      I think (altho I’m no philosopher) that my line of thinking here is standard social contract theory. Laws, any laws, are acceptable (notice I don’t say moral) so long as they are agreed to by those they will affect. As to what constitutes “agreement” in this context, my point is that the possibility of exit is sufficient. Those who are “conquered” for example, never agreed to the social compact under which they now have to live (by definition… if they could leave they would not be conquered), nor can a “slave” leave, by definition.

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