Taxation is not Theft, and the Fallacy of Voluntaryism
3.9.2017 — If you’ve somehow winded up linked to this page, be aware that after hearing many counterpoints from Reddit and Tom Woods fans, I now disavow the line of reasoning originally contained, and, while I still support the possibility of taxation, my updated viewpoint has softened and is reflected here. This link remains merely for archival references of the original writing . Thanks for your civility.
“All taxation is theft!” is a frequent motto of Libertarians inspired by the quasi-anarchic ideal of Voluntaryism. For the uninitiated, Voluntaryism can be summed up quite simply as: “The only ethical exchange is voluntary exchange.”
Quite uncontroversial, no? Its face-value appeal no doubt contributes to its popularity as an ethical criticism of all taxes and government, and it is crucial to a variety of Libertarian ethical concepts from the Non-Aggression Principle to the total denial of Positive Rights. Deeper examination, however, reveals it to be a vacuous truth that is woefully inadequate as a meaningful ethical framework.
Let’s start with the specific: Taxes. The novice libertarian’s argument usually cites the State’s prerogative to use force to collect taxes as evidence of an unethical, involuntary exchange. But, this is a weak argument answered with Social Contract Theory; in our society, we’ve agreed to exchange taxes for government. Where comes the assumption that one owes nothing? Were those dollars earned in a vacuum devoid of any past, present, and future government services? Obviously not, so, in partaking of those government services that enable a system for one to even earn those dollars, is one not obliged to pay for services rendered or be guilty of theft themselves?
A more nuanced Voluntaryist will then proceed to a stronger argument against Social Contract Theory itself, declaring, “Even so, I never voluntarily agreed to this social contract; I was born into it.” This is true, but the implied solution would be for complainants to separate themselves completely from society, which would be as practical as asking newborns whether they are willing to abide by the State. So, that solution is then rejected on the grounds that such limited, impractical choices cannot be fair, as who can choose the conditions of their birth? Limited choices are not voluntary choices.
That, however, leads to the fatal flaw of Voluntaryism; voluntary choice, in and of itself, is inseparable from the involuntary conditions which create the choice in the first place. Thus, truly voluntary consent cannot even exist; it will always be tainted by past events. Maximizing consent within given constraints is a noble endeavor, but consent cannot be the sole standard of ethics without first establishing a Compatibilist definition of free will! For whether it is due to the invisible hand, institutionalized bigotry, or even the weather, every step of our lives is determined not solely by free will but also by the machinations of the various systems which surround us.
A question for resolute Voluntaryists: can there be any truly voluntary action for any descendant of those abducted from Africa? Some may object to this questioning as a tired emotional appeal, but I assert that any serious Voluntaryist should weigh all such questions of the conditions that predate our sentience, from race to class to birth itself, and, finding the answers unjustifiable, abandon the tautological reliance on Voluntaryism. The paucity of minorities embracing conservative institutions is customary, perhaps because such institutions support the specious notion of pure “personal responsibility,” or, as I could call it, “Voluntaryism-Lite.”
Oppressed peoples have long known that their place in society is due to past forces beyond their present set of “voluntary choices” and “personal responsibilities,” so they legitimately resist ideologies that would hold them accountable for those forces. Meanwhile, those that have not yet suffered from said forces show an unsurprising fondness for Libertarianism. If Voluntaryism could expand itself to compensate for past involuntary exchanges, perhaps the idea would be more palatable (although completely different), but as it stands, its disregard of the past renders it futile as an ethical standard.
A Voluntaryist cannot shrug off the Social Contract any more than a minority may shrug off the racial institutions that define his life (no matter how much either wishes they could). But, if their individual consent or dissent does not move the Social Contract, where does its authority come from?
In recognizing that an individual cannot move society’s terms, yet a collective can, we realize intuitively that the authority of a State or government must derive from a measurement of society’s collective consent. This falls in line with ethical Subjectivism; right and wrong is largely determined by societal opinion. The authority of a Social Contract may then even be considered proportional to the consent granted by its constituents. So, it is not the explicitness of consent that is relevant; it is how that consent compares to the will of the collective. David Hume wrote deeply on the subject in Of the Original Contract, acknowledging that, while consent is important for social order, only partial consent has ever existed in any society:
“My intention here is not to exclude the consent of the people from being one just foundation of government. Where it has place, it is surely the best and most sacred of any. I only contend that it has very seldom had place in any degree, and never almost in its full extent, and that, therefore, some other foundation of government must also be admitted.”
Don’t get me wrong; I sympathize with anarchists and agree the State is certainly not without its sins. I simply contend that Voluntaryism is a flawed angle from which to address the failings of a State. I firmly believe in Thoreau’s opening from Civil Disobedience, “That government is best which governs least.” But, far too many take this line to heart without remembering his caveat of, “…when men are prepared for it.” So while it is a noble desire to reduce government, one must consider who benefits and who suffers from that reduction. If one must reduce taxes, do it for the sake of reducing taxes and not under the false premise that taxes are inherently immoral, and if one must abolish the state, do so because there exists a better alternative.