Libertarians and Taxation: To Pay or Not to Pay?

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October 11, 2007

As libertarians, the question of participation in a statist society can be a great challenge. How can we claim to be resolutely anti-state, anti-war and anti-violence while at the same time driving on public roads, consuming public services, and paying the very taxes that make the coercive power of the state possible?

If we are anti-state, is it moral hypocrisy to send our children to state schools? If we are against the redistribution of wealth in society, is it two-faced to accept government loans or grants in order to attend university? If we are against the monopolistic power of unions, does it violate our integrity to pursue and accept tenured professorships?

If we create a spectrum in order to frame this question, it would start with two extremes at either end. At one end is the proposition that it is impossible to morally participate to any degree in a society ruled by a government. We may call this the 'Walden' position, in so far as it generally requires fleeing to the woods, building our own shelter and subsisting on nuts, berries and bitterness. However, by taking this position, we are certainly not surrendering any resources to the state.

At the other extremity is a total disconnect between values and actions ' the 'Rambo' position. At this end, it is considered morally virtuous for a libertarian to join the army and take up arms against the 'foes' of the state ' in other words, to morally oppose statist violence while being paid to lavishly enact it.

Coercion and Moral Responsibility

Few ethicists would argue that coercion has no effect on moral responsibility. If you force me at gunpoint to jump off a cliff, my resulting death could scarcely be termed a 'suicide.' If the threat of violence had no effect on moral responsibility, there could be no such crimes as rape, theft and murder, because there would be no difference between voluntarism and coercion. If we do not accept that violence changes the moral nature of an interaction, then 'theft' becomes indistinguishable from 'donation,' just as 'rape' becomes a redundant synonym for 'lovemaking.'

Using this distinction, we can reasonably say that a man who is drafted into an Army has a different moral status than a man who volunteers.

However, the judgments involved in these moral situations can be highly complex. The man who is drafted into an Army does have the option of taking the 'Walden' exit (AKA the 'Canadian' option), and simply disappearing from society rather than be forced to fight and kill for the state.

On the other hand, a man who voluntarily joins an Army may have been told from infancy onwards that the life of a soldier is heroic, noble, brave etc. It is hard to imagine that the basic reality of military service ' the willingness to use violence on the whim of politicians ' would ever have been clearly explained to him. He genuinely believes that he is serving his fellow citizens, not joining a costumed gang of guns-for-hire. Even the source of his paycheck is probably unclear to him ' he imagines that he is protecting his fellow citizens, without grasping that they must pay for his upkeep through their taxes, or be shot.

The question of ethics in the absence of knowledge is highly complex. We would scarcely call a medieval doctor a poor physician if he failed to prescribe antibiotics, since they had not been invented yet. 'Morality' is a form of technology, like navigation ' it is harder to blame a man without a compass for getting lost, since he lacks an essential tool for staying on the right path. Similarly, it is hard to call a man 'evil' when, for his entire life, vices have been portrayed as virtues. If I teach my children that chocolate is good for them, and that vegetables and exercise are bad, they cannot be held solely responsible for their resulting ill health.

Children ' particularly those in public schools ' are told over and over about the nobility, courage and heroism of the military. Movies, books and popular culture generally reinforce this propaganda, as do the endless streams of yellow ribbons adorning cars. Does the average child have the capacity to clamber out of this bottomless well of statist propaganda? It is unjust to expect him to reinvent the entire science of ethics from the ground up ' opposing endless cultural norms ' and thus it would be unjust to assign him sole responsibility for signing up.

On the other hand, there can be no ethical progress if no one is ever held accountable for errors. To take the example of antibiotics again, when there is no such thing as antibiotics, a doctor cannot be condemned for failing to prescribe them. When a doctor first hears of antibiotics, he should not start handing them out like candy, until more information became available about their long-term efficacies and risks. However, at some point along the 'adoption curve,' a doctor does become negligent if he fails to prescribe antibiotics.

In essence, libertarians are cutting-edge ethicists striving to redefine the concept of morality. We are researchers at the radical edge of moral understanding, and our central goal must be to bring our new knowledge to bear against the historical and irrational prejudices of existing moral illusions.

We are like doctors in the midst of a terrible plague, who have discovered that the plague is transmitted through drinking water. However, the common medical wisdom is that the plague is prevented or cured by drinking more and more water ' the very action that exacerbates the spread of the disease.

Most people, of course, listen to the vast majority of the doctors and drink like fishes in the hopes of preventing or curing their disease. In the same way, libertarians know that state violence and fraud creates great evil, corrupts society and destabilizes the economy ' but the solution put forward by most experts is to use more violence and fraud to combat these evils.

As doctors in a plague who know the true cure, what are our real options?

We can vanish from society, of course, taking our wisdom with us and living out our lives in a Thoreauvian wilderness. This solution will doubtless reduce our frustration ' and create a fruitless kind of integrity 'but it will also leave millions of people in great suffering since, if all the truth-tellers vanish, liars alone will inherit the earth.

On the other hand, we could speak out against drinking impure water, but still drink copious amounts of it ourselves. This level of hypocrisy would scarcely serve our cause, since it would be highly evident that we were acting in total opposition to our prescription.

The most fruitful action, it would seem, must lie somewhere in between the 'Walden' and 'Rambo' positions. Fleeing society abandons the world to liars, cheats and murderers. Fully immersing ourselves in a system we know is evil undermines our credibility to the point where virtue becomes indistinguishable from hypocrisy.

If the water is impure, but we must drink it to live in society, then the most sensible course ' if we wish to help our fellow men ' must be to drink as little of it as possible, and convince people of the value of that course by making our case ' and displaying our health ' at every opportunity.

To bring the metaphor back to earth, we cannot live in society without paying taxes, consuming government services, and contributing financially to actions we know are evil. You cannot even read this article without using data protocols first developed by governments, and funded through coercion.

Since anyone reading this article must by definition have accepted some level of interaction with coercion, the question thus becomes not 'Should we pay our taxes?' but rather 'To what degree should we participate in statism?'

Participation and Sanction

First of all, we must understand that participation is not sanction. Dragging an atheist to church does not make him religious. Locking a man in your basement does not make him a house guest. Paying protection money to the Mafia does not make you a cheerleader for organized crime.

Secondly, ideas are judged by logic and evidence, not by the perfect consistency of those who hold them. The fact that Hitler did not believe in leprechauns does not make the existence of leprechauns any more likely. A fat man may be a perfectly valid source of effective diet tips. All too often, libertarians are attacked as hypocrites for any form of participation in a statist society. Yes, we use the roads. Yes, we use the Internet. Yes ' some of us even use libraries, teach in public schools and take out student loans. That has zero bearing on the validity of the nonaggression principle as a moral standard. A kleptomaniac is perfectly capable of advancing a flawless theory of property rights, just as a lung doctor can smoke.

Furthermore, if hypocrisy is to be the standard by which moral arguments are judged, who is more hypocritical ' the libertarian who is forced to participate in statism, or the statist who advocates the use of government violence to resolve disputes, but debates without pulling out a gun?

Reasonable Limits

This is not to say, however, that all forms of statist participation are equally valid. The fact that no water can ever be perfectly pure does not mean that we should throw up our hands and drink nothing but seawater.

Twenty years ago, I considered taking student loans and grants to go to university. The way I framed the problem was thus: if a man steals my bicycle, then leaves it standing somewhere, I am perfectly entitled to 'take' it back. If my employer unjustly withholds my salary, I am perfectly entitled to take a quantity of goods from him equivalent to the salary he owes me.

Imagine that a local Mafia Don extorts money from you for years. One day, he falls asleep on a bench, with a large bag of cash by his side. If you happen along and find him in this position, is it theft if you grab 'his' money? What if, over the years, you really have no idea exactly how much money has been extorted from you? What if you know that the amount of money in the bag is far less than what has been stolen from you? Certainly you would be perfectly justified in grabbing everything ' especially since you know you will be paying extortion money for the rest of your life.

This is analogous to the situation that we find ourselves in with governments. I have paid an extraordinary amount of taxation over the course of my life ' particularly since I have been an entrepreneur, and co-founded a company which paid millions of dollars to the state. The amount of money I received for university tuition through government subsidies was equivalent to the amount I later paid in personal taxes over a few months. (Being kept in the mental gulags of state schools for 14 years was an even more egregious form of robbery!)

Knowing in advance that I would be stolen from for the rest of my life, was it wrong of me to take some portion of that money for myself in advance? It hardly seems so. In a statist society, taxed money exists in a state of nature, like fish in the sea. It can never be returned to its rightful owners, since those can never be reasonably determined ' and of course the national debt blurs it beyond any capacity for unraveling. Morally, what happens to money after it is stolen is far less important than the fact that it should never be stolen in the first place.

The Middle Ground

However, the fact that the Mafia steals your money does not make it OK for you to become a hit man. Since stealing money is wrong, but stealing it back is not, becoming directly involved in the initiation of force is still immoral. Joining the police force or signing up for the military turns you from victim to enforcer, which is quite a different moral category. It is one thing to steal a husk of bread from a concentration camp guard ' it is quite another to voluntarily become a guard yourself.

Thus, although participation in a statist society has great value, and keeps the most rational people in the crucial debate about society's future, joining the ranks of the oppressors is morally indefensible. Like most ethical continuums, there is a small personal aspect to the 'right' action, but the moral perils of the extremes are clear.

Stay in society, keep fighting for the truth, but never sell your soul.

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Stefan Molyneux's picture
Columns on STR: 17

Stefan Molyneux is the host of Freedomain Radio, the most popular philosophical podcast on the Internet, and a Top 10 Finalist in the 2007 Podcast Awards.  He is the author of Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion, and the novel The God of Atheists.