May A Libertarian Take Money From The Government? A Modification To Block's Argument

Column by new Root Striker David Rogers.

Exclusive to STR

Back in August 2015, Walter Block and Bob Murphy debated on the Tom Woods Show whether a libertarian could rightly take government money. Bob Murphy's argument was simple and effective: the government stole the money from taxpayers, and that libertarians who take money from the government knowingly receive stolen wealth.

Walter Block presented a number of practical arguments for taking government money and observed that it was impossible to avoid government subsidies. But he didn't really address Murphy's core argument.

Both men assumed that taxation is always theft. This position is hardly controversial in the libertarian community. But is it true?

For a moment, step back from the debate and turn your eye to the beleaguered taxpayer. If he is a libertarian anarchist, then it's easy for him to claim robbery. But if that person believes that the state rightfully takes wealth, and that people owe some or all of of their wealth to government, can he cry foul over taxes?

Does it even matter? Who cares what the owner thinks or feels about his property?

The owner cares, that's who. Under libertarian property theory, the rightful owner of that property is the one who decides how it is valued and under what conditions it is justly transferred. So if the owner of wealth believes that government is owed his property, and the government is of the same mind, then in what sense is this taxation theft?

A libertarian might object that the property is transferred under duress. But since libertarianism permits force to correct theft or discharge debts, force alone can hardly be a point of contention. And since both the state and this owner both agree the property in question is owed, can its compulsory transfer be regarded as a crime?

So, the way I regard my wealth determines whether it's a crime to take it? How can such a subjective standard be applied? At what point does it become a crime?

At the point where the owner rightfully regards his property as being his alone and owed to no other. Libertarian theory shows what property is, how things come to be property, how it can be acquired and what ownership entails. So it's possible for a man to determine if he rightfully owns something, and what that ownership really means. Once a man knows what's his, he's at liberty to assert his rights as he sees fit. Can the same be said of a statist?

No. Only an anarchist can assert that the taxing of his property is an act of robbery. After all, the point where he sees his taxation as intrinsically criminal is exactly the point he becomes an anarchist.

Thus the state only steals from libertarian anarchists. From all others, it merely collects debts. To assert otherwise is to impose your ideas and will on the property of others.

Returning to the person receiving government money, it can be objected that the state collects taxes from statists and anarchists alike. But the ratio of libertarian anarchists to everyone else is vanishingly small, as is the ratio of money taken from them. So the portion of any money received from the state belonging to fellow ancaps is a rounding error. Is this pittance worth the moral agony people put themselves through over their receipt of government money? Are there any other ancaps who begrudge them that microscopic portion?

Applying this to the Block/Murphy debate gives us a direct response to Murphy's central argument. Add Block's other arguments, and you will find a powerful case that not only is it morally permissible to take government money, but that libertarians ought to take money from the state.

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floppytilleyhat's picture
Columns on STR: 1

Dave is a nerd who lives in Oklahoma, uses OpenBSD with XFCE and largely avoids commitments.

Comments

Mark Davis's picture

Well said. The more money put back into the hands of the people the state took it from, the better off we all are.

Samarami's picture

Glad to see you, Dave, posting an essay and posing a controversial quandary. Hope you keep posting. If there is one thing we need, it's new blood and new ideas and more topics of interest. You look to be one capable of contributing some good, spicy stuff!

However, this is one reason I reject "libertarian theory". Mama taught me some eons back how to determine "may" from "can":

    "May" a libertarian (please note lower-case "l") take "money" (however that is defined in an era of generally accepted fiat) from those individuals who hide under that mindless abstraction called "government"?

Let's turn that around:

    Isn't that what the state is all about? Redistribution of wealth??? I'm referring to those psychopaths -- so skillful at hiding theft (or outright robbery) under a euphemism called "tax". As I understand the system, that's the nature of all psychopathic systems called "government". They want "us" to "receive-our-fair-share"

So, we may, and we can. It's fundamental.

If the question is, "...should we depend upon the psychopathic largess of employees of government?..." I'd say, "no. For your own good, my suggestion is NO!"

But back to your essay:

    "...the rightful owner of that property is the one who decides how it is valued and under what conditions it is justly transferred. So if the owner of wealth believes that government is owed his property, and the government is of the same mind, then in what sense is this taxation theft?..."

First, in order to put this into proper non-statist perspective, it is important to understand and accept that "the government" does not exist, nor does "it" have a mind. That's the purveyance of the psychopaths I linked above. Second, setting reification aside: it's one thing for the "rightful owner" to decide what dispensation might be of his own "property" -- but by doing so (docile, "voluntary compliance"), is s/he not also contributing to the harmful endorsement of theft of my property -- and everybody else's property?

Let's not forget the "...fair share..." obfuscation.

Now, I'm not in fact totally disagreeing with my friend, Mark's comment above. If you can't steal from robbers, who the hell can you steal from, I say.

Sam

floppytilleyhat's picture

"Second, setting reification aside: it's one thing for the "rightful owner" to decide what dispensation might be of his own "property" -- but by doing so (docile, "voluntary compliance"), is s/he not also contributing to the harmful endorsement of theft of my property -- and everybody else's property?"
 
On the whole, I think not. It's tempting to believe that they're complicit in the stealing of my property. But really, what role do they have? Voter? Their votes are as worthless as mine (Behold: equality).
 
Individually, they would never think to steal what's mine. They have all sorts of things they'd like the state to spend money on. But really, how many regular citizens ever propose a raise in taxes? Not many. If they did propose it, would it be more than hot air? What specific criminal actions do they do?
 
The legislators ratify and publish threats styles as law, and the cops follow through on the threats. In my view, those are the people who commit criminal actions.
 
-Dave

Samarami's picture

David:

    "...Individually, they would never think to steal what's mine..."

Correct.

This entire interchange rests upon the debate between collectivism and individualism.

Renunciate, I say. So does Jack Perry.

Sam

Samarami's picture

If you will bear with me putting a lengthy addendum to my comment, yesterday I received an email from an old army buddy with a long forwarded diatribe against "Obamacare" and its presumed (and very likely) destruction of medical care for those over 76 "...secrets you didn't know about Obamacare's effects upon Medicare..." The idea is that I'm supposed to forward it to 10 people who will forward it to 10 people, and (using math mentality) soon "...everybody will know, and will be free!" (Abe is an ultra right-winger and retired educator)

Here's my reply to my friend, Abe:

    Hey Abe!

    Nice to hear from you! I was just wondering this morning if I otta send you an email to see how you're getting along.

    I follow a principle: never, never, ever expect reason, truth, "justice" (more commonly, just-us) sanity or logic to emanate from any group of psychopaths hiding under that brainless abstraction lovingly called "government".

    Never. Ever.

    If I do, I shall lead a life of fury and frustration. I have no "rights". I have no "representatives". I make choices. The challenge of anarchy is in developing methods to circumnavigate and sidestep the many lunatics who will gleefully attempt to interfere with the choices I make. If it's going to be, it'll be up to me.

    I've never used "Medicare", and will never use it. I pay cash (well, federal reserve notes) to a physician I trust -- who is also my girl friend. Then ignore everything she tells me :-).
    The thieves from whom I steal a few hundred bucks every month always turn around and steal close to a hundred back from me for the "service" (ha ha) they call "Medicare". My thievery from them is what they like me to think of as "Social Security" -- and that I'm not actually stealing it, but am "entitled" to it. Balderdash. Antisocial Insecurity would be truth-telling.

    I ran across this little 5 minute video this morning while researching another matter. It was truthful, But at the end the producer(s) tried to convince listeners that there is something they can DO about it. Nada.

    The problem outlined in your email to me amounts to nothing more than the "red line" my friend Dan Sanchez discusses in this 20 minute video. It will not be rectified, sorry to announce. The red line might be moved, but the issue will remain.

    Abstain from beans is my best advice. More and more individuals are coming to see the fidelity of that idea.

    A small step, but it is a step.

    Regards, Sam Spade

Mark warned me several years ago that I tend to come on too strong to those merely trying to get their feet wet in liberty, and he's no doubt correct. There are times I simply can't restrain meself :-[ . Sam

Paul's picture

Normally, if a person "A" steals money from you, and you get your gun, go out and get it back from him, it would be regarded as a just action by most reasonable people. On the other hand, if A steals money from B, you are not justly entitled to it. B is.

What A's normal occupation is, should not come into the picture at all, whether he is barkeep, sales clerk - or a tax collector.

If A steals from a series of people including you, then willingly offers you a cut (rather than your having to risk life and limb to get it back on your own), there is no shame in taking it - provided he is offering no more than he took from you in the first place, and (for the sake of your self-respect) you do not imagine he is doing you a favor. He certainly is not, on net, even if he does not require you to jump through degrading hoops to get it, which is the usual case. If he does require it, he is just stealing more of your time and your life.

"Only an anarchist can assert that the taxing of his property is an act of robbery. After all, the point where he sees his taxation as intrinsically criminal is exactly the point he becomes an anarchist."

I have some problems with this. First, is any statist given the ability to specify how much should "properly" be extorted from people? If he thinks 10% of his income is OK, and they take 50%, then the extra 40% is yielded unwillingly, and it is still theft. I don't think you can plausibly say only anarchists can suffer from theft.

There was some helicopter money being handed out some years back as a way to supposedly stimulate the economy, and I was in a bit of a quandary about whether to accept it (it in no way approached the amount extorted from us). However there was a little-publicized upper limit, and our income was above that limit, so we didn't get any of it anyway, thus solving that problem.

I generally treat taxes the same as money stolen by an ordinary criminal - not worth the effort to get it back. That is a fool's game, a waste of my time. It's just gone. Better to focus your efforts on positioning yourself not to have it stolen in the first place. Don't make much, then you won't be attracting thieves. Or earn it on the black market; etc.

floppytilleyhat's picture

"I have some problems with this. First, is any statist given the ability to specify how much should "properly" be extorted from people? If he thinks 10% of his income is OK, and they take 50%, then the extra 40% is yielded unwillingly, and it is still theft. I don't think you can plausibly say only anarchists can suffer from theft."
 
This reminds me of a joke: A man said to a woman, "Would you have sex with me for one hundred million dollars?"
 
"Of course!", the woman exclaimed.
 
The man then asked, "Would you have sex with me for fifty dollars?"
 
"What do you think I am, a whore?", she huffed.
 
"My dear, we've already established that. Now we're just negotiating a price."
 
Anyway, I get your point, but I think you give non-ancaps too much credit. Take the case of minarchists. How many of them regard government over their prescribed limit as criminal? You may hear them use words like "excessive," "confiscatory," "predatory," or perhaps even "criminal." But how often do they mean it in the same sense they apply to a street thug?
 
They use hyperbolic language to object because they're paying for more than they want. But they see the state as a necessity. They believe that they truly owe some portion of their money to it. And because of its necessity, they believe that the state properly sets the amount owed. They may disagree with how much is spent, or how big the apparatus is, but they don't think of taxation itself as criminal. Not really.
 
In fact, I would argue that someone who sees the state as necessary must see it as legitimate, and that the necessity of the state implies that the rate of taxation is properly set by it.
 
-Dave

Paul's picture

All these points are true, but irrelevant. It is a simple matter of defining theft. If the money is yielded involuntarily, it is theft (extortion, to be precise). If some other amount is given voluntarily, it is not. It doesn't matter what a given victim's view of legitimacy or anything else is.

If a person puts out his hand and says he needs money for an operation for his mother, and you put a $50 bill in it, then he pulls out a gun and tells you to just hand your wallet over, you have suffered a theft. Your initial willing handing over of $50 does not negate that claim.

Jim Davies's picture

Welcome, David, it's a pleasure to read such a brain-stretcher here.
 
I agree with your conclusion, and on this occasion (though not always) with Walter Block; but wonder whether the way you reach it is quite correct. You seem to base it on the assertion that "rightful owner of that property is the one who decides how it is valued and under what conditions it is justly transferred." As you later admit, that is "subjective."
 
Surely rather, the rightful owner of property is the one who exchanged his labor for it; and that is an entirely objective standard. Objectively, he has the right of self-ownership; even though he might foolishly and erroneously regard himself as a slave (he supposes that someone else owns his labor) he does, regardless, actually own it himself. And therefore, any property for which he exchanges it.
 
Accordingly, all taxation is always theft, even though a majority may have been fooled into thinking they owe their souls to the government store and, so, raise no objection. Is that not the very essence of any con trick?
 
Congratulations though on the brilliant insight that "... the point where he sees his taxation as intrinsically criminal is exactly the point he becomes an anarchist." Precisely; the change or conversion is one of perception, rather than one of fact and reality.
 
Incidentally my reason for agreeing that it's morally okay to accept proffered government handouts is simple: to a very minor degree, it helps reduce the resources government has, and therefore marginally curtails its ability to wreak further mayhem and advances the day of its collapse. "Accepting" them, however, by no means implies that it's morally okay to call for more, or for a continuation of the offer. Thus for example one can in good conscience use a government road, while calling loudly for its road monopoly to end.
 
 
 

GregL's picture

Nice article. A fresh and well stated argument.

Mark Davis's picture

Jim nails it: "Incidentally my reason for agreeing that it's morally okay to accept proffered government handouts is simple: to a very minor degree, it helps reduce the resources government has, and therefore marginally curtails its ability to wreak further mayhem and advances the day of its collapse. "Accepting" them, however, by no means implies that it's morally okay to call for more, or for a continuation of the offer. Thus for example one can in good conscience use a government road, while calling loudly for its road monopoly to end."

Paul's picture

It's all well and good to have an aim or desire to shrink government; but if you accept more than was stolen from you, then you are just another parasite, and an accomplice in the robbing of others. That ain't NAP.

"I object that you are stealing from people; but if you want to give me some of the loot, I'll take all you are willing to shovel out." The latter kinda calls into question the initial objection, doesn't it?