Taxes are voluntary…according to libertarian logic

Punch cartoon (1907); illustrates the unpopula...

A frequent and much beloved (Right)-Libertarian talking point is on how taxes are not voluntary and that they are claimed by the state at the end of a gun barrel. “Taxes are theft”, “Taxes are violence” blah blah blah. We’ve all heard the spiel I’m sure. But I doubt how many have realized that such an argument is not really consistent with the logic libertarians1 apply in regards to voluntary contracts and choice.

You see, a common aspect of most strains of libertarianism is that any choice made voluntarily – by which they mean, in the absence of active coercion – is morally acceptable for both parties. Thus a person choosing to work for a wage, has made a conscious decision to get in this position, because it increases his marginal utility. In the same vein, a person choosing to work in a sweatshop have made a decision which makes their life better off than before, so the sweatshop practice itself is obviously moral. A female being sexually harassed by her boss, but nevertheless staying in the job, is a voluntary choice which naturally means that the sexual attention she’s receiving does not constitute “harassment”. Naturally it follows that if people do not want to end up in this situations, they always have the choice of not taking those particular jobs.

So, in this context, aren’t taxes voluntary just as well? Consider that when you sign up for a job, you agree to a contract that states that a part of your wage will go to the state. You are volunteering to a contract that stipulates taxes. If you do not like the contract, you always have the choice of not working at all. This is a valid choice, as much as it is for the sweatshop worker, is it not? You weight your options and choose the one more beneficial to you.

Most likely libertarians will mention at this point that even those opening their own business have to pay taxes, even though they have no contract with the state. But that would also be false. They do have such a contract with the state. The contract that leases the land they live on, for it is in the very end, the property of the state. You can’t own any land, unless somewhere in the history of that land, there is a contract between state and the first owner. And that contract, had stipulations for taxes. The taxes of the business owner thus become analogous to the rent of a land owner, and much like the contract with a land owner can have stipulations that you can accept or deny, so does the contract with the state. In this case being that you have to give an amount of your income to the state in the form of income tax, and all contracts with your employees must stipulate income tax as well. If you choose to enter this voluntary contract, then naturally you must think it acceptable. Surely if the land owner was simply a private person, requiring rent from you and everyone you employ, you would have the same amount of choice, no?

It is the case then, that if you don’t like the terms of such contracts, you are of course free not to work at all. Nobody is forcing you to make such a choice. But if you do make it, then it’s under our own volition, is it not?

I can foresee at this point the enraged flames that will start bursting my way. Most likely I will be informed that the choice is an illusion, since the state has artificially and violently limited the options to either paying income tax, or not making money at all. And I will admit, this is a very compelling argument indeed.

Which is why I will have to pull the “switch” to my “bait” now.

You see, the argument that will be made to point out that the choice between “work with taxation or no work” is an artificial one, is the same one I will use myself to point that “work for a boss or don’t work” is an artificial choice just as well. You want the option to  live in a society where nobody has to pay taxes, I want the option to work in a society where nobody has to work for a boss.

Libertarians might claim that everyone would have this option in a society with no taxes, but if some landowners already hoard all the available land, then that is simply not true, for no landowner would be foolish enough to sell it rather than rent it. It would be as likely as the state truly selling land (rather than renting it via taxes) and allowing anyone to secede. In fact, that is the truth of the matter: The state, at the moment, is acting just like a capitalist landowner renting you some land with stipulations. The “rent” you pay, is your taxes. Imagine for a moment that instead of states, you had private landowners who asked for rent instead of tax. Would you, as a libertarian, have an issue with this?

Perhaps the smart libertarian will claim that the state came into ownership of this land through violence, and therefore any ownership claims over it are invalid. This is undeniably true: The state did enclose all the land through brutal violence. But what is to be done? The libertarian of a Rothbardian persuasion would undoubtedly claim that the best option would be to simply remove the state as the player, and let the ownership titles stand as they are, or possibly owned by their current workers in a shareholder format.  But I would object to that, for this is not a natural distribution of ownership either, rather, it is artificially created by the previous violence of the state and its continued legacy of its collusion with the plutocracy throughout history. If one were to simply declare that the current ownership claims should be treated as “homesteading”, then why not do the same jump and claim that the current state ownership should just as well be treated as “homesteading”? Both these scenarios would ignore violent history anyway, so why not stick to the status quo? After all, I’m confident that very few libertarians would have an issue with the current arrangement if they were paying “rent” instead of “taxes” and they were living under the rule of a private landowner with extensive management staff, rather than a democratic state with extensive bureaucracy.

Or perhaps not. But then, I’d like to hear what the significant difference would be (except the lack of democracy that is).

The truth is that there’s isn’t a functional difference between a state and a landowner. Both simply ask for rent to allow you to live within their ownership claims (borders). The former simply also provides the illusion that you have a say in the policies that affect everyone under these border, as a way to pacify you. And this lack of difference remains whether you have 204 uber-landowners or 2.000.000. The size of their borders might decrease, but the effect of their rule would not.

As such, the original problem would remain. Perhaps the libertarians won’t mind, as long as they have 2.000.000 choices of contracts, rather than 204 but then again, that would mean the problem was in the number of states in existence, not in their taxation.

The lack of choice would still remain. We would still not have the option to live and work without rent and without bosses and landlords. For anarchists like me of course, that is still the biggest problem, but for libertarians it shouldn’t be; after all, bosses and landlords aren’t an issue for them…

Thus in the end, it would be simply hypocritical for a libertarian to claim that the state rent (i.e. tax) is immoral while the rent demanded from a landlord or boss isn’t.  Both are based on passive coercion, rather than active. “Work for a boss, or starve” is not much of a choice, anymore than “Pay your taxes or go to jail” is. Both rely on the same exact set of circumstances: The artificial limitation of choices through the past exercise of violence.

Something which we communists like to call Primitive Accumulation…

PS: This post was inspired when I watched the “income tax bait and switch” in action, in this reddit comment thread. Props to watwatwatwatt for thinking of it.

  1. I’ll avoid using (right) for brevity. Let’s just assume it’s implied whenever I say “libertarian” in this post. []

10 thoughts on “Taxes are voluntary…according to libertarian logic

  1. Yes! This was awesome. Use the same ignorant "logic" that Libertarians use against them. I'd love to see how they spin this one.

    1. The reason I can do this so often, is because their arguments or premises are mostly logically inconsistent. It's fairly easy to turn them against themselves.

  2. As a left-libertarian I think your logic is pretty sound, and it reveals some brutal inconsistencies with the Rothbardian historical account of property. Maybe the Rothbardians can try to claim that rent would be significantly lower than it is today due to increased competition and it would practically amount to maintenance fees. Maybe that is true – after all, I like to think my rent mainly pays for maintenance and not capitalist profit, although it'd be nicer if I could pay for the maintenance directly. (On the other hand, I am a student in a welfare state so my rent is already >100% subsidized with the condition that I also study, so I can't much complain here…) But the fact remains that land is a finite resource and you need to jump through some pretty high hoops to justify extracting rent with it.

    A while back I had some similar thoughts about property, legitimacy and the full logical implications of Rothbardianism. I'm thankful I saved them on Notepad.

    "-Rothbardian conundrums

    1. Suppose a legal regime exists where property rights are respected even to the extent of allowing so called "voluntary slavery". A wealthy man makes a contract with a man and a woman: they would serve as servants (property) to the wealthy man in his mansion indefinitely and in return receive protection from him. The couple receives a child. What is the child's legal standing – free or property?
    2. Suppose a very large group of people pooled their resources and property and formed a collective entity called the State. New citizens who weren't around to sign the contract would need to abide by the State's anti-drug, anti-gambling and anti-fornication rules (laws) anyway, insofar as they made property contracts with the State. Obviously this isn't the origin of any statist expansion, but it is the common understanding of what the State is. This leads to a catch-22: if Rothbardian purity in property acquisition is not demanded, there's a possibility that contemporary states and their laws are actually legitimate*, but if it is demanded, such hypothetical states would count as legitimate as well, which runs counter to right-libertarian demands for true liberty.
    * If right-libertarians accept the property claims of capitalist enterprises as legitimate, despite the underlying violence and statist intervention that led to those property claims, because they presume that a fair property rights regime would lead to a similar state of affairs anyway (i.e. lots of hierarchical business models, landlords, big banks etc.), they ought to at least acknowledge the possibility that a statist society, due to the prevailing opinions of most citizens who accept taxes, coercive laws etc., would also grow naturally, forcing them to grant that the state's claims to its territory might be legitimate.
    -Conclusion: deterministic history and a historical account of property are a bad mix for anylibertarian."

    I'm not completely sure the first part of that catch-22 is valid or sound, but it seems like an inescapable conclusion. Maybe someone can point out the flaws in it.

  3. Know of Jim Davidson? He's a libertarian who does argue that if you use state roads, or teach at/attend a public university, etc. you're no anarchist.

    Fellow lives in Panama last time I heard, though. As if there's no State there. And I have to wonder how he makes it to the occasional Porcfest or Libertopia.

  4. Perhaps the libertarians won’t mind, as long as they have 2.000.000 choices of contracts, rather than 204 but then again, that would mean the problem was in the number of states in existence, not in their taxation.

    As a matter of fact, some say exactly that, as a matter of pragmatics if not principle. See, for instance, this recent Mises.org article.

    It probably would be true that a very large number of states that people and wealth could freely move between would tend to promote a "race to the bottom" in regards to state control. This is seen obviously enough in the modern political environment with small nations and international corporations. The trick, then, is to make it possible for people to move as easily as corporate operations do now. This is probably not fully possible, given material and cultural constraints, but a huge step in that direction would be to eliminate immigration law.

    1. It's far from a certaintly that open borders would promote a seller's market for labour. First of all, the difficulties of moving to a different nation are many times incredible, even with open borders, much like moving across states is not something done on a whim. The cost and risk one take by moving, especially across nations, can be higher than the marginal improvements of a job.

      Furthermore, by allowing everyone to move wherever, it also means that the far higher labour supply would become even higher and thus drop their price lower. Imagine all the sweatshop workers from China, Taiwan and India coming to live in Europe and the US. If it's bad enough with outsourcing, imagine then. I'm not supporting immigration laws mind you, but there's a reason why those exist primarily in first world nations. It's because the plutocracy know that getting the cheap labour on their own land is going to destabilize society as people start to be replaced by the more desperate coming from elsewhere.

      Finally, there's nothing stopping a private landlord from enacting their own "immigtation laws" in the form of rent contracts. After all, they are the final arbiter of who gets in. If anything, moving accorss landlords in such an AnCap libertopia, might be even more difficult, as those sought to protect the income (and happiness) of those within their lands, by excluding the poor and desperate from coming in and taking their jobs.

  5. I'm all for criticizing right-libertarians but this:

    "Thus a person choosing to work for a wage, has made a conscious decision to get in this position, because it increases his marginal utility."

    doesn't make any sense at all. I don't think zer0 knows what marginal utility even is.

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