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Slavery is (Only) Taxation?

April 22nd, 2004 · No Comments

A few thoughts prompted by this genuinely distressing thread on the draft over at Pandagon, where an unsettling number of people seem genuinely perplexed at the notion that there’s something objectionable about forced labor. Those who suggest that forcing people to serve as tools to some worthy end—military or civilian—”rubs them the wrong way” often paint that reaction as the result of a “libertarian streak” in their thinking. In one sense, I guess that’s a good thing. On the other hand, though, I don’t know if it’s good for opposition to a draft to be pegged as a “libertarian thing,” since we are, after all, still a relatively fringe-y group. I had always thought—as someone who considers himself a liberal (in the broad sense) first and a libertarian second—that it was a liberal thing to believe, as John Rawls put it, that “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” The boundaries of that inviolability are debatable, but if it means anything, surely it means that the state cannot, as a matter of course, seize people in body and mind, effectively taking control of the whole of their lives for a period of years.

The second thing that bugs me is a line of argument that (in a classic libertarian move!) compares slavery to taxation—one I first encountered some months back in a letter to The New Republic from Bill Galston [subscribers] in response to a piece on the draft by Richard Posner:

Posner contends, “Conscription could be described as a form of slavery, in the sense that a conscript is a person deprived of the ownership of his own labor.” If slavery is immoral, so is the draft. Similarly, Nozick once contended that “taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.” (If Nozick were right, then the volunteer army that Posner supports, funded as it is with tax dollars, could also be described as on a par with forced labor.)

Both Posner’s and Nozick’s arguments prove too much. If each individual’s ownership of his or her own labor is seen as absolute, then society as such becomes impossible, because no political community can operate without resources, which must ultimately come from someone. Public-choice theory predicts, and all of human history proves, that no polity of any size can subsist through voluntary contributions alone; the inevitable free-riders must be compelled by law, backed by force, to ante up.

I’ve always been uneasy with the bumper-sticker libertarianism that claims “Taxation is slavery!” The strongest thing I’d want to say is the formulation Nozick offers in a footnote to Anarchy, State, and Utopia, that “similarities between taxation and forced labor” make it “plausible and illuminating to view such taxation in the light of forced labor.” In other words, I’ll accept the proposition that if we look at the features of forced labor that are objectionable, some of them are also reasons to object to taxation, or at the very least to limit its scope to the financing of only the most indispensable social functions. But it’s always seemed frankly offensive to me to claim that “taxation is slavery”—it seems grotesque to claim any meaningful analogy between my situation as I’m forced to cut a check to the IRS and that of a plantation worker.

Galston’s letter suggests another problem with this rhetoric. It seems that many people who find the connection plausible will come, not to think that taxation is repugnant, but that since taxation is acceptable, then perhaps there’s nothing per se wrong with forced labor at all.

So, let’s distinguish. The central liberal idea is that a just society regards its citizens as both free and equal, and as such respects their right to shape their lives in accordance with their distinct conceptions of the good insofar as this is compatible with the equal right of others. A first implication of this, for all varieties of liberal, will be freedom of conscience and control over one’s own body at a minimum—the principle libertarians like to call “self-ownership.” Libertarians make the further move to very strong ownership rights over the external world, sometimes on the grounds that some clear assignation of rights over external objects is necessary for people to plan their lives and coordinate their actions in accordance with their conceptions of the good, sometimes on familiar Lockean “mixing of labor” grounds. In either case, though, it should be clear that rights over external property are derivative on rights over the person, and potentially far more qualified. Theorists like Henry George and (more recently) A. John Simmons and the left-libertarians see a significant wedge here: Rights over one’s own labor give one a prima facie claim to control external objects with which that labor is “mixed.” (That’s a simplication, of course—more recent theories of just how this “mixing” works are rather more sophisticated than Locke’s sketch.) But not an absolute claim. So, without getting into too much detail, it seems clear that there’s a fair amount of wiggle room in the argument for the extension of rights over the person to rights over property. It does not, therefore, follow that any justification for the compulsory seizure of privately-held property will equally be a justification for the seizure of the person. Taking a significant chunk of my income will constrain the ways in which I can pursue my life plans—though if the taxation is for necessary goods that can’t be privately provided, it may enhance my ability to do so on net. Instructing me that I must devote two years to the service of the state, whether as a soldier or through some form of community service, effectively hijacks my life plan. I have enormous difficulty seeing how any species of liberal can be comfortable with that.

UPDATE: Tim Lee has more.

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