Inside the Mind of a Politician: Taxation is Voluntary

Something about withholding taxes. I don’t get it.

It’s possible to support government without being a complete moron. Denying that government is force is not the way to do it.

Hat tip: The Peace, Freedom and Prosperity Movement.

Hopefully Unnecessary Clarification of the Day

Roderick Long, after suggesting that noncoercive authority (Patriarchy and all that) is a bad thing from a libertarian point of view:

No, I am not saying that non-forcible forms of authority are rights-violations, nor that they should be combated by forcible means appropriate to such violations, nor again that those who wield non-forcible authority should be hurled into the Pit of Azathoth, there to boil and burn for all eternity in His howling, bubbling chaos. The solution to noncoercive authority is not coercive authority, any more than the cure for flu is pneumonia.

Read the whole thing. I have a lot of time for left libertarians like Long. I also have a lot of time for the other sort of left libertarians, who want redistriubtion to correct what they see as unjust inequalities of wealth but reject most other forms of government interference. I would see that as a huge improvement over the status quo, but question whether it’s possible to have a state powerful enough to redistribute but constrained enough to avoid further state action. Then again, I’m not sure limited government is at all possible.


Tom M. has a thoughtful post at Defective Equilibrium on coercion (a rejoinder to Paul Walker’s response to Tom’s post on private property and liberty). He provides a descriptive definition of coercion which stipulates that the action the coercer intends to bring about must make the coerced worse off and the coercer better off, suggesting that a normative definition of coercion would require a specification of the rights people have and thus a normative baseline. His descriptive definition:

A is coerced to Q iff:
1) B threatens A to perform Q, perhaps by imposing negative consequences for A if he/she performs R
2) In light of 1), A strictly loses when performing either Q or R
3) B gains from A performing Q.

An upshot of this definition is that taxation is not necessarily coercive in the descriptive sense:

Is taxation coercive? Under a descriptive framework it seems only coercive if the taxpayer loses from paying tax. If you are better off after paying your tax (and receiving the benefits of Government services, if any) you wouldn’t need to be coerced into paying your tax – the fact that you are threatened seems irrelevant. In a descriptive sense it seems then that the only people who are coerced into taxation are those people (if any) who lose out from the Government taxation.

I don’t like arguing over the definition of words, since every word is ambiguous to some extent and none has any True Meaning, but this just isn’t what most people seem to be talking about when they use the word ‘coercion’. I don’t see conditions 2 or 3 in Tom’s formulation as being implied in most political discourse, and it’s certainly not what I (and, I suspect, most libertarians) mean when talking about coercion. I can’t think of a single philosopher who takes Tom’s view (that is not to say that there are none, but that they are probably few).

Conditions 2 and 3 are, of course, likely to be empirically related to coercion: If A wanted to perform Q anyway, B wouldn’t normally need to bother coercing him, and if B didn’t gain from A performing Q, it’s unclear why he would want him to. It’s easy, though, to construct examples in which force is used even where conditions 2 and 3 aren’t met, especially once we introduce uncertainty and asymmetrical information.

A moral baseline is relevant, however, in specifying exactly what is to count as a threat. I largely agree with Nozick when he says that coercion requires a threat would need to shift A’s preference away from Q towards R, and that A would rather not receive the offer at all. Nozick, however, ignores actual force. I would say you’re coerced if you’re tied up in order to prevent you from performing an action.

My definition of coercion would be more like:

B coerces A iff:

1) B uses force to prevent A from performing Q, or threatens perform action S if A performs Q

2) A is harmed by S

Things are complicated slightly by the possibility of B withholding benefits rather than imposing costs. Suppose B is the major customer of A’s business, and wants A to marry B’s daughter. He threatens to withdraw his custom if A refuses. We might find this despicable, but those committed to property rights would say that B has every right to take his money elsewhere. This does, however, shift A’s preference towards marrying B’s daughter, and is an offer he would rather not receive. We could amend the definition of coercion to remove such instances, specifically excluding the removal of benefits as a form of threat. I’m inclined to bite the bullet and call this coercion, but insist that it’s not a rights violation.

This definition seems much more in line with our intuitive understanding of what coercion is, and surely proves more useful in political debate. On Tom’s definition we couldn’t talk about paternalism, if it really makes the individual in question better off, being coercive. The distinction between coercive and noncoercive paternalism is surely a useful one. If you’re a utilitarian who thinks that people often act against their best interests, you may want to say that coercion is often justified, but to deny that it is coercion seems a touch Orwellian.

I don’t see coercion as necessarily wrong. I agree with Tom that private property is a coercive institution, but justified on (broadly speaking) utilitarian grounds, and I think some level of taxation is justified, but maintain that taxation is inherently coercive. Coercion is, however, a prima facie wrong, and requires justification in each case, with the burden of proof lying with the coercer.

Quote of the Day*

It sounds almost like deadpan black humor to state that “except for raising the means,” government need not rely on coercion to render services. Surely, once it has raised the means, it has applied all the coercion it can possibly need; if we treat such coercion as an exception, what is left of the rule? – and what could a liberal ever object to?

Anthony de Jasay criticising Hayek, Against Politics, p. 50.  

I love the mild vitriol, but don’t quite agree. Governments has proved very willing to engage in much coercive behaviour in addition to raising the means. I would be ecstatic if the New Zealand government kept current levels of taxation and spending but did not engage in any other sort of coercion. A removal of drug prohibition and paternalistic regulation would hugely improve freedom and welfare. If we ignore coercive taxation, there’s plenty left for a liberal to object to.  

*Yes, I know I don’t post these daily.