The Taxman Cometh

  • November 17, 2023
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Philip Goff’s new book Why? The Purpose of the Universe is an outstanding investigation of cosmic purpose written from the author’s panpsychist point of view. It’s an impressive contribution to metaphysics, but, you may ask, why I am talking about it in this week’s column? The answer is that the author includes an appendix, “P.S. Is Taxation Theft?,” in which he raises some very relevant points about libertarianism. You may now wonder why a book on cosmic purpose includes a section about the moral status of taxation, but the answer to this you will have to find out for yourself. If the curiosity leads you to read the book, all the better.

Goff says that many people assume they have a right to all of their income and property. If the state taxes part of what you own, it is stealing from you, in just the same way a thief who absconds with some of your property has done. Libertarians who think this way assume that people have a natural right to property, but this assumption is no more than one of three possible theories of property rights, and moreover the one Goff finds the least plausible. The other two theories are the left-libertarian position that people own the natural resources of the earth in common and the social constructivist view that the people in each society decide for themselves the permissible scope of property rights. Goff leans toward the social constructivist account, though he attaches some weight to the common-resources view as well. Neither of these latter two theories has the consequence that people are entitled to all of their pretax income and property: according to them, taxation isn’t theft.

Goff explains why left-libertarianism allows taxation:

Left-libertarianism will certainly rule out some forms of taxation as immoral. If I have acquired land or natural resources in a way that is consistent with the equal moral claim of others, and through my own labour I increase the value of these resources, it is wrong for the state to tax that wealth away from me. But left-libertarian theories leave considerable latitude for the state to alter the distribution of wealth, perhaps through taxation, if some take more than their fair share of land or natural resources.

And of course social constructivism does so also:

It is plausible that human flourishing requires certain legally protected rights to property, and hence most social constructivists will advocate a system of property rights. At the same time, there are other things of value—perhaps equality, perhaps reward for hard work and/or social contribution . . . —and in order to promote these other values, most social constructivists propose making property rights conditional on the payment of taxes. In the absence of pre-existing property rights, there is no moral reason to respect the existing distribution of wealth.

As this passage makes evident, Goff’s version of social constructivism isn’t based on the claim that morality is nothing more than the subjective preferences of individuals or groups of individuals. He thinks that there are objective values—and makes considerable (and in my view successful) attempts to show this—but these values don’t include natural property rights.

After he presents these competing theories of property rights, Goff rejects the libertarian view, the only one of the three theories according to which taxation is theft. He notes that if you accept the natural property rights that Murray Rothbard and Robert Nozick defend, then you must reject the theory that property rights are socially constructed and also the theory that people have an equal right to natural resources. He is especially troubled by the latter rejection:

The second requirement—the denial of equal rights over the natural world—is particularly implausible. On the right-libertarian view, it is morally acceptable for one person to claim a vastly unequal proportion of land and resources for himself, resulting in his propertyless neighbours being forced to work for him to avoid starvation. By what right can the natural world be appropriated in this way?

Suppose that Goff is correct that you can’t appropriate so much land that everyone else must work for you on whatever terms you set forward. It doesn’t follow from this that everyone has an equal claim to all natural resources. A defender of the natural-right-to-property position could say that the way you are allowed to appropriate property excludes the outcome Goff depicts. You aren’t, for example, allowed to appropriate vast areas of land simply by declaring that you own it.

Further, why is the left-libertarian view of equal ownership of resources supposed to operate only as an objection to the natural-right-to-property view? Why doesn’t it also constrain the social constructivist view that Goff adopts? Does an equal right to resources negate libertarian ownership but somehow cease to exist once social constructivism comes up for consideration?

Goff then advances a startling claim:

Moreover, even if right-libertarianism is true, even if there are natural property rights, even if such rights allow private individuals to carve off for themselves a vastly unequal share of natural resources, even then we cannot make sense of the idea that actual people living today have a moral claim on their pre-tax income. (emphasis in original)

Goff’s argument for this claim rests on a premise we can all accept: we don’t live in a libertarian society. In our society, there are all sorts of state interferences with the free market, including redistributive taxation and the provision of “public goods.” “But even the smallest such state intervention entails that the market distribution of income no longer reflects the free choices of citizens, and hence by the lights of right-libertarianism the citizens of these countries have no moral claim on their pre-tax income” (emphasis in original).

This is an odd argument, and its oddness will become apparent if you recall Goff’s starting point. He is assuming that people have natural property rights—he of course doesn’t think they do, but he wants to show that even on the assumption that they do, people have no right to their pretax income. But from this assumption, how does the state acquire any right to take anything at all? The state’s violations of rights don’t become self-justifying because these very violations make it hard to figure out exactly what property rights people have.

So far as I am aware, Goff’s argument is original, but in philosophy, originality isn’t always a virtue.

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