There Is No Such Thing As a Just Tax

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There is no such thing as a just tax. This is a prime libertarian proposition, another way of saying that all taxes are theft. We may also say that there is no such thing as an equitable tax. Being bold, these statements invite dissent.

Some think that whatever the State’s laws say is just, but this concept pollutes the meaning of justice because there is no standard in it. Whatever a group of lawmakers proclaims is just — this can’t be justice because they can proclaim all sorts of unfair things. Even after years of such confusion, most definitions of justice today still invoke the concept of rightness, propriety and fairness.

The word and concept-corrupters have left the term "equitable" alone. It retains the pristine notion of justice found by reason, conscience and a sense of fairness.

If someone can think of a just tax, I’d like to know about it. Prove to me a tax is just and I will concede that the proposition is not totally correct. But I will go on arguing the case that taxes are unjust anyway, as an excellent first-order approximation. I will also still argue that the power to tax destroys.

A good many people may contend that to speak of a just or unjust tax is a meaningless proposition, that the term "just" is an expression of emotion or merely a subjective expression of feeling. They say that a tax is neither just nor unjust. We will address that argument in due course.

We can dispose of some seeming exceptions right away.

If a tax is zero, one might conclude that it’s a just tax. This is a minor matter of definition and logic. There seems to be no harm in saying "The only just tax is no tax at all," but that excludes taxes of zero. The set of items called "just tax" might be seen as an empty set. However, if it includes taxes of zero, then it is non-empty. Which one we select is a trivial matter of definition.

If there is a tax whose amount happens to equal or is less than that which a person would have voluntarily paid, then that person may call the tax "just." The fact that the tax was enforced may not matter to this person. The chance of this happening in an individual case is close to zero. However, with millions of taxes imposed on millions of people, there is a non-zero probability that some such agreeable taxes exist for some people. If so, the taxes will seem just to some and unjust to others. Again we have a logical issue. If a tax is fair to some and unfair to others, do we call it fair or unfair? If I do not rob some persons and I rob others, am I a just man or an unjust man? Clearly I am a robber. By the same token, if the tax leaves some persons whole but robs others, then the tax robs. It is therefore unjust. For a tax to be just, it must be right for everyone. It can rob no one.

In the same vein, if the service you receive from the government is worth more than the tax you paid for it, then the tax may seem just to you. The tax is a subsidy, a negative tax to you. Where does the money come from? Other people are being forced to subsidize you. This makes the tax unjust.

If there is something called a "voluntary tax," that would be just. However, dictionaries define a tax as an involuntary or compulsory fee. If we met as a club and all (unanimously) agreed to pay dues of $5 a month, that would be just. However, by each deciding, the tax is not a tax. It is a voluntary fee.

Maybe everyone benefits more than what they pay in tax, and all regard it as a good deal (even after factoring in the involuntary aspect.) The State makes each of us pay $500 toward a rocket to the Mars and every person feels more than $500 worth of good about it. Or we all pay $10 a month for weather forecasts via taxes, and discover that they are worth more than that to us. This is something we can’t know because we do not know what people will voluntarily pay for a service. Therefore, the proponents of these taxes cannot ever show that such taxes are just. Let us get rid of the tax and then see how many people will willingly pay $500 for a rocket or $10 a month for the weather service. If not everyone pays up, then the taxes are unjust. The burden of proof in imposing a supposedly just tax is on its proponents, but they can’t prove their case.

I am certain that a clever economist who favors taxes will issue a counter-example involving a public good or an externality. Can they prove that everyone gained and no one lost, or that everyone valued the service at more than the cost of compulsion? Or that allowing compulsion in one "good" instance did not lead to multiple bad instances of compulsion in other instances? I strongly doubt it. The gold standard here is that no unjust tax should be imposed. If an economist or legislator wishes to support a tax, let them show that it coerces no one. They can’t. They would have to take a referendum on the proposal, which would surely not be unanimous. And even a referendum would not prove the issue because it records verbal assent, not what people actually will pay when push comes to shove.

The reasonably famous economist Knut Wicksell in 1896 wrote a book on just taxation in which he argued that a tax was just when the citizen received his money’s worth in public expenditures over a life cycle. Richard E. Wagner provides an accessible explanation. Wicksell envisioned an informed electorate that used a voting process of near unanimity in purchasing public services. This comes close to a voluntary system of fees paid, not a compulsory tax. Since this process comes nowhere near describing what we experience today, it is a theoretical possibility only.

The remaining objections to the view that all taxes are unjust is that we are unable to define what a just tax is, or that there is no objective measure of justness in regard to a tax, or that to speak of a just or unjust tax is meaningless, merely a value judgment or an expression of emotion. These are serious objections, and there may be others with different shades of meaning. They suggest that libertarianism is, in some part, a philosophical position and that it must be defended in part on philosophical grounds. (If this is not so, I’d like to know how libertarians escape such a defense.)

Here is how one such person holding this view might think. A tax or a robbery or a killing is solely a matter of one person imposing upon another person. Someone might consider it nasty or wrong, but someone else might not. Others might be indifferent or applaud the act. Life’s events are what they are, no more and no less. We have opinions of them, and opinions vary among individuals. No one can tell me what is right or wrong, just or unjust. I decide that for myself. If a tax is imposed by the State, call it robbery or what you will, but it’s neither right nor wrong in an objective sense. I’ll call it right or wrong as I see fit. The words just and unjust have no real meaning, or if they do the meaning cannot be established.

If I attempt to rob a person holding this philosophy, and he resists me, it is not because I am wronging him. It is because he wants to defend himself. He does what he feels like doing. If he calls a policeman, that is not to enforce a law but simply because a means of defense happens to be available. If he sues me, it is to get his goods back. Justice has no part in it. I will call such a person a skeptic or nihilist.

The skeptic is as human as the next man in that he will defend himself against wrongs, and he can be a person who helps others and defends others against wrongs; or he might be a criminal. He may refuse to characterize and distinguish whole sets of human behavior by the concepts of right and wrong, just and unjust, proper and improper, fair and unfair. They seem to him "made up" by human beings or invented, shall we say. This seems to the skeptic to turn them into fictions or opinions, not facts. Or perhaps he views them as categories that mankind has developed that aid him in surviving.

These objections are spelled out in bold relief here so that they may elicit counter-argument and counter-thought from the audience. They are spelled out so that we can perhaps see some directions in which defenses of freedom can go. Philosophers, such as Peter Railton and John Mizzoni are still working on these issues. Railton, who is on the libertarian and anti-skeptical side of this divide writes:

"Moral realists like Aristotle, Kant, and Mill might be wrong that there are objective concepts and criteria that apply to all humans and that unite the features of impartiality, intrinsic enjoyment, sensation, and imagination and understanding (in the case of aesthetic value), or impartiality, human well-being, mutual respect, and social cooperation and understanding (in the case of moral value). They might be wrong that there are possible ways of life for individuals and societies that unite these various elements. They might be wrong about what the objective criteria or standards are, in whole or in part. They might be wrong about the actual or potential motivational hold of these features upon us — about how enduringly important they have been in human life and can be expected to continue to be. They might be wrong about whether our actual conduct and inquiry could attune our thinking and practices to the objective values they purport to represent. And they might be wrong to think that any such concepts, criteria, or standards could apply universally — their realism might have to be tempered relationally.

"All these theories and beliefs about the good and the beautiful might be mistaken, plain old wrong. Certainly the synthetic, objective content of these theories and beliefs is formidable.

"Aristotle, Kant, and Mill worked very hard to show that this content could credibly be believed — including the parts about the centrality of moral and aesthetic concerns in human life and in the deeper springs of human motivation, and the unlikelihood of this ever going away. Whether or not anything like this content is true — plain old true — is what I take to be the core set of questions concerning moral and aesthetic realism, once the semantic dust has settled.

"In 1986 I wrote:

"Morality, then, is not ideology made sincere and general — ideology is intrinsically given to heart-felt generalization. Morality is ideology that has faced the facts.

"That isn’t right. Morality is ideology aspiring to face the facts, but all ideologies in some sense aspire to "face the facts." If the formidable content just described does not obtain, then morality ends up yet another ideology, another aspiration. This seems to me improbable, but nothing a priori rules it out. Certainly I see no way of securing this formidable content "on the cheap" via semantic theory. Realism about morality (and aesthetics) requires more than a "disciplined predicative practice." It requires that we be able to show that what disciplines these predicates in human thought and practice corresponds to their objective content, and that is a large-scale defense across a wide range of commitments. No wonder Aristotle, Kant, and Mill had to work so hard!"

Railton is telling us that important philosophers have given us a very substantial body of work in support of libertarian premises. This work supports the idea that terms like justice very definitely have significant meaning in human life, that they go well beyond ideology and opinion, and that skeptical and nihilistic views are on weak ground. If these ideas are hard to prove, that does not mean that the skeptics have proven their case! But philosophers have been unable to prove the non-skeptical point of view either, even though their work has considerable weight.

For a strong and readable framework for understanding some of these issues, I recommend Frank van Dun’s article "Natural Law," which avoids getting into the often difficult arguments that philosophers use. Do not expect, however, a silver bullet shot into the skeptical-nihilist heart.

I’ll put in a few pennies worth of my thoughts at this point. I give the skeptics credit for being both honest and thoughtful. Their ideas, even if they also do not prove their own views, force those on the other side to defend theirs. That is useful.

I think that the skeptical position denies the reality of the conditions of human life. (I am not a Randian objectivist, by the way.) I do not believe that human beings invented justice or right and wrong, but if I am incorrect about that, it does not matter. I am not sure that saying we discovered them is the right way to understand them either, nor am I sure that saying they evolved along with us is the case either. The latter possibilities may have occurred, but we probably require more knowledge to be able to feel confident about such statements.

What I do believe is concepts like justice and right and wrong are essentials, part and parcel of who we are as human beings, inherent to our functioning as social animals. They define our choices and this is why they are essential. They are basic categories of thought, like the difference between seeing and hearing. We can go either way when we act. We can act justly or unjustly. No matter how we came to know this, whether it is innate, or learned, whether it evolved or was invented or discovered, this knowledge is very basic. It is the knowledge of good and evil. The skeptic denies that we know the difference or perhaps that there is a difference. This seems to me to deny what is self-evident. There are things and actions, behaviors and beliefs, theories and practices that help us as individuals and others that hurt us. Could anything be more basic?

Justice does not arise from denying our differences or our individuality and obtaining abstract rules that achieve egalitarian outcomes, as Rawls would have it. Justice is not equality and equality is not fairness. The relations among these concepts requires more care than the simple equations that underlie the rhetoric of politicians pushing misguided policies. Nor does justice arise from the stronger and smarter making up rules that benefit them at the expense of others. Doing no harm is hardly a principle that is directed at placing the stronger and more powerful in charge. That is the design of a State that specializes in injustice.

When we say that taxation is unjust because it involves coercion, we are invoking a host of unstated premises about the values of individual human life and flourishing and about the "mutual respect, and social cooperation and understanding" that Railton refers to. We are referring to and approving a way of life that opposes the war and disorder that van Dun refers to. We are coming down on the side of help and against the side of harm.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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