May A Libertarian Take Government Property?

No, you may not take government property! The argument presented in the earlier blog noted that you as an individual had no right to take property from everyone else, held for them by a city government.

This didn’t convince everyone, and that’s to be expected because the arguments that seem to support such taking are made over and over again in libertarian sources. The central feature of several arguments e-mailed to me is that the writers speak for themselves and neglect everyone else. It’s all I, I, I with no weight given to anyone else. Mr. M writes

“…my compliance or lack of it cannot in any way give moral authority to the group of people who once seized control of this country nor to the group who now believe they are the heirs to that rule. In fact, all governments are illegitimate that are not based on the explicit consent of all those they would govern.

“Given that an illegitimate government that seizes wealth through taxation has committed theft, the taking back of that stolen property cannot be a theft itself under the principle that title to the property has not properly transferred to the government as thief.”

Mr. Z writes

“If I am a net taxpayer — meaning that I have paid more into the tax pot in taxes than money that I have received in subsidies — and, unlike the rest of my community, I have not consented to the taking of my income by the government, then surely my taking “government property” (at least) up to my tax deficit is not theft?”

My response follows.

No governments are based on explicit consent. Therefore you regard them as all illegitimate. Ergo, you regard their property as stolen.

However, you are not the only one making an evaluation of the government. The judgments of others no doubt differ from one another and from yours.

What if you were one of the many people who accepts the government? And what if there was a person outside the accepting group who doesn’t accept government, Mr. L, a libertarian? And what if Mr. L took the city vehicles one day and sold them all off in order to cancel out exactly the taxes he had been made to pay? And Mr. L would be saying “The city government is not legitimate. Taxes are theft, gotten by coercion. I’m just applying the non-aggression postulate. This is not theft. I’m recovering my stolen property value.”

Would you, a member of the government-accepting group, blithely say this was agreeable to you? Or would you view it as theft? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? You would immediately get angry and demand that the police arrest you and recover the automobiles.

This is the problem. Consent to a government is a group thing. Consent is not well-defined by specific contracts. But the group accepts it. You may not, but they do.

Because of this, governments are not automatically illegitimate as Mr. L argues and thinks. To Mr. L, governments may be seizing wealth and to Mr. L that makes them illegitimate, but what about other people’s opinions? Other people may feel comfortable with a monopoly government and no explicit contract, in which case those grounds for illegitimacy also go away in the group consensus. Prof. Hoppe may consider this irrational, but it happens a great deal.

Bottom line. It’s Mr. L (meaning you the individual) vs. the group, and as long as the group supports the government, your morality of taking back your tax-equivalent will be regarded by them as unlawful. You have to persuade them to see it your way. They regard the city property and government as theirs.

The problem is one of deciding what is a theft and what is not. Mr. L thinks one way, the group accepting of the government thinks another way. The group has set up a government, and that’s typical human behavior over many places and many times. And typically citizens cannot unilaterally refuse to pay taxes or, what is almost the same thing, take back government property in the amount of taxes taken from them.

Mr. L’s moral argument is that taxes are coercive and theft. The group’s moral argument is that you are free to go elsewhere. This is a weaker argument, it may be granted. Nonetheless, most people accept governments. Why? It’s a matter of self-preservation. The unity of laws and society over a given territory enhances self-preservation, in their estimation.

Then why might people prefer a monopoly law-maker to several competing law-makers? A theory of that will explain why states seem to be the dominant political form for so many years and in so many places. (Of course, another approach altogether is to say that governments arose by conquest and imposition, aggregation over lands, etc.)

Differences in law are quite striking across times and places, even as there are some similarities, like laws against murder. But methods of dealing with crimes and/or imposing morality or education or regulating trade, money, etc. vary widely across different societies and states.

If Mr. L or a bunch of different peoples near one another or commingled establish their own laws and governments, there will be a problem of conflict in laws to resolve. This will occur because people do not extract the same law codes from natural law (or rights) or from their religions. It will pay for a region to have some uniformity of laws to prevent fighting and to stimulate the building up of wealth, learning, the arts, etc. A peaceful environment works toward self-preservation. This is why people accept monopoly government. Governments remain limited mostly, even if they accumulate power, because they need to retain the consent of their citizens. People know that governments are far from perfect, but they regard perpetual conflict over laws as worse.

If monopoly government impairs the building up of wealth, which is a proxy for surviving, living well, and self-preservation, then will people turn to competing law-making governments? What they’ll do, in this theory, is want to retain a single but different law-making government. They’ll secede, or try to, and form smaller governments, still territorial, but minus the characteristic laws that bothered them prior to the disunion. They’ll write new constitutions. Conversely, if small governments, such as city-states, each with its own laws and regulations, are hindering wealth accumulation and self-preservation, they may see fit to form leagues and alliances with the expectation of fostering trade and peace over broader areas.

There are plenty of historical examples of both of these tendencies, and they are consistent with the theory that people avoid competing law-making bodies with clashing laws on the same territory.

Mr. L has an uphill battle trying to persuade people to give up their governments altogether. The moral argument contends with a strong tendency for people to support their self-preservation and to build up organizations that apply uniform laws that encourage wealth accumulation. Mr. L’s position is strongest when a government has overextended itself. In that case, Mr. L can argue for cutting back the government’s reach, cutting back rules and regulations, etc., and those arguments are easier to win than suggesting that government be ended altogether.

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11:37 am on June 28, 2020