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Ethics / Psychology

Are Taxes Moral?

This post is part of the series Why Government?

Other posts in this series:

  1. Is the Conservative Government Immoral?
  2. The Government and Universities
  3. Are Taxes Moral? (Current)
  4. Is Government Necessary?
  5. Is Government Good?

One of the arguments against the existence of special government powers such as the power to tax is that taxing is no different from theft. Since theft is wrong, so is taxing. A careful examination of this argument shows that it assumes that there is no moral difference between an individual under government and an individual without government. There is good reason to believe that this assumption is false, and that taxation is sometimes morally acceptable if our relationship with the common good of our society must be fair.

The argument against the morality of special government powers claims that if I (as a person in society) protected my neighbors from criminals I could not demand that they pay me for the service. I could not take money from them if they refused to pay, nor could I kidnap them until they did pay. If I did any of these things, I would be acting immorally. I agree. In this specific situation, I would be acting immorally were I to do any of these things. And if this were similar to the government’ s actions on taxation, then the government would be taxing immorally. But this is not analogous to the real acts of government.

First, suppose that there was no government at any level. Suppose that a strong man agreed to protect himself and his neighbors from criminals and predators as a full-time job. Before doing so, he requested some basic assistance from his neighbors. This included enough money to buy weapons and maintain a standard of living similar to that of his neighbors. All of his neighbors agreed to do so. One of them disagreed. (This is the local anarchist.) Is it acceptable for the neighbors to set the local anarchist an ultimatum: either pay assistance (or help perform the assistance) or leave the neighborhood? I say yes. If it is, then it is this situation that is similar to government. By beginning this process, the neighbors are establishing a government. By agreeing to take on the responsibility of protecting the community from criminals, an element of the common good is being entrusted to this person.

In our situation, the common good has already been entrusted to governments. So our situation is not similar to a state prior to all governments. Individuals in that state are different from individuals in our state. So when we imagine a person who protects neighbors from criminals, we imagine a person in our state doing so. If such a person were to demand compensation, then it would either take the form of a contract or be theft. Since government is cannot be justified by contract, such a situation could never justify a government. But individuals without a state are different from individuals with a state. Therefore, the analogy of the anarchist is flawed.

The analogy brings us from a situation in which we have a government, supposes that a third party assists in the duties of government and demands payment for that assistance. Since we agree that this is wrong, this simply means that third parties may not demand assistance for performing the duties of government. But it has nothing to do with the actual justification of government powers whether special or not. The true situation is the one given above or one like it.

Anarchists must therefore claim that if society makes a demand that they contribute to the common good (protection from criminals) then it is morally acceptable for them to both refuse to contribute to that good in any way and yet benefit from that same good. But this is unfair. It is simply not fair to demand that a community supports you while do nothing to help that community. Perhaps there is an argument that anarchists have for this conclusion. But without such an argument, this argument is unsuccessful.

Continue reading this series:

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