Paying Taxes Doesn’t Make You A Slave

A friend of mine was pondering whether the state – in this case, the American government –  has the right to take a portion of his taxes against his will, by threat of force, i.e. arrest and imprisonment. He was led to this (in the instant case, he wrestles with such ideas often) by this passage:

Is man a sovereign individual who owns his person, his mind, his life, his work and its products- or is he the property of the tribe (the state, the society, the collective) that may dispose of him in any way it pleases, that may dictate his convictions, prescribe the course of his life, control his work and expropriate his products? Does man have the right to exist for his own sake- or is he born in bondage, as an indentured servant who must keep buying his life by serving the tribe but can never acquire it free and clear?

A. Rand, “What is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal

I thought my answers to him, somewhat edited, might make an interesting blog post.

When a proposition on a complex subject is phrased as “Is it X, or is it Y?” the chances are that it is neither. The middle gets excluded (and the periphery). Demagogues like to make everything binary, with their preference held up as the noblest of paths and anything else as the basest. It’s a trick that’s probably as old as language itself, but it’s still effective because we’re wired to prefer simple answers, to enjoy being part of an in-group, and to fear and distrust others outside the group. It’s a neurological trifecta, and it takes a concentrated mental effort to see past it.

In the specific, being forced to pay into the maintenance of a society from which you derive benefits doesn’t make you a sacrificial animal or a slave, it makes you a member of a society. Rand’s rather superficial philosophy is popular because it hits the trifecta above, and in doing so justifies greedy and selfish behaviors that most philosophies decry. It is a hard thing to pass a starving fellow human and not help; Rand makes it out to be a virtue (‘The Virtue of Selfishness‘) to do so.

Maintenance of the society is involuntary, and enforced with violence, true, but membership in it is voluntary in America. You are free to withdraw from this society – but you can’t do it piecemeal and you will have to leave the jurisdiction American society has claimed. That’s a bit harsh, I agree, but it is actually a step up from many other societies which won’t even let you leave. Examples (among many more) include North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and if you are a woman most of the Islamic states.

Returning to America, you live in a part of the planet claimed by American society, and you gain many advantages from that society (along with some disadvantages). If you want to live here you will be forced by that society to partake in some common tasks which are not optional; things like paying for fire services, police services, a common military, and health care. You get these things whether you want them or not, and you pay for them whether you want to or not, as long as you are a member of the society, and you’re a member as long as you choose to live here.

I agree it would be nice if joining in the society were not such an all or nothing proposition, but there is really only a limited amount of disentanglement that is practically possible.

The US military protects everybody inside the borders of the US – it would not be fair to let anyone live inside those borders without contributing to that. The federal, state and local highway systems serve everybody; everybody should help pay.

The organizational and infrastructural devices that prevent, contain and treat epidemics of contagious disease, the emergency services for fire and other general emergencies, the police services and justice systems, protect everyone; the people who choose not to contribute to them endanger not only themselves but their neighbors.

The mechanisms for ensuring clean and adequate water and sewage, electricity and communication, can to a certain extent be individually opted out from, and in most cases you pay for them separately. It’s not a completely clean separation, usually, but everyone benefits from the general availability of those services even if they don’t use them. The water and sewage services provided to your neighbor protect you from cholera even if you only drink bottled water, the phone service allows them to call the fire department before it spreads to your house, and so forth.

Certainly there are services the government provides for which the benefits to you directly are tenuous at best, and you are forced to pay for them because the society in general (not you in particular) has decided it is worth it for the general welfare of the society (not you in particular) and that you will have to assume a part of the burden.

Chances are also good that the opposite condition applies, but even if it doesn’t the choice that you make to continue living in this society’s jurisdiction implies consent to that social contract. What’s more, this society also shares with you (yes, you in particular as an individual!) control over the mechanism for determining what resources are allocated where. If your view is not in the majority you will be overridden by the views of the other members, but you do in fact have a vote. Persuade others to let you be the one who represents their interests and you can even more directly influence the distribution of resources. This mechanism isn’t going to let you have it all your way, but then it’s not meant to represent you and your interests as an individual alone, but rather the society which includes you as a member of society.

In summary, you’re free to leave, and you’re partially in charge. That rather lifts you out of the classes of slaves and domestic animals.

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~ by B.T. Murtagh on March 29, 2010.

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