Taxation isn’t slavery

There is an argument that libertarians sometimes make that equates taxation to slavery. They say that your money is a representation of your time, since you need to put in time to earn it. As such, someone who takes your money is effectively taking your time, and thus making you their slave.

The problem I see with this argument is the claim that taking up any part of your time is akin to slavery. For someone to utterly dominate your life is a much worse situation than for someone to periodically demand a quantity of your time. More than a few societies have been structured in exactly that way: people paid their taxes in the form of labour or military service. Calling upon people to sacrifice some of their time, in exchange for getting to live in a good society, is a perfectly acceptable thing to do.

Thus, taxation is not immoral, because it is not akin to slavery.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

16 thoughts on “Taxation isn’t slavery”

  1. “Thus, taxation is not immoral, because it is not akin to slavery.”

    There are lots of things that are not akin to slavery, and yet I would still call immoral.

  2. To spell it out more laboriously:

    The claim that taxation is morally equivalent to slavery is inaccurate, and as a consequence the argument that taxation is immoral because slavery is immoral does not stand.

    Obviously, there are things other than slavery that are immoral, and taxation could be immoral for a reason other than being akin to slavery. That said, the argument that taxation equals slavery and therefore it is not permissible is weak and can be rejected.

  3. The failure to tax is skin to theft without the consent of those who bear the costs to the conditions under which the generation of wealth is possible and which are affected negatively by the generation of wealth. Discuss.

  4. Were the liberatarians that make that claim educated in schools paid for by taxes, treated when ill at the expense of taxpayers and travelled roads built through taxes?

    As a society we accept that there are some costs that must be borne and paid with by taxes. Taxes sustain people that are need, educate the young and care for us until we die. The requirement for me and everybody else to pay taxes allows me to live in a better society.

  5. Oleh,
    I agree with you on most of the things you say except for the fact that a large portion of our taxes also serves to support the military. I know that when I lived in the Czech Republic, a far greater portion of taxes was allocated to military spending than to education and healthcare. We must have taxes to make our country a humane place to live, but it would be nice if we could opt out of paying for services that are morally offensive to us. That said, I can see that there would be no end to what people would choose not to contribute to.

  6. Taxation is a limitation on liberty, as the government is forcing you to do something. This doesn’t mean that taxation is wrong, nor that a country with less taxation would be inherently more free than a country with a higher rate of taxation, but hold everything else as equal, it limits liberty (roughly speaking).

    I think it is valid to argue that a rate of taxation of 100% would be slavery… or, at least, any such distinction between the two would be of little practical effect. Thus, I don’t think it is completely wrong to suggest that taxation is akin to slavery, depending on how you define ‘akin’.

    It’s of little use to throw out the rhetoric that taxation is akin to slavery – and if one is going to do that, it should be done as part of a deeper examination of liberty and taxation, not as an argument against taxation, full stop.

    I’ve seen the argument used different times and to varying degrees of effectiveness. I can’t offer a blanket dismissal nor a blanket endorsement of the analogy.

  7. I think the key point here is how a quantitative difference has qualitative consequences. Requiring citizens to provide some time or money to support the state us justifiable and necessary. It is especially easily justifiable on utilitarian grounds.

    By contrast, requiring someone to devote their whole life to supporting the state seems qualitatively different and much less justifiable.

  8. “Taxation is a limitation on liberty, as the government is forcing you to do something.”

    This is an absurd view of liberty – in the real world you need lots of positive goods to exercise liberty, like food, water, shelter, security. If you lack any basic goods, paying taxes to acquire them would increase your liberty. If you think you can buy those goods on the private market, the private market can’t exist without stability, and if the presence of positive programs like welfare is required to prevent socialist revolution, then even these programs increase your bourgeois liberty.

    Of course, the same argument can be used in reverse, and has been by people like Che, who argue that we should oppose welfare-improving programs because they prevent conditions for socialist revolution from coming to pass. Either way, if you’re a neo-con, you should support welfare.

  9. Alena’s comment reminded me that in much of the world the amount of money spent on the military or internal police is extraordinary. In many countries, the military and police are instruments of maintaining the existing leader in power contrary to the interests and the will of the people at large. This indeed is akin to slavery.

  10. Let us get to the bottom of things. Money creates an illusion for us. To ask for co-operation, in the form of money, from all the citizens in a common enterprise is, in reality, to ask of them actual physical co-operation, for each one of them procures for himself by his labor the amount he is taxed. Now, if we were to gather together all the citizens and exact their services from them in order to have a piece of work performed that is useful to all, this would be understandable; their recompense would consist in the results of the work itself. But if, after being brought together, they were forced to build roads on which no one would travel, or palaces that no one would live in, all under the pretext of providing work for them, it would seem absurd, and they would certainly be justified in objecting: We will have none of that kind of work. We would rather work for ourselves.

    Having the citizens contribute money, and not labor, changes nothing in the general results. But if labor were contributed, the loss would be shared by everyone. Where money is contributed, those whom the state keeps busy escape their share of the loss, while adding much more to that which their compatriots already have to suffer.

  11. If a person is a slave, being utterly under control of his master, and then that control is reduced to 80%, the slave is still a slave.
    Even if the control exerted on the man is reduced to 5%, the man is still a slave because he does not have complete control over his own life.
    A free person needn’t answer to anyone, so if we must answer to government, we are not free people. We are slaves who must be content with what our master deigns to let us keep.

  12. I see a fallacy in your argument, Someguy. We are not slaves under control of a master. We are a free people with liberties and unalienable rights in a society that was formed to support common interests and goals. Giving up 5 % of our earnings does remove or take away any liberties. It in fact helps to protect and ensure those liberties, like the liberty to travel freely, the liberty to feel safe in our communities because we have police and fire protection, the liberty to make choices of who may govern. We are the government so we answer to our selves by voting.

  13. Buchanan was strongly influenced by both the neoliberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises and the property supremacism of John C Calhoun, who argued, in the first half of the 19th century, that freedom consists of the absolute right to use your property – including your slaves – however you may wish. Any institution that impinges on this right is an agent of oppression, exploiting men of property on behalf of the undeserving masses.

    James Buchanan brought these influences together to create what he called “public choice theory”. He argued that a society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will. But the rich were being exploited by people who use their votes to demand money that others have earned, through involuntary taxes to support public spending and welfare. Allowing workers to form trade unions and imposing graduated income taxes are forms of “differential or discriminatory legislation” against the owners of capital.

  14. The papers Nancy Maclean discovered show that Buchanan saw stealth as crucial. He told his collaborators that “conspiratorial secrecy is at all times essential.” Instead of revealing their ultimate destination, they would proceed by incremental steps. For example, in seeking to destroy the Social Security system, they would claim to be saving it, arguing that it would fail without a series of radical “reforms”. (The same argument is used by those attacking the NHS over here). Gradually they would build a “counter-intelligentsia”, allied to a “vast network of political power” that would eventually become the new establishment.

    Through the network of thinktanks that Koch and other billionaires have sponsored, through their transformation of the Republican Party, and the hundreds of millions they have poured into state congressional and judicial races, through the mass colonisation of Trump’s administration by members of this network and lethally effective campaigns against everything from public health to action on climate change, it would be fair to say that Buchanan’s vision is maturing in the USA.

    In one respect, Buchanan was right: there is an inherent conflict between what he called “economic freedom” and political liberty. Complete freedom for billionaires means poverty, insecurity, pollution and collapsing public services for everyone else. Because we will not vote for this, it can be delivered only through deception and authoritarian control. The choice we face is between unfettered capitalism and democracy. You cannot have both.

    Buchanan’s programme amounts to a prescription for totalitarian capitalism. And his disciples have only begun to implement it. But at least, thanks to Maclean’s discoveries, we can now apprehend the agenda. One of the first rules of politics is know your enemy. We’re getting there.

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