Why taxation should be voluntary

By Aleksey Bashtavenko

Random Meanderings

The Republicans and the Democrats disagree about the role that the government should play in providing social services. The former insist that it should be smaller and intervene less in the economy. In contradistinction, the latter maintain that the public interest would be better served by a higher degree of government involvement in our institutions.
The Republicans are more likely to excoriate politicians who pioneer inefficient government programs than the Democrats, but they stop far short from conceding that all forms of taxation constitute theft.
Even the most intransigent conservatives will staunchly assert that taxation for some government services is legitimate. Who could argue that the government perpetrates theft by taxing all citizens to build schools, roads and police departments?
The problem with this rationale is it involves an element of coercion that could be construed as a violation of individual rights. This engenders a peculiar asymmetry in our moral outlook that creates a double-standard. Both orthodox schools of political thought prohibit individuals from coercing each other in such a manner but allow the government to do so.

Suppose you’re back in school and I discover that you have several college papers to write. When I solicit you offering my services, you promptly turn me down because you do not need my help. Instead of respecting your wishes, I employ hackers to gain access to all of your virtual accounts and complete several assignments for you. In return, I’ll withdraw twice as much money from your bank account as was necessary to cover the market fee for the service I’ve rendered. Since I now know that I will always have you as a client, I’ll have no incentive to meet your deadlines or make an honest effort to fully maximize the quality of my work. In this case, you would be justifiably aggrieved, yet this still seems insufficient to show that the government is culpable of the same moral transgression.

Prima facie, it appears that I am making a category mistake. It is clear that you never authorized me to render a service to you, but all citizens entered an implicit social contract with the government that grants them such an authorization. That’s quite a questionable counter-argument because most citizens do not understand what the contract is about and certainly did not consciously acquiesce to it.
In effect, the argument you would be espousing is an off-shoot of Rousseau’s General Will that can be summarized as follows. The government should provide the public not with the services they vocally demand but with those that reflect their true general will. In other words, the government should analyze the cultural values, attitudes and the general ethos of the nation’s collective consciousness in order to determine what their unspoken “General Will” is. History is replete with examples of how such political philosophy gave rise to totalitarianism on the left and the right and there is no need for me to go into them here.

If you are going to argue that taxation is not justified by Rousseau’s General Will, then there is no reason to impose criminal penalties upon people who evade taxes. If the people truly did consent to government services, they should have no problem voluntarily paying for them. Taxation constitutes coercion and that is a fundamentally immoral act and coercion begets inefficiency. In turn, the government overcharges the citizenry for the services it renders in the same manner all monopolies do. This is a very subtle, albeit a pervasive and a clear-cut form of theft.

This leaves the establishment ideology with just one defense: mandatory government services are necessary to preserve public order. This position can be defended by the premise that a strong centralized government is necessary for preservation of social order and such a politico-economic infrastructure can be supported only by coercive taxation. Indeed, an environment of complete mayhem is often pejoratively referred to as anarchy. The fear that radical decentralization leads to a disastrous pandemonium is comprehensively supported by a plethora of historical examples. In the aftermath of the emergence of the Italian state in the 19th century, the southern territory was embroiled in incessant confrontations between mafia clans. India’s lack of a centralized government has historically been associated with the nation’s failure to achieve stability or economic progress until the British colonization.

Although it is possible for de-centralization to completely destroy social order, that outcome is far from inevitable. History is also fraught with examples of successful de-centralization including the Ancient Greek and autonomous city-states or polises. Even the nascent United States achieved considerable freedom and prosperity in part because of decentralization. Instead of dogmatically accepting the position that decentralization either strengthens or undermines political order, it is necessary to examine this question empirically. The only way to do so is to begin experimenting by slowly introducing minor changes to our politico-economic environment by making some forms of taxation voluntary. It is possible that this practice will engender desirable results where the consumers will opt to support the centralized government services or replace them with superior private services.

In the event where the worst fears of the establishment proponents are confirmed, mandatory taxation can be restored. It would then be clear that this form of coercion  maximizes the well-being of the largest number of people by preserving public order in the only way it is possible to do so. In that case, this course of action will be supported by a robust Utilitarian argument that’s corroborated by compelling empirical evidence. Although this would be a paternalistic argument with its own authoritarian undercurrents, it would be much less dangerous than the appeal to Rousseau’s General Will. Here, the government would have a clear-cut rationale for financially coercing the public and it will set a precedent for future policies that will require similarly rigorous justifications for future legislation involving coercion. At the very least, intellectual honesty behooves us to understand that the current institution of taxation is profoundly immoral because it involves theft and coercion. If it truly does serve the public interest, this hypothesis is too important to be accepted on faith and it should be subjected to rigorous social experimentation. 

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