If you spend enough time in libertarian circles, you’ll hear the argument made that “taxation is slavery.” Libertarians aren’t claiming this is some analytic truth about taxation–rather, it is an argument about the moral status of the act of taxation. As I hope to show in this all to brief post, I think this argument doesn’t work. The argument goes something like this:
1. Slavery is involuntary subjugation to the will of another person, or entity
2. Taxation involves the involuntary taking of property by a government
3. Involuntary taking of my property is subjection to the will of another entity
4. So taxation is slavery.
The problematic step in this argument is premise 3. I think there are two specific problems with this premise. First, it is not necessarily true that the involuntary taking of property involves subjection to the will of another. In particular, norms of taxation involve taking property in accordance with an established, promulgated, and general legal regime rather than the will of particular individuals. Of course, dysfunctional governments come close to resembling organized theft when they allow particular officials to manipulate and threaten citizens using the taxing power. But a regular, orderly system of taxation, which may yet be onerous or unfair, does not subject citizens to the wills of particular individuals in the same way. It subjects them to a general scheme of confiscatory taxation.
The second problem with the third premise is that taxation is not automatically a “subjection,” either. “Subjection” here means the creation of some differential status between the object of the tax and the taxing power. When I say that taxation is not automatically a “subjection,” I am making a claim about the conceptual relationship, rather than a moral one, between taxation and subjection. The concept of taxation makes sense as a “subjection” if we think of taxation as a burden that is “added on” to membership in a political community. Call something that’s added on in this way a cost. Instead, I think taxation is closer to one element in a bundle of features involved as a condition of membership in a political body. This distinction between taxation as a cost and taxation as a condition shows why it’s mistaken to think that taxation “subjects” citizens in a political community. A tax is not the kind of thing that swoops in upon unsuspecting citizens and confiscates some percentage of their income or wealth. It’s rather in the deal all along. And because the bundle of features that we call “citizenship” constitutes a certain unitary status for its object, a person, it is odd to think that one element of that bundle could reduce the status of the person relative to the other elements.
To clarify, my second argument does not rule out that certain taxes could “subject” their subjects in virtue of other particularities. Nor does it mean that all taxes are morally indefensible. But it does mean that the usual slogan doesn’t cut it.