Rebirth of Reason

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Friday, July 10, 2015 - 8:24pmSanction this postReply

This is a point-by-point rebuttal of the author's arguments, which are presented in blue:


The author, Ryan Cooper, writes:


Rand Paul brought some libertarian philosophy into the Republican presidential primary this week, in the form of the old "taxation is slavery" bumper sticker. He even indexed it to a handy percentage scale! Andrew Kazynski has the tape: "I'm for paying some taxes. But if we tax you at 100 percent then you've got zero percent liberty. If we tax you at 50 percent you are half-slave, half-free.


Paul is probably getting his argument from Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which famously argued: "Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor." (Note that not even he went so far as to say taxation was literally identical to slavery.) His book was probably the most convincing case that can be made for this stone-cold form of libertarianism, where all "redistributive" policy is morally abhorrent and only the night watchman state is permissible.


Nevertheless, it's still garbage. Nozick's book constructs a detailed procedural account of justice, arguing that redistributive taxation is theft because it is a coerced transfer. He was a smart guy, and it's very hard to get one's hooks into his argument. The weakness, as with all extremist accounts of property rights, is not with the logic but the premises — particularly when it comes to the very beginning of property.


Go back far enough in history, and there would have been no property of any kind.


Not true. If a person produces something, then he owns it. No matter how far back you go, people had to engage in at least some kind of production in order to live, in which case, they acquired property. (Not that it was always acknowledged or respected.) So this premise is false. He then makes another false assumption:


The moment somebody fences off a piece of land, it necessarily destroys the liberty of everyone else in the world, since they no longer have the right to access that land.


Also not true. If the land were initially acquired for a productive purpose, then the producer acquires ownership of it, and has a right to prohibit access by others. His ownership of it does not destroy anyone else's liberty, because the right to liberty -- the right to the products of one's labor, which is the right to property -- implies that others are obligated to respect it. A right to interfere with the property of others would destroy the very meaning of the right to liberty. The right to liberty means nothing if it doesn't obligate others to respect it.


Nozick admits this is the case, but still wants to set up initial property rights. So he embraces a concept that he calls the "Lockean proviso."


This proviso allows appropriation of unowned things, so long as it does not worsen the situation of anyone else.


What does it mean to "worsen the situation of anyone else"? If I acquire ownership of land by farming it or building on it, have I worsened the situation of anyone else? Well, in a sense, I have because now others don't have access to that land and cannot themselves use it. So by that standard, no one could rightfully appropriate any unowned resource, because doing so would "worsen the situation of someone else." Taken literally, the Lockean proviso makes no sense.


And what about people last in line, so to speak, who can't appropriate anything because everything is already taken? Well, they will benefit from the general prosperity brought on by market capitalism.


First of all, even now not everything is already taken (i.e., already produced), since the government has prevented much of our natural resources from being developed. Secondly, the fact that people have acquired property rights over natural resources does not mean that others cannot acquire rightfully owned property by working for them.


More Perspectives


Note what kind of argument this is: It rests on the overall welfare-enhancing consequences of adopting Nozick's ideas.


The whole point of the "taxation is slavery-ish" argument is that infringing liberty to increase general welfare is morally impermissible. Yet here is Nozick, leaning on a boon to general welfare to justify a violation of liberty so he can get property rights going. This is no different from taxing the rich to provide food stamps, or from the kind of single-payer health insurance system that socialist Bernie Sanders endorses.


Obviously, the right to liberty cannot be based on "the general welfare," because the term has no precise meaning. If I rob Peter to pay Paul, am I increasing the general welfare? Well, I may be increasing Paul's welfare but I'm diminishing Peter's. So have I increased the general welfare? There's no way to determine that, because divorced from individuals, the concept of 'welfare' has no meaning.


The upshot is that the austere libertarianism implied by Paul's statement is fundamentally unworkable. The horse stumbled right out of the gate, and has to be put down. Neither Milton Friedman nor Friedrich von Hayek went nearly so far. Even Nozick himself apparently abandoned it after a few years.


Let me also comment on Paul's gruesome tin ear on display here.


What is slavery really? In the U.S. context — and given the reference to Abraham Lincoln's "House Divided" speech, this is clearly what Paul was getting at — slavery was full property rights in human beings.


Yes, and what "full property rights in human beings" means is the right to control their choices and actions including the right to dispose of the products of their labor. As Rand put it, "the man who produces while others dispose of his product is a slave." The Southern slaves produced while the slave owners disposed of their product. Of course, Southern slavery was much worse, much more inhumane and much crueler than taxation is today, but here we're talking about the severity of a violation not about its nature. Stealing 40% of someone's income is not as bad as brutalizing him and stealing everything he earns and produces. But both are still violations of his property rights as well as a form of involuntary servitude, because both involve forcing another person to work for you. The servitude can be harsh or relatively benign, but it is still involuntary and it is still servitude.


It was also incomprehensibly brutal. Owning a person presented a challenge to Southern capitalists, since slave labor has no monetary incentive to work. They solved this problem neatly, with daily violence. Set a steadily increasing daily work quota (pounds of cotton picked, typically), and if it was not achieved, make up the difference with an equal number of stripes with the whip.


In this way, Southern slaves were forced to increase their labor productivity by some 400 percent from 1800 to 1860, achieving a level that was not matched until the development of the mechanical cotton picker. Southern slavery thus robbed both the body and the mind, using systematic torture to force slaves into inventing and spreading techniques of extreme manual dexterity (picking cotton by hand is very difficult).


So if Rand Paul really believes that 1 percent taxation is exactly equal to 1 percent slavery, why doesn't he sound like an abolitionist?


Give me a break! He's not saying that taxation is equal to the extent, severity and brutality of Southern slavery. He's saying that taxation violates the same principle of property rights and the right to liberty.

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Saturday, July 11, 2015 - 8:15amSanction this postReply

Nice reply,  Bill.  


Going beyond the original essay, the essence of the problem is more than just land - who owns it, who fences it off. As Jane Jacobs famously pointed out in The Economy of Cities, tractors were not invented and built on farms.


The city clock tower and the cathedral could not have become the steam engine and skyscraper without a million other inventions.


As Ayn Rand asked, "Did the man who invented a motor, do so at the expense of the man who did not?"  What gives the latter a right to the labor of the other.  And, just as this all is about more than "land"it is about more than "labor."  It is about thought. Taxation does not just steal the brilliant ideas of a few geniuses - even if that could be excused - but of everyone who has any kind of new idea no matter how mundane, prosaic, or menial, on how to improve processes and services that did not exist before.  It is famous that the mother of former Monkee Mike Nesmith was a single working mother, living with her sister and mother, and working in a bank, as well as decorating store windows, when she invented what we now call "white out" or "liquid paper." (Wikipedia here.)  By what right does anyone claim the product of her mind?

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