Rights, liberties, and taxation

A point that I’ve tried to make before, but which may bear repeating since it’s Tax Day: the distinction between “positive” and “negative” rights, or liberty, is largely illusory–or at least not that important. Libertarians sometimes use this distinction to differentiate their position from “welfare” liberals. In the libertarian utopia, rights are guarantees against interference (negative) rather than claims on resources (positive). But this distinction starts to break down once you look closely at it.

As John Stuart Mill pointed out long ago, a right is essentially a person’s justified claim on society to protect her in the enjoyment of some good. Mill points out that personal security from physical harm or aggression is one of, if not the most, important of such rights since, without it, we can’t do much else. But note that this right, which some might clasify as “negative,” is, in fact, a claim on some portion of society’s resources. It takes resources (money, time, labor) to protect people’s security. Similar points could be made about access to courts, the protection of personal property, etc. So, a “negative” right is no less a claim on resources than a “positive” right.

So it turns out that the distinction between positive and negative rights is not an especially important one in determining the proper scope of government action. A better criteria might be the importance of the interest protected. Following Mill, we could say that physical safety from harm is one of the most important interests that should be protected by socially provided rights. But equally important–or nearly so–are our interests in having sufficient food, shelter, clothing, health care, educational opportunities, etc. If it’s legitimate to tax people to provide security, protect property rights, and ensure access to courts, why would it be illegitimate to tax for the provision of these other goods?

19 thoughts on “Rights, liberties, and taxation

  1. “If it’s legitimate to tax people to provide security, protect property rights, and ensure access to courts, why would it be illegitimate to tax for the provision of these other goods?”

    The answer to your question lies in the concept of the “free rider” problem. There are certain necessities which can not, by definition, be privatized because it is impossible to charge all of the people who benefit from those necessities. A police force to protect our person and property is the perfect example. A private police force would not be economically efficient because you couldn’t charge everyone who benefits. If you are my neighbor and you hire your own brigade of armed guards to protect your property, I would benefit unfairly from what you have paid for because I live next door to you. The mere presence of your personal police force would deter potential criminals from coming anywhere near you–an by extension, from coming anywhere near me. National defense is another example. The mere existence of our armed forces serves to deter other nations from attacking us–therefore EVERYONE benefits from their existence and so, in order to be economically efficient and fair, EVERYONE has to pay for the benefits they receive. Only commodities which are subject to the free-rider problem are appropriate to pay for with public funds. Anything else–anything where the people who benefit from the good or service being offered are the ones that pay for it–should be paid for voluntarily through private transaction. If you buy food and then consume that food, I reap no benefit from your transaction–therefore it is unjust to ask me to shoulder the burden of the cost associated with producing, distributing, and ultimately, your consuming of, that food.

    Police, national defense, complex infrastructure such as highway systems, courts of law–all of these are appropriate to keep as “public” goods and service. Food, shelter, medical care–these are all individually consumed and the benefits of consumption are bestowed individually–therefore payment should be tendered individually. These are the most basic tennets of modern economics–and can be learned through even the most cursory glance at a freshman level economics textbook. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t bother to learn how economics work and therefore are woefully unprepared to defend rights and freedoms they don’t fully understand.

  2. First of all, economics doesn’t provide normative conclusions.

    Second, it’s not at all clear to me that it’s unjust to tax people for things they don’t directly benefit from–that would have to be argued for independently.

    Third, is it to your benefit to have undernourished, unhealthy, homeless, and ignorant fellow citizens?

  3. You have a faulty understanding of ecomomics if you believe that it doesn’t provide normative conclusions–especially since there is an entire branch of economics called “Normative Economics”.

    In regard to your second point, the only way that such a basic fact could be unclear to you is if you are unclear whether or not theft is unjust. When anyone–a person or a government–takes something from me–my tax dollars, for instance–without my permission and gives me nothing in return for what they have taken, a theft has occurred. It is no different than if I picked your pocket–the fact that I gave your wallet to a homeless person doesn’t make it any less of a crime.

    Lastly, it is not to my benefit to have undernourished, unhealthy, homeless, ignorant fellow citizens. It is also not to my benefit to help them become nourished, healthy, sheltered, and smart–at least not enough benefit to outweigh what is taken from me to accomplish it. Economics is based on rational, personal decisions. You can not know how much I value my money or the opportunities that my money could provide me. That is why transactions have to be voluntary. For some people, 10% or 20%, or even 90% of their income may be a perfectly acceptable price to pay for the well-being of their fellow man. For others, even 1% may be a price they are unwilling to pay voluntarily. You talk about housing, education, food, etc., but what you are actually talking about is charity. Charity should be voluntary because it allows each citizen to determine for themselves how much of their own wealth is suitable to give to the effort. Taxation for entitlement programs is forced charity–and forced charity is theft.

  4. According to Wikipedia (I’m happy to be corrected if this is wrong), “normative” economics “incorporates value judgments (normative judgements) about what the economy ought to be like or what particular policy actions ought to be recommended to achieve a desirable goal.” This seems to make it clear that it is importing its value judgments from somewhere else, not generating them on its own. (What would that even look like?)

    “Taxation is theft” is a catchy slogan, but it begs the question. Normative conceptions of justice need to be argued for, not just asserted. In any event, I don’t see why we should think that anyone has an absolute right to whatever amount of wealth they happened to have accrued. This is because (1) there’s no absolute or unconditional right to acquire natural resources and (2) all wealth depends for its existence on other social conditions that the individual had no part in bringing about. In other words, “property” is a socially defined concept to begin with, not an a-historical “natural” one.

    1. Your Wikipedia definition of normative economics is, for the most part, correct–but its ambiguous wording has led you to a faulty conclusion. Normative economics begins with a goal–then evaluates different value judgements and their associated ecomomic policies to determine which ones most effectively achieve the goal. The goals come first. So, what is the goal? Higher GDP? More wealth for more people? Higher standard of living? Maybe the goal is as vague as “More Happiness”. Once the goal is defined, which value system better achieves the goal–Socialism, Communism, Capitalism, Anarchy? Does the Austrian School of Economics better achieve our stated goal or does the Keynesian School? You get the picture. The point is, that if we agree on the goals, it IS entirely possible to determine what value system should be put in place to achieve said goal–and capitalistic, libertarian, laissez-faire values are better suited to the achievement of almost every measurable goal one can conceive of within the realm of economics–even the goals of housing, education, health care, etc. which you seem so concerned with.

      I would like to respond to your second point, but I think the impasse may be so great that no discussion is possible. You seem to disagree with the very notion of “property” or at least of “private property”. Obviously, if you don’t feel that you are entitled to keep the fruits of your labor, then it is impossible for you to recognize theft when it occurs. On a completely unrelated note, could I have your address and a rough outline of your working hours?

      1. I don’t see what the point of talking about “normative” economics is then, when what you’re really talking about is instrumental rationality (i.e., given a certain goal, what is the best – cheapest, most efficient, or whatever – means of attaining that goal?). The values (goals) are still coming from outside economics.

        On the second point: oh come on. It’s perfectly possible to recognize rights to private property without treating them as absolute – as is the case in pretty much every advanced society. And the “fruits” of one’s labor are never simply the product of that labor; they rely on any number of external inputs – the natural world, the benefits one has received from others unasked, the general economic, legal, and social framework, etc. Why should we pretend otherwise?

  5. “And the “fruits” of one’s labor are never simply the product of that labor; they rely on any number of external inputs – the natural world, the benefits one has received from others unasked, the general economic, legal, and social framework, etc.”

    In a properly constructed economic system–one of lassaiz-faire transactions with a government there to enforce property rights and contractual promises–all of these externalities are internalized and paid for by the proper parties.

    The natural world–If property is private, the majority of “natural resources” are bought and sold voluntarily between individuals–therefore once the transaction to purchase these materials has been completed, no further consideration of them as a factor is necessary. If, however, you are talking about “common” resources–such as clean air or ocean water–then it is simply a matter of internalizing the external costs to others. That’s what the courts are for. They force producers to pay for the common resources they use by awarding “damages” to those that have been injured–fines for polluting common water sources, for example. Again, the bill is then paid and the accounts balance out.

    Benefits one has received from others unasked–if others have chosen to bestow benefits upon you unasked–and they have done so voluntarily–then they have engaged in charity and have renounced all the rights they have to payment for the favors they have bestowed. Again, no debt is incurred in the final product.

    The general economic, legal, and social framework, etc.–Even though this is vague and virtually meaningless, I’m going to assume that you mean the basic social institutions that allow people to engage in free commerce–police, courts, etc. We’ve already covered these. They are public goods and were bought and paid for with the only ethically acceptable taxes we should be forced to pay.

    So, you see, the fruits of my labor, when they are complete, belong to me. I owe no debt to anyone if the system has been set up to allow voluntary, unfettered negotiation and commerce. Those fruits–or products if you prefer–are mine ABSOLUTELY. No one–no individual or government–should have ANY claim on them or should be legally able to make any determination on whether I sell them, hoard them, gift them, or destroy them. They are MINE. Once you allow property rights to exist on “sliding scale”, you invite those in power to take whatever they want, whenever they want, for whatever purpose they see fit. What happens when your noble ideals of shelter, food, and education are expanded by those who would take it further than you? When you are taxed to provide internet access to every man, woman, and child in the U.S? When “education” comes to mean that everyone should be able to pursue their PhD on the government dime? When a “reasonable standard of living” includes a car for every adult or when “housing” comes to mean a 3 bedroom ranch in the ‘burbs? What principle will you be able to cite or ideology will you fall back on to rationalize the fact that YOUR entitlements were o.k., but THESE have gone too far? When does the redistribution become theft? I say, the theft begins with the very first penny taken without permission. My ideology is clear. Yours lies forever in the murky gray.

  6. It’s possible my point on natural resources wasn’t clear enough – I was primarily referring to initial acquistion in the so-called state of nature. No one I’m aware of has provided a convincing account of how anyone acquires an absolute or unconditional right to something previously unowned. Human beings don’t create ex nihilo. Further, even if it were possible to acquire such a right, few, if any, actually existing property titles in, say, the US can be traced back to a just initial act of acquisition (a point recognized by Robert Nozick, though he didn’t do much with it). So, even if we shifted to a system where all externalities were internalized (assuming this was desirable or possible), there would still be the problem, from a libertarian point of view, of justifying the initial set of holdings. (What possible principle of justice could allow us to simply accept the status quo as a just starting point?)

    I’m afraid your last paragraph is a strange mix of question-begging and vague consequentialism. It doesn’t follow that because something has been acquired voluntarily in a market transaction that the rights to it are absolute; that’s the whole point at issue. The second part of the paragraph rests on an empircal prediction of a slippery slope down to the abyss of complete collective ownership that doesn’t strike me as at all likely or posits consequences that don’t strike me as particularly pernicious. (Publicly funded post-secondary education! Scary!).

  7. I think you’re making the question of ownership far too complicated. First, when you ask how someone acquires something that is UNowned, the answer is simple–they take it. If it is unowned, then nobody’s rights are being violated. The fact is, however, that there is not a single square inch of land anywhere on the globe (outside of the Antarctic interior, possibly) that is not owned by someone or some entity. It is perfectly reasonable to accept the status quo of ownership as a starting point for our Libertarian Utopia because the only other rational choice is to trace the land back to the time when it had NO ownership–in which case it would be a free-for-all. This is the problem with sliding scales. They are not logical. When you are deciding the ownership of a piece of land (or material or whatever) there are only three possibilities. We can accept the ownership at THIS point on the timeline, we can accept it at the EARLIEST point on the timeline (when there was no owner) or we can accept it at some ARBITRARY starting point. Arbitrary starting points (as well as arbitrary ending points) mean that someone has to be responsible for setting the point, and THEIR values have to be the criteria for that point. That is not acceptable. So, there is no need to shuffle properties from their current holders unless a legitimate legal conflict is in play between two living persons or between a person and a contract still in force.

    My last paragraph is simply an attempt to illustrate the same thing that I just said. Either property rights are absolute, or there can be no real property rights at all. Anything in between is a sliding scale of arbitrary “lines in the sand”–and neither you nor I will be in charge of drawing those lines. I’m not begging the question; I’m telling you that you have to choose one view of the world or the other. Private property is defined by it’s absolute nature–anything short of that absolute is public property with a usage right granted by the government or oligarchy of your choice. I’m comfortable with that black and white scenario and have chosen a side. You, however, are still trying–based off what you’ve written–to deny reality and claim that we can have both–private property that is only stolen from us when the cause is REALLY, REALLY important. Take a stand! Embrace the socialist ideal if that is what you believe and defend it rationally–or abandon it for that which has been proven to work. Anything less is intellectual fence-sitting.

  8. So, by your lights, whatever allocation of property rights happens to exist is ipso facto just? But isn’t the currently existing distribution of property rights in part a result of massive state intervention? How is one to separate out the pure, unsullied property claims from the bad state-infected ones?

    Given the historical muddle involved in determining which (if any) claims to property are legitimate, why not use some other criteria than the libertarian one (just initial acquisition + voluntary exchange) to distribute property rights? Why not, say, the greatest good of the greatest number, or from each according to his ability to each according to his needs? Why prefer a criteria that has little relation to the way property has been distributed in our actually existing society?

    This speaks to your last point as well. It’s not the case that any principle other than yours is arbitrary. There are plenty of principles that one might use to determine the allocation of property rights. And one isn’t forced to choose between laissez-faire and “socialism” either – why not the mixed econoomy? That’s what the US and Western Europe have had, in varying styles, for the last 100 years or so, and society hasn’t collapsed.

  9. You’re right when you say that the current state of affairs is, partially, the result of massive government intervention and represents a very different world than what would exist if other systems had been in place before now. Unfortunately, one has to play with the cards they have been dealt. I would argue that using the current allocation of resources and property as a starting point is appropriate for the same reason that the U.S could never deport 12 million illegal aliens even if every citizen in the country were in favor of doing so–it is impractical to the point of being prohibitive. Pragmatism wins the day.

    Regarding your question of the mixed economy, the answers are right in front of you. You, very rightly, point out that the U.S. and Western Europe have subscribed to a mixed economy for the last 100 years and they haven’t collapsed. Think about what a hundred years represents in the historical picture of societies past and then think about the current state of affairs in the U.S. and Western Europe. In just the last 100-200 years, the U.S. has been the perfect example of what happens when one tries to mix incompatible ideologies. We have reaped the benefits of our capitalistic tendencies, but we are unstable. The Roman Empire, by contrast, may not have been the Libertarian utopia that I would endorse, but at least it was ideologically pure. There was no hand-wringing and compromise about becoming “too extreme”. That society lasted for thousands of years–and it took an invasion of barbarians to bring it down. The U.S. is teetering on the knife-edge of economic doom after a mere 235 years–and what is it that has pushed us to that point? An invading army? No…mortgages. A society that does not have a firm idea of what it stands for is a society that is doomed to fail–no matter how spectacularly it may burn during its time on the world stage.

    So the question remains as to what ideology we should adopt. What I have been trying to get through to you is that economics is not like philosophy. It is not subjective. It is not like religon. It is not based on magic or myth. Economics is like gravity. It is a set of natural laws that work whether we know them, obey them, or believe in them. It is up to us to discover the workings of those laws and apply them. I believe that even our experimentation with mixed economies has given us valuable data that can be used in determining the objective answers to those questions. Our success as a nation has come as a result of those policies that lean toward lassaiz-faire. Our failures have come from those policies which lean in the opposite ideological direction. If we are to save our nation from being one that collapses in 250,300,even 500 short years (merely a blip on the historical stage), then we need to commit to a firm ideology. Why not act rationally and embrace those policies which have proven successful as the compass for what our nation needs to become. I think that if we were brave enough to do so, we would find that our choice was the economic equivalent to Newton’s understanding of gravity as a law of science.

  10. So, in accepting the status quo as your baseline, aren’t you implicitly conceding that high libertarian principle is subordinate to other considerations? Why apply such principles in only that one case? Surely you can see why people think that libertarians are merely defending existing privilege.

    And how is it that ethics (which is a branch of philosophy) is “subjective” when you’ve been arguing all this time for an absolute right of ownership? Not to mention that there are plenty of economists who would differ with your assessment of laissez-faire vs. mixed economies. I’m not professionally qualified to judge, but I certainly think the regulatory and welfare state has improved people’s lives and made basic goods more widely available.

    I also haven’t the faintest idea what it means to say that the Roman Empire was “ideologically pure,” nor did it last for “thousands of years” (try about 500).

    This has been an interesting conversation. I wish you well.

  11. Joshie

    If we take the position that the Roman empire collapsed in 1453, then one could say that it lasted close to 2000 years. Of course, if we take that position then one couldn’t say it was brought down by “invading barbarians”, unless one wants to call the Ottomans that.

    But the idea that it was “ideologically pure”, or that none of its members criticized it during its existance is laughable. It belies your thoroughgoing ignorance of history. But it’s hard to expect much more from a blinkered ideologue.

  12. Pingback: Property and justice « A Thinking Reed

  13. Since when do libertarians accept that a right to X is a claim on others to the protection of one’s possession of X?

    Nozick would certainly not have bought that.

    Hence the rise of voluntary protective associations and, maybe, the minimal state.

  14. Pingback: Camassia

  15. Pingback: The What-Have-Yous « The Regimen

  16. Pingback: Musings on a social- and ecological-market economics « A Thinking Reed

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s