Is Taxation Slavery?

Thomas Nagel writes:

Some would describe taxation as a form of theft and conscription as a form of slavery — in fact some would prefer to describe taxation as slavery too, or at least as forced labor. Much might be said against these descriptions, but that is beside the point. For within proper limits, such practices when engaged in by governments are acceptable, whatever they are called. If someone with an income of $2000 a year trains a gun on someone with an income of $100000 a year and makes him hand over his wallet, that is robbery. If the federal government withholds a portion of the second person’s salary (enforcing the laws against tax evasion with threats of imprisonment under armed guard) and gives some of it to the first person in the form of welfare payments, food stamps, or free health care, that is taxation. In the first case it is (in my opinion) an impermissible use of coercive means to achieve a worthwhile end. In the second case the means are legitimate, because they are impersonally imposed by an institution designed to promote certain results. Such general methods of distribution are preferable to theft as a form of private initiative and also to individual charity. This is true not only for reasons of fairness and efficiency, but also because both theft and charity are disturbances of the relations (or lack of them) between individuals and involve their individual wills in a way that an automatic, officially imposed system of taxation does not. [Mortal Questions, “Ruthlessness in Public Life,” pp. 87-88]

How many logical and epistemic errors can a supposedly brilliant philosopher make in one (long) paragraph? Too many:

  • “For within proper limits” means that Nagel is about to beg the question by shaping an answer that fits his idea of proper limits.
  • Nagel then asserts that the use by government of coercive means to achieve the same end as robbery is “legitimate, because [those means] are impersonally imposed by an institution designed to promote certain results.” Balderdash! Nagel’s vision of government as some kind of omniscient, benevolent arbiter is completely at odds with reality.  The “certain results” (redistribution of income) are achieved by functionaries, armed or backed with the force of arms, who themselves share in the spoils of coercive redistribution. Those functionaries act under the authority of bare majorities of elected representatives, who are chosen by bare majorities of voters. And those bare majorities are themselves coalitions of interested parties — hopeful beneficiaries of redistributionist policies, government employees, government contractors, and arrogant statists — who believe, without justification, that forced redistribution is a proper function of government.
  • On the last point, Nagel ignores the sordid history of the unconstitutional expansion of the powers of government. Without justification, he aligns himself with proponents of the “living Constitution.”
  • Nagel’s moral obtuseness is fully revealed when he equates coercive redistribution with “fairness and efficiency,” as if property rights and liberty were of no account.
  • The idea that coercive redistribution fosters efficiency is laughable. It does quite the opposite because it removes resources from productive uses — including job-creating investments. The poor are harmed by coercive redistribution because it drastically curtails economic growth, from which they would benefit as job-holders and (where necessary) recipients of private charity (the resources for which would be vastly greater in the absence of coercive redistribution).
  • Finally (though not exhaustively), Nagel’s characterization of private charity as a “disturbance of the relations … among individuals” is so wrong-headed that it leaves me dumbstruck. Private charity arises from real relations among individuals — from a sense of community and feelings of empathy. It is the “automatic, officially imposed system of taxation” that distorts and thwarts (“disturbs”) the social fabric.

In any event, the answer to the question posed in the title of this post is “yes”; taxation for the purpose of redistribution is slavery (see number 2 in the second set of definitions). It amounts to the subjection of one person (the taxpayer) to other persons: deadbeats, do-gooders, and  demagogues. If “slavery” is too strong a word, “theft” will do quite well.