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taxes as theft

TalkingPhilosophy has a fascinating post up about a rather interesting question. Namely, are taxes ever theft (or ever not theft?) It's a question I have noticed again and again as I get more interested in political philosophy, but I don't think you have to be a philosopher to have heard it.

Think back to what passed as "debate" when America was debating the recent health care reform. I'm talking specifically about the battle over abortion funding. There were a lot of people who opposed abortion and had a major problem with the idea that their tax dollars would be used to cover something that they didn't think should be happening anyway. So politicians and activists tried to build compromises whereby the money collected as taxes and used to subsidize insurance for people who couldn't afford it, would not be used to cover abortion. One solution was to break the coverage into two policies: a special abortion-coverage policy, totally unfunded by tax money, and a general one that covered everything else that subsidies could be put towards. Most people discussing this point just accepted the basic assumption that, if I don't like what a tax is covering, it's wrong to use my tax-dollars to pay for it.

LaBossiere basically presents several accounts of theft. These are described most vividly using his restaurant analogy. Put briefly, if I go into a restaurant and order a meal, then when the check comes I cannot refuse to pay on the basis that it would be theft. Quite the contrary, if I refused to pay that would be theft: I had asked for a service by promising later payment and then refused to pay, essentially tricking the restaurant into giving me their property unfairly. On the other hand, if the restaurant tried to charge me for what my neighbor had ordered in addition to my own meal, then I would be completely justified in refusing to pay. In that situation I'm not refusing to pay for services requested and rendered - I'm refusing to pay for something I never asked for nor would have agreed to.

What does this mean when applied to government? Pretty much everyone short of hardcore libertarians agree that I should pay taxes when I directly vote for those tax increases. It's a small jump, but still I think not too objectionable, to say that if there is a direct vote on some issue that doesn't stipulate how the thing will be paid for, then those who vote for the issue are obligated to accept reasonable ways of paying for it. That's what Kant was talking about when he wrote, "He who wills the the end, wills also the means in his power which are indispensable to the attainment of the end." Fancy philosophical words, I know. What Kant basically means is this: if I ask you to work toward some goal, I can't object to the things that are required by your working for that goal.

Those are the easy cases. Relatively, at least. But what about the guy who votes against the ballot initiative? Or what about when our elected officials act on our behalf without asking us about that particular issue? I still think we have to pay up or face the consequences. Why? Because I chose to live in this society. I knew the kind of things my society thought was important, I benefited from them, and I can't just decide now not to pay my fair share.

I'm one of the few philosophers I know who actually finds the Crito's argument convincing - at least on some level. This is a Plato dialog set after Socrates has been sentenced to death but before his execution. Basically Socrates says that:

(1) He knew what his state's laws demanded of him;
(2) He was given the choice to either accept the laws' authority, or leave Athens and live his life somewhere else;
(3) He chose not to leave; so
(4) He's under the laws' authority.

That doesn't mean he (or we) have to obey every law. If I think a war is unjust then I am completely within my rights to resist the draft. And if I am against my taxes supporting a war (think Thoreau) or abortion like in the current example I am free to refuse. But I can't try to evade punishment. I have the choice of living in my state and accepting the laws + punishment for disobeying, or I can leave at any point.

Community is important. Humans flourish best in community, and I think we are suited to thrive when we're aware of our community - when we see our neighbors suffering and we don't simply discount it as "not my problem." I like to think that my society has a similar value. In fact, a democracy pretty well requires it: it's not just the people at the top but everyone who should (in theory) be making the decisions that affect us all. By living in a democratic society, by accepting benefits from that society and becoming a full member of it, you in effect accept the goals of that society as your own. And remember: he who wills the end, wills also the means.

Here's where I disagree with LaBossiere. He seems to say that a parent who chooses to send his kid to a private school might legitimately refuse to pay taxes to support the public schools. After all, what benefit does he get from the education system if he's not using it? But we make people who don't have kids at all pay those taxes. The point of a tax-supported school system isn't to educate your kids, but to educate all kids. Most Americans are proud of our democracy, but that style of government requires we be committed to the well-being of every member of society. Intellectual well-being included: the child will grow up and become a voting citizen, and so I need him to be well educated if his vote is to get an equal standing with my own.

Of course, many public schools are pretty rotten and I might reasonably say that (if they're not producing good future citizens, to say nothing of good future employees) I'm not getting the promised benefit. That's a fair debate to have. But not this idea that "I don't have a kid in the system so why should I pay?" That's part of what being in a democracy cares: I care about more people than just my family and friends. I can fight to change the system. I can even refuse to pay as civil disobedience. But I can't just act like that requirement to educate everyone doesn't apply to me, and have that be the end of it.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 17th, 2011 09:17 am (UTC)
I chose to live in this society. I knew the kind of things my society thought was important, I benefited from them, and I can't just decide now not to pay my fair share.

YUP. (Vigorous nods). Plenty of us pay taxes for services we don't use - my taxes support the care of disabled and elderly people (OK, you could argue that those are a form of insurance, since I might one day be disabled and will one day be old); in my case free(ish) and universal (ish) health care, which I don't make huge calls on at the moment; repairing roads whether or not I drive a car; public libraries whether or not I choose to use them; a military some of whose activities I have serious reservations about, etc.

I can protest vigorously about the things I think we shouldn't be doing, but I can't just withdraw my financial contribution - that way social chaos lies.
Mar. 17th, 2011 03:36 pm (UTC)
Well said, Marta. I don't entirely choose to live in this system - it's not exactly easy to leave, find a job in another country and become a citizen there (not impossible, but not easy) - but by choosing not to make that great effort I tacitly accept that I am part of this country and its political-social-economic system. Which means working within the system and accepting both its benefits and its responsibilities.

There are ALL KINDS of things that tax money gets spent on that I strongly disapprove of. Do I have a right to require that not happen? No. I can think of my taxes as going to pay for things that I DO approve, such as roads, schools, etc. Certainly the sum total of what I contribute is far less than they need, and it's more satisfying to think that way than to think that X cents of every dollar I pay goes to the military, for instance.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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