A tax is not a “price” for anything, including “civilization.” This is because taxes are levied on each person whether the benefit derived from the public goods produced with their help justifies the cost to him or not. He is forced by the state to pay the “price” whether “civilization,” or what the state in its fatal conceit imagines to be one, is worth to him or not.

People find it indisputable, for example, that the government of the city they live in ought to produce roads. The relevant attitude may be, well, what is to be done? I mean, we “need” the roads. How else can they be produced? It’s true that the roads will either be built or not. If they are built, then some people in the community will lose, and others will benefit. It may be argued that if in the final accounting, building the roads conduces to the overall good (perhaps with some form of hypothetical compensation from the winners to the losers), then they should be built. But that’s not the issue at all. The issue that the harm to those who lose is not morally neutral but in fact is unjust.

Let it not be said that the state owns all land. No sane individual or group or entire community would ever agree to grant the mayor allodial ownership over all the land in the city, such that they would end up mere tenants on his land, with the concomitant natural obligation to pay rent to the state which the state can dub “taxes.”

Perhaps people can agree to proclaim, “Let certain areas in the city be owned collectively. Let us then hire Jones to manage these areas bidding him to improve them one way or another.” Yet whence Jones’ power to tax? The taxes do not discriminate properly. Some people will not profit but rather lose from the exchange of the public goods for their tax money. Inflicting such a loss via a coerced “exchange” is straightforwardly unjust.

What then is the correct exchange rate between justice and utility? Let there be some people to whom the roads (or whatever) are not worth the money the state extorts from them. Moreover, among them is one philosopher who goes around teaching a novel doctrine that even the state may not commit injustices and that taxation is theft. These teachings are eloquent and stir people’s hearts, jeopardizing the entire road-building project. Would it be Ok for the state to murder this philosopher in order to allow the construction to proceed without any irritating snags? Why not? If it’s Ok to throw some citizens under a bus figuratively by making them pay more in taxes than they are willing for the roads, what is wrong with throwing them under a bus literally?

In short, if you will tax for a road, will you also kill for one? And if not, why not?

This also impinges on the idea of state “supremacy.” Some may argue that from the conjunction of the facts that (1) x, say again, roads, is economically a public item, and (2) the state desires to produce x, and (3) the state has overwhelming power to crush any individual who might object to paying the tax to finance x, it follows that the state is justified in imposing the tax. But let Smith be the head of a Mafia crime family. He decides that it would be “good” for his fellow townsmen to have some y, also a public thing, say, a subway. Moreover, he has access to loyal well-armed henchmen who comprise a capable paramilitary force. He then goes door-to-door and demands contributions from individuals and local businesses for the construction of the subway. In this case, all three criteria are also satisfied. It does not seem to follow that Smith would be in the right to lay his own taxes on the people. But if the state can tax (or murder) for the “greater good,” why can’t Smith? Or is there perhaps some advantage in fully centralizing the sources of injustices in one individual or organization called “state”?

Certainly decentralization down to local level can make the problem less pointed, in that people who feel their taxes are too high will migrate out of their cities and into more suitable to them communities. But it will not eliminate it.

Pure consequentialism, such as utilitarianism, may be able to justify government extortion and coercion. It may even allow taxation while proscribing murders, if the latter would cause an unbecoming diminution of total utility.

A somewhat more plausible and flexible moral theory is called “deontology with thresholds”: “A threshold deontologist holds that deontological norms govern up to a point despite adverse consequences; but when the consequences become so dire that they cross the stipulated threshold, consequentialism takes over… A may not torture B to save the lives of two others, but he may do so to save a thousand lives if the ‘threshold’ is higher than two lives but lower than a thousand.” Thus, the threshold for doing evil for the sake of the roads could be above the wickedness of robbery but below that of murder. The state (however organized) will then “non-fanatically” or “pragmatically” tax the people without their consent but still refuse to kill the dissenters.

Utilitarianism would commend any action, regardless of how criminal, which improves things on the whole. Threshold deontology allows each person to use his own criteria for where to draw the line: there may be no objectively right answer. It can thus disallow some beneficial yet unjust actions. According to such moderate deontology, one would make the morally difficult decision as best he can and learn to live with it, without shame or regret.

Note that even if state coercion can be justified, it does not follow that one has a duty to pay the tax that makes him worse off. A person who shrewdly evaded such a tax need not feel any qualms for his perfectly reasonable and even praiseworthy actions.


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