Liberty, Libertarianism

Libertarian Radicalism and Health Care “Slavery”

Rand Paul thinks universal health care involves slavery:

“With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to healthcare, you have to realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me…It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses…If I’m a physician in your community and you say you have a right to healthcare, you have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away and force me to take care of you? That’s ultimately what the right to free healthcare would be.” (Source here; video here)

Some libertarians seem to agree, and are happy to see someone in the Senate finally speaking truth to power.  Reason’s Matt Welch, on the other hand, and libertarian fellow-traveler Andrew Sullivan, think the argument is, well, problematic.

Count me on the side of those who think Paul’s argument is a bad one, both philosophically and rhetorically.

Rhetorically, I strongly suspect that the argument is unlikely to convince anyone who is not already a committed libertarian.  And philosophically, of course, it’s just not true that universal health care involves anything like slavery, even if it (like slavery) is morally wrong, and even if it (like slavery) is wrong largely because of the coercive nature of the practice.  However wrongful and coercive universal health care might be, no one’s advocating beating down doctor’s doors and hauling them away, no one’s advocating that they be bought and sold or separated from their families or…well, this is really too obvious, isn’t it?  There’s a pretty good case to be made that the military draft was a form of slavery.  But not everything of which libertarians disapprove warrants that reproach.

As awful as the metaphor may be, though, there’s a good reason that libertarians are attracted to these kinds of arguments.  Libertarianism purports to make  a radical critique of contemporary society, and part of what is involved in that critique is showing that surface appearances mask a deeper underlying moral reality.  Taxation looks different than theft.  But, libertarians argue, that appearance is deceiving.  The fact that taxation is enacted by a government in accordance with written laws is, libertarians think, morally irrelevant.  There are distinctions, of course, between taxation and armed robbery, but they are not distinctions that make much of a moral difference.  [Nozick’s famous claim that taxation is “morally on a par with forced labor” seems, in my view, much more difficult to defend]

This just isn’t the case with universal health care and slavery.  Again, I’m willing to grant that both are morally wrong.  But the weight and scope of the moral reasons that justify the condemnation of one are just nothing like those that justify the condemnation of the other.   Coercion is bad, yes, but only an ideology could blind one to the fact that it comes in degrees.  Wrestling you to the ground is not like shooting you in the gut.  Increasing the marginal tax rate from 45% to 50% is not like sending someone to jail for smoking marijuana.  Not in the harm that it imposes on its victim; not in the weight and range of moral constraints that count against the violation; and not in the nature of the facts that one would have to stipulate in order to make it justifiable.

But still, perhaps it’s inevitable that politicians are going to badly over-simplify moral arguments.  And I suppose that if I had to choose, I’d much rather have a Senator who over-simplified in the direction of Murray Rothbard than, for instance, whatever moral philosopher Al Franken is butchering.

Published on:
Author: Matt Zwolinski
  • I’d much rather have a Senator who over-simplified in the direction of
    Murray Rothbard than, for instance, whatever moral philosopher Al
    Franken is butchering.

    Even if Al Franken is butchering, say, C.S. Lewis? 

  • Anonymous

     So, bottom line, you’re not big on this statement, but you still prefer this clown to Al Franken?  Like, for real?

    • Absolutely. 

      • Anonymous

        Some bleeding heart you’ve got there. Next you’re going to tell me that anyone with a truly bleeding heart should do so as well.  This blog has already moved past my initial suspicions about its real commitments, into a caricature of them.

        • Sorry to disappoint.  You asked for my opinion; I gave it.  I certainly don’t presume to claim that anybody with a bleeding heart, or a concern for social justice, ought to share my exact political preferences.  Politics is complicated enough that reasonable people can disagree.  But your comments suggest that you don’t share this sentiment.

          • Anonymous

            What part? A statement of disagreement is a statement that reasonable people can’t disagree?  And: are we defining “reasonable” as “having a bleeding heart”?  Because the meaning of that name was clearly and explicitly what I was exploring, not mere reasonability.  Nowhere did I say that a reasonable person can’t prefer Rand Paul to Al Franken.  I only said that it is exactly what I expected from this blog to be told having a bleeding heart ought to mean supporting politicians like Rand Paul.  If your understanding of what it is to have a bleeding heart isn’t what leads you to your political preferences, then is the idea of having a bleeding heart really that important/central to your political ideas?  And if not, should you really be writing about moral political philosophy under the name Bleeding Heart (Anything)? Do you think you have the correct idea about what it means to have a bleeding heart? (Do you not?)  If I have ideas about what it is to have a bleeding heart that differ from yours, aren’t mine wrong?  I’d expect moral philosophers to be at least that serious about the terms and labels they use, so that they don’t turn out to be just gimmicks.  Isn’t this what it is to do moral philosophy, after all — to say what is right and wrong using the right words?  Do you not see libertarian ideas as morally compelled on reasonable people?  Do you not view a right-understood bleeding heart to be the kind that is morally obligatory for people who are strong of mind but soft of heart?  Are you sure you’re really such an exponent of a value-neutral moral pluralism among political philosophies?  Are you really so sure that is the kind of philosophy you yourself practice?important/central to your political ideas?  And if not, should you really be writing about moral political philosophy under the name Bleeding Heart (Anything)? Do you think you have the correct idea about what it means to have a bleeding heart? (Do you not?)  If I have ideas about what it is to have a bleeding heart that differ from yours, aren’t mine wrong?  I’d expect moral philosophers to be at least that serious about the terms and labels they use, so that they don’t turn out to be just gimmicks.  Isn’t this what it is to do moral philosophy, after all — to say what is right and wrong using the right words?  Do you not see libertarian ideas as morally compelled on reasonable people?  Do you not view a right-understood bleeding heart to be the kind that is morally obligatory for people who are strong of mind but soft of heart?  Are you sure you’re really such an exponent of a value-neutral moral pluralism among political philosophies?  Are you really so sure that is the kind of philosophy you yourself practice?

          • The part immediately preceding.  And…:No, No, Yes, N/A, Yes but I’m open to being persuaded otherwise (No), Not necessarily,  that’s a part of it, No, I don’t understand this question, I don’t think so, I think so, and after this you just start repeating yourself.

          • Anonymous

            I still don’t see how my having suspicions about what you guys are all about and thinking they’ve been confirmed is equivalent to my thinking reasonable people can’t disagree. Maybe I still don’t know what statement of mine you are referring to.

  • Carlos F. Véliz


    Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor”.

    What I’ve added in italics is important because (whatever we might think about Nozick’s argument – and I’ve come to think that it is a pretty damn good argument) there are other forms of taxation that are not exposed to this kind of criticism: 

  • John

     Arnold Kling has a related post on EconLog: The point is that our reasoning ability evolved in order to make us persuasive and also difficult to persuade. It did not evolve in order to find truth.

    I’m not sure if Matt’s only to the inability to persuade, lack of truth or both.

    I do agree that no one is really saying I can walk up to any doctor or medical practitioner and demand some service they can provide. There is an element of enslavement whenever we say society can define rules that override an individual’s decisions. To the extent that we share a moral view we recognize that some rules are not enslaving but rather protections from harm by others, which we also allow as “constraints” on our decisions and actions to protect others from us as a reciprocal agreement.

    To the extent that health care legislation is overriding some peoples freedom of choice and exercise of their will regarding their person and resources the slavery metaphor may not be that far off — even if the specific example is very poorly selected.

    • John

      I’m not sure why the text after the quote from Kling is italicized but shouldn’t be.

      My comments start with:   “I’m not sure if Matt’s only to the inability to persuade, lack of truth or both.” and should read “Matt’s objecting to….”

  • Aalhc5

    Maybe I am missing some important concept, but I fail to see how anyone could honestly contend that taxation of the fruits of labor is not equivalent to conscripting labor. If I am a construction worker who earns $15 an hour, is there any difference (morally), ceterus paribus, between the government levying $30 in taxes against me and forcing me to spend 2 hours on construction of a government building?

    In the same way, I feel that Matt kind of walked by Rand Paul’s actual argument. I am not trying to defend Rand (his words often do far more harm than good), but a positive right (right to healthcare) requires one of two government actions: taxation (payment for healthcare) or conscription of labor (provision of healthcare). If both are morally equivalent, then regardless of the scheme developed by the government to provide “universal healthcare”, even if it does not employ the extreme measures described by Rand, it is morally equivalent to forced labor. Maybe slavery is too loaded a word which caries connotations of buying and selling people. 

    • Maybe I am missing some important concept, but I fail to see how anyone could honestly contend that taxation of the fruits of labor is not equivalent to conscripting labor.

      Because generally speaking, you are not forced by the government to provide your labor.  You can always decline the work, and the income that comes from that work.   Then you would have no income to tax.   But employment contracts are a three-way deal in our system.   if you do enter into an employment contract, then the society that provides the framework of security and infrastructural support in which stable and predictable employment contracts and income flows are even possible, and in which your labor generates levels of productivity and profit that would never be possible without the socially provided infrastructure, requires a compensation from someone for the services provided.

      It is also a bit of illusion, promoted by libertarians, that the nominal pre-tax income provided by your employment contract is a realistic representation of the “fruits of your labor”.  That income is the amount of income your employer needs to offer you given current labor market conditions, and given current levels of taxation, to  obtain from you the desired amount of labor.  If the taxes weren’t there at all, the employer wouldn’t have to contract you for the same nominal salary, but could probably obtain your labor for whatever your current after-tax income is.  So nobody is robbing you, much less conscripting you.

      We could have a functionally equivalent system in which there were no income taxes, but all of our taxes were employment taxes assessed directly on the employer.   Instead of a system in which an employer officially “pays you” $100,000, but then deducts 25% of that amount on your behalf from “your” income before actually handing that income over to you, and sends the $25,000 to the government, we could have a system in which the employer simply pays you $75,000 in untaxed income, but in which his own profits are then taxed at 33% of his wage payouts.

      •  Because generally speaking, you are not forced by the government to provide your labor.  You can always decline the work, and the income that comes from that work.   Then you would have no income to tax.

        Yes, this definitely makes a difference.  Though, of course, this fact by itself is not enough to make an otherwise impermissible taking permissible.  If I were to say to a doctor that, if he continues to work as a doctor, I will take 10% of his income, but I’m not going to force him to keep being a doctor, my action is still morally wrong.  Not as wrong, maybe, as if I were to force him at gunpoint to work as a doctor for my benefit, but still wrong.

        if you do enter into an employment contract, then the society that provides the framework of security and infrastructural support in which stable and predictable employment contracts and income flows are even possible, and in which your labor generates levels of productivity and profit that would never be possible without the socially provided infrastructure, requires a compensation from someone for the services provided.

        But society ≠ government, right?  Even if I owe compensation to society (and this claim itself strikes me as morally suspect), it still requires an additional argument to show that the government is entitled to seize that compensation from me on society’s behalf.

        • In a self-governing democratic society, the institutional government is society’s agent for administering its public affairs.   There is no way to administer social rules and a social contract, or to settle debts that individuals owe to society or society owes to individuals, without employing the instruments of government.

          • Aalhc5

            While you are correct in many specific situations, I think your conclusion that there is ‘no way to administer social rules’ is a little strong. A few examples:

            (1), Ronald Coase has written considerable on how, independent of government action, the economic benefits of actions will often flow to the same indviduals/business.

            (2) The 2009 Economics Nobel Price went to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, who have both done considerable work in public economics on non-governmental societal allocation. Ostrom specifically looked at how societies will, left sufficiently alone, will counteract many market failures to appropriately allocate economic benefit to the entire society.

            I agree with you that, for instance, the government providing military protection encourages economic growth. However, while that gives the government the right to tax to pay for that protection, I do not concede that it gives the government the right to tax more than the cost of that protection because it needs to reallocate ‘societies portion’ of the extra wealth.

          • Kunsthausmann

            “a self-governing democratic society”

            What exactly would that be? The word society is vague. It could mean an entity or it could mean the activity of individuals. If the former, then we have to ask what that entity is. If you suppose it to be a physical one, you have converted individuals into a collective. Yet there is no collective self, and even if there were, it seems as if government would be unnecessary. So, if you wish to construe society as a real entity, it would be better to construe society as a set of persons. But the set, unlike its members, would exist in a mind. So the phrase “a self-governing democratic society” is nonsense. If by “society” you mean the interactions of persons, then the phrase is still nonsense, for activity is not a self.
            “the institutional government is society’s agent for administering its public affairs”
            How is it possible for society to have an agent? You are trying once again to slip past the read the ridiculous idea of a collective self, an “it”, with affairs to be managed. Your claim is baseless.

            “There is no way to administer social rules and a social contract…without employing the instruments of government.”
            Why not? What counts as a social rule? Do any social rules, whatever that means, preexist government? It seems that your own claim commits you to the absurd conclusion that no government was ever established with administered social rules as its basis. Or do you think that government is itself the administration of the social rules which existed prior to government?

            “a social contract”
            What, exactly, is a “social contract”? Do you have any evidence that there is now or has ever been any such contract? Is it voluntary? If not, then why are you calling it a contract? Further, how can there be any such thing as a social contract without there being multiple contracts? You must by now have noticed that humans are born and develop into adulthood after the time when the alleged social contract was established. So, at what age does a person become capable of forming the alleged contract? Who are the parties of the contract? Does the contract have a written appearance? If not, then is it verbal? If neither written nor verbal, then why suppose that there is any social contract at all? Because it’s a rhetorical convenience just to assume that there is?

            Suppose that there is a world with just two adults and one child. It’d be silly to suppose that a new person, the child, could enter into a contract that already exists between the two adults, for those two people are not and did not become a single person by their forming a contract. So if the new person is to form anything at all like your social contract, so called, then he or she must do so by forming new contracts, one at a time, with the two adults. Since there are three people, there would be three social contracts. If instead there were four people, there’d be six social contracts. For five people, there’d be ten social contracts, and so on. Obviously, this won’t scale well.
            Among the problems with social contract theory is the fact that it has no basis in fact and, furthermore, trades on a childish, yet important, equivocation in the meaning of the word “contract”. It’s not true, however, that people have formed contracts in the manner I’ve described. So it’s time for you to admit that social contract theory is self-serving, collectivistic nonsense.

            “or to settle debts that individuals owe to society or society owes to individuals”

            How could it be possible to “owe to society” if society is not an entity with rights much less one with a mind or a will? At most, an individual could owe a debt to every other individual. But how did the alleged debts arise? Was it by the say so of collectivistic thinkers who imagine a debt of servitude owed to theirselves but without voluntary agreement by the debtors? Perhaps the debtor accumulated the allege debt to society by birth, in which case your doctrine is just another shabby doctrine of original sin. Further, how could “society”, whatever that means, owe an individual? Your claim is baseless, though it is certain to resonate well among collectivistic thinkers and among those who expect to be served without compensation paid to the servant or even with the servant’s voluntary agreement to serve.

            Part of your problem may be that you’ve not yet learned to discriminate positive obligations from negative ones. A negative obligation would be to refrain from harming others, but to construe this negative obligation as a debt would be misleading and invidious, to say the least. Also, we need not suppose the existence of any contract to suppose that such an obligation exists.

          •  Sure, we’re talking about social philosophy, not the ontology of fundamental physics.  So lots of terms are bound to be vague and imprecise.  As Aristotle said:

            Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the
            subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in
            all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now
            fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of
            much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to
            exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to
            a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for
            before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by
            reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such
            subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in
            outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part
            true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are
            no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement
            be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision
            in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject
            admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning
            from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

            I take it that people are by nature social and political animals and have always formed societies.  They almost all live a common and cooperative life, in which individuals are subject to the will of others and pursue exogenously determined social goals.  They don’t just live as autonomous and sovereign individuals pursuing their own individually determined goals.

            Some societies exist inside other societies.  In one way or another, these societies establish rules for living, and institutionalized mechanisms for the establishment, adjudication and enforcement of those rules.  The performance of these functions are what is usually called “governing”, and “the government” refers contextually to some integrated system of governing institutions.   There is not just one government in a society.   For example, in our society there are state, federal, county and local governments, with a division of responsibilities among them.   While there are checks and balances preserving the prerogatives of more local governments in relation to more central governments, they are also hierarchically arranged, with the federal government having the most expansive powers and jurisdiction.   To the degree that the work and responsibilities of government in a society are distributed broadly and equally among the people of that society, that government is democratic.  But clearly there is no sharp line between democratic and non-democratic government.

            The social contract is the established system of obligations, claims, rights and privileges that bind the society’s members into a society.  The precise nature of the social contract depends on the power arrangements in the society.   These contracts are not voluntary.   We are born into societies, and find ourselves subject to established rights and obligations, strictures and sanctions.  That’s the way it is.   It’s always been that way, and there is no good reason to expect that it will ever stop being that way.  However, its clear that most of us find some kinds of arrangements far preferable to others, and so people are always working to change the rules.

            There are certainly social rules that are merely conventional, and also institutionalized but very informal rules held in place through tacit and informal sanctions, including venerated traditions, without depending on the more formal mechanisms of governance.   I doubt there can be any sharp dividing line between the institutions that constitute government and those that do not.   But when people write the rules down, solemnize them in various way, encumber them with rituals and symbols of gravity and importance, they are building systems of rules that we recognize as governments.

      • Aalhc5

        Dan, I would agree with your argument were it realistic to assume an individual could survive without ever earning an income. While it is easy to construct theoretical examples of how an individual in the United States could live such an existence, I do not find them compelling. In all but the most extreme examples individuals who choose not to earn income survive off of others who earn an income. , 

        In this case I do not believe your discussion of the exact taxation system to be relevant. The only realistic way to effectively compare the two is to put them on comparable terms (like you did to an extent in your last paragraph). However, at the end of the day: if the government takes x hours of your time (conscription) or y dollars of your income (equivalent to x hours of work) then they have effectively taken the same value from the individual. 

        • Libertarians just seem, as is so frequently the case, to want something for nothing here, and to radically underestimate their dependence on other people and cooperative social arrangements.  Your ability to earn any kind of decent income at all depends on a vast foundation of infrastructural goods, security goods, educational goods and public health goods that have been produced by others, whose benefits flow into your own life in countless ways every day, and which turn you from a struggling and incompetent nothing into a highly productive and affluent and privileged modern human being.  Without those goods, your condition would be miserable.   It’s only fair that you pay for these goods.

          You can taxes “taking” if you want.   But these taxes are for most people a reasonable charge for services rendered, and for sustaining the society libertarians take so much for granted.   If you don’t like them, you can excuse yourself for the society and go find somewhere to live outside of society altogether, or in a society that doesn’t have taxes.   Good luck.   After realizing that taxation in some form,  and civilized life among other human beings always go together, maybe libertarians will finally grasp that there is probably a reason for this universal phenomenon.

          For some reason, libertarians hate the organized, large-scale systems of cooperative production and coercive power that are traditionally called “governments”.  Fine, we can imagine a “free market” alternative in which no supreme state power in the hands of either the people as a whole or aristocratic subsets thereof means that private enterprises are free to buy up territorial monopolies of land, and then build up all of the infrastructure upon them, and compete for renters on the basis of the services they provide.  Instead of living in a democratic society, you can live under the protective umbrella of Acme Security & Infrastructure Services, which I presume will be hierarchically organized like most corporations, and then will rent out the territory on which your business set.  But once again, your only choice will be to pay up to Acme, or seek a life outside that infrastructural system.The very existence of a system of established property and defended rights depends on organized coercive power.

          There is no such thing as the vaunted freedom libertarians crave outside of a sophisticated society wielding its coercive power in an organized way for the common good of its members.

          • Aalhc5

            Dan, dude, I put myself into enough boxes….no need for anyone to put me into any. Your comment may be addressed at ‘liberatarians’, but to so generally assume the argument here (or elsewhere) is a take it or leave it opinion is not constructive. I posit that someone (i.e. me) may not like paying taxes yet still feel they are a necessary evil.  The point of this discussion (in my opinion) is to be better informed about the evils of ‘taking’ so that we may appropriately weigh it against what we are ‘getting’.

            On a basic level, is killing immoral? I argue, in a vacuum with no other predicating circumstances, yes. However, add in self defense and it can become, for lack of a better word, moral.

            On a basic level, is government taking immoral? I argue, in a vacuum with no other predicating circumstances, regardless of what or how it takes, yes. However, add in takings used to protect rights outlined in the social contract and it can become, for lack of a better word, moral. However, if the takings are used to fund endeavors outside of the authority/powers of the government in the social contract, they remain immoral.

            How about you not assume all libertarians prefer anarchy and I not assume you prefer complete socialism/communism, okay?

          • Ok, I’ll settle down a bit.  What I want to push back on is this frequently deployed idea of “taking” in libertarian discourse, which I frequently think relies on overly ambitious theories of property and property rights, and overly stringent views about the sharpness of the boundaries between “mine” and “thine”.  These boundaries are established by social conventions and institutions.

            Let’s think about a doctor like Rand Paul, for example.  The doctor takes some inputs – the knowledge in his own head, some medicines and devices, some facilities, and a human individual in an imperfect state of health – and does some work with them.  As a result he produces some good.  The immediate good in this case is the improved state of health of the individual he treated.   Secondary goods include the various benefits that flow to people other than the patient by virtue of the patient’s improved state of health.  It’s interesting that the immediate good in this case resides entirely within another human being, and is not the doctor’s property on any reasonable account.

            What is it that allows the doctor to derive income from this work?  Well, he might have had a straightforward contract with the patient, who offered to provide and certain amount of money or other goods in exchange for the medical treatment the doctor provided.  More likely, the treatment occurred in the context of a more complex network of contracts involving insurance companies, a health services organization or hospital, the doctor and the patient.  The doctor has a contract with the firm for which he works according to which they agree to provide certain levels of payment in exchange for his treatment of patients.  The patients pay insurance companies and the insurance companies pay health service organizations and the organizations pay the health care professionals who work for them.

            The whole networked system of property and property rights, exchanges and enforceable contracts exists by virtue of an organized social system of law and law enforcement that underwrites claims on goods among particular individuals and corporate agents, oversees rules for the exchange of these goods and applies the coercive pressure of law enforcement, or the threat of such pressure, to maintain the stability, predictability and integrity of the contracts that are made.  There are goods that the law deems to be the “property” of particular people or corporate agents, and there are legally permitted or required ways of  exchanging those goods.   But none of these established property rights are absolute.   In every sophisticated society there are no ironclad boundaries between mine, thine and ours, where the legally protected power to control what is on one’s own side of the boundary is never trumped by competing interests and social concerns.   Participation in any market carries with it the obligation to adhere to the rules by which that market is organized. 

            Preserving a system like this is costly, and those costs have to be recouped by the agencies that incur them.  Yes there is coercion or the threat of coercion involved.  But there is also coercion or the threat of coercion involved in the enforcement of the contracts that ensure the doctor is paid in the first place.  When the doctor receives payment for his services, instead of watching the beneficiaries of those services walking away, the doctor is benefiting from being one node in a coercive system of contract enforcement.

          • John

            Perhaps Dan will at least acknowledge that the vast majority of libertarians, including a lot from the anarchist camp, fully agree that “[t]hese boundaries are established by social conventions and institutions.”  The issue is less about social conventions and more about the actual behavior of the more formal institutions.

            It might also be noted that while Dan focuses on the claim of free-rider he completely ignores the problem of force-carrying. That’s where most of the complaint about “taking” originates. Let’s face it, there a lot of special interest wealth transfer that is embedded in our public finance tax/spend policies. Almost by definition these are takings and legitimately labeled as such.

            Last, the conclusion that much of what is provided by government must be accomplished via coercive tax collections rather than other arrangements is questionable.  Let’s face it, much of the services provided by government are no different than services provided within markets. What we see is that some people, with differential political power, have a different assessment of the level of service society is prepared to provide find it easy to force up the quantity via government and taxes. 

          • I honestly don’t know what most libertarians think about the source of property boundaries.  My impression – which certainly could be mistaken – was that most libertarians are attracted to some kind of natural rights account of property rights, and that they also believe in some kind of primordial pre-institutional and pre-legal mechanisms by which goods become a person’s property.  They then appraise the property-regarding institutions of our political and legal system according to how well they accord with or respect these natural property rights and natural forms of acquisition and distribution distributions.

            Those who support using taxation to provide funding for government operations they support generally do so because they believe that the market system combined with voluntary giving will, in fact, not achieve the same ends if left to its own devices, or not achieve them as effectively or optimally, and so the organized tools of government must be deployed to bring those ends about.   Most of these people would be perfectly happy to permit markets and private giving to accomplish these ends if they thought those mechanisms would work as well.

          • Dan, these are good questions you’re raising.  I think they’re probably worth a blog post of their own at some point in the future.  I’ll either do that myself or, even better, try to talk one of my fellow bloggers into doing it! 

          • John

             I’ll speak only for myself right now. I don’t think of evaluating political and legal systems from the perspective of some defined natural right regime but rather looking to see if the political and legal system is one of discovery or more an engineering type structure that will impose “the solution”.  The natural rights, including property, are not invariant over time and place — they will depend on social, economic and technical development. The question is how do we find the most appropriate for the time and place. I think this is why many (most?) libertarians tend to favor common law processes over statutory law processes.

            I agree that some favor taxes because a voluntary approach will not met their particular view of what the right level of X is. That’s not justification for coercing others to, at least “act” like they share the same valuation as those wanting others to do more.

            There’s also the pay for services approach that can be applied, just as with the postal service. 

            While a bit more difficult, debt funding is a possibility. To get a good market evaluation of the value of the public spending we’d probably need to fix the tax rate. That would allow a market test for the expected increase in economic activity and wealth created sufficient to repay the bonds.

          • Aalhc5

            Dan, and I know many libertarians (myself included) who have no problem with the government recouping the costs of creating a functioning society (i.e. enforcing property rights). The problem many have with taxes (a.k.a. takings) is that most governments confiscate far more revenue than is required for that task. Looking at our federal government as an example:

            We can argue the cost/benefit merits of many programs and departments such as social security, medicare, department of education, FDA, health and human services and the national endowment for the arts….but I think it is a hard sell the claim that  such expenditures are really in line with society’s agent’s tasks in your discussion above. The NEA giving $100,000 to an artist to cover an image of Jesus Christ on a cross with dog feces does not in any way facilitate a physician’s treatment of a patient….yet in this country that physician’s income is taxed in part to provide that money.

            I think, to an extent, you prove my point. The belief that all taxes are ‘takings’ is designed to illustrate the concept that taxes is theft, and that theft is only justified in certain situations. Most notably, the situations you describe above (the government facilitating enforcement of contracts, protection of property, etc.) which create a functioning economy are a justified cost that must by paid for through taxes. The taxes taken in excess of this cost is just petty theft by special interest groups through the government.

            In the end, the fact that some takings are justified does not imply that all takings are justified. Also, the fact that some takings are not justified does not imply that no takings are justified.

          •  Aalhc5, I assume we will all disapprove of one form of government expenditure or another.   The decisions on what projects the government should spend money on, and on how the funds for those projects should be raised, requires a complex process of social negotiation and legislation.

            If you don’t like the things government is doing, then find ways of influencing and participating in governance and change the current path.  But I know one of the writers here has already argued that people should not vote; but also that everyone has a “right” to be governed by smart people.  Frankly, this strikes me as an utterly childish point of view.I don’t think it is reasonable to analyze “theft” as “instances of taking in which the goods taken are then used for purposes the original owner does not like.”   The concept of theft is a legal concept, and the distinction between takings that are theft and those that are not depends on whether or not the taking is legally permissible or not.   If somebody burglarizes my home and then distributes the stolen goods to the Sisters of the Poor, the burglary is still theft.   If a representative democratic legislature votes fair and square to tax some of my income away, and then uses the additional proceeds to fund celebrity makeovers, that is not theft.   It may be a damn stupid and wasteful thing to do, but it is not theft.

      • If the taxes weren’t there at all, the employer wouldn’t have to contract you for the same nominal salary, but could probably obtain your labor for whatever your current after-tax income is.

        Technically, tax-free income wouldn’t fall at this extreme either, since an employer’s willingness to pay for your labor is indicated by the full cost of employing you, including the taxes. Presumably, in more free labor markets, the untaxed income would accrue to the employee, while in less free ones (where employees have little bargaining power) the employer would pocket the difference and either hire more workers or construct more capital. (That most libertarians reflexively assume that the former case will obtain is a typical blind spot.)

    • a positive right (right to healthcare) requires one of two government actions: taxation (payment for healthcare) or conscription of labor (provision of healthcare). If both are morally equivalent, then regardless of the scheme developed by the government to provide “universal healthcare”, even if it does not employ the extreme measures described by Rand, it is morally equivalent to forced labor.

      “Morally equivalent” could mean “both are morally bad.”  If that’s all you mean, then I guess I don’t disagree, though I think it’s a misleading and unhelpful way of making the point.  But if by “morally equivalent” you mean “morally bad in the same way” or “to the same degree,” then the claim seems clearly false.

      • Aalhc5

        Matt, I hope I am not being to difficult, but I have heard many people make the ‘clearly false’ conclusion with this comparison before yet have never heard their explanation (I am not being facetious, they all stop at ‘clearly false’). I don’t mean to be repetitive, but consider the three following ‘taxation’ choices:

        (1) The government takes x hours of your time (conscription) or y dollars of your income (equivalent to x hours of work).

        (2) The government takes x bushels of wheat or y dollars of your income (equivalent to x bushels of wheat).

        (3) The government takes x pieces of art or y dollars of your income (equivalent to x pieces of art).

        Is taking wheat any more or less moral than income? I would argue not. Number 3 is actually how Mexico taxes artists (why Mexico has one of the most complete national museums of any similarly developed nation). In the art case it is literally taking the direct fruits of the artist’s labor. I fail to see, then, why conscription is morally inferior to income taxation (as long as the ‘values’ are equivalent). 

        I am trying to be open-minded (and, believe it or not, I love to be proven wrong). I just don’t see why taking the fruits of labor is morally any different than actually taking the labor itself.

        • No, you’re not being difficult.  It’s a fair question.   

          Here’s how Jonathan Wolff addresses Nozick’s argument.  His response strikes me as basically correct:

          We might object to the claim that taxation is on a par with forced labour.  It is not hard to spot some differences.  Under a modern system of progressive taxation you will be taxed if you earn more than a certain amount of money, and how much you will be taxed depends in part on how much you decide to do.  Forced labour rarely includes the option of deciding how much labour to do.  Further, most people have a measure of choice as to the nature of the activity at which they work, and who in particular employs them.  These, too, are uncharacteristic of forced labour.

          Still, Nozick points out that one can imagine a gradation between forced labour and taxation.  At the extreme you are forced to do one thing, then you have a choice between two things and so on, as we continue along the continuum to income taxation.  However, it is not clear what Nozick believes such a gradation would show. Certainly, it does not show that taxation is forced labour, no more than the existence of a biological continuum between amoebas and human beings would show that amoebas are human beings.  Such a gradation seems only to prove that there is at least one property that the members of the continuum have in common.  In the case of the continuum between forced labour and taxation, we have no reason to believe that this common property is a grave loss of liberty, for as we travel along Nozick’s continuum from forced labour to taxation, precisely what happens at each point is that more liberty is granted.  If one can choose one’s job, but not the hours one works, for example, one has more liberty than under a system of forced labour, but less than under a normal system of taxation.  The sensible conclusion seems to be that although income taxation does limit liberty in important ways, and has some resemblance to forced labour, it is by no means as serious an infringement of liberty as forced labour.

          Jonathan Wolff,  Robert Nozick: Property, Justice, and the Minimal State (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), pp. 91-92.

          • Aalhc5

            Thanks Matt! That helps, and I find Wolff’s argument compelling to some extent. My concern is in the uneven comparison he makes which relies on two (unwarranted) assumptions:

            (1) progressive income tax
            (2) direct tax-like forced labor

            If I assign assumption (1) to nearly any type of tax and (2) to another tax, I could rather convincingly argue the former is ‘more moral’ than the later. In Wolff’s case you could remove all references to income and labor and come to the same conclusion. To be more specific:

            Two taxes, one 10% of income above $10,000 and the other a flat $2000. The first is progressive and the second direct. There are a plethora of reasons why the direct tax is ‘less moral’ than the progressive tax (i.e. the person who doesn’t work doesn’t have the money to pay the direct tax, low income earners pay more with the direct tax).

            Wolff applies the same logic to income tax verse forced labor. If the income tax is progressive and the forced labor a fixed amount, then yes, the labor is ‘less moral’ (i.e. people who don’t work still have to engage in labor). However, applying a uniform proportional nature to both income tax and forced labor creates a less dichotomous result. Say a simple income tax is 10% of all income and a simple forced labor requirement is 10% of hours employed (i.e. 4 hours of service weekly to the federal government for the typical full time employee). It is not clear to me that in this situation the two are not ‘on par’.

          • Ken S

            They are not on par because money is not the only measure of value here. Forced labor in his example involved literally telling people what to do and when to do it, and most people don’t like that. 

          • Aalhc5

            “in his example”. That statement invalidates the comparison because it limits it to some specific type of forced labor. If the exercise is to compare specific types of taxes to specific types of forced labor, then I can easily give examples where the former is ‘better’ than the latter and visa versa. 

          • Ken S

            He also makes the claim that almost all forced labor is the type as he has described. He is speaking of forced labor as the social phenomenon as (he believes) it actually occurs. Are there any real life examples where people have been ordered to work, but  the details of when, where, and how much they should work are non-specific? Maybe there are historical examples, but it doesn’t seem like these would be common knowledge.

          • John

            Wolff is incorrect in his assumption that forced labor seldom allows for marginal adjustments of input while tax avoidance does. It’s a mistake to confuse time input with labor input.

            I’m not sure the difference in how I make my marginal adjustments matters in the question of whether I’m being forced to labor without that labor contributing to results I wish to achieve.

  •  Isn’t there some sort of oath that physicians take voluntarily that compels them to service? Hipocritic, maybe?

  • TB

    more evidence that the right lib tendency is to be deeeeeeply affronted by anything which smacks of taking from the strong to advantage the weak, but are completely unruffled by other institutions which perhaps more subltly rob the weak to the benefit of the strong.  It is a deeply unfortunate bias.  I think it is more temperatmental than philosophical, though. 

  • Interestingly, I have debated this point with left-liberals for years.  Some of them are fond of saying, “health care is a right.”  I have often argued that they can’t really mean that.   Health care consists in goods and services produced by other human beings, and a very large proportion of these goods and services are products of advanced technology that did not exist 25, 50 or 100 years ago.   These goods and services are costly to produce from our limited resources, and the production of them necessarily corresponds with foregoing production of other things.   What they must really mean to say, even from within the framework of their own rights-based way of viewing the world, is that everyone has an equal right to, or claim on, the health care that is actually produced.  Even that claim is hard to interpret when you get into the details of analyzing it out, and doesn’t seem to capture the egalitarian intuition adequately.

    On the subject of Paul’s “slavery”: charge, he is indulging in melodrama and hyperbole.  Nobody is suggesting that Paul cannot retire from the health care business tomorrow and become a truck driver, even under a single payer or single provider system.  What health care progressives will probably insist on, though, is that the practice of medicine is one of those very important and potentially dangerous things that needs to be governed by licensing, for both individual doctors and the larger health-care-providing enterprises for whom doctors most often work, and that the license will carry with it requirements and restrictions regarding the pricing and provision of health care for customers with an ability to pay.  And then, providing all citizens with an equal ability to pay for health care goods and services – perhaps by paying for them out of tax revenues or nationally administered insurance pools – will be the job of society and government.

    Personally, I think a lot of left-liberals and libertarians are guilty of the same thing here: jerking the concept of right out of its proper domain of applicability in the legal and institutional sphere and into the pre-institutional realm; dreaming up rights out of the aether of their own felt needs and desires; and declaring these imagined rights into existence. I prefer an approach in which we just try to consider as many social and economic alternatives as we can for the production and distribution of health care, and then evaluate which social choice would get us the best overall outcome.  The ill effects of any unwelcome coercive pressures felt by radical individualists like Rand Paul counts for something on the overall assessment of outcomes, but it doesn’t count for a whole lot.

    • Anonymous

      This is why Edward Kennedy always said health care (meaning, health insurance) ought to be a right.  If the government passes a law, as it just has, guaranteeing every person subsidies to be able to afford health coverage under a particular definition of affordability, then one can call that a right to (afordable, not free) health care — because that policy has been passed into law, and we all have the right to equal and complete protection of all applicable laws at such times as they are in force and we are in the jurisdiction of the lawgiver.  We don’t have a right for there to be such a law, but that’s why Kennedy always said health care should be a right, as in made a right enjoyed by all citizens pursuant to public law, and stemming from their right to the protection of those laws.  The right to health care Kennedy always talked about was a legal right that he thought should be brought into existence through the passage of laws, not a natural or inherent human right, which are things I am not sure he even believed existed, being a Catholic.

  • Ken S

     This seems like a bizarre co-option of the age old idea of ‘wage slavery’. I think Paul is barking up the wrong rhetorical tree here because there are a heck of a lot more of the unemployed and low wage workers right now than there are of doctors.

  • Our Constitution explicitly says that all Americans are afforded a number of rights.  Among these rights are the right to a trial by a jury of your peers and the right to counsel.  In both of these cases, a duty is placed on another person to do something that they otherwise may not want to do.  We assign lawyers to act as public defenders in cases where the accused cannot hire a private attorney themselves.  We mandate citizens serve jury duty and may even be able to charge people with crimes that result in jail time if they do not serve.  Are those public defenders and jurists slaves?  If they are, then why do we have a socialized justice system?  If not, then what is the difference between justice and health care that makes judges, public defenders, and jurists free men but doctors and nurses slaves?

    • Dick H.

      Are lawyers compelled to serve as public defenders against their wishes?

  • Jim

    He did not say universal heathcare is slavery, he said that if you have a right to healthcare that would be slavery.  In the latter case if you have a right to healthcare, in some extreme cases you would be able to conscript people to give you that care.  

    • I would have thought that the former implies the latter? 

      • Jim

        With universal heathcare you get what the state is willing to supply by paying providers.  If you have a right to healthcare and the state can find no one willing to provide it for a price, it must be given to you which might mean forcing someone to provide it.

      • Jim

        With universal heathcare you get what the state is willing to supply by paying providers.  If you have a right to healthcare and the state can find no one willing to provide it for a price, it must be given to you which might mean forcing someone to provide it.

    • Anonymous

      He modified his claim further in the latter part of his oration, saying that (only?) a right to free health care would be slavery.  But he is assuming that this right is both a natural right and a legal right, or that for some other reason people who happen to have this (natural) right would also be able to get authorities with weapons to come and enforce that this right be honored by physicians.  There is no reason to make this assumption; it is a property of human rights as a concept (one which I do not have much use for) that they are widely and serially not respected throughout the world on a regular basis (nearly completely for ages on end throughout history), and there are no agents to enforce them often times even where they are recognized — but they still (according to the concept) exist.  And in any case, it isn’t the case that very many people at all go around saying that people have the right to free health care, where service providers are not compensated.  Some people say we have the right for government to pay for our health care, which to my mind simply makes the question of slavery in this instance (to the extent it actually has to be arrived at, which is not at all) whether taxation and spending by government on services for people is the enslavement of those taxed.  That debate has been ongoing for decades.  But there isn’t going to be a world in which government agents are going to escort sick people around forcing doctors to treat them without compensation. (The abject inability to perform thought experiments within his ideology is, BTW, in my view a lock-cinch reason not to prefer this Senator to Al Franken, who in fact has a very able and acute mind, not to mention cutting sense of humor, which anyone who has followed his career, in particular his radio show from a few years back, knows.)  There may be a world at some future time in which the U.S. government takes control of the payment schedules for medical procedures for the other 70% of the population that it isn’t already the case for; and in that world many physicians may face the question of whether they desire to continue practicing medicine at the new compensation rates.  But that is not a world in which physicians have been enslaved.

  • Marty Heyman

    Paul’s argument’s absurdity becomes obvious when you extend it to the military. Are soldiers, sailors, or Air Force Pilots slaves? They are a nationalized industry serving the country. That actually appears to be a fairly rewarding organization to be part of (if you’re successful and move up the ranks). Are workers in the Social Security Administration, the IRS, the FBI slaves? You can’t do those jobs unless you’ve been nationalized. It’s a nonsense argument. 

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    Hyperbolic, but essentially correct.  If there are positive rights to be provided with services, then that necessarily entails a violation of someone’s negative rights.  Unless of course it’s all consensual, which this isn’t.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    He’s a politician.  You can’t expect a level of discourse from him that you’d expect from a philosopher.   

    • A violation of negative rights ≠ slavery.  Seems like even a politician should be able to get that one right.

    • Sol Logic

      Excellent point. I wish more people would take this into account.

  • Matt,
    I believe it is perfectly reasonable to interpret Nozick’s claim against income taxation (above the level required to fund the minimal state) as holding that this tax and forced labor are morally “on a par” because they are wrong for the same reason. That is, both things treat morally sovereign agents as mere tools to be used to accomplish some supposedly greater social purpose. Clearly, his claim does not imply that they are morally equivalent. It is wrong for the con-man to cheat someone out of $20, and far worse for Bernie Madoff to con people out of their entire life savings.

    In this light, Wolff’s argument clearly fails, I think, for two reasons. First, Nozick’s argument is not about, as Wolff puts it, the “infringment of liberty,” but the violation of autonomy, i.e. our right as moral agents to be free from coercion. These are distinct concepts. If I marry (to use another of Nozick’s lines) the woman of your dreams, I have removed your liberty to do so, but I have not violated your rights. So, the fact that taxation may involve less of an infringement of liberty than forced labor does not meet the thrust of Nozick’s complaint. Both are coercive.

    Second, even if we equate liberty with the non-violation of autonomy, as just shown, the fact that one offense is worse than another does not establish that they are not “morally on a par.” The key point is that if both income taxation and forced labor are wrong, even to different degrees, they should both be condemned.

  •  Taxation looks different than theft.  But, libertarians argue, that appearance is deceiving.  The fact that taxation is enacted by a government in accordance with written laws is, libertarians think, morally irrelevant. 

    Then what would be morally relevant?   Given the assertions by libertarians that they are not all anarchists, it is hard for me to understand how it is these less doctrinaire libertarians so often fall into the very strident claim that taxation = theft.

    I can understand the motivations for the claim that taxation is a form of taking – although as I argued above, not even this assertion is clearly warranted or conceptually pellucid.  But surely the what distinguishes theft from other kinds of taking is that theft is, by definition, taking that is not permitted by law.  Unless you think that all government and law are illegitimate – i.e. unless you are an anarchist – I don’t understand how you can fail to make a distinction  between theft and other kinds of taking.

    I can also understand and respect the claim that coercion is a bad thing, considered solely in itself.  (I don’t have the same rights-based reason for thinking it is a bad thing that most libertarians seem attracted to; but I agree that it is a bad thing in itself.)  But there are all sorts of things bad in themselves that are instrumentally useful and necessary for accomplishing greater goods.  To say that the coercive taxation of income or savings is the same thing as theft, simply because coercion is bad in itself and taxation is coercive taking, strikes me as just as dotty as saying that the mandatory inoculation of children against diseases is the same thing as torture, because the pain of a shot is bad in itself and mandatory inoculation is the coercive imposition of pain.

    Given what appears to be the libertarian position that every instance of coercion is wrong and that the only permissible human interactions are the purely voluntary ones, it is hard for me to see how non-anarchist libertarians leave themselves room for saying any form of law and government is legitimate.  What principles, other than mere tact and rhetorical reticence, prevent libertarianism from collapsing into anarchism?

    • Dan,
      As a minimal state libertarian, let me take a stab at responding to your question. Very briefly, some state functions, like national defense, the courts and law enforcement, are so critical to the preservation of our autonomy that they stand on a different moral footing than other aspects of government. Since I believe that our special moral status arises from our moral agency, and since I believe the state is necessary for organizing and funding national defense, etc., I believe that coercion is justified to support these functions, but not others.   

      • Ok, Mark.  That seems reasonable.   And so I take it that, since you believe coercion for the sake of organizing and funding these essential functions is justified, and the type of coercion involved includes taxation, then you do not believe taxation is theft.

        • Dan,
          Correct, I do not believe that taxation is necessarily “on a par” with theft–it depends on how the proceeds are used. However, we are currently so far beyond the boundaries of the minimal state I envision, that as currently employed, taxation is usually (in my view) on a par with theft. 

          • John

            Mark, perhaps it’s just how you’re expressing things in a short response. I agree with Dan that we cannot define taxation as theft on how the taxes are used — or at least not in general.

            I think the issue is whether or not the government is even suppose to be acting in some area or not. If not then they have no legitimate right to tax and that’s why the taxation is reasonably called theft. 

          • Yes, I agree with the way you phrased it–it is the specific governmental activity this is or is not morally legitimate.

    • Anonymous

      I think the trick here is that libertarians, like regular people, recognize multiple immoralities on a daily basis and deal with them.  Sure, it’s clearly immoral for a democratic society to tax its own participants and beneficiaries.  And sure, it’s also immoral to let people die of treatable injuries or curable illnesses simply because they have no money to pay.

      Rand Paul simply prefers one form of immorality over another.

      That his preference, and the intensity with which he appears to feel it, is itself deeply immoral is probably a consideration.  But once the camel’s nose of immorality is under the tent it’s really beside the point.

      Instead the point is that IF you’re obliged to live with immorality, as we are, then it becomes a matter of consensus as to the particular forms immorality we wish to or at least are willing to live with.

      At which point the issue devolves to a selection of immoralities Rand Paul and his ilk go to Hell for eternity if he gets his way, and his antagonists go to the Department of Motor Licensing once every two to four years if they get theirs.


  • Frank Hecker

     You and the various commenters have done a good job of addressing the logical issues around Paul’s comments, please forgive me if I address the emotional ones for a moment. I think libertarians do us all a great service in pointing out the role of coercion with respect to government, and the bar that that sets in terms justifying what governments can and should do. However when I read comments like Rand Paul’s, or even just the classic libertarian statement that “taxation is theft”, it totally rubs me the wrong way.

    I’m fortunate never to have been robbed at gunpoint. If that were to happen at some point in the future I can only imagine the panic and fright I’d feel during the robbery itself, and the deep sense of violation and unease I’d likely experience afterward. There may be people in this world who experience those exact same emotions when they send in their Form 1040, but I doubt very much that most people do, even libertarians who hold taxation = theft as a proven fact. From my point of view making that equation without qualification smacks of trying to appropriate the felt experience of an actual victim of crime in an attempt to claim for oneself the sympathy that others might rightfully feel for such a victim, all in the service of one’s own political views. Rand Paul’s claim that he is in some sense a “slave” is even more offensive, as if he, the son of a respected politician, a successful professional, and a member of this nation’s political elite, were in some sense the moral equal of the men and women who were sold in the market like cattle, whipped and beaten by their masters, and had their children taken from them to be enslaved in turn.

    I’ve found libertarians in general to be pretty rational and level-headed folk, and I think that’s a good thing in general. But that very rationality I think can sometime blind libertarians to the emotional impact of what they say, and to the extent to which their own rhetorical excesses can lead others to dismiss their arguments on emotional grounds even when libertarians might have reason and evidence on their side. That’s one reason why I’m postitive about the BHL project: I may disagree sometimes with the arguments presented, but at least I feel like the people making them live in the same emotional universe as I do, and that gives the arguments much more weight with me than otherwise would be the case.

    • Anonymous

       This is actually a wonderful point.  I’ve paid taxes and I’ve been robbed at gunpoint (and, for contrast, at knife point.)  To imagine, let alone insist, that the two experiences are equivalent is risible.


      • Frank Hecker

         I’m glad to see that my own imagination wasn’t leading me far astray. Some followup points:

        I’m willing to believe that there have been times and places where  the emotional experience of paying taxes was in fact not dissimilar to that of being robbed at gunpoint. I just don’t find it credible that that’s the case in the generally affluent and democratic countries where most libertarians live today. (Why that is I leave to others.)

        I’m also willing to believe that there are libertarians in the U.S. and other developed countries for whom the experience of paying taxes is fraught with emotion. I’m guessing that their primary emotions are anger and disgust. However lots of people get angry and disgusted about lots of different things, and in my opinion anger and disgust by themselves don’t have a strong claim on others’ sympathies.

        Finally, somebody in this or a prior comments thread mentioned the Wason selection task and the hypothesis that performance on it is related to an evolved capability to detect cheaters in order to punish them. That may help explain the controversy Rand Paul’s remarks have provoked. From an emotional point of view I’d argue that Paul in this case is like the spammers who send you emails describing their fake cases of cancer or falsely claiming that they’re stuck in a foreign land without a cent to their name: They’re both in effect practicing a form of emotional deception to invoke others’ natural feelings of sympathy in service of their own self-interest, and I’m in turn motivated to punish them for it. (But I’m done now, I promise.)

        P.S. When I said that Paul wasn’t the “moral equal” of actual slaves, what I actually meant to say was that his claim on our emotions was in no way equivalent to that of those millions who suffered in slavery. Commenting at bed time = high risk of sloppy wording.

    • I think these reflections on what we could call “the phenomenology of being robbed” are interesting.

      For me, paying my taxes consists for the most part of noting that, in addition to the money that is actually deposited by my employer in my bank account, there is a space on my online pay stub that reports some higher number as my “gross salary”.   But I never actually received that difference between the gross amount and the net amount I was paid.   It was never in my possession.  And so I never experienced it as being taken away from me. 
      I argued above that if the income tax didn’t exist, it is extremely unlikely under ordinary market conditions that I or most people would be able to command anything close to the nominal gross salaries we are officially “paid”.   However, I do understand that, as a first approximation, if my income was not taxed then both my employer and I would have more money on payday.  My official salary wouldn’t be nearly as high, but I would take home more money.   But this is a first approximation.  If you believe as I do that most of what is collected as taxes goes to fund government operations that support a social foundation that makes life better and more prosperous for all of us, then it is less clear that in losing that foundation, employers and employees would recoup the wealth that is currently transfered through the tax system.  My wife and I, for example, send my retired parents a certain amount of money each month.  If it weren’t for Medicare and Social Security, we would have to send them substantially more money.But in addition to questions of self-interest, I suppose there are also important differences between people with respect to their social values, and that influences whether they experience government as primarily hostile to their interests or primarily compatible with their interests.  And that will influence what they feel about taxation.  When I first started paying taxes I thought of it as a rite of passage into adulthood, like voting or attending and speaking up at a town meeting.  It meant I was now part of the world of folks who shoulder adult obligations for governing and taking care of their communities.  I thought of that as pretty cool, and not just a burden.

      • Frank Hecker

         Your point about the psychological effect of having taxes withheld from salary is well-taken. I’m also primarily dependent on my salary, but there have been a couple of years where I had substantial earnings from the sale of stock during the year, and then had to pay taxes on those earnings at the end of the year. That was considerably more painful, because I had gotten used to thinking of that money as solely my own. I’d venture to say that (at least in a U.S. context) this is true in general for anyone who’s more dependent on earnings from capital (primarily taxed after the fact) than earnings from labor (primarily taxed via withholding). I think that may partially account for the intensity of the political movement that’s led the U.S. to have tax rates for capital gains that are significantly lower than marginal tax rates for regular income. (I think this also influences the intensity of opposition to estate and inheritance taxes.)

        In the end I (mostly) got over my pain at parting with money I already possessed from selling stock. In my case I think that was due to a combination of the lower relative tax bite (see above), my feeling that there was some element of luck involved in my having stock that was worth as much as it was (I got the stock originally in the form of stock options from my employer), and a general feeling that paying taxes was necessary to maintain the sort of society that made it possible for me and the high-tech companies I worked for to not only exist but to thrive.

    • CFV


      I have read before roughly this same argument about the “phenomenology of being robbed” in Lomasky, Loren (1998) “Libertarianism as If (the other 99 porcent of) People Mattered,” Social Philosophy & Policy, 15: 350-371 , at 362 -63.

      I believed (and I still believe) it’s mistaken, for the following reason. For libertarians, the identity statement “taxation=theft (or, more accurately, robbery)” is pretty much like the identity statement “”Hesperus is Phosphorus”. If it is true, it is a necessary (moral) truth; but, in the same way as the “Hesperus is Phosphorus” or “The Morning Star is the Evening Star,” it could be discoverable rather than known a priori.  

      Thus, no matter how deceived we are from the appearances or the perceptual experience of the phenomenon of Hesperus and Phosphorus, after a proper empirical investigation, we are allow to  conclude that “Hesperus is Phosphorus.” In the same way, no matter how deceived we are from the appearances or the experience of being robbed and being taxed, upon reflection, we could be allowed to  conclude that “Taxation is Theft (or Robbery).” 

      • Frank Hecker

         CFV: Thanks much for the article reference (which I’ll check out if I can find a copy online for less than $30). As a layman I very much appreciate pointers to stuff like that.

        Note that I didn’t intend my comments as a definitive refutation of the taxation as theft argument. My main point was that as a rhetorical device it was IMO ineffective and counter-productive. Rand Paul’s analogy to slavery in particular reminded me of when Prince went around with “slave” written on his face because he wanted to get out of his record contract with Warner Brothers. There are legitimate questions that can be raised about record companies’ treatment of artists, but Prince just made himself look ridiculous and insulted the memory of his ancestors in the bargain.

  • You are born in a nation, and up until you sell your labor for a wage you go to school and you are told over and over again that your earnings will be taxed (often by breathless, screaming shock-jocks who claim the government will also make glue out of you for cash if democrats are elected).

    And then when your earnings are taxed you claim you didn’t agree to pay any taxes and you sulk and call “theft”? And I thought *I* was an immature narcissist.

    Not to mention you can just round up other like-minded people and reduce your tax levels by using argumentation (or, in the case of the tea party, lies, demagoguery and ignorance) to persuade others to lower your taxes. I’ve yet to see a thief offer victims that caveat.

    So, yeah, I think Rand Paul’s plans are as dangerous to America as any terrorist plot, despite his good, adorable intentions. His lack of philosophical refinement and self-distance is not only disgusting and an eyesore, it is a threat to society. He derives pleasure from kicking welfare recipients and giving more power and tax breaks to capital owners and the rich.

    That might feel real good but it is no way to have a functioning society with a sustainable future. The poor and needy are always going to exist, and we can’t gas them and burn them. So trying again and again for “trickle down” or just lowering welfare spending just to righteously punish the lazy or reward the hard-working is nothing but pettiness and a recipe for disaster. It is downright Judeo-Christian.

    • Cristobaldelicia

       You lost me on the last sentence.  Are you addressing like-minded atheists? In my mind, being from a  Judeo-Christian tradition includes “giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and the miracle of fishes and loaves after the Sermon on the Mount, etc., etc.  Not that it is intrinsically good or bad, but what do you mean by Judeo-Christian?

      • Glorification of asceticism. Rejecting physicality for metaphysics (“Raising taxes won’t actually harm the economy and will close the deficit, but it has a moral cost of 1000 trillion, so it is unacceptable”). Telling the downtrodden and poor that if they just leave the kings/capital owners on top of society and grit their teeth without rebelling, they’ll get their reward in some hypothetical future.

        The idea of heaven is EXACTLY like the idea of trickle down. And the libertarian scare-mongering about carbon taxes and ObamaStalinRapeOogahboogahCare reeks of sulfuric warnings about hell…

  • CFV

    This could be of interest here:

    I insist upon a point, though: even libertarians should acknowledge that not all forms of taxation are “morally on a par with forced labor,” or equivalent to theft.

    • Frank Hecker

       I think Bryce Caplan presents a reasonable and interesting thought experiment. I do have one major quibble with it though: In a world with unlimited access to physical goods, what services would be so critical in relation to the requirements of social justice that we’d contemplate coercing people to perform them? Medical services arguably would be, and I think it was no coincidence that Caplan chose a surgeon as his key example. Maybe access to legal help would be as well, in order to protect those unjustly accused of crimes and at risk of government punishment.

      But in this unlimited-physical-goods utopia it’s debatable whether achieving social justice would require the services of (say) accountants, or financial advisors, or even teachers, much less chefs, or entertainers, or any of the myriad of other professions that exist and pay taxes in our present-day society. And going back to doctors and lawyers, it’s worth noting that those professions are already treated as special, with a strong social expectation that doctors and lawyers should provide some level of uncompensated labor, and with even coerced labor not out of the question in special circumstances. (Consider, for example, the case of a plane on which a person is having a medical emergency, and the sole doctor on board would rather relax with his drink and his magazine than offer any help.)

      So while I’m willing to entertain the idea that taxation involves at least some element of coerced labor, I’m not convinced that Caplan’s thought experiment is as compelling in that regard as he seems to think it is.

      • Frank Hecker

        “But in this unlimited-physical-goods utopia it’s debatable whether
        achieving social justice would require the services of (say)
        accountants, or financial advisors, or even teachers, …” Sorry, I probably should have said *coerced* services. It may be that, for example, proper education is critical to achieving social justice, even in this utopian society. However given the ability of people to educate themselves given access to leisure time and educational materials, and also given the fact that many people enjoy teaching others and are reasonably qualified to do so within their own area of expertise, I find it difficult to believe that in Caplan’s hypothesized society we’d have to coerce people into teaching in the name of social justice.

    • We wouldn’t have to force anyone to provide any kind of
      labor in the (bizarrely unworldly) scenario Caplan proposes.  We could just socialize the distribution of those
      labor services we want to distribute absolutely equally. 

      services could be offered through government operated service exchanges, rather
      than on the basis of private bi-lateral contracts, and the prices paid to the
      providers of the services would have to be set by the operators of the exchange.   The
      price paid would clearly have to be in terms of a basket of other services, since
      goods are super-abundant.   The specific
      contents of the baskets could be flexible, with an administered voucher system.   If it turned out that we did not get enough
      people entering or staying in a particular field at the established
      compensation rates, or that too many people were entering other fields, we
      would have to adjust the value of the vouchers for those professionals.   As
      long as there are no barriers to entering and leaving a profession, we should
      be able to achieve an equilibrium in which compensation rates correlate with
      the difficulties and stresses of the profession in question, while still making
      sure everyone receives those services that we deem absolutely essential.

      But I think the experience with rigidly centrally planned
      socialism shows that his isn’t usually the best way to achieve a more equal
      society.  We need to rely in individual
      creativity, initiative and price mechanisms, and tolerate some unavoidable
      degree of inequality.  But my view is that
      we could level economic differences substantially; eliminate many of the
      pathologies, crises and inefficiencies of unregulated market systems, and still
      derive the benefits of initiate and entrepreneurial spirit by employing a combination
      of maximum and minimum wage system, with the maximum wage based generally on ratios
      of the highest paid member of a firm to the lowest paid member, and with
      similar maximum ratios across firms between the lowest paid employees in those
      firms.  Otherwise leave firms free to
      innovate and create, and work out their market offerings and internal
      arrangements as they see fit.  One of the
      benefits of such a social system, I believe, is that people’s ability to
      improve their lots is linked to the well-being of their fellow-citizens.  For the people at the highest pay scales to
      raise their own incomes, they need to bring up the level of the lowest-paid employees
      at their own firms, and depending on the type of firm, that might require
      attempting to raise the salaries of the lowest-paid people in society generally
      .    So the highest-paid members of society would
      be engaged in unending lobbying and advocacy for promoting the general welfare,
      and raising the incomes of the society’s lowest paid employees.

      The whole Caplan hypothetical is pretty hard to
      entertain.  Are we supposed to be
      imagining a world in which only resources are super-abundant, or one where all
      desired finished goods are super-abundant as well?  Since all finished goods incorporate a series
      of labor services, I’m not sure what Caplan is asking us to imagine.

      • Frank Hecker

         “Are we supposed to be imagining a world in which only resources are
        super-abundant, or one where all desired finished goods are
        super-abundant as well?” My assumption is that Caplan is imagining a society in which the marginal cost of producing goods is zero or close to it–basically something like Star Trek’s replicators writ large.

        For what it’s worth, today’s software industry is pretty close to this thought experiment: marginal costs of distributing software are as close to zero as makes no difference, and marginal costs of deploying software as a service (e.g., Google Mail) are also very low. As for fixed costs, required input in the form of existing software to build on is free or close to it (due to availability of open source software), and required capital input (e.g., personal laptops) is low as well. The predominant factor limiting creation of innovative software and software-based services is then labor for design and development, along with (in some cases) rents paid to entrenched interests (e.g., software patent holders, or owners of copyrights to non-software information goods such as music, films, etc.).

      • John

        Dan, think Star Trek replicators. Material goods are there for the asking and no one needs to do any work to provide them to other. Apparently energy is also super abundant, as well as the replication machine itself.  Want a lump of coal, it shows up. What the nice red christmas stocking to put the coal into, just ask.

        What services would be needed in such a world? What if I want some new material that’s not in the replicators database? Someone will need to design the material/molecule and perhaps someone will need to update my replicator with that new information. The the legal, medical, educational, creative (think things like chefs for recipes that you can have your replicator produce but you never know the exact process or ingredients).

        Then again, it’s a thought experiment. Didn’t we all go thought that blog once already? 😉

        I was a bit surprised to hear your call for central planning and the complete abandonment of a market merely because our material needs are met. Services are not that different from material goods in terms of how the market works.

        •  The high degree of planning would only be necessary in a world in which it was decided everyone had a right to a certain kind of service, and whose economic possibilities are otherwise governed by Caplan’s bizarre hypothetical constraints.  Services for which there is no legislated universal right would not require any planning.  

          But I see I cheated by introducing vouchers into the mix, which Caplan forbids at the first stage.  Caplan effectively asks us to imagine a world so different from our own that the only conceivable form of government economic coercion in the direction of achieving preferred distributive outcomes requires forcing people to do labor, because the only thing of value that can be offered to someone as an incentive for doing anything is itself another form of labor.    Thus, in that world all government coercion would be forced labor.  Um, yeah.   But given that worlds close to our world are worlds in which there are a variety of goods that can be taxed away from the people who happen to possess them – including very liquid goods, such as monetary instruments – there are a large variety of options for achieving desired distributive outcomes that do not involve forcing a person to do labor they don’t want to do.   
          In the real world, we would have no trouble ensuring that we have sufficiently many doctors able and willing to provide the guaranteed medical services, on a voluntary uncoerced basis, so long as we adequately incentivize sufficient numbers of people to become doctors.   In Caplan-world, the only way we could do that is by requiring other people to perform services for these doctors.  But in the real world we can offer money and goods.   In the end, it is true that in a non-libertarian world, some people are compelled to do things they otherwise would not do.   In Caplan-world, that might consist of compelling people to do certain kinds of labor, or refrain from doing certain kinds of labor.  In more normal worlds, that compulsion might consist instead of  compelling them to hand over certain possessions some would prefer not to hand over.

          And we need only tax goods from people who have voluntarily produced them or traded for them.  People with no income are not taxed, and it is a choice whether or not to earn income.  In the real world, it is not hard at all to make sure there are plenty of people voluntarily earning income, because people always work and produce when there is the option of improving their well-being by doing so.

          As I mentioned in a previous comment, I don’t think it is particularly plausible to attribute absolute rights to things like health care services.   We shouldn’t say that people have an absolute right to have something produced for them by others.   For those goods or services we want distributed equally, we should only establish equal claims to those goods and services, to the extent these goods are produced.

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  • The concept of theft is a legal concept, and the distinction between takings that are theft and those that are not depends on whether or not the taking is legally permissible or not.

    The crucial problem here is that with many, if not most, governments, the ability of the citizen to reasonably impact the operations of government is almost non-existent. If democratic institutions are weak or absent, then taxation, under your theory, becomes less and less distinguishable from theft. I would argue that the immense scale and concentrated interest groups of the American government, that we could properly call taxation theft even under the terms of your own theory. 

  • “no one’s advocating beating down doctor’s doors and hauling them away”

    On the contrary — not only has it been advocated, it’s been done. Belgium, 1963. When doctors ceased regular practice in objection to a new universal healthcare act, the government introduced conscription to compel them to continue doctoring.

    • Well, that is interesting!  Your link, however, didn’t work for me.

      Still, I’d want to maintain that there is no logical inconsistency in advocating universal health care and opposing this sort of conscription.  One can have a perfectly reasonable moral argument that justifies the former but not the latter.

      But perhaps one could make a kind of slippery slope argument?  It would have to be a causal, rather than a logical slippery slope.  So, perhaps the idea would be that even if the moral cases for universal health care and conscription are distinct, advocating and/or enacting the former is likely to set in motion various psychological, social, or political processes that lead to the latter.   I suppose I’m a bit doubtful about this too, but it would certainly be a more reasonable position than simply equivocating the two.

      •  Matt,

        I’m not really set to argue that there’s “no logical inconsistency” in advocating for universal health care while opposing conscription of doctors.

        On the other hand, I think it’s more than just a “slippery slope” argument.

        Strange that that link stopped working about as soon as I posted it, but I’ll try not to be conspiracy minded. It was a 1964 Canadian medical journal on the Belgian universal health care act of 1963.

        When that act was passed into law, the country’s medical association and the vast majority of doctors affiliated with it announced a boycott: They would not accept patients under the act’s terms.  They did set up a network of emergency treatment centers to provide free treatment to emergency cases, but they ceased regular practice.

        The government’s response was conscription — first of doctors in the military reserve to active duty, and then general conscription of physicians.


        We have a recent (post-WWII, at any rate) precedent.

        We have a US conscription system which maintains a database of medical personnel in addition to its general draft registration database and  contingency plans for conscription of medical personnel in the event of military or public health emergency (my computer is acting up at the moment and I’d rather not try to hunt down a citation for that; I hope you’ll take my word for it — I am a Selective Service board member).

        And we have several historical precedents for the federal government breaking strikes by peremptorily ordering e.g. railroad and steel workers back on the job under pain of military intervention.

        That sounds more like “reasonably predictable consequence based on experience” than “slippery slope fallacy” territory to me.

        •  Hi Thomas,

          Thanks for the additional information on the Belgium precedent.  Let me know if you track down a working link to the paper.  I’d certainly be interested in seeing more.

          As for the slippery slope stuff, I didn’t mean to accuse you of a fallacy.  I don’t think slippery slope arguments are necessarily fallacious.   There can be better or worse reasons for thinking that A will lead to B, and you’ve given us at least a few good ones here, even if there are, of course, a whole lot of other considerations that would need to be taken into account for a full assessment.  

  • I think that Paul’s argument is workable from a “thought-experiment” standpoint, but not from a political or rhetorical one. I understand the linkage that he’s making between rights on the one hand and obligations on the other, but his specific statement that: “It means you believe in slavery,” only seems to work in a very narrow set of circumstances, and because “the real world” as it were doesn’t operate in that way, it seems breathlessly hyperbolic – not to mention cold-hearted. Where I think that Paul falls down on this one is in catering too strongly to the “I’ve got mine, the rest is your problem” crowd, which starts to lead you in the direction of Dan Kervick’s critique of libertarianism appearing to want something for nothing and/or being willfully blind to the fact that the sudden total imposition of The Perfect Libertarian Society would likely quickly collapse into a disaster, driven by broken incentives.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    Maybe the rhetoric is strategically misguided, but philosophically his point is a solid one.  If I have nonconsensual obligations to perform or provide services for others, and those obligations are legally enforceable and backed by lethal force, how is that not “on par with” enslavement? 

    •  But it seems your “if” statement, at least in the way Paul frames it, is false in this case. No one IS using or threatening force to coerce someone into providing the service. They are simply guaranteeing payment. You could fall back on the old “Taxation is theft” trope, but I think that it’s already been worked out that taxation isn’t enslavement.

      I think, as I’ve noted above that Paul is using a particular understanding of the linkage between rights and responsibilities that’s different than the way most people understand it, but he then didn’t make the case for why his understanding is the correct one.

  • geoih

    “However wrongful and coercive universal health care might be, no one’s advocating beating down doctor’s doors and hauling them away, no one’s advocating that they be bought and sold or separated from their families or…well, this is really too obvious, isn’t it?”

    Try this as a slight rephrasing: However wrongful and coercive income taxation might be, no one’s advocating beating down a person’s doors and hauling them away, no one’s advocating that their property be confiscated and sold or they be imprisoned and separated from their families or…well, this is really too obvious, isn’t it? 

    Who will say that our government doesn’t do these things now to collect taxes? Summary confiscation of property (tax withholding). Failure to comply will result in termination of liberty (prison). Failure to surrender your liberty will result in summary execution (resisting arrest).

    Why would a national healthcare program be any different? You can dress it up anyway you like, but all you end up doing is apologizing for the tyranny of the state. And you call yourselves libertarian.

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  • ds

    It reminds me of a communist argument I’ve heard more than once, along the lines of “in capitalism, everyone is slave to the money, you don’t have the freedom to quit the job or choose the job you want”.

    It’s still silly, but at least it was (more often) being made not with the presumption that communism had an alternative, but rather to show that not being under communism isn’t any sort of dream world where every wish comes true. (but I think I’ve also heard it within the argument that under communism you wouldn’t even need to work if you don’t want to, and everything would be just fine though).

    Whereas I don’t agree with the “yay, let’s go commie” conclusion, I think that the analogy, as weak as it still is, is better on their side in this case (er, under the “everyone needs to work to make a living and we often don’t have many choices on the jobs we get” assumption, not the “work is optional”).

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  • raf

    I’m new to libertarian thinking and I’m curious why libertarians oppose single payer healthcare. The current system is the number one cause of bankrupty in the US, isn’t even in the top 5 compared to other countries for major metrics such as infant mortality, and is driving healthcare related entitlements up to astronomical levels because of it’s a la cart allocation of healthcare based on dollars vs need. And even though the current system being defended by libertarians is supposed to be market oriented it isn’t -there’s no price transparency, so nobody can get a quote for the price of knee, etc…

    To me, as a citizen, this is an embarassment.

    Reducing the size of government is a no-brainer, but how exactly does single payer healthcare increase the size of government when it appears to be the only mechanism that can ration care according to need and bring down these healthcare related entitlements?

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  • Pocha huntas

    Unbelievable work man!! Keep your heads high you probably did it.

  • Davy Goossens

    Why is this page called libertarianism, instead of communism?