“Taxes are theft!” Maybe. But that’s a conclusion, not a premise.
Some people think it’s amazingly simple to argue for anarcho-capitalist libertarianism. They think anarcho-capitalist libertarianism follows straightforwardly and directly from a few unquestionable, obvious premises. They think they have a simple, knock-down argument for libertarianism. But they’re wrong, alas. (Too bad! I wish they weren’t!) Instead, what they think is a knock-down argument for libertarianism actually begs the question, and so isn’t a good argument at all.
Consider this argument:
The Aggression-Is-Bad Knock-Down Argument for Libertarianism:
- It is morally wrong to initiate an act of wrongful aggression against another innocent person.
- In order to maintain and fund a state, we must initiate acts of wrongful aggression against innocent people by stealing their property and using violence to force them to do various things.
- Therefore, only anarchist libertarianism is just.
I’m not inventing this argument as a strawman. I’ve seen it countless times, most recently yesterday, when a clan of mean-spirited cartoon libertarians (e.g., this dude) went on a vile attack spree against Matt Zwolinski for writing this. (Matt’s been called a fascist, a communist, evil, a criminal, a “confused f*cker”, and a person who wants to aggress against the innocent.)
I actually agree with the conclusion of the argument. In my view, justice requires anarchist capitalism. I agree with Jerry Cohen that Rawls’s theory of justice concedes too much to human depravity, and so isn’t a theory of justice at all, but rather at most a theory of how to respond to depravity.
But, regardless, the argument above doesn’t prove libertarianism is right. Instead, it presupposes it. Rather than being a knock-down argument for libertarianism, it begs the question. That’s why so many non-libertarians are unimpressed by it. Non-libertarians are unimpressed not because they are vile, stupid, or evil, but because the argument doesn’t do any work. Let me explain why.
Everyone in political philosophy agrees that the state needs to be justified. After all, states claim a monopoly on the use of (most) coercive violence over a particular geographic area and claim a right to create and enforce rules within a certain domain against certain people. This requires justification. After all, as libertarians rightly note and pretty much every non-libertarian political philosopher agrees, states do a lot of things that look suspicious on the surface. Unless we can explain why states should exist and have some of the powers they have, then states are presumed unjustified.
But, then thing is, most political philosophers think it’s relatively easy to supply that justification. It’s relatively easy to show that states are justified. They think that have a bunch of compelling arguments on behalf of statism.
Now, for the sake of understanding the dialectic here, consider what would follow if they were right. Suppose JR is typical statist philosopher. JR adduces some argument A for a theory, call it ToJ, that, as far as he can tells, justifies the modern nation-state, including giving it a wide range of powers and rights to tax, though not an unlimited range. If A were a sound argument for ToJ, then ToJ would be true. And if ToJ were true, then all this would follow:
- The state (of the right sort) should exist.
- The state has the right to collect taxes (within certain limits as implied by ToJ) in order to promote justice.
- When the state collects the taxes needed to promote justice, it isn’t stealing your goddamn money or aggressing against innocent people. Instead, the money rightfully belongs to the state, not to the taxpayer. When the state taxes you (so long as it does so in accordance with ToJ), it actually takes what is rightfully its, not what is rightfully yours. If you were to withhold your taxes or resist paying, that would be equivalent to theft.
In short, if ToJ justifies state taxation, then the state isn’t wrongfully aggressing against people by collecting taxes any more than I am wrongfully aggressing against my neighbors by locking my house doors. What counts as aggression depends upon what rights people have. According to ToJ, people don’t have a right to the money the state taxes; instead, the state has a right to that money.
So, for example, Rawls has a number of arguments for the state. One argument, in abbreviated form, goes as follows:
Rawls’s Argument, Shortened:
- Our institutions, including the institution of private property, are not legitimate or authoritative unless they A) protect a specified range of basic liberties, and b) achieve social justice.
- In order to do A and B, we need a liberal, social-democratic nation-state with taxing powers.
- Therefore, a liberal, social-democratic nation-state with taxing powers is justified.
The Aggression-Is-Bad Knock-Down Argument doesn’t refute Rawls’s argument. It’s powerless against it. Rather, to refute Rawls’s argument, you need to explain why premises 1 or 2 are false, or show that Rawls’s sub-arguments for premises 1 or 2 are unsound.
So, the Aggression-Is-Bad Knock-Down Argument fails. It doesn’t prove that any particular justification of the state and state taxation fails. Rather, it works only if all such justifications fail. The “it’s my money and the state is stealing it from me!” line works only if the state doesn’t have a right to that money, and to know whether the state does or does not have such a right, we need to know whether there is any independent justification of the state.
If you want to defend anarchist libertarianism, what you need to do is show that none of the arguments for the state work. You have to take them down one by one.
Importantly, one the most impressive arguments for the state holds that life without a state would be such a disastrous hell that we need to and should create states in order to escape that hell. (That’s the Hobbesian argument.) To refute that argument, you need to prove that anarchism would work, which means you need social scientific evidence, rather than a few simple moral axioms. To refute that argument, you need to do what Huemer does in part II of this book.
So, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, people. Many libertarians think they have powerful knock-down argument for anarchist libertarianism, but, on the contrary, that argument is completely impotent. A sophisticated non-libertarian can just shrug the argument off–it doesn’t even merit a response. Premise 2 of the Knock-Down argument isn’t really a premise in an argument for libertarianism. Rather, it’s at most a conclusion. It doesn’t prove libertarianism is true; it begs the question.
- A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarian Thought
- Academic Philosophy
- Blog Administration
- Book/Article Reviews
- Current Events
- Rights Theory
- Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty
- Social Justice
- Symposium on Free Market Fairness
- Symposium on Huemer's Problem of Political Authority
- Symposium on Left-Libertarianism
- Symposium on Libertarianism and Land
- May 2014
- April 2014
- March 2014
- February 2014
- January 2014
- December 2013
- November 2013
- October 2013
- September 2013
- August 2013
- July 2013
- June 2013
- May 2013
- April 2013
- March 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- October 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- July 2012
- June 2012
- May 2012
- April 2012
- March 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- August 2011
- July 2011
- June 2011
- May 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- Public Reason
- New APPS
- Knowledge Problem
- Center for a Stateless Society
- George H. Smith - Excursions
- Liberty Law Blog
- Rad Geek People's Daily
- Skeptical Libertarian
- Economics and Ethics
- Economic Thought
- Cato @ Liberty
- Crooked Timber
- Cato Unbound
- Austro-Athenian Empire
- PEA Soup
- Coordination Problem
- Students for Liberty
- Public Reason
Follow me on TwitterMy Tweets
Tagsacademic philosophy anarchism basic income bleeding heart libertarianism Bryan Caplan charity coercion corporatism crooked timber economic liberty education exploitation feminism foreign policy free market fairness Friedrich Hayek Herbert Spencer history ideal theory inequality John Rawls John Tomasi left-libertarianism liberalism libertarianism liberty living wage Murray Rothbard non-aggression principle poverty price gouging property-owning democracy property rights public reason religion Robert Nozick Ron Paul self-ownership social justice Students for Liberty sweatshops Thick Libertarianism universal basic income war work
- ProIndividual on The NAP Isn’t a Knock-Down Argument for Libertarianism. On the Contrary, It Begs the Question.
- Chris Freiman on The Nirvana Approach to Paternalism
- Chris Freiman on The Nirvana Approach to Paternalism
- Libertymike on Political Libertarianism: Between Thick and Thin
- Hume22 on Political Libertarianism: Between Thick and Thin