I recently had occasion to re-read Loren Lomasky’s wonderful article, “Libertarianism as if (the other 99 Percent of) People Mattered.” I wish I could find an un-gated version of it online, because it’s really something that deserves a much wider readership than its gotten.
Lomasky’s main question in the article is how libertarians should respond to the conjunction of two beliefs:
(L) Libertarianism is the correct framework for political morality.
(M) The vast majority of our fellow citizens disbelieve (L).
One possible response, of course, is to conclude that our fellow citizens are evil. Some libertarians, in a more charitable spirit, might conclude instead that they are merely stupid.
Lomasky rejects both of these responses, and proposes instead that we embrace what he refers to as a “Cooperative Libertarianism” – a stance based largely on John Rawls’ idea of the burdens of judgment and the claim that reasonable people can disagree about matters of political morality.
Like all of Lomasky’s work, it’s a provocative and highly entertaining read. In particular, I thought his discussion of the libertarian mantra, “Taxation is theft!”, might be of interest to BHL readers. And perhaps also relevant to some of the questions that Jason has recently been asking about the ethics of killing agents of the state?
Read the whole (rather long) discussion below the fold. I’ve highlighted what I regard as the most important bit.
Libertarians are wont to intone, “Taxation is theft!” It is a clever variation on Proudhon’s “Property is theft!” Cleverness is to be applauded, but not when it leads to outsmarting oneself. It is one thing to say that taxation is theft, another to believe it. Causal relations run between assertion and belief in both directions, and many libertarians who say it also believe it. They are mistaken. Moreover, they are mistaken in a way very difficult to achieve unless one is in the grip of an ideology. Taxation is not theft. It may resemble theft in important respects; it may be the case that some of the reasons that lead us to condemn theft will, if properly considered, lead us to condemn taxation; it may even be the case that taxation is as morally reprehensible as theft; nonetheless, and with apologies for the repetition, it is not theft.
The point is not semantic but rather phenomenological. The perceived reality of theft is notably distinct from that of taxation. When I return home from a libertarian scholars’ conference to find the lock on my door broken and my television set gone I am outraged. That which I expected to be secure from encroachment has been violated. The perpetrator of the theft has transgressed rules that both he and I recognize to be the de facto as well as de jure principles of cooperation that undergird a framework of civility from which all citizens can be expected to derive benefit. The moral ire I feel is, then, not some amorphous feeling that things are other than they ought to be. Rather, that animus is precisely localized: it is focused on this act by this individual. Moreover, I possess a justifiable confidence that my animus will be seconded by those among whom I live. What is primarily a violation of my rights is understood by them to be more than a private conflict of interest between me and the individual who coveted my television. Accordingly, I am able to avail myself of the formal apparatus of the legal system and the informal vindication afforded by a consensus among the members of the moral community that I have been violated and ought to be made whole. And if I am exceptionally lucky, this solidarity may even help me to recover the TV set.
In nearly all relevant respects the perceived context of taxation is significantly different. I look at my pay stub and observe that a large slab of my salary has been excised before I ever had the opportunity to fondle it. This is an annoyance, perhaps an intense one. But it is not focused on the particular extraction. Rather, its object is some or all of the tens of thousands of pages of the tax code, the political order within which the power to tax is lodged, and the constitutional foundations on which that political order is erected. I wish some or all of it were otherwise; that, though is the inverse of a highly specific grievance. Moreover, I cannot count on the solidarity of my fellow citizens. That is both a descriptive and a normative statement. If I have adopted the cooperationist rather than the rejectionist attitude toward the society in which I live, then I am thereby committed to acknowledging that although my fellow citizens’ views concerning the ethics of taxation are, as I see it, mistaken, the perspective from which they adopt those views is not so unreasonable or uncivil as to disqualify them from moral respect. I am entitled, perhaps even obligated, to attempt to persuade them to think otherwise. However, prior to the dawning of that bright dar in which the veils are lifted and freedom reigns, I shall, if I am not a fanatic, concede the legitimacy (not, of course, the optimality) of the overall moral framework within which taxation takes place. It is, therefore, not only misleading but also an exercise in borderline incivility to equate taxation with theft, for if it is then taken in its straightforward sense, that pronouncement denies the legitimacy of the social order and announces that I regard myself as authorized unilaterally to override its dictates as I would the depredations of a thief. It says to my neighbors that I regard them as, if not themselves thieves, then confederates or willing accomplices to thievery. Is it pusillanimous to suggest that declaring war, even cold war, against the other 99 percent of the population is imprudent? I would therefore caution libertarians to shelve the “Taxation is theft!” slogan despite its sonorous ring, and if they cannot bring themselves to do that, then at least to cultivate a twinkle in the eye when they haul it forth.
UPDATE: More on what Lomasky is, and isn’t, saying here.