Judging from some of the comments here and on Facebook, some people have misunderstood the point that Loren’s argument (excerpted in my last post) was meant to establish.
Loren is not trying to argue that taxation is morally unobjectionable. Saying that “taxation is not theft” is not the same as saying that “taxation is not wrong.” For purposes of this essay, at least, Loren is granting the truth of standard libertarian claims – including the claim that at least the great bulk of taxation that exists in our world today is morally wrong.
What Loren is trying to challenge is the wrongness of taxation, but rather what libertarians should do about the wrongness of taxation given that the vast majority of our fellow citizens appear to sincerely and reasonably disagree with us about that issue. Most of those people are not denying that taxation is theft merely in order to line their own pockets with the plunder. Most of them do not deny it merely because they are wicked, or culpably ignorant. They disagree because they believe (perhaps wrongly) that it is the job of government to provide various public goods, or a social safety net, or to protect the environment, etc. These beliefs may be wrong, but they are not obviously wrong, and it is quite easy for honest, intelligent, well-meaning people to hold them sincerely.
So there are two levels of questions we might ask about the morality of taxation. The first-level moral question is whether taxation is morally right or morally wrong. The second-level question is what we should do when most reasonable people disagree with our answer to the first-level question. It is the second-level question, not the first, with which Lomasky is primarily concerned.
As libertarians, we take a rather idiosyncratic position on the first-level question of the morality of taxation. Other groups take equally idiosyncratic positions on other issues. Certain pro-lifers believe that abortion is murder. Some vegetarians believe that eating meat is murder. Like the libertarian belief that taxation is theft, these claims might be true. But like the libertarian belief, the vast majority of reasonable people believe that they are not.
How should people act on sincere but idiosyncratic beliefs such as these? What would it be like if vegetarians actually acted like they believed that meat is murder? What would a society be like in which every group or individual with an extreme view like this acted on it, without regard to the reasonable views of others? Of course, even if meat is murder, prudence might still dictate that extreme vegetarians refrain from gunning down their local butcher. But is prudence the only consideration that should prevent the pro-lifer from gunning down abortionists? Is it the only consideration that should prevent libertarians from using physical violence against the tax-man? Or would there be something immoral about it, even if taxation really is theft, and even if we could escape punishment for our resistance?
In other words, given that lots of people have idiosyncratic first-level moral beliefs, and given that society would go very, very badly if everybody felt themselves to be at moral liberty to act upon these beliefs no matter what, might it not make sense to adopt a kind of second-level principle that limits our (and everyone else’s) freedom to act upon those first-level beliefs? I won’t impose my radically kooky ideology on you, if you don’t impose your radically kooky one on me. Instead, we’ll agree to abide by the merely moderately kooky rules that we can more-or-less agree to settle on in some roughly democratic way.
A number of commentators have brought up the issue of slavery as a purported counterexample to Lomasky’s argument. That argument, they claim, would imply that 19th century Americans would be wrong to condemn slavery, since that practice too was accepted by most people. But this objection only works if we assume that disagreements about the morality of slavery are as reasonable as disagreements about the morality of taxation. And I see no reason to believe that this is true. Yes, some people did endorse the morality of slavery. But most of those arguments were transparently bad, in a way that arguments for the morality of taxation are not. Many of them were clear rationalizations of economic and social power. The more general point is this: it does not follow from the fact that some moral disagreements are reasonable that all of them are. Lomasky’s argument is about the reasonable disagreements, not the unreasonable ones.