The Anarchist Position on Taxation

I’ve lately been reading a paperback collection of anarchist writings that’s a wee bit older than I am, and long out-of-print: Patterns of Anarchy.

I’m really not very up on debates amongst anarchist theorists, and their debates with socialists and communists and such. If you asked me to tell you some primary ideological differences between Kropotkin and Bakunin or Stirner and Godwin or Goldman and Spooner, I’d have to say “I dunno.”

And anarchist insight into the nature of taxation is usually pretty predictable (it’s bad, they’re against it, there’s no excuse for it). If you buy the rest of the argument about the illegitimacy of the state, you’ll have no trouble following that lemma to the obvious conclusion about taxation; if not, probably not.

This excerpt, from John Beverley Robinson’s The Economics of Liberty (), is a pretty concise and well-put example:

Third in our enumeration, although primary in its nature, among the methods of obtaining a portion of the products of the community, without taking part in production, the oldest and simplest is taking what is desired by force.

This, when done by the upper classes, is called taxation.

In the monarchical military organizations of the past, the character of this privilege is easily seen. The tax was levied in the name of the king or war leader, to whom the natural subservience of human nature spontaneously rendered submission.

It was the king’s army, the king’s people, the king’s taxes; and he who questioned the propriety of the royal prerogative of taking from his people without return or accounting, was reckoned, and felt himself to be, a criminal, guilty of the highest crime of disloyalty.

Such is still the attitude of the generality. To evade the customs tax, to “swear off” the income tax, is still felt by most people to be the immoral avoidance of a just claim, even though they permit themselves to be guilty of these delinquencies.

Although the form of society has been much modified, the industrial having begun to supplant the military, the nature of taxation remains the same. It is still the taking of other people’s possessions without their agreement, even if with their tacit consent; that is to say, no opportunity is offered by which the payment may be withheld, on the ground that the services offered in return are not worth the amount demanded, or are not wanted at all as would be done in ordinary mercantile transactions.

It is often said by reformers that government should be conducted upon business principles. This is impossible, because business rests upon doing its work well in return for what is freely given in payment; whereas government demands and takes its income, whether its work is well done or not, and whether it is wanted or not.

The distinction is ineffaceable.

The officials of a governmental organization, whether autocratic, constitutional or democratic, are in the position of those of a corporation of which the chief expenses are the salaries of the officials and employees, and the income is obtained by forcible levies.

It is impossible that an income so obtained should be expended as carefully and economically, and as much in the interest of those who pay it, as if it had to be obtained by offering a fair equivalent to taxpayers, and convincing them that the proposed bargain was to their advantage, leaving them free to accept or decline at their pleasure.

For this reason denunciation of governmental corruption is entirely futile, indeed, laughable to them who have once clearly comprehended the true state of affairs.

The functions fulfilled by government today are chiefly of a commercial character, yet the service given is remunerated, not by bargain and sale, but by forcible levy. It is inevitable that officials should use this force-collected income to secure their own continuance in office by conferring valuable privileges upon their supporters, who, in turn, use every effort to strengthen the government.

The fact of this co-operation is well known. Everybody knows that behind each political party stands a group of rich men, and that their influence over the votes which are to elect the officials is given in return for the continuance of the privileges by which their wealth has been created.

This power of taking money from the individual without his consent, is the fundamental privilege upon which all the others are based, and by which they are licensed. It stands upon no logical ground, but is the royal prerogative — the will of the prince — in the language of former days.

It will perhaps be thought that a tax imposed by a representative assembly loses the character of a forcible levy, and becomes practically a mercantile transaction. Brief consideration will show that this is not the case. Although the severity of taxation by an autocrat is much mitigated by constitutionalism, the principle remains the same. Taxes are no longer imposed by leasing the collection to a pacha or proconsul, and letting him plunder unchecked. Modern governments have learned the importance of keeping the goose in good health, that it may lay more golden eggs.

But the vote is useless against taxation. Whichever party wins, taxes go on, and must go on. It is not possible to vote for a representative who will oppose taxation, for it is from taxation that he gets his bread and butter.

The essence of economic exchange is the freedom of both parties to withhold consent to a bargain. Even if it could be shown that the equivalent given were fully equal to the assessment levied, it would still lack the freedom of choice of the individual to permit it to be ranked as a commercial transaction.…

Great as is this forced deduction from the products of the workers, the damage inflicted by taxation indirectly is still greater. First must be placed that caused by taxes upon imports. These restrict freedom of exchange in two ways; by limiting or preventing trade between the nations which impose them, and by fostering monopolies among producers.

When nations give up the last remnants of the military state of the past and become fully commercialized, these tariffs will be abolished, and production and exchange incalculably stimulated.

Much of the more challenging argument in Robinson and in some of the other examples I’m reading are about to what extent things like rent and, in general, the benefits of legal title to property the owner doesn’t occupy or utilize, are of the same variety of illegitimate privilege as taxation. What is “property” without a state to adjudicate and enforce legal title?

I’d be curious what Robinson would make of Robert Nozick’s argument that even in a world governed only by liberty and free exchange, some variety of proto-state is inevitable. Would this make him reconsider any of his arguments above, or would he see this as more of a challenge to Nozick than to him?


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