Chile Needs Tax Resisters, Says Francisco Belmar

I stumbled on this commentary from El Libertario. It’s a good example of someone trying somewhat awkwardly to straddle the gap between individualist conscientious objection and collective action. Translation mine:

Chile Needs Tax Resisters

by Francisco Belmar

Tax Resistance: Populist and Libertarian Movement

Chile is a special country. Since we formed into a republic, we have had a polarized view on all topics. Shades of gray, as we know, are not our strong point. Even so, there are some amusing factors that we agree on. A good example of this is taxes, because in Chile almost everyone is fine with their existence. Only a few protest, but not enough. Our civil society is so weak, so manipulated, so constituted from polarization, that the existence of a few tax resisters has not helped to create a serious movement in this respect.

Today, when you speak against taxes, you are stigmatized. Usually such people are spoken of as being fascists (which is paradoxical) or, at best, as neoliberals. The truth is that historically, the anti-tax movement has always been populist. Even, in the case of the United States, part of the movement for civil liberties. This is based on a very simple fact: during the period when modern states were forming, the bulk of the tax burden fell on the workers and peasants. Even during the Middle Ages, strong revolts caused by tax increases broke out. At another time we will talk about them and their interpretation, also of interest, in the history of Chile.

Tax is Theft?

Critics of tax resistance, as we noted, usually come from those who defend some radical position. We are called neoliberals because, supposedly, we want the millionaires to be even richer and the poor to die in neglect. To others, we are utopian dreamers, hippies who dream of the impossible. In spite of all this, I do not blame them. In any case, in Chile there are no serious tax resisters. In general they do not reflect on principles, and, many times they fall into the classic utilitarian analysis. Others believe that it is enough to shout at the gates of the IRS, or, of course, to toss molotov cocktails. With representatives like these, how can we avoid ridicule?

Usually, in libertarian circles, there is talk of the theft of taxes. This, in reality, is quite pertinent. To reach that conclusion one must consider their legitimacy. Nobody has asked the question: under what conditions would taxes be legitimate? The truth is that they could not always be considered theft. When the citizens or members of a community can signal their willingness to pay them directly, there is no illegitimacy. If a group of people forms an agreement to pay some quantity to purchase something in common, the legitimacy is evident. The complication arises from extrapolating this argument to cover the current representative system. As we see, the problem is one of understanding and consent. In the modern state, tax originates as confiscation, but this does not imply that there exist no forms of taxation that could be adjusted to the principles of libertarianism.

Good Old Thoreau

There are people out there who say that if taxes were eliminated, everything would be fine. The truth is that they are a very big nuisance. Even so, as with any sudden change, the consequence of their elimination would be unpredictable. There is a clear tendency to mythology among the propagandists of libertarianism. Here we intend to put forward a different defense: to eliminate taxes may create changes with very harmful effects for us. The defense of their gradual elimination (yes, gradual, not immediate) is not utilitarian. Nobody can guarantee that prosperity will come from heaven when taxes are eradicated. The argument in favor of their disappearance is rather from principle.

The classic example is that of Henry David Thoreau. In he would have been imprisoned for refusing to pay the tax that financed the war of the United States against Mexico. The truth is that the story is a little more complicated and interesting (there will be an opportunity to narrate it in detail), but the issue is that while in jail he reflected on the deed. What is interesting is this: Thoreau refused to pay a tax to finance a war. For him, the problem was in helping to finance a conflict against other people. It was that the state was utilizing the citizens beyond the limits of consent. It was using the without their consent to finance a campaign of expansion that violated the selfhood of other people. Here we return to the theme of legitimacy: taxes can be legitimate when paying them forms part of the consent of the individual. In this case, there was an issue that went beyond efficiency. In a world where conscientious objection is accepted, refusing to pay a war tax should also be part of this right.

Taxes and War

Today the example seems absurd for our country, but it is not. In , when Chile went to war with Peru and Bolivia, the National Congress approved the creation of a tax to finance the military campaigns. If our country in the future — hopefully not — should again enter a conflict of this type, such a tax would be expected. Would it be just if we could decide not to pick up a weapon, but not to be able to choose whether or not to finance a war? The truth is that there are serious doubts. The most obvious is that we are forced to pay. This is because states can afford to indulge symbolic gestures, but when it comes to stable incomes they believe that it is better not to take risks.

The case of war is, I know, extreme. Even so, it can happen and it’s good to think about it. In any case, you can derive a general consideration from that case. If we follow Thoreau, we will understand that the Lockean proviso is maintained: a government requires the consent of the citizenry to exist. As we say when we complain about our bosses, authority comes with responsibilities and not — as is sometimes thought — privileges. The rebellion of Thoreau tells us two things: First, that the citizens have a right to know what our taxes are spent on. Second, even if they are not eliminated, citizens must have the right to decide what things they do not want to fund. This does not have to imply the possibility of not paying any taxes at all. Today in Chile, our money goes into a black box and I see no champion of transparency and modernization to argue against this.

Concerning Processes

Consent and information are the two initial principles to begin this debate. Today we can see the defenders of impunity in the collection of taxes. Those who defend such obscurity are shown for what they are. Precisely the cases of irregularities in the armed forces speak to us of the importance of these principles. In addition, we can clearly see those who mindlessly advocate for the eradication of tax burdens. As a third group, very timid, appear those who defend voluntary taxation. In all of these cases we must recognize the weakness: Neither an improvement in the lack of transparency, nor the eradication of taxation can be immediately achieved, and, much less can a regime of voluntary taxation come to pass. Precisely because what is lacking is the will of those who have the resources.

On the contrary, to defend a tax system that response to principles as well as to efficiency is a good first step. To reach this, Chile needs real tax resisters. To advance in this respect, it is necessary to think and to reflect on useful strategies and sensible proposals. For this reason, I think the minimum is to start with the formation of a system that allows us to know what happens to our money. After that, it’s possible that thinking about choosing the taxes that we pay can be a little easier. To believe that this is possible is far from the utopianism that is so vilified today.