Libertarians Debate Taxpaying as Complicity

The discussion continues over at the Claire Files Board, much of it about whether people are morally obligated to evade taxation (for reasons above and beyond simple self-interest), or whether on the contrary because the money is essentially being taken from you at gunpoint, only the people holding the guns bear the moral responsibility for how the money ends up getting spent. One person asks me:

I’m actually doing a version of this. But I’m not a qualified tax professional, so rather than making a hundred grand helping people divert hundreds of grands away from the government, I’m doing something a bit more modest. I’ve volunteered at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites in San Francisco to help lower-income folk fill out and submit their tax forms. A lot of people who qualify for tax credits like the EITC don’t bother to file tax returns for various reasons (they don’t know about the credit, don’t know they qualify for it, can’t be bothered with the paperwork, etc.). The VITA program does outreach to lower-income folk and helps them get their EITC claims.

This is a program in which everyone is working hard to take money away from the government and give it back to some of the people it was stolen from. “Do what you love” is my motto!

It requires that I work arm in arm with people from the IRS. But the end result of my efforts is that money is taken out of the government’s trough and handed back to people who’ve had it taken from them in the form of FICA. It makes me feel a bit like Robin Hood.

Well, I haven’t done all the math on this, so correct me if I’m wrong, but the EITC is only available to people with earned income, which is by definition people who have been paying taxes via FICA. So at least some of the money they’re getting back via EITC is money they’ve paid in via FICA. I don’t know if it’s possible to get back more than you paid in; maybe so.

So as far as I’m concerned, this isn’t wealth redistribution so much as the recovery of stolen property.

And then I told a fable…

One day a man came into town and said that a troll had set up shop under the bridge that led to town and was charging people to pass over the bridge. The people were outraged, and grabbed their weapons and stormed the bridge. But when they got there, they saw that the troll was too big and fearsome, and had a small family of equally vicious trolls with him in his under-bridge home, and their hides were too tough for their weapons, and so they retreated.

“It’s okay,” said one of the townspeople. “We can take the old road that avoids the bridge. It’s longer, but there are no trolls.”

“Balderdash,” said another. “That bridge is the best route to town and it’s the one I’ve always taken and I have no intention of stopping now. At least the troll isn’t asking for all of my money.”

“But if we all stop giving the troll money maybe he’ll go away and find some other bridge.”

“Maybe he will. But it’s not my job to starve the troll — never has been. I’ve got better things to do, and I don’t see why I should have to go out of my way to do them. I’d rather have a troll take my money than have you tell me how I ought to live my life.”

And there things stood for a long time, some people paying the toll to the troll, some people taking the long road. Until one day someone came into town and reported some sort of commotion down at the bridge.

The villagers ran off to where they could see what was happening. It looked like there was some sort of troll fiesta going on, with laughing and drinking and carrying on. After a while it turned to sobs and crying, until the largest of the trolls patted the smallest one on the back and said, “good luck, Daughter. I’m sure you’ll make us proud.” Then he handed the daughter a large bag of the villagers’ gold and watched with a tear in his eye as she walked away.

“Well, that’s one less troll,” one of the townspeople whispered.

But it turned out to be bad news, not good, as this young troll took a husband and set up shop in a nice big troll booth not far away — on the old road to town!

The townspeople grumbled and cursed, but most went back to using the bridge. One old codger used a path that hardly anyone else remembered, and so he avoided the tolls, but that road was hard and not well-marked, and most people thought it was wiser to feed the trolls. Which was a good thing, for the trolls, as they all had growing families to feed.

Whereupon there was much discussion and gnashing of teeth, including:

One of the points I was trying to make with the troll analogy is that trolls just get nastier the more money you give ’em. Pretty soon they’re taking up the alternate roads, etc. Maybe when they get so powerful that you’re absolutely unable to do anything but serve them, you just have to be their galley slave. But if you still have the option to resist, especially when it’s only a matter of going a little bit out of your way, it might be in your best interests to do just that.

Way back in the day on my blog I paraphrased Claire Wolfe’s Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations entry:

Claire Wolfe said something like “we’re at an awkward point where it’s too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards.” But we’re also at a point where the state is too evil to actively support, but not so evil that support cannot be withheld.

If we keep feeding the troll, it gets bigger and nastier and more numerous — arguments about whether we’re ethically obligated to starve the troll or are responsible for its evil deeds if we don’t are kind of beside the point. Dude, it’s a forking troll! Let’s get rid of it, eh? I want a happy ending to the fairy tale in which the troll goes away or is defeated, not a fairy tale about a village where everyone rationally avoids feeling guilty for ethical responsibilities that aren’t logically theirs until the troll comes and eats them through no fault of their own.