Libertarians Debate Taxpaying as Complicity

The discussion continues over at the Claire Files Board. There’s a lot of talk about whether the act of paying taxes, because it is not strictly voluntary, can ever make you partially culpable for what the government does with the money. Fool that I am, I decided to rush in where angels fear to tread and try my hand at the philosophy of ethics and justice. I should confess in advance that I have no training in this field, and so I’m probably using terms like “culpability” and “blame” in careless ways that would make real scholars of philosophy cringe.

The Claire Files Board is frequented by folks from the radical libertarian tradition. I should say a word or two about some of the basic assumptions that underlie the conversation so those of you who aren’t from this tradition can follow it better.

One way libertarian theory is summarized is with a single sound-bite: “Thou shalt not initiate force against another person.” The initiation of force is sometimes called “aggression,” and the “thou shalt not” is usually omitted in favor of a less commandmentesque phrasing. “Initiate” is used instead of, say, “commit,” because libertarian theory acknowledges the validity of force when used in self-defense (or, sometimes, in just punishment). “Force” here is conceptually large enough to include things like fraud and theft, whether or not any violence is involved.

A good fundamentalist libertarian who believes in this principle doesn’t make an exception for kings, police officers, elected officials, priests, or the like. The one law is good enough for everyone. Taxation, therefore, is the initiation of force by the tax collector against the taxpayer, and for that reason it is unethical to force somebody to pay a tax, even for a good cause.

But of course the single-sentence rule that seems so simple at first is the basis for a wealth of long-running and probably unresolvable debates. There is much debate over what constitutes “force,” what circumstances allow force to be considered non-“initiated,” and what constitutes a “person,” for instance. (How do we justify initiating force against a toddler who would otherwise run out into traffic? Should non-human animals be protected under this principle? Is abortion the initiation of force against the fetus, or is it self-defense against a fetus that is aggressing against the mother, or is the fetus not a “person” in the sense of this rule?)

The following debate is between people discussing against this radical libertarian background and trying to figure out some conclusions that are consistent with it. I start off with three distinct scenarios — imagine a thug named Josef presenting Voltairine with an offer (he hopes) she can’t refuse:

case #1
“If you throw this bomb at that family, I’ll give you this brand new car.”
case #2
“Nice car you’ve got there. If you throw this bomb at that family, I’ll let you keep it.”
case #3
“What a nice car you have. If you give me money to buy a bomb so I can throw it at that family, I’ll let you keep it.”

In the first case, if the bomb is thrown, it’s pretty clear that both parties in the transaction are aggressors — the hired killer and the party that hires the killer. In the second scenario, arguably the person who is being threatened with carlessness is a victim whether or not she accepts the deal, but my moral intuition is to say that she’s in no way blameless if she throws the bomb to save the car. The third case doesn’t seem all that much different to me. Where have I gone wrong here?

Whereupon one reader responded (in part — see the link above for the complete back-and-forth):

He also asked “Are you a murderer?” (When I replied, “Would you accept a plea bargain: How about Taxpayer Manslaughter?” he said “Not if you are a murderer. What are your victims entitled to from you?”)

I tried to address his “design and intent” objection first:

There are a couple of differences between #2 (bomb this innocent family, Voltairine, or Josef will cause you a personal loss), and #3 (Voltairine, give Josef funding which he says he will use to bomb an innocent family or Josef will cause you a personal loss).

The most obvious one is in the way the blame for the harmful act is distributed between the immediate actor and the behind-the-scenes unethical manipulator. In case #2, Josef cajoles Voltairine to commit the act. If the act is committed, Voltairine is responsible for committing it to the extent that she could have chosen a different act; and Josef is responsible for committing the act to the extent that he unethically restricted Voltairine’s alternatives. (Does the ratio of blame distribution depend on the severity of the restriction? “I’ll cancel your manicure appointment if you don’t kill this family” vs. “I’ll kill your family if you don’t kill this family.”) [It occurred to me later that some might argue that Josef is only guilty of unethically restricting Voltairine’s alternatives, and doesn’t have any actual guilt for the bombing.]

In case #1 (bomb that family, Voltairine, and Josef will give you a car), Voltairine is certainly responsible for throwing the bomb to the extent that she could have chosen a different act; but Josef is responsible for hiring a contract killer. I can imagine a tortured ethical system in which hiring a contract killer would not be unethical (something like this: “there is nothing unethical in merely offering such a contract unless it is accepted and acted on, and only an unethical person would accept such a contract and therefore the breach of ethics happens at the time the contract is accepted and the entire sin would be on the acceptor’s shoulders.”) I don’t think that anyone here is arguing such an ethical system, so I won’t get bogged down in trying to refute it. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m assuming it’s agreed that Josef and Voltairine both have blood on their hands in case #1. (Does Josef’s amount of blame rise with the attractiveness of his offer? Would offering the kingdoms of the earth in exchange for the bombing be worse than offering a coupon for a free two-liter bottle of pop? Or is the blame constant once the threshold is passed at which an offer is attractive enough to be accepted?)

Case #3 combines the two. In #2, Josef threatened Voltairine into becoming a killer or being subjected to a personal loss. In #3, Josef threatens Voltairine into hiring a contract killer [“funding a killer’s crime” would have been a more accurate way for me to put this] or being subjected to a personal loss. I would suggest that under this analysis, assuming that Voltairine takes Josef’s offer in cases 1, 2, and 3 that the ratio culpability(V1):culpability(J1) is roughly equal to culpability(V2):culpability(V3)

That out of the way, onto the second difference between cases #2 and #3 — “design and intent.” In case #2, Josef says “here’s a bomb, I’d like you to throw it at that family, whereupon it will explode and kill or maim them.” Now Voltairine could say “I hope it’s a dud, because I’d really rather not kill those people” but I don’t think that saves her from blame if she throws the bomb and her wishful thinking turns out to be only that.

In case #3, Josef says “give me money so I can buy a bomb to throw at that family, whereupon it will explode and kill or maim them.” Voltairine could say “I hope he changes his mind and spends this money on something else instead, because I’d really rather not pay him to kill those people [and here, “rather not give him money that enables him to kill those people” would have been a better choice of words]” but I think she runs into the same problem.

In either case, Voltairine has to either be non compos mentis in order to escape actual culpability, or has to be willfully lying to herself about reality in a futile attempt to evade actual blame.

Josef is certainly fully responsible for what he chooses to do with Voltairine’s money, particularly after she’s handed it over and is no longer an actor on the scene and the family has yet to be bombed. (In contrast, the bomb can’t decide on its own to become a harmless dud while in mid-air.) But it’s hard to argue that Voltairine therefore has no responsibility without also saying that in case #1 Josef would have no responsibility — after all, after offering Voltairine the car as payment for the future contract killing, Voltairine until such time as the bomb is thrown has complete control of the situation and could decide on another course of action instead.

The first objection to this is likely to be that in case #1, Josef is entirely free to offer the car or not offer the car, and to offer the bomb contract or not offer the bomb contract, whereas in case #3, Voltairine is being unethically threatened with personal loss into offering the money that facilitates the killing. I would agree that this makes culpability(V3)<culpability(J1) but I don’t see how this makes culpability(V3)=0. I think Voltairine in case #3 has contractor-style responsibility to the extent that she could have chosen another action that did not involve committing or facilitating the bombing.

I then tried to answer his “Are you a murderer?” and “What are your victims entitled to from you?” questions:

This feels like a bog I’m stepping in. Government agents and others use taxpayer money for a huge variety of crimes with a huge number of victims. People who choose to give aid and comfort to the criminals when they could do otherwise are also numerous (and I am among them), and the extent of our culpability is a complex question, if indeed such culpability exists (as you suggest it may not).

I don’t think that the issue of culpability can be dismissed by pointing out how impossibly difficult it is to assign particular blame to particular aiders & abetters for particular crimes. It certainly would make real-world prosecution of these crimes a headache. And it seriously strains theoretical models of culpability and restitution. The question “what are your victims entitled to from you?” is too simple a question for the complex answers it deserves.

Some of the victims are dead. How does one make restitution for murder? Of the ones that aren’t dead, they are numerous and scattered — how would I find them and make restitution? Am I entitled to withhold restitution from victims who have victimized me in an equivalent manner? Questions like these don’t dismiss the validity of your question, but give an idea of how much would have to go into an answer and why I’m not going to be able to do a good job of making one here.

This isn’t a reductio ad absurdum against my theories of culpability. Complex isn’t the same as absurd. The fact that a mechanism of appropriate restitution is likely to be too complex for human minds to assemble does not mean that the theory of culpability which such a mechanism would address is wrong. A murderer is culpable even though it is impossible to provide appropriate restitution to the victim.

I incline toward the viewpoint that the libertarian ethical ideal of “initiate no aggressive act” is damn near impossible due to this complex web of complicity, and that people who believe that they can escape this by merely “intending” to initiate no aggressive acts are missing something important about intentions and actions. How does one cope with this fog of culpability and diffuse aggression, especially if it is impossible to actually stand aloof from it? Ball-and-stick models like “if you commit an aggressive act, you owe the victim appropriate restitution” fail under the load of this complexity.

I suspect that the solution involves something more along the lines of a constant effort to identify, avoid and reduce culpability combined with a perpetual attitude of restitution which manifests itself in the form of a gratuitous generosity toward victims (of any collective aggression that I help perpetuate) that goes above and beyond any ordinary ethical obligations that would be held by a mythical Unsullied Libertarian. Any person I meet might be a victim I owe restitution to, therefore I should not just refrain from aggressing against this person, but I should treat them with special kindness above and beyond my baseline ethical obligation. Not because I can say in confidence that I owe this particular person anything, but because by doing this on a large scale I can have some hope of balancing the accounts and doing actual restitution for my actual crimes, whose actual victims I may never be able to identify.

I will not be surprised if you find this to be grotesque. I’m not all that satisfied with it myself. As I said, I feel like I’m stepping into a bog here. The complexity of this situation makes me much less confident of my intuitions and conclusions here.

My debate partner tries to pin me down a little more concretely on the consequences of this guilt I claim to hold:

To which I respond:

I don’t accept the premise that being victimized by a retributive killing is the appropriate restitution for murder, but that’s another can of worms, and I think I’ve got too many other cans open right now. But maybe what you’re asking is less about the ethics of retribution and more along the lines of: “If you are willfully complicit in a system that does not respect human life and libertarian ethics, do you have any grounds to complain if some victim of that system (or anyone at all, really), violates that same respect and ethics toward you, say by killing you in revenge or just out of fury?”

I think it is probably true that the extent of my complicity in aggression makes it more difficult to find firm footing to stand on when complaining about the aggression of others. However, I also see the “two wrongs don’t make a right” principle coming into play here.

And added to this is the question of whether someone who is likely to be a victim of the government has a right to kill someone who is on-the-whole a supporter of the government in self defense. Perhaps, you suggest, if Osama has a trial, and Johnny Cochrane has some space on his calendar, we’ll get to see this tested in court.

I don’t think this is an inherently laughable argument, but like any cases in which self-defense is raised as a defense it would depend on the actual evidence (which, as I’ve mentioned before, is found deep in the bog), the proportionality of the response, the reasonableness of the fear of harm, etc. Certainly Osama won’t stand a chance in a real-world courtroom with such a defense, and even in some omniscient, olympian, bog-proof court I doubt he’d get very far with it.

My debate partner also disagrees with one of the steps in my argument:

I think my unfortunate wording (I offer a corrected version in italics above) may have confused things. So I try to pin things down more precisely about where complicity stops and victimization begins with a few more scenarios:

Case 4: Josef threatens to take Voltairine’s car unless Voltairine hires somebody of her choosing to throw a bomb at the innocent family.

Outcome 4.1: Voltairine hires herself, since this minimizes the personal loss to her while not resulting in anything worse for the innocent family than hiring someone else to do it.

Outcome 4.2: Voltairine hires some third-party, Clarence, to do the dirty deed.

Outcome 4.3: Voltairine shops around and finds that Josef himself offers the best deal, and so hires him to throw the bomb.

If in case #2, Voltairine would carry at least some guilt and in case #3 Voltairine is wholly innocent, what category would outcomes #4.1, #4.2, and #4.3 fall into?

What if we modified case #3 and made it so that Josef was threatening Voltairine with an aggressive, unethical, but relatively trivial act. Would that make a difference in determining whether Voltairine carries any guilt?:

Case #5: Voltairine, if you give me money to buy a bomb so I can kill some innocent family, I won’t throw this egg at your car.

If she complied, could she really tell friends of the family later, “my hands are wholly clean; I have done nothing unethical”? Wouldn’t this provide an easy ethical “out” for people who want to contract killings?

A would-be killer could answer the phone, “Hello, you’ve reached Bugsy’s Drive-By Service, where we spill the blood and absorb the guilt. We’re having a pledge drive today — I’ll sign you up for magazine subscriptions you don’t want unless you hire me to kill someone right now. Can I take your order please?”

I’ve apparently put myself on trial for murder and hired a fool for a lawyer, which is to say I’m representing myself. Or misrepresenting, perhaps. The prosecutor seems skeptical of my guilt, but I’m still holding out hopes that my arguments for the defense will eventually convict me. You can follow the gavel-to-gavel coverage at The Claire Files Board.

The Baltimore Sun Journal brings us an article on the world of barter exchanges: Have it all — without cash.

I’ve written about barter before ( & ), because at first glance it looks like it might be the ticket to an untaxed marketplace. Not quite. The IRS is hip to the barter thing, and considers goods gained via barter to be just like cash gained via sale, and just as taxable. The Sun Journal article shows what was lost when barter exchanges came above-board:

Bartering, once relegated to an underground economy, gained legitimacy with a Internal Revenue Service ruling that requires exchanges to report the barter income of each member. For tax purposes, barter dollars are treated as cash.

Ways to reduce your dependence on money-based and therefore taxable transactions, and to reduce the need for a taxable income include things like bartering, bargain shopping, using less, reusing stuff, recycling, and borrowing. Boing Boing reports on Mediachest — a social networking web site (a la Friendster) with a twist. You use the site to catalog your books, CDs, DVDs, etc. that you’re willing to loan out, and then to search your friends’ collections for things you’d like to borrow. (Useful as that sounds, you can expect that such a site will also be used for marketing research and other forms of privacy-invasive intelligence-gathering, so let the web surfer beware).