A Philosopher's Blog

Voting & Taxes

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 23, 2011
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In an earlier post I addressed the matter of whether taxes are theft or not. In the course of the discussion, I considered that if the citizens consented to the taxes, then they would not be theft. After all, part of what makes theft wrong is that it involves a lack of free consent on the part of the victims. As such, if those taxed voted for the taxes (or voted for representatives who voted for the taxes) then they would have given their consent and such taxes would not, on the face of it, be theft.

This, of course, could be seen as trying to settle one issue by making use of one that is at least as subject to debate. After all, to say that taxes are not theft when they have been properly voted into effect requires assuming that voting provides this consent in a meaningful way.

Obviously enough, if the voting is directly for a tax and everyone votes in favor, then this would be a clear case of consent. Likewise if everyone votes for someone who is clear that they will support a tax, then that would also seem to provide indisputable consent. As everyone knows, such unanimous voting is all but unheard of. This raises the matter of whether those who voted against the tax (or the tax supporter) have given their consent or not.

Intuitively, it would seem that by participating in the voting process, they have thus agreed to abide by the outcome-whether they win or lose. As such, those who vote against a tax (or tax supporter) would have given their consent to the outcome. Those who chose not to vote would also seem to consent as well-by electing not to vote, they have simply set aside their role in the process and not their consent to the process.

This does assume that there are not factors in play that would make the voting questionable, such as the use of fraud and force. It is easy enough to imagine circumstances in which a vote would clearly not count as a matter of consent. However, the discussion is focused on legitimate voting scenarios.

At this point, it might be objected that if voting is based on consent, whenever people vote against something they are showing their lack of consent. Hence, those who voted for a tax or anything (directly or indirectly) have given their consent while those who voted against it have not. As such, if I vote against a tax, when I am forced to pay I am being robbed. If I had voted for it, then I would not be a victim of theft. To use an analogy, suppose I am in a group and people start to decide what they want for dinner. After a vote, most people decide they want to go to Chez Expensive and have the Costly Quiche. I, however, decided I would rather just go home and make some spaghetti and salad. If these other folks decide to take my money to fund their Quiche, then it would certainly seem that they would be endeavoring to rob me.

Since this is an obvious problem, it is hardly surprising that past thinkers addressed this matter. Locke’s approach is to contend that the consent given when forming a community extends to voting. He argues for this by noting that the political body must move one way (we either have a tax or we do not) and it must move  “the way the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority.” If it did not, then the body would be split and the original agreement would be broken.

Naturally, some might contend that the body should split when people disagree. Going back to the quiche example, if some folks want the quiche and I do not, we can simply go our separate ways.

The obvious reply is that while this is sensible in matters involving such minor things as dinner, it would be destructive to society to have the political body break apart over matters of law and policy. This, Locke claims, would be irrational. So, as Locke sees it, the original consent extends to voting and there is also the practical matter of going along with the majority so as to avoid shattering society.

This does lead to a rather serious concern that was perhaps most ably discussed by Mill, namely the tyranny of the majority. The majority (or those who try to pass as the majority) might decide to oppress some of their fellows or do other wicked things. As such, there is clearly a need to place limits on the power of the majority. Mill, being a utilitarian, advocates a utilitarian approach to this matter. As he sees it, the greater good is served by limiting the extent to which the majority can impose on the minority. While Mill does not focus on taxes, he does accept that citizens can be held obligated for “bearing a fair share of common defense or work necessary to the interest of society.”

In regards to the specific matter of taxes, it would seem that if the tax is within the limits of a “fair share”, then it would not be theft to tax someone even if they voted against the tax. However, a tax that went beyond this or had some sort of moral defect could be regarded as theft.

The above discussion does, obviously enough, assume that voting is legitimate. However, this is an assumption that is easy enough to question.  Thoreau, for example, claimed that (in his essay on civil disobedience) “voting for the right does nothing for it-it is a feeble expression of the desire that it should prevail.  The wise will not leave right to chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.”

Thoreau also addresses the matter of taxes and argues that people should be allowed to decide to not pay their taxes if they decide to withdraw from the political system. He does, however, make a point of saying that people should pay for what they use, such as paying the highway tax if one uses the highway.

This does seem to be consistent approach in the context of the consent theory. After all, if someone completely removes themselves from the political system, they remove their consent. To claim that they consent to the results of the votes made by others would thus seem to be an error. To use an analogy, if I do not join a club, they have no right to expect me to pay their membership fees-no matter how they vote on the matter. Likewise, if I am not part of a state, then the state would have no right to assume my consent merely because other people voted on something they want to impose on me.

This is not to say that the state would have no legitimate power over me. After all, if I tried to commit murder or theft within its borders, then the police would seem to be quite right to stop me.

Thoreau’s approach would require actually leaving the political body and not merely bailing after a particular vote. To use an analogy, if I agree to go out to dinner and pay my share, I have no right to bail out when they check arrives. However, if I have left a group or never joined, they would have no right to expect me to pay if they decide to go out to dinner.

As such, if a person did withdraw from society and agreed not to avail themselves of any of its goods or services without paying for them, then imposed taxes beyond this would be theft on the part of the state. After all, the state would be taking without consent and would be taking what it was, in fact, not truly owed.

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6 Responses

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  1. frk said, on March 23, 2011 at 10:47 am

    “if a person did withdraw from society and agreed not to avail themselves of any of its goods or services without paying for them, then imposed taxes beyond this would be theft on the part of the state”
    You intentionally made fulfilling the requirements of that conditional clause quite challenging if not impossible, didn’t you?

    First. Does anyone know if there is any land in any state other than Alaska that is not subject to regular taxation? Might we see a Great Alaskan Migration of individualists seeking to establish their isolated life on a plot of ground in our beautiful state to the north? In 49 states our intrepid objector would be required to pay yearly taxes on the very land he stands on. It would seem more than unfair to those who pay property taxes in other states that one state does not tax land, yet receives federal funds proportional to those received in other states for its operations*# That state chooses not to raise its own funds from its most basic resource, its land, to fund state governmental operations.

    “agreed not to avail themselves of any of its goods or services without paying for them”
    And if they pay for the goods and likely most services, they pay sales taxes. The only five states that don’t collect sales taxes are :
    Oregon, Vermont, Delaware, Montana, and ALASKA!

    Are real estate taxes and state sales taxes theft?

    *# We know money is fungible. Citizens in all states pay federal taxes. More of the money collected from federal taxation could be used for legitimate (we hope) national needs, if some or any of those funds weren’t returned to Alaska to complete projects they could have funded themselves, if they had more money in their coffers (from property taxes and sales taxes). The reality is, the money for a society to function must come from local state or national taxes. Just shifting the responsibility form one source to another doesn’t solve any problems. It’s the old “deck chairs on the Titanic” thing.
    In my opinion,taxation is only stealing when the money collected is used for funding unimportant, simply foolish, or illegal activities. Even a few important activities might come into question. It’s imperative that we get that old majority out there to agree on which expenditures are absolutely necessary, very important, important, unimportant, simply foolish, or of questionable legality. I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen. But it would be an interesting project for a congressional committee or a special commission appointed by Pres. Obama. What do you think? Would results vary depending on ideology or political convenience?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 23, 2011 at 11:58 am

      I did.

      Coincidentally, in my Modern Philosophy class we were discussing Locke’s theory of consent and a student brought up the problem that people seem to be compelled to consent because there is almost no where a person could live without being within the territory claimed by some state. As such, our choice is limited mainly to choosing between states. This, it might be argued, is not much of a choice.

  2. WTP said, on March 23, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    “In regards to the specific matter of taxes, it would seem that if the tax is within the limits of a “fair share”, then it would not be theft to tax someone even if they voted against the tax. However, a tax that went beyond this or had some sort of moral defect could be regarded as theft.”

    Agree. Such was my point in an earlier thread. A point you ddin’t seem to wish to see. Let me repeat:

    If you tax someone to benefit someone else, you are using force to redistribute wealth.
    The top 1% of taxpayers pay 1/3 of the taxes.
    The top 5% of tax payers earn 1/3 the income but pay over half of the taxes.
    The top 50% of taxpayers pay 96% of the taxes.
    What do you propose as “fair share”?

    Doesn’t an exceptionally high tax on a small percentage of the population begin at some point to resemble bills of attainder?

  3. WTP said, on March 23, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    I notice that you like using the argument that because you participated in the voting process, you must therefore have consented to being taxed on however the vote goes. And yet, no argument that I have seen (perhaps I missed it) that says if you want to vote, you gotta be able to pay your “fair share” of the taxes. No representation without taxation.

  4. frk said, on March 23, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    According to the Constitution and our laws, are there any requirements for voting other than age and US citizenship? Oh, and you can’t be a felon.
    Is there anything in the Constitution or our laws about paying a “fair share” of taxes? The concept of whatever a “fair share” is has ranged from wartime high marginal tax rates of 94% to peacetime highs of 91% (1957 when the lowest marginal tax rate was 20% ) to the present levels (10% and 35%)*#. It’s interesting, if perhaps not so relevant to note that in 1957–and most of the Fifties–there were 24 brackets. Currently there are six. It would seem that taxes may go higher or lower as becomes necessary. That being the case, how could a consensus ever be reached about tax fairness except by employing the voting framework that the constitution and our legal system provides us?

    The Constitution provides for a process that was specifically designed to let “the people” have their voice in government. If the outcome is that one side wins and one side loses, those who lose may not have verbally consented to the level of taxation, but still have the right to complain. If their complaints receive enough support from their elected representatives, they’ll get their way. If they can’t persuade their legislators, they’re still free to bitch to their heart’s content. But clearly, the consent of the individual or interests unable to change the outcome doesn’t really matter much unless they can follow a constitutional path to their goal. If you don’t believe me, just try refusing to pay taxes.

    *# . . .I’m going to assume here that if there were no major protests at the time, this might indicate that at some level “the people” didn’t feel they were getting screwed by the government. . .

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