Is Compulsory Taxation a Form of Slavery Akin to (Marxist) Wage Slavery?
Mat Zwolinski comments on the “Bleeding Hearts Libertarians” Blog HERE that the Foundation for Economic Education (mainly Hard Libertarians) suggests some questions for a discussion after showing a film, Amazing Grace, about William Wilberforce (1759–1833), the campaigner to abolish slavery. Below is a quotation of one of the FEE suggested discussion topics for viewers:
“Slavery deprives the slave of the right of private property in his own person, as well as the right to sell his labor in a free marketplace. In effect, it is taxation at the rate of 100%. America’s Founders objected to British rule in part because they thought “taxation without representation” was a form of slavery, but British taxes on the colonies then were nowhere near as high as taxes in America today. Is there a point below 100% where taxes could be high enough to say that taxpayers are effectively enslaved?”
I agree with Mat Zwolinski that FEE is overdoing its hostility to taxation. By extending an analogy too far between taxation and slavery, the FEE question compares the compulsory nature of taxation to the compulsory labour of slavery, to get its result. FEE can sit back with satisfaction that it has spread the idea of the common factor of compulsion in the two quite distinct operations.
Ironically, FEE’s analogy was also offered for its own purposes by Marxists, a quite different set of ideologues to FEE. Marx incorporated the analogy of wage slavery for the unavoidable need of labourers to work (no work, no pay; no pay, certain starvation), to that of slavery in its full sense (no work, certain punishment and starvation).
Governments of all hues woke up at the end of the 18th century to the fact that they could widen the tax base to include incomes, and literally have never looked back since Pitt’s brilliant stroke to help fund the litany of expensive wars since the end of the 17th century – his government was already fully committed to every conceivable tax then known to political economy – even Adam Smith could only rail against more borrowing to fund wars against the Dutch and the French, the Spanish, the former colonies in North America, and whomsoever stood in the way of the second Empire, having lost the first in 1783). He also recommended that Britain should “endeavour to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances” (See the very last line of Wealth Of Nations: WN V.iii. 947).
Does the FEE analogy work in the 21st century? Not really. Governments still waste money and they still spend on preparing for war and fighting wars (in Britain’s case, once again, while bereft of resources to pay for them). But much of government spending is unavoidable and must still be paid for by taxation and borrowing. Inevitably that means some level of taxation, of which there is a necessary level of income taxation.
To cancel income taxation and spending would throw millions of people into self-dependency, inevitably including social distress and illegality, which in turn would mean those with the means to be armed, would be armed, and would use them. Not all or any of which would be run as “a well regulated militia” (US Constitution, 2nd amendment). Nowadays, that requirement is stretched to mean the right of any individual, no matter how “crazed”, to bear arms for any reason or any purpose. At the very least, social strife on a large scale would ensue, sticking Hard Libertarians in a frenzy of their own making.
So taxation in principle is justified by common consent but must still be paid for by somebody. How much is enough or too much? are properly the subjects of politics.
As a Soft Libertarian, as I am, and I think Adam Smith was too, I do not consider my working life in any way corresponded to what FEE’s Hard Libertarianism appears to suggest, in the sense of it being comparable to slavery because I am compelled to pay taxes, nowadays on consumption (VAT), or on income tax from (small) investments and my (small) pension, or to the Marxist theory of wage-slavery from my working for wages to earn a living.