Thursday 20 May 2010

Court philosophers

At a philosophy seminar last week, the speaker argued claims that "taxation is theft" are nonsensical because property rights are defined legislatively as a social construct: consequently, taxation can never be theft because the property was never yours to begin with. You only held rights subject to the constraint that some of the property would be taken by the state.

I'm not much of a natural rights guy, mostly because I figure my natural right in the state of nature would be to run away as fast as I could from folks with clubs or, preferably, to have allied with some guy who's really good with a club to protect me from others - maybe I'd do his homework for him or something.

But I'd still reckon that the guy with the club in the state of nature would be violating my rights. I own myself, regardless of statutory convention. Suppose that statutory convention held that anyone who wears blue on a Thursday that's a full moon becomes slave of the state. Even were I to screw up and thereby legally become a slave, I'd argue that my right to self ownership has been infringed upon rather than that my right to self ownership existed only subject to statutory convention.

And I worry about conceptions of right that say that, because something's defined as a statutory convention, rights-talk goes out the window.

I can imagine the philosophy seminar of a thousand years ago where the Court Philosopher argues against the man whose bride was ravished by the Prince on her wedding night, saying that the maidenhead always belonged to the Prince by Droit du Seigneur and that it consequently wasn't a violation. (yes, yes, Droit du Seigneur is largely apocryphal, but thought experiments are allowed in both philosophy and economics.)

Is there an argument for "taxation isn't theft" that doesn't also support "Droit du Seigneur isn't rape"? The best answer, I'd think, would have to rely on a contractarian turn where we had hypothetical agreement behind the Veil to a set of rules allowing for taxation. But the contractarian turn requires self-ownership behind the Veil or something a lot like it, otherwise hypothetical agreement isn't necessary. But if we want to deny those pre-existing rights, I'm having a hard time seeing a mechanism for getting "taxation isn't theft" without risking "Droit du Seigneur isn't rape". If it's just "whatever is agreed to by majority is just, and the majority would support only one of those", we get the usual obvious problems. A "justice is efficiency" argument would be coherent, but the speaker was making the argument for the moral necessity of a highly progressive tax system in order to fund heavy redistribution: an equity argument rather than efficiency. If it's instead "justice is maximizing my social welfare function which considers taxation to be ok because the statutory convention in this case I find fine but not droit du seigneur because that statutory convention is repugnant", well, preferred SWFs are like belly-buttons...we all have one.

I didn't press him on this line as there were a few bigger problems in the paper: namely, that if his bottom line were that certain government services must be provided, he'd perhaps do better by not having a hard commitment to the justice attributes of any particular tax system and instead try to cover equity concerns via spending programmes after having raised the necessary amount of tax by the most efficient means possible. And the norm in philosophy seminars seems to be somewhat different from the economics norm. In all disciplines, a fair bit of question time is devoted to giving questioners the opportunity to show how smart they are. In economics, this tends to be done via penetrating questions and holding the speaker to providing an answer; in philosophy, it seems more to be via wandering stories that seem not actually to have any kind of question attached to them. In econ, folks using the latter mode attract snickers; in philosophy, it's me.


  1. "I'm not much of a natural rights guy"

    Either one is or one isn't. You clearly are.

  2. Eric,

    Pleased to make your acquaintance.

    While I agree the argument, "the property was never yours to begin with" seems awkward at best, the answer to "tax is theft" is simply that theft is an unlawful taking where tax is a legally mandated taking. That is, lay people fail to distinguish "a taking that pisses me off" from "a taking that is illegal". Failing to make this simple distinction gives rise to nonsense like that quoted in your first paragraph.

    How a given tax comes to be legally mandated is another, perhaps thornier, aspect of the matter, and has much to do with why people are pissed off about such legal takings. One person is happy to pay for well-baby visits, another prefers to spread democracy in the Middle East, a third wants to put men on Mars. Each would prefer the others are taxed to pay for their pet project. We all want our bread and circuses, but the other guy should fund them, hence idiotic rhetoric like "tax is theft". The mistake is to treat such rhetoric as reasoned argumentation and thus answer from the wrong skill set.



  3. To address the other part, perhaps the meat, of your post, legally there is no problem with "Droit du Seigneur is not rape." Here in California as recently as the early 1970s a man could not rape his wife; it was a legal impossibility. Rape, at the time, was defined as non-consensual sex with a person not one's wife. Sex with one's wife could not, by definition, be rape. Here, again, lay people rarely distinguish between that which offends them morally and that which is illegal.

    The good news is our legal system is not dictated by tyrants under authority of the divine right of kings nor by any one individual who might mistake his personal preferences for natural law. Instead our legal system (I'm in the U.S. but I gather NZ's legal system is closer to mine than either are to the reign of Longshanks) is dictated by something at least tenuously rooted in collective social will however heterogenous that collection.

    The mistake, then, would seem to be in offering Droit du Seigneur as a reasonable parallel to taxation. It borders on Godwinism, a kind of unnecessary roughness which interferes with the ability to reason clearly. Both taxation and Droit du Seigneur were (at least apocryphally) legally mandated by despots under authority of the divine right of kings, but of the two only taxation, as far as I know, has ever been duly enacted by a representative government (and even carry overs from our misogynistic common law past like that travesty of a rape definition seem to get corrected "by the people" eventually).

  4. @Robert: I offered it as parallel not because I think the two are comparable in scale of "badness" but rather because it's hard for me to see a tenable philosophical justification for the one that doesn't simultaenously offer philosophical justification for the other unless you're willing to start from a notion of individual rights that existed prior to the state.

  5. One man's theft is another man's is another man's recovery of what they also think is their's.

    "Thanks, I wondered where that was. I didn't even know I'd lost that. In fact, I'm not sure, until now, that I even knew it existed!"