Libertarians often argue that taxation is theft, and they also argue that we should abolish the income tax. In this video, I'll explain the many problems with their position, and here are some of the key points that I make:
Comparisons between taxation and robbery are absurd, because the person who is mugged has no say in the matter, whereas the citizen gets to vote on what our tax rates are and what programs we do or don't fund. Tax revenue is also used to benefit the person who is taxed, whereas the robbery victim gets nothing out of the transaction—except a couple of stab wounds, if he's lucky. Any talk of government force used to collect taxes is vastly overstated by libertarians, as any such force is always an absolute last resort.
There shouldn't be any opting out of paying the income tax because there's no opting out of living in the society made possible by the income tax. The very fact that you live in our country means that you're the beneficiary of many programs funded by our tax dollars—so it only makes sense that you pay your fair share. Finally, a system of voluntary taxation simply wouldn't work because the funding would dry up and the quality of society in every area would decline.
We see this argument being made in an article on Libertarianism.org written by Michael Huemer—which I think is a very fitting name, because his article and his arguments are a rich source of comedy. He begins by writing the following:
"'Taxation is theft' is a popular slogan among libertarians. It captures the sentiment that we should hold the state to the same moral standards as non-state actors."
Right off the bat this strikes me as a strange notion. I don't think that we should hold the state to the same moral standards as non-state actors, certainly not in all areas. The libertarian argument here is that if I'm not allowed to do it, the state shouldn't be allowed to do it. I would argue that there are plenty of areas where this thinking falls flat.
The state rightfully has the authority to punish people when they commit crimes. This doesn't mean that if somebody commits a crime against you, that gives you the right to shackle them in your basement for a period of time that you deem fit for the offense committed against you.
The state can force you to participate in jury duty so that we keep our (so-called) criminal justice system moving; you can't force somebody to come to your house and help resolve a domestic dispute. The basic point is that it actually does seem acceptable to vest within the state certain unique powers that would seem strange if given to everyday citizens to use as they please.
That said, obviously I'm not saying that the state should have unlimited powers to do what they please. I would agree that there are certain areas where the state—or more specifically, certain actors within the state—should be held accountable for their wrongdoing: For example, when they kidnap and torture people without due process under the guise of fighting terrorism.
Here's the thing, though: I don't consider taxation to be a form of wrongdoing. We take some of everybody's money, we pool it together, and we use it to keep our country running and make it a better place. To put it bluntly, I think our system of taxation is a good thing—not a bad thing.
Why all of the outrage about this? Well, according to libertarians, taxation isn't just analogous to theft; in their view, it is theft. As Huemer continues:
"Imagine that I have founded a charity organization that helps the poor. But not enough people are voluntarily contributing to my charity, so many of the poor remain hungry. I decide to solve the problem by approaching well-off people on the street, pointing a gun at them, and demanding their money. I funnel the money into my charity, and the poor are fed and clothed at last.
. . . Now compare the case of taxation. When the government 'taxes' citizens, what this means is that the government demands money from each citizen, under a threat of force: if you do not pay, armed agents hired by the government will take you away and lock you in a cage. This looks like about as clear a case as any of taking people’s property without consent. So the government is a thief."
Here's the problem with this analogy: When you're just going around sticking people up at gunpoint in the street, nobody has a say in it. It's just your decision and it's necessarily being done against the will of your victims. When people vote to elect government representatives, they have a say in what their tax dollars are or are not being spent on. People play a key role in the decision-making process every time they step inside of a voting booth.
There's no voting booth for robberies where you get to decide, "Ok, this Tuesday when I get robbed, is he gonna point a gun in my face, or is he gonna threaten to stab me? Is he gonna take 20%, 50%, or all of my income?" No, here is the decision you get to make when you get robbed: Comply with whatever the demands are, or risk being seriously injured or killed.
We could theoretically have a society where no income taxes are collected if this is what everybody voted for. The reason we don't have such a system isn't because we're all immoral monsters who support theft; it's not because we've drank one too many cups of Big Brother's Kool-Aid on the subject and can't think for ourselves; it's because your libertarian vision of a society is a shitty vision that very few of us have any confidence would work to anything approaching the degree that our current system works.
You're crying "theft" when really what you should be crying is "we're not convincing enough." And I find this ironic coming from libertarians, because they tend to be the strongest proponents of the "pull yourselves up by your bootstraps" mentality! I thought you guys were all about personal responsibility? Why are you whining and playing the victim here? Instead of the evil state and its mindless supporters being out to get you, maybe you guys just aren't selling a very convincing product in the marketplace of ideas?
Huemer compares government taxation to robbing people on the streets at gunpoint, and comparisons like this are a staple in the libertarian community. Here's another problem with these analogies: The money that you're paying in taxes is being used to maintain and improve the society around you—and this is something that you and everybody else will benefit from.
It would be a very strange kind of robbery where somebody holds you up at gunpoint, demands only 20% of the money that you have, and then comes to your house the next day and spends that money improving your life: repairing your cracked driveway, mowing your lawn, sending a doctor to check up on you, and hiring security guards to keep watch and make sure that you're safe.
Imagine that you're walking down the street one night and a guy pops out from an alleyway pointing a gun at you. He says: "Hands up! Gimme a fraction of your money!"
You're like: "Just a fraction of my money? Don't you want all of it?"
He's like: "No I don't want all of your money! That would be totally unreasonable."
You're like: "Uh, ok, here ya go,"
Then he takes the money, runs across the street, and buys you car insurance with it. Again, this would be a very strange kind of robbery. I don't know whether I'd call the police or say thank you!
That's another thing that these analogies get wrong: When you get robbed, the criminal tends to take everything of value that you have. When you get taxed, however, only a portion of your income goes to the government—with the percentage that you pay scaling with the amount that you earn.
And if I'm supportive of paying taxes to fund these government programs, if I sign off on this system every time I cast my ballot, what am I doing, stealing from myself? I'm agreeing to give a portion of my income in exchange for certain programs and services. To call this theft is to simply misuse the term.
I call the police and I'm like: "Yeah, I'd like to report a robbery."
They're like: "Do you have any suspects?"
I'm like: "Well, yeah: Me. I went to the store, gave them money in exchange for some things, and that means I basically stole from myself. So I'd like to turn myself in because I deserve to be locked up."
If you called the police and said this, the only place you'd get locked up in is a mental institution.
And I have to say, even if I was mugged on the street at gunpoint, if I found out that the robber was funneling this money into a charity to feed the poor and desperately hungry, I would genuinely feel better about it than if he was just some common criminal spending the money on drugs or who knows what else.
Let's imagine that we took the advice of libertarians and did away with taxation, relying purely on charities and voluntary contributions to feed the poor. Under such a system, if the charitable donations aren't enough, what would happen to these starving people? To find the answer, look no further than the words of Michael Huemer:
". . . not enough people are voluntarily contributing to my charity, so many of the poor remain hungry."
If there's no turning to taxation, what would we do in this situation? What is the libertarian solution to a situation where people are on the brink of starving to death and they're not receiving the volunteer support necessary to feed them? "Uh, how about those lazy bums just get a job and stop relying on government handouts."
Yes, people should take personal initiative to improve their circumstances, but what if there are no jobs available, or what if they suffered an on-the-job injury because workplace regulations were slashed in your libertarian paradise? What if they're incapable of working to support themselves, and the volunteer support just isn't there to feed them? Here is the libertarian approach to humanitarian aid: "If they can't work and charity isn't enough, fuck 'em. Let 'em starve."
And I have to say, Huemer's priorities seem to be entirely backwards here. He seems to view petty theft as more morally outrageous than mass starvation. Taxing a small portion of everybody's income and using it to feed the poor is precisely how we should deal with problems like this—and the libertarian solution isn't a solution at all. The libertarian crosses his fingers and hopes for the best; the statist takes action and actually tries to solve the problem.
Yes, there's more to lifting people out of poverty than simply providing them with aid. I don't think that anybody should expect the government to solve all of their problems, and I do agree that people should take it upon themselves to work as hard as possible to improve their life. Supporting social safety nets is not the same thing as supporting laziness and parasitism.
But until we start moving these people in the right direction, until we provide them with the necessary resources and knowledge to lift themselves out of poverty, through taxation we can at least guarantee that they're getting the food that they need to survive and stay healthy. And I am more than happy to pay a portion of my income in taxes to support these programs.
We see a slight variation on the theft analogy in a YouTube video created by Tomasz Kaye:
"Oliver explains that he's had a run of bad luck and is raising money to cover tuition fees for his kids. You want to help Oliver out, so you give him some money. To your surprise, George doesn't offer Oliver any help. You try to persuade him, but it's no use. Imagining yourself in this situation, do you think it's ok to threaten to use physical force against George to get him to do the right thing?
Now, imagine a slightly different situation: This time, a group of your friends take a vote. 6 out of 10 are in favor of threatening George to get him to help Oliver. Does this democratic process make it ok to threaten George?"
Expanding the analogy to include more people is supposed to illustrate to you that simply voting to endorse such a system doesn't make the system right. Here's what this analogy gets wrong, though: When 10 random people hold an impromptu straw vote, there is no legal force behind their consensus.
If 10 people that I know came up to me and said: "Bad news, Anton: We took a vote and you gotta hand over 500 bucks," I wouldn't be under any moral or legal obligation to listen to them. This isn't some elected body that the community has agreed to vest decision-making powers in; these are just 10 assholes, as far as I'm concerned, and the only thing they're gonna get from me is a stiff middle finger. This gets back to that earlier point that I made: Society has agreed to give the government certain powers and responsibilities that ordinary people don't have.
Huemer takes issue with the idea that receiving benefits from taxation justifies the process:
"Imagine that I hold you up at gunpoint and take $20 from you. I also leave one of my books behind in exchange. When you see me later without my gun, you call me a thief and demand your money back. 'Oh no,' I say, 'I am no thief, for I gave you something valuable in exchange. True, you never asked for the book, but it’s a good book, worth much more than $20.'
This reply on my part would be confused. It doesn’t matter that I gave you a good in exchange, and it doesn’t matter whether the book is really worth more than $20. What matters is that I took your money without your consent.
. . . The lesson: Taking people’s property without consent is theft, even if you also benefit them, and even if you helped them obtain that same property."
Libertarians can't seem to take five steps without creating some over-simplified analogy that doesn't capture the reality of what's taking place. "What matters is that I took your money without your consent," he says. This is what he keeps getting wrong. It is not without our consent. The way our representative democracy works is that whatever happens—at least in principle—happens with our consent—or at least with the consent of the majority.
Libertarians, more than anybody, tend to have a serious hard-on for our founding documents, so let me quote The Declaration of Independence on this point:
"Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Taxation is a process that takes place with the consent of the governed. Huemer's entire argument hinges upon this being done without our consent when precisely the opposite is the case. Libertarians don't seem to understand the basic nature of the very government that they're critiquing.
Now of course, as a result of political corruption, the will of the people is often ignored in favor of the demands of corporations and the wealthiest Americans. But if we were to reform our campaign finance system, this would no longer be a problem, and tax dollars would be spent on whatever the people want it to be spent on.
Yes, people in the minority will be outvoted, and thus the system of taxation might not be what they want, but this is what happens when you live in a large society: Sometimes, you get outvoted; sometimes, you lose.
Whenever you hear a libertarian say "taxes are collected without our consent," translate that in your head to "taxes are collected without my consent." When did you become the lead decision-maker for our country? You're just one guy making crappy arguments on the internet. Just because this is what you want doesn't mean that this is what everybody else wants, or that it's what we should or are going to do.
In a democratic system, not everybody can get what they want. Living in a large, modern society necessarily entails compromise and political loss for some percentage of people. And I should reiterate that if everybody opposed the income tax, we would vote for people that would get rid of the income tax and the programs that are funded by it. The fact that these programs continue to exist is largely the result of genuine popular support for these programs. If the income tax was truly the outrageous crime that libertarians make it out to be, politicians that oppose the income tax would be swept into office.
Despite the fact that his analogy has nothing to do with reality, how would you feel in this situation? I can say that if a robber forced me to give him $20, yet he gave me a book in exchange, I would feel strangely better about this than if I was robbed and got nothing out of it. I'm constantly going out of my way to buy new books anyway, so if anything, this robber is just expediting the process!
At the very least it would give me an interesting story to tell. And if it really is a good book, I'll probably read the fuckin' thing! He gets 20 bucks, I get a bunch of new knowledge—it's a win-win, as far as I'm concerned! Leave it to a libertarian to make an analogy where receiving a new book that they can learn from is a bad thing.
"Hey, the only book I need is my greasy copy of The Fountainhead."
Libertarian arguments on this subject place a strong emphasis on the use of force or threats by the government. As that Tomasz Kaye video continues,
"Eventually, if he still doesn't pay, agents with guns will break into his house and take him away against his will. Almost everyone pays the bills without protest. They know that agents are prepared to use as much force as necessary to overpower you if you resist. Do you think it's acceptable for the agents to threaten violence against George if he doesn't give his money towards helping Oliver's family? If we approve of state programs that redistribute wealth, we must also approve of threats of violence made against peaceful individuals, because this is how the funds are collected."
They make the point that if you approve of this system, you approve of "threats of violence being made against peaceful individuals." Who is threatening violence here? That doesn't sound like standard IRS protocol to me. Nobody is saying if you don't pay your taxes, we should get goons from the Italian mafia to kick you around and beat you to a bloody pulp—and needless to say, this isn't how it works under our current system.
I get a letter in the mail from the IRS and I'm like "Ah, fuck. I forgot to pay my taxes on time. Alright, lets see what we got here."
*opens letter and starts reading*
"Dear Mr. Anton Dybal,
As of May 2018, you have an outstanding tax balance of $608.29. If you fail to make your payment within the 30-day grace period, I'm gonna send my boy Vinny down there and he's gonna break ya' friggin' kneecaps! Capiche?
Thank you for your cooperation and understanding,
—The Internal Revenue Service."
Yes, it is against the law to not pay your taxes. But you're given opportunity after opportunity to make your payments before you end up going to jail. And when police officers finally come to arrest you for tax evasion, they're just going to put you in handcuffs and walk you over to their police car; it's not like they're going to tackle you to the ground and beat you with their batons when they do this—unless you're a black person, of course; then all bets are off and you're on your own.
Where does the violence come into the equation? Specifically explain to me at what point you get violently attacked by agents of the state for not paying your taxes. It would be an absolute last resort. The only way you would be treated violently would be if you were the one who violently resisted your arrest—and this is something they concede in their video when they say that "agents are prepared to use as much force as necessary to overpower you if you resist."
The violence that you're met with during your arrest for tax evasion will be directly proportional to your degree of violent resistance.
Here's another example of this mistaken libertarian notion of government force being used, from a paper published by Chris Tame writing in the UK:
"Every month at least one third of your income is taken from you forcibly, without your consent"
Really? Income taxes are taken from me forcibly? I don't recall anybody from the IRS wrestling me to the ground and kicking me in the ribs before collecting my taxes last year! What a bunch of drama queens these libertarians are. They make it seem as if every time you pay your taxes, you're doing so at gunpoint in a dark, dirty, concrete room while surrounded by a bunch of laughing, sinister, jackbooted thugs wearing all black.
I don't know what it is with this weirdly semi-sexual fantasy of theirs, where they constantly talk about being manhandled by muscular, mustachioed "men with guns" that lock them in a cage and punish them for being naughty. All that's missing from this picture is a bright-red ball gag!
And libertarians love to use this term "agents of the state." It's so spooky and menacing! It reminds me of The Matrix: The agents are gonna come and getchya. Maybe that's ultimately what The Matrix was trying to convey to us? A message of tax evasion? Libertarians watch The Matrix and they're like "Yes! I am the one!" Yeah, the one that needs to pull his head out of his ass!
When they say "agents of the state," here is what they ultimately mean: Police officers. That's all they're talking about when they use this term. What if other people did something like this and gave themselves super intimidating job titles?
You meet a guy and he's like: "I am an exterminator of species!", You're like: "Jesus Christ, man, what does that even mean?" He's like: "I... spray for termites."
"I am the one that burns corpses!", "You do what?!", "What? I run a cremation business. You got a problem with that?"
Chris says that income taxes are taken "without [my] consent". Speak for yourself, dude: I'm fine with this system. Broadly speaking, the way it works is that a percentage of my income is taxed and spent to maintain the country and make it a better place—for me and everybody else. That is a good fucking deal, if you ask me. And again, if we all truly were as opposed to the income tax as you pretend that we are, we would vote libertarian—which we don't because we're not.
Many libertarians express extreme outrage at the idea of being thrown in jail for tax evasion. A great example of this is former libertarian presidential candidate Darryl Perry hanging up on Sam Seder during a debate of theirs:
Darryl: "If I decide I don't like your agency killing people in the Middle East, I will not fund that. What should happen to me?"
Sam: "Well, I mean, I think if you don't pay your taxes to our government, they'll ultimately put you in jail!"
Darryl: "No, I'm asking you, Sam. What do you think should happen? Not what does happen, because we know what does happen. What do you think—I want you to say it. I want you to say that I belong in jail because I don't pay taxes. Say it, Sam."
Sam: "If you don't pay taxes to the U.S. government, ultimately, I think you belong in jail!"
Darryl: "Thank you for saying that, Sam. You're a horrible, despicable person. Thank you for having me on your show." *hangs up.*
Sam: "Darryl? Darryl? . . ."
I love that libertarians think that this is some sort of incredible and shameful concession to squeeze out of a person. Yeah, if you continually refuse to pay your taxes, I think you should go to jail. You can quote me on that! Post it on your obscure, libertarian forum that gets like 9 visitors per week.
Here's the reason that I think such punishment is justified: Because I'm a statist bootlicker who hasn't read enough Milton Friedman!
No, here's the real reason: The very act of living in our society means you're taking advantage of these tax-funded programs. When you get in your car and drive, you're driving on public roads that are created and maintained using our tax dollars. When you crash your car because you're daydreaming about Ayn Rand in a bathing suit, the firemen who pull you out of your crumpled car and the paramedics who revive you before they realize you're a libertarian are funded by our tax dollars.
When you buy food from the grocery store, there's a very slim chance that it's going to give you some debilitating illness because of the food-safety standards that are overseen by taxpayer-funded government agencies. When you drink water from your tap, the reason you don't die of dysentery has nothing to do with the magic of the free market and everything to do with the very strict standards that they adhere to at the taxpayer funded water plant.
Your house doesn't collapse on your head because of building standards set and overseen by government agencies. The reason a modern-day Atilla the Hun doesn't kick down your door and cut you in half with a sword is because our taxpayer-funded military defends our country—that is, of course, when they're not too busy attacking other countries to extract their resources, AKA "defending democracy."
The basic point is that there is no opting out of taxation because there is no opting out of society. Everywhere you turn, everywhere you look, the life that you live is made possible by our tax dollars. You benefit from these things, so it only makes sense that you should contribute to funding these things.
If you have the money to pay your fair share, why would we allow you to opt out of paying your contribution, yet be able to leech off of the other people who are funding these things? This would make you a freeloader, plain and simple—and I thought libertarians were against freeloading? If you think about, the real thief here is the person who doesn't pay their taxes. By failing to do so, they're stealing the benefits of the programs and resources funded by their fellow citizens.
You might argue that my position is problematic because I'm focusing only on the programs that we benefit from. What about programs that cause direct harm? Couldn't we have some sort of a system where we opt out of funding these programs?
Stefan Molyneux appears to make a version of this argument when he says the following:
"So, if I'm against the war on drugs, what I want is to withdraw my FUNDING for the war on drugs! To withdraw the money that is extracted from me at gunpoint and used to pay people to throw people in cages, where they are brutalized and often raped for years! That is what it means to have a conscience and be able to act on it. To not be forced to support that which is evil."
I totally see where he's coming from, but I just don't think that it's the right approach to allow people to opt out of paying taxes, even just for certain programs that they're opposed to. Even if it's a program that you think causes harm, the same logic that I just presented would still apply: You would withdraw your funding, yet you would still be experiencing the consequences of these programs.
In this case, the consequences are negative, but if the program is something that is going to be used on you in some way, or if the program is impacting your life and the society around you, it only makes sense that you have to pay your fair—or unfair—share. Why allow people to be either a direct or indirect recipient of something that they're not funding? The mere fact that you live in our society makes you a beneficiary—or in this case, a victim—of these programs. So opting out doesn't make financial or moral sense.
Notice that Stefan tries to really underscore his point by painting a grisly picture of imprisonment: he points out that those arrested in the war on drugs are sometimes the victims of violence and rape at the hands of sadistic criminals in prison. I share his outrage about this situation, but you can obviously draw a different conclusion about what to do about these things.
When he presents us with these disturbing mental images of prison in America, what he's really doing is presenting us with a de facto argument in favor of prison reform—which, ironically, would most likely be funded through our tax dollars.
Stefan and I are both opposed to the war on drugs. However, my solution is not to abolish the income tax or allow people to opt out of funding government programs. If we're opposed to the war on drugs, how about we just end the war on drugs? Isn't that a much more direct response to the problem at hand? Can't we just try to make it so that our tax dollars are being spent on sensible programs that actually are a net benefit to society?
Whenever opponents of taxation point to undesirable uses of our tax dollars, just remember that there are other ways to deal with problems like this, and the libertarian thinking in this area strikes me as very one-dimensional. "I don't support overseas aggression; therefore, eliminate the income tax." "I don't support the war on drugs; therefore, allow people to opt out of paying the taxes for that program." Libertarians remind me of the following maxim: When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. My recommendation to them is: Don't be a tool.
"I don't support some of the wars that our country has waged—so let's get rid of the income tax." Doesn't that strike you as a very extreme reponse? Imagine, by analogy, that you're redecorating your home. If you're anything like me, it's probably covered with posters of dinosaurs and outer space. (Money well spent.) You have a look around and you're like: "You know what? I don't actually like this coffee table—so I guess I'll just burn the entire house down." Yeah, that sounds reasonable. No, if you don't like the coffee table, how about you just get rid of the coffee table?
Another libertarian named Steve Kerbal argued, in a debate against Sam Seder, that taxation is theft, and that mandatory taxation should be replaced with voluntary funding of government programs:
Steve: "I think he recognizes that, in the current world, taxation is a necessarily evil until it can be replaced by something that's not so evil."
Sam: "What would it be replaced by?"
Steve: "Well, it would be nice to have some sort of a voluntary way of doing this. . . ."
Sam: "Just explain this notion of voluntary. People would just decide whether or not they're going to fund government?"
Steve: "Well, I think that what it is is, ultimately, that would be nice. I know that some people will participate, others will not."
Sam: "Who do you think would participate in that situation?"
Steve: "Somebody who believes that it's necessary; somebody who believes that what they're investing in a necessary thing. And they believe that government's the best way to accomplish that thing."
There's a comment on this video by Kevin Martin which says: "Speaking of theft, someone stole his chin." Hilarious.
Kerbal says that "it would be nice to have some sort of voluntary way of doing this." Yeah, and it would also be nice if a million dollars fell out of the sky and landed in my lap. That doesn't mean that it's going to happen.
(On second thought, if a million dollars ever did fall out of the sky and land in your lap, it would probably have so much speed and force behind it that it would shatter your femur. And I'm sitting inside right now so it would have to crash through my ceiling first. I'm like "Great, I have a million dollars now, but I've got a fuckin' hole in my roof that I need to fix, and I'm gonna have to spend the next 6 months in physical therapy so that I can walk again! Thanks, magic genie! You're a fuckin' life-saver."
He's like, "Hey, you know what? Why don't you be a little more specific next time. I gave you exactly what you asked for. And do you have any idea how many favors I had to call in to make a briefcase of money fall out of the sky? No, you don't, 'cause you're just an ungrateful little turd. I'm outta here. Enjoy your money, dick.")
"It would be nice to have some sort of voluntary way of doing this."
Is this seriously the full extent to which this guy has thought out his ideas and planned out his system? "It would be nice" if it ended up working out this way? How about some assurances? You're asking us to make an extremely bold revision to the very structure of society and government, and we're expected to get on board with this on the basis of you telling us that you hope something "nice" might happen? What if something nice doesn't happen? What if people are a bunch of selfish dicks and they don't send off their money to any government programs?
I mean, just think about it: If everybody became a libertarian and we had the votes necessary to institute a system like this, how likely is it that uber libertarians would voluntarily give their money to the government? Have you ever heard a libertarian talk about government? They typically don't paint the most rosy and supportive picture! So if there ever was the popular support to implement a system like this, there's almost a guarantee that government funding would dry up overnight.
"Gee, I sure hope these fervent opponents of giving money to the government will voluntarily give their money to the government!" Right, I'm sure that's gonna happen. These government programs would probably be so overwhelmed by the sheer influx of donations that they wouldn't even know what to do with all the money! No, funding for these programs would drop off a cliff.
Even if the population wasn't predominantly libertarians—which would have to be the case for such a system to become a reality—even if most people still supported most of these government programs, a lot of people are frankly greedy, short-sighted dicks who wouldn't be able to resist the prospect of having more money to spend buying a bunch of meaningless crap. Or, if you're less pessimistic than me, you might simply say that a lot of people are struggling to pay the bills and wouldn't pay any voluntary taxes purely so they can help themselves get by.
So here's what would happen: Funding would precipitiously decline, and the quality of life, all around us, would decline with it. There'd be much less funding for maintaining our infrastructure and for supporting the regulators who monitor the quality of construction, the health of the environment, and the safety of our food, water, and medicine. Libertarians talk about their ideal society as if it would be some sort of paradise, but when you think through what exactly it would be like, it seems to me like much more of a dystopia.
Just imagine any area where a government program plays a role, and then imagine this program trying to continue functioning with only 15% of the funding that they previously used to have, and you have an idea of the sort of all-around-the-board quality decline that we would see. 15%, of course, is just an estimate, and I see no way to determine what percentage of people would continue to pay their income taxes if it was entirely optional, but I think it's safe to say that only a small percentage would do this.
"Oh yeah? If things would truly get as bad as you say they would be, then obviously people would continue to pay their taxes!" Even if we assumed that this was correct, it's clear that a voluntary, libertarian approach would be reactive rather than proactive. What I mean by this is that if the quality of life around us became completely unacceptable, only then might people be motivated to voluntarily fund government programs that would seek to address these problems.
A system of voluntary taxation, at the very best, would go through continuous cycles of ruinous quality decline followed by a desperate influx of funding to try to make things bearable again. The best-case scenario is that we'd be continually playing catch-up and just barely struggling to keep our heads above water.
A key benefit to mandatory taxation—speaking in simplified terms, of course—is that there will be a reliable source of consistent funding. This allows us to prevent problems from occurring in the first place, or solve them very soon after they emerge, rather than only coming up with the funds when conditions become so miserable that nobody can tolerate it any more.
(Now of course, some libertarians would argue that privatization and free-market competition would take the place of many of these government programs—and thus, quality would not decline in the way that I say it would. This is something I firmly disagree with, although it's beyond the scope of this particular project which is long enough already, so my response to this will have to wait for a future video—which you can support the production of by going to Patreon.com/aSkepticalHuman.)
I see another problem with this counter-argument, that people would continue to voluntarily fund government programs if conditions truly did decline: This argument severely underestimates human greed, short-sightedness, and the expectation that it's the responsibility of other people to solve a problem. This brings to mind the notion of the tragedy of the commons. As John Grohol writes on PsychCentral.com,
"The tragedy of the commons is a term . . . describing what can happen in groups when individuals act in their own best self interests and ignore what’s best for the whole group. A group of herdsmen shared a communal pasture, so the story goes, but some realized that if they increased their own herd, it would greatly benefit them. However, increasing your herd without regard to the resources available also brings unintentional tragedy — in the form of the destruction of the common grazing area."
This, I think, is similar to what would happen in a system of voluntary taxation: In the interest of maximizing their own personal gain, people would choose not to fund government programs. Once the quality of life around them begins to plummet as a result of this, it might be difficult to overcome this selfish impulse. On top of that, many people would likely justify their not paying taxes by saying things like: "Well, I'm just one person, so what impact will my measly tax dollars really make?"
This is why it is key to make taxation mandatory: You're no longer faced with the excuses that people make to not contribute to the public good. The money is there, everybody is funding it, and all of these small, individual contributions pooled together can be used to move mountains.
(Not literally, of course. They're like: "Alright, we're gonna move that mountain over there, to over there."
I'm like: "What's the point of that?"
They're like: "Uhh, it's a jobs program... Stop asking questions.")
Ron Paul argues that an income tax rate of zero would be feasible if we simply reduced the size of government:
Cenk: "What do you think should be the proper income tax rate?"
Ron Paul: "Well, the best would be zero. We lived most of our history with zero income tax. But you'd have to have a proper sized government. You'd have to have a proper role for government. You can't be the policeman of the world and not have an income tax. I would not have all my troops around the world, I'd bring the troops home, and I wouldn't have a military-industrial complex that demands so much, but I wouldn't have a welfare state either. And under those conditions, you dont need an income tax. And I think that's the way it should be."
I do think he's correct that we should drastically reduce the size of our military. But he's just being silly when he says: "We lived most of our history with zero income tax." Yeah, that's true—and it was also a completely different world back then. There's a good chance that what worked in 1885 when Ron Paul was born won't work in 2018.
And it wasn't just a different world back then; things haven't just changed since then; they've improved, according to virtually every single metric. Yes, government intervention isn't solely responsible for this, but it certainly is one of the main causes.
Workplace safety regulations, environmental protections—unless you like being crushed to death by heavy machinery or dying from lead poisoning, things like this make our country a better place.
Ron Paul talks about eliminating the welfare state? This means getting rid of health care, housing and nutritional assistance for people that are poor and needy. And you'll recall from earlier what the libertarian solution is to these problems: Leave it up to charities, and if charities aren't good enough, their fuckin' problem—not mine.
Perhaps you'll remember this moment from one of the 2012 GOP presidential debates where Ron Paul was asked how his system would deal with a person in need of serious medical care:
Wolf Blitzer: "Let me ask you this hypothetical question: A healthy, 30-year old young man, has a good job, makes a good living, but decides, you know what? I'm not gonna spend 200 or 300 dollars a month for health insurance, 'cause I"m healthy, I don't need it. But, something terrible happens, all of a sudden he needs it. Who's gonna pay for it if he goes into a coma, for example, who pays for that?"
Ron Paul: "In a society that you accept welfarism and socialism, he expects the government to take care of him. What he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself. My advice to him would [be to] have a major medical policy, but not be forced."
Wolf Blitzer: "But he doesn't have that. He doesn't have it, and he needs intensive care for 6 months. Who pays?"
Ron Paul: "That's what freedom is all about: Taking your own risks! This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody!"
Wolf Blitzer: "But, Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?"
Multiple audience members: "Yes!!"
Ron Paul: "I practiced medicine before we had Medicaid, in the early 1960s, when I got out of medical school. I practiced at Santa Rosa hospital in San Antonio. And the churches took care of 'em! We never turned anybody away from the hospitals, and we've given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourselves, our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it."
Now I don't want to go too off the rails here responding to this, but the reason I think this was worth showing is that it beautifully—or perhaps I should say hideously—illustrates the libertarian mindset in this area: Expect charities, friends, neighbors and churches to help people out when they're in desperate need, but when that's not good enough, "That's what freedom is all about: Taking your own risks!"
Sure, people might be needlessly dying in the streets, but at least I'll be able to keep a little bit more of my paycheck every two weeks! Libertarianism is political and economic selfishness on steroids.
And you heard the audience members: Cheering and saying "Yes, society should just let him die." Maybe not all libertarians are so callous and forthright, but when the voluntary social support isn't there, this is what their ideology demands.
"This whole idea that you have to prepare and take care of everybody!" Bah! How absurd! Taking care of your fellow citizens in need...What is this, a civilization or something?
Robert Nielsen writes the following in an article entitled "Why Taxation Is Not Theft":
"The problem with most libertarian arguments is that [they assume] we have only rights but no responsibilities. [They assume] that we have no duties to the poor, the sick, the elderly or even to children. If a man was starving and a libertarian had two loaves of bread, he wouldn’t share it with the man unless he felt like it. That is not a political ideology but a mental problem called sociopathology."
The libertarian approach to the income tax also fails to take into consideration the contribution that the society around them has made to their success. They constantly talk about how "the government is taxing the fruits of my labor." They talk about themselves as if they're this completely self-sufficient generator of revenue that the government is simply parasitizing and getting in the way of. In reality, the government actually enables your success in countless ways.
Robert Nielsen makes this point when he writes the following:
"Libertarians make the mistake of thinking of people as isolated individuals isolated from the rest of the world. They act as though, I and I alone earned my wage and therefore it belongs to no one else. In reality, we are hugely dependent on others and society. Would we earn anywhere near enough money if we did not have public roads, education, health, energy etc?
I did not create everything myself, but instead built on the work of previous generations and worked alongside other members of society. No man is an island and there is no such thing as a self-made person, in reality we are standing on the shoulders of giants. We got to where we are today due in large parts to the society we live in, so it is only fair that we pay something to support it."
"Noun boy" makes this point very concisely in a YouTube comment:
"Taxation is theft? Ok, don't pay taxes. But you can't use our roads, sewage system, power grids, police, firefighters, libraries, schools, etc etc etc."
The hard-working libertarian drives to work on public roads. His computer is hooked up to the power grid. He can focus on his work because he's not battling cholera thanks to water treatment plants. He doesn't have to spent all day fighting away enemy forces thanks to our police and military. He can spend more time working because he doesn't have to personally handle sewage and trash disposal. The list goes on and on.
Without government and without the income tax to help create and improve the world that he lives in, the libertarian would not be able to do what he does, not be able to spend his time the way that he spends it, and earn the money that he earns. So since he lives within this society that supports him in so many different ways, it's only fair that he pays some taxes to maintain this society.
Let's recap some of the key points made in this video. Contrary to what libertarians argue, taxation is not theft, because it's something that a majority of people tacitly agree to every time they step into a voting booth. We are largely taxed with our consent, and this money is used to benefit us and the world around us.
Sometimes taxpayer funded programs do cause harm, but if you're opposed to certain government programs, the solution is to try to end or modify these programs—not to take the extreme approach of trying to do away with the income tax itself. The usage of force by the government to compel you to pay your taxes is an absolute last resort, and you're given opportunity after opportunity to pay your fair share before you get thrown in jail.
It also doesn't make sense to opt out of paying at least some of the income tax because you can't opt out of living in the society which is made possible by these tax dollars. Eliminating mandatory taxation and expecting people to voluntarily fund government programs is a pipe dream, because many people are short-sighted and expect others to be responsible for solving problems.
Finally, when libertarians talk about the government taxing the fruits of their labor, understand that the growth of these fruits is only made possible by our taxpayer-funded government.