How to Debate Libertarians on Taxes — And Destroy Them

On Tax Day, here’s a guide to arguing with libertarians about redistribution.

"Taxation is theft" is an argument that every democratic socialist should know how to refute. (Illustration by Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Thanks to the three-month extension caused by the pandemic, Tax Day this year falls immediately after Bastille Day. Libertarians might see a cruel irony there.

The slogans of the French Revolution were “liberty,” “equality,” and “fraternity.” Most libertarians concede the need for a stripped-down state that enforces a contract and provides for national defense that is morally acceptable, but they see redistributive taxation as an unacceptable violation of liberty in the name of those other two values.

Even America’s miserly patchwork of means-tested social programs is too much for them since it’s paid for with “other people’s money.”

Libertarians deny that anyone has “positive rights” like the right to health care or education. Instead, they argue that liberty is best understood in terms of “negative rights” against interference by others.

Just as imprisoning Jeff Bezos would violate his right to freedom of movement, redistributing some of his wealth every year without his consent violates their view of property rights. If a future socialist government implemented Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal that Amazon be reorganized as worker cooperative, it would presumably be an even deeper violation of Bezos’ liberty.

One way to understand the libertarians’ point is to think about the analogy between taxation and the death penalty. When death penalty abolitionists say that the death penalty is murder, they’re appealing to the principle that it’s immoral for the state to do what would be immoral for individuals to do.

Last year, when I debated libertarian podcaster and stand-up comedian Dave Smith, he pushed this analogy hard. If it’s wrong for muggers to redistribute wealth at the point of a knife or a gun, he said, it’s equally wrong for the IRS to rely on the coercive power of the state to do the same thing. Put more succinctly, for libertarians, taxation is theft.

It’s an argument that every democratic socialist should know how to refute.

The Bruenig Objection

The claim that liberty is noninterference has been expressed by libertarian thinkers like Murray Rothbard as the “Non-Aggression Principle” (NAP). Rothbard’s formulation of NAP was that “no man may threaten or commit violence (aggress) against another man’s person or property.” He used this to condemn taxation, which he described as “the use of violence [by the state] to obtain its revenue.”

Taking the prohibition against “threaten[ing] or committing” violence literally would mean that even defensive violence was off the table, but Rothbard wasn’t a Gandhian pacifist. It seems clear that what he meant to say was that no one may “threaten or commit” violence against the person or the property of another except in the course of a conflict initiated by the other party. So far, so good. But what does it mean to threaten or commit violence against property?

It’s far from clear that it even makes sense to talk about committing “violence” against inanimate objects. Is shooting empty beer cans for target practice violent? When you eat a piece of pizza, you’re breaking it down into its component particles — literally annihilating it as completely as  it’s physically possible to annihilate anything — but it seems wrong to say that you’re committing violence against the pizza.

A Rothbardian might say that the violence is being committed against the owner of the property if it’s taken away from them or destroyed without their permission, but this too is more than a little odd. If a teenager sticks a candy bar in his pocket at a grocery store, has he really committed “violence” against the owner? He certainly hasn’t threatened the owner with violence.

Perhaps libertarians don’t need to die on this semantic hill. The NAP can be rephrased as “no one may threaten or commit violence against a person or take away their property except in the course of a conflict initiated by the other party.” That’s fine, but the key phrase is “their property.”

Note that this can’t be a reference to legal property rights. If it were, taxation would be fine. Legally, the part of your paycheck you owe to the IRS is the property of the federal government. The only way to use the NAP to ground the libertarian’s objection to taxation is to say that it’s wrong to take away the property that a taxpayer is morally entitled to keep. But as Matt Breunig points out, this is blatantly circular. “It’s wrong to take something from you” is a different way of saying “you’re morally entitled to it.”

Imagine that some future socialist government carries out Bernie Sanders’s proposal to impose a modest tax on Wall Street transactions to fund universal tuition-free higher education. If the Wall Street traders have a moral right to that money, the tax is a violation of the NAP. If the college students whose education is being funded have a moral right to it, no NAP violation has been committed. As Bruenig puts it, the NAP “never does any argumentative work at any time.”

If a libertarian tries to bypass the philosophical machinery of the NAP to express their objection to taxation by saying that redistributive taxation is wrong because it’s theft, Bruenig’s point can easily be extended to handle this move.

Theft can be precisely defined as taking something you have no right to take. Therefore, theft as a legal category is taking something you have no legal right to take, and theft as a moral category is taking something you have no moral right to take. If the Wall Street traders have a moral right to the money, the socialist government is committing theft. If the college students have moral right to it, the socialist government is acting justly on their behalf, like the police recovering a stolen car.

Who’s right about this gets down to what philosophers call a “theory of entitlement”— in other words, a theory of who has a moral right to what. If you believe that everyone has a moral right to whatever they end up with as a result of market transactions, taxation is theft, but why should you believe that?

If you have the far more plausible belief that considerations like fairness and the importance of securing goods like health care and education enter into the question of who has a moral right to what, this wouldn’t justify taxation for purposes like arming Saudi Arabia for its monstrous war in Yemen, but it would certainly justify it for purposes like abolishing tuition at public universities.

Muggers and Tax Men

We still haven’t said anything about Dave Smith’s point. We can all agree that a mugger taking away someone’s wallet out of sheer greed might be committing theft in the moral sense of “theft,” but what about a mugger who intended to redistribute the contents of your wallet to the needy following the Robin Hood model?

One interesting thing to notice here is that this objection could be turned around and used against the libertarian. Can taxpayers justifiably mug public school teachers, firemen, or others whose income is derived from taxation — at least as long as they don’t steal more than they paid in taxes in the first place? Is this like recovering stolen property? I teach at a public university. Should I keep my hand on my wallet when I go to debates with libertarians?

Both reasonable socialists and reasonable libertarians have a handy answer available to this objection. There is a moral problem with vigilantes performing what should be functions of the state. Having speed limits on the highway set and enforced by agents of institutions considered legitimate by the general public is better than letting a random private citizen walk out into traffic with a gun to force passing motorists drive at what they consider to be a safe speed. It’s morally preferable because it will lead to far less confusion, fear, uncertainty, and chaos.

All else being equal, it’s morally preferable for similar reasons that the redistribution of wealth, or the expropriation of private businesses, be carried out by democratically legitimized public institutions.

Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity

Everything that’s been said so far has relied on granting, for the sake of argument, the libertarian’s premise that liberty is noninterference. But the moral case for redistribution is even stronger when we switch to the more plausible view that the kind of freedom that matters most is the freedom from arbitrary domination.

This is what’s sometimes called the “republican” theory of liberty. This the theory that Karl Marx was working with when he expressed his hope that the “despotic system of the subordination of labor to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers.” If Amazon was taken away from Jeff Bezos and reorganized as a worker cooperative, then everyone who worked in one of those warehouses would have a greatly enhanced level of control over their own lives.

Even short of these radical long-term aspirations, if a future socialist government used increased, progressive taxation to pay for social goods like a single-payer health care system, this would meaningfully diminish the unfreedom of employees who currently get their insurance through their employers. If the boss tells you that you can’t get a tattoo if you want to keep your job at his restaurant, you’re a lot less likely to tell him to get lost and get it anyway if losing your job means losing your health insurance.

It’s important to be able to show that libertarian arguments don’t work even on their own terms. But it’s even more important to demonstrate that the socialist project is underpinned by a commitment to a far more expansive understanding of human freedom.

On this Tax Day, it’s worth remembering that the first federal income taxes in the United States were imposed to fund the war to break the power of the planter class and free 3.9 million slaves. This was without a doubt the deepest and most important advance in human freedom enabled by taxation thus far but it won’t be the last.