Every year when tax day comes along, people start talking about "tax fairness." Yet strangely, I hear very few people discuss the fairness of taxation itself. What right does the government have to force people to pay for services that they may not even want?
In particular, what right does the government have to take money from people who never consented to pay? Almost everyone sees that consent is the proper moral foundation for other relationships. To take one eloquent slogan: If a woman says no, it's rape. Unless we can show that we really consent to pay taxes, we cannot avoid the parallel maxim: If a taxpayer says no, it's theft. Many people think that we consented to pay taxes in the Constitution. The cherished myth behind our own Constitution as well as those of many other countries is that at one pristine time, the people consented to all of the seemingly involuntary practices we endure today. However, no one alive today ever signed the Constitution, so how could it bind them? Parents could only bind themselves, not their children, much less all their descendents throughout history.
Moreover, the consent that ratified the Constitution was merely the consent of various voting majorities, who "consented" not merely for themselves but for those who expressly denied the Constitution their consent. The minority voters might well protest that no one else has the power to offer their consent for them; a person can only offer consent for himself or herself, not for another. Other people think that we consent to pay taxes merely by living in the country; but this just begs the central question: Why can't I both remain in this country and refuse to pay taxes? If a kindergarten bully told his classmates that they "really" consented to get beaten up since they could go to another school instead, we could only laugh at his effrontery: for the bully has no right to present this unfair choice in the first place. Similarly, only after it can be shown that I am breaking a voluntary agreement by refusing to pay taxes could my consent be inferred from my decision to remain within the boundaries of the United States. I can only conclude that for all its claim to virtue, government fundamentally rests on injustice, the injustice of taking money from people without their consent. Everyone who complains that current taxes are unfair is perfectly correct; but the problem with taxation is not its distribution, but its very existence. It was precisely this conclusion that led Thoreau, the most famous critic of the morality of taxation, to this startling position: "I hearily accept the motto, - 'That government is best which governs least;' and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe, - 'That government is best which governs not at all;' and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have." To most people, this conclusion sounds so impractical that they can only reply: We will never be prepared for that kind of government! But I prefer to at least consider the alternatives to taxation before I resignedly endorse so great an injustice. And the voluntary, consensual alternatives to taxation are many. Most obviously, there is the free market. If people need something, they can pay others to produce it for them. Many of the largest functions of modern governments could easily be supplied privately: education, old-age pensions, medical insurance. While economists frequently defend the power of the market to deliver the goods, they easily give up in despair when profit-making business seems to be an unworkable solution. But where traditional business fails, perhaps the solution is not tax-funded services but a different sort of voluntary and mutually beneficial arrangement.
Markets are not the only sort of voluntary organization: extended family, clubs, homeowners' associations, merchants' associations, and self-help groups could supply everything from a safety net to streets, fire, and police protection. Finally, there is private charity: over $120 billion dollars strong in 1990. With the abolition of taxation, we could expect this figure to rise since people would have more money to give. True, there would no longer be a tax break for charity, but all of us would have so much more disposable income to give, along with the knowledge that we personally, rather than the government, are responsible for giving the riches needed to right the wrongs that we perceive in the world. Even if charity remained unchange, I submit that $120 billion by itself is plenty to care for the truly needy - mainly children and the severely handicapped - who can't help themselves. As an economist, I am sure that many people will say that government is absolutely necessary to supply "public goods" - goods that benefit everyone, even though it is impossible to charge for them. National defense is the best example - the military protects us all, even those who don't pay. What is puzzling is that the same people who normally find economists' reasoning narrow and unrealistic find this argument so convincing. The argument assumes that people utterly lack any moral sense, any willingness to do their fair share voluntarily, just because they think that that is the proper way to behave. Flesh-and-blood human beings are not "economic men," interested solely in maximizing their personal wealth; they have a moral sense. It may not be wise not to rely on someone's moral sense too heavily; but all that we need to enjoy the voluntary provision of public goods is for some reasonable percentage of people to willingly donate some reasonable fraction of their time or income. But suppose we take an extremely pessimistic view of our fellow human beings. Even then, there is an inner contradiction in public goods theory. Why? Because if you create a government to solve the public goods problem, you create a new public goods problem: the public good of controlling the government. Everyone benefits if the government stays within its appointed bounds, even those who don't take any effort to keep their government in line. And if you take such a dim view of human nature, can you expect politicians to be any better? This is hardly an academic in the twentieth century tens of millions of people have been murdered by their own out-of-control governments. In sum, government isn't any solution to the public goods problem, because it is the primary instance of the problem.
The only real solution is to convince people to voluntarily do the right thing. If you can convince them, government isn't necessary; if you can't, government will just magnify the problem. Or to express the problem slightly differently: you must determine who you trust more to voluntarily do the right thing: politicians, or the public at large. Our century's grim history of political barbarity makes one hesitate to choose the former. Morally, taxation is unjust; practically, it is unnecessary. Yet taxation is unlikely to disappear in the near future; so what is the right thing to do in the meanwhile? Thoreau's advice is again sound: "It is not a man's duty's to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support." Which means: Don't work for the IRS, never support higher taxes on anything, and never let anyone pretend that you pay taxes of your own free will. Taxation is always theft, and the more people hear this insight repeated, the sooner they'll see taxation for what it is.