Is Taxation Theft?

Philip Goff presents a strong argument published on Aeon as to why taxation is not theft, primarily because it is based on false assumptions about the morality of property ownership.

I have written a lot of short pieces addressing this question (the answer is always no). But this piece for Aeon magazine is the most extensive thing I’ve written so far, and goes into much more detail about the nature of ownership. I’m always amazed at how much this stuff angers people. I’ve been enjoying […]

via Is Taxation Theft? (and why the answer matters..) — Conscience and Consciousness



Property Rights — Possession

Who else loses sleep over how property rights can be derived legitimately?

I don’t need to argue the existence of God or gods or goddesses—not here anyway—, but I am willing to posit that if there were these deities, no human in privy to their word or desires in a sort of biblical way. Therefore any basis for scriptural law is illegitimate.

In the beginning…

I think it is useful to distinguish between the concepts of possession and property, so I’ll begin there. In the beginning, there was the earth—the land—; and there were people. (I’m taking liberties here, and skipping leaps and bounds.)

In the beginning, there was the earth—the land—; and there were people. (I’m taking liberties here, and skipping leaps and bounds.)  Nature, which is to say ‘bounties of the earth’, ‘produces’ natural resources, raw materials:  rocks, trees, chemicals, what have you. These belong to the earth and are inherently social goods.

The first people sustained themselves with these goods. Taking, say, a stick, I might fashion a makeshift club, and I might then possess this club. I have no inherent right to keep this stick. I may discard it of my own volition (or lose it) or it may be taken from me.

I understand the desire to claim ownership. Territorial animals lay claim to, well, territory; but this claim is defended through violence or the threat thereof and, to some extent, agency, for other allied animals to defend the claim (for myriad reasons). And territorial claims extend only to what one can actively monitor, so if I am a lion, I might possess a territory on the Savannah, but I do not coincidently also possess territory in London. Property rights attempt to extend this relationship, to possess something at arm’s length.

What is missing is the right to possess something. We can go back to Locke and—ignoring that nature and other living entities cannot participate in this system—enter into an accord, a social contract, one where if I possess a good not otherwise claimed by another, it’s mine to possess. As all potential parties have no say, one could argue that there is no legitimate manner to transfer from nature to person. The only defence is one of violence, as noted previously. We can define this transfer as legitimate, but simply saying something does not make it necessarily so. Nonetheless, let’s go from here, from a Hobbesian state of nature, where I can defend myself and possessions through a mechanism described by Rousseau: a social compact: I found it first—and it is useful and potentially this use or utility may be desired by others—, so I get to keep it—in exchange to ceding this privilege to others in my group. To extend this privilege is to extend the accord to other groups.

This is all well and good, but if one’s ability to maintain use of an item is limited by, say, distance or quantity, do I still have a right to possess it? If I possess 20 clubs and my clan has none, what is my claim? The claim of primacy—that I was there first—is weak. It would likely be in my interest (if not in communal interest) to share and give up possession, but having not established a right to that possession as property, how do I lay claim to these? Should I be able to? Should it be a right?

Let’s use a less simple example: a plot of land to farm. I’ve cleared the land, tilled the soil, sowed and tended seeds, and I plan to harvest the fruits of my labour. Many people might say that I am entitled to the fruits. This is debatable, but what if I possess more land than I can cultivate? Do I have a right to let the land lay fallow or otherwise uncultivated?

So current paradigms contest that, having applied labour to modify this natural good, I can hold it, possess it. Presuming that no one else has claimed ownership—a concept not yet introduced—, how does one extend possession? This should also address whether one can possess something at arm’s length.

Bedtime. Posting an incomplete, unedited draft with no citations or links…because it’s past 4 AM. Updates and extensions to follow. Hopefully, I’ll fall asleep and get some rest.

Fais dodo.

Pressing Questions

Here is a list of questions I want to answer:

  1. Given that there is no inherent meaning to life, why are humans so driven to find it?
    • Evolutionary biology may offer some insights, but then the question turns to which is the cause and which the effect?
    • Is it merely a function of language and cognition?
  2. Other than circular logic arguments—namely, to posit ‘I prefer it that why’—, what is the logical justification for the exclusivity of property ownership if not the divine or nature vis-a-vis so-called workmanship ideal?
  3. Why do Libertarians frame the equality debate between opportunity and outcome and side-step equality of condition and ontological equality, the other sociological categories of equality, especially when the ‘all men are created equal‘ claim in ontological in the first place?
  4. What do do with the logical fallacy, Appeal to Tradition?
  5. How to get beyond Wittgenstein’s language problem? In my experience, most people accept and use language uncritically. Is everything just an arbitrary function of language? As language is an arbitrary construct, and meaning may change over time and dialect, how can we create a meaningful basis for argument?
    • For example, when we say we expect a ‘just’ society, justice means different things to different people. A typical use is to equate ‘just’ to ‘right’, but as there is no absolute right, there is no absolute just. Moreover, people tend to invoke just and justice, when they mean ‘my way’ and ‘vengeance’, and so the frame is relative to the framer.
  6. What is the way to get past injecting concepts such as value and income into premises and arguments?
  7. Accepting for the moment the concept of ‘state’, what is the optimal number of states, and why have more than one?

Workmanship Ideal or Convenience?

One of the biggest issues I have with modern, Western political theory is Locke‘s so-called ‘workmanship ideal‘, a concept stemming from the Enlightenment belief that a maker of something should be the rightful owner of something. The Age of Enlightenment (AKA Age of Reason) was supposed to have divorced science from other rationale, whether divine rights (as ascribed to kings) or something else. The problem—the same problem Descartes had in his Discourses—is that God (even if vis-a-vis ‘nature‘) is injected exogenously and irrationally into the works. Philosophers even into the 21st century, if barely, have concluded that this concept breaks down when we attempt to secularise it, but we are subjectively comfortable with the notion. Of course, the more our beliefs lean towards ‘higher powers‘, intelligent design and the such, the more comfortable we are apt to feel.

I was originally inspired to write this when researching Rawls and happening upon Ian Shapiro‘s Yale open course, The Moral Foundations of Politics. James Murphy has this to say in his essay, The Workmanship Ideal : A Theologico-Political Chimera?

What’s in Store for 2017?

Going into 2017, I am going to focus more attention on Universal Basic Income (UBI) otherwise known as minimum income. Providing everyone with a safety net in the spirit of life, liberty, and happiness. Hopefully, this will take some focus away from or redirect the negativity I am anticipating under the Trump regime, but I make no promises, expressed or implied. I’ll attend to the detractors as well.

I’ve been peripherally aware of the concept of UBI for a couple of years now—Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots and Erik Brynjolfsson’s The Second Machine Age, among others. Although I don’t envision it as a permanent solution—after all, what is permanent? —but it is a solution that works within the existing (and woefully wanting) economic framework. It does, however, have a way to go relative to the current socio-political constructs.

The solution is not permanent primarily because the current economic system based on markets, supply, demand, income, and production is tenuous, so building on a platform of shifting sand is bound to fail—not because it is a bad idea considering the given system, but because the system itself is faulty. Capitalism is a house of cards, a tenuous MacGyver-ed system held together with spit and bubble gum (and who knows what else). I don’t have a replacement system in mind, and most people are not quite ready to abandon their cherished ragdoll owing to indoctrination, propaganda, and escalating commitment.  Entropy is at play, and the establishment needs to apply more and more external force to keep it together. We can look to history and the French revolution of 1789 as a guide—or perhaps the fall of tsarist Russia. These systems were inherently unstable.

Regarding these societies of serfs, the gutting of the middle class and the expanding inequality along with technological trends seems to have a trajectory along a vector to return us there, and the results can be expected to be as disastrous.

The United States was founded during the so-called Enlightenment with dashes of a Calvinistic work ethic and rugged independence, whatever that means. ‘Enlightenment,’ like ‘modern’, is a flattering term given to self-describe a period, but this description is mostly wishful thinking. I am not opposed to much of the thought that came from the Enlightenment, from Diderot to Locke to Montesquieu—thoughts such as freedom and separation of powers—, hijacked by the likes of Franklin and Jefferson on these shores, but they, too, were built on shaky grounds—the grounds of gods or God, and nature—, so our laws are built upon nothing; this is worse than shifting sand: at least there was sand to shift.

Language tries to obfuscate the divine with the euphemism nature. From so-called ‘natural laws’ we derive property rights, but take away the premise of natural law, and we lose the basis for such an assertion. And don’t get me started on the further foundationless logical leap to intellectual property rights.