by Gene Callahan
Although I have touched briefly on this topic at my (mostly) solo, non-serious blog, the volume of response I received there has prompted me to flesh out my argument and present it here, on the blog where I limit myself to my more sober postings.
The proximate cause of my addressing this topic was a post by Brian Doherty at Reason.com, where he wrote:
“States, after all, cannot function without first aggressing against someone, if only to get tax money to fund their activities.”
But the ultimate cause was my much longer-term conviction that such reasoning simply begs a central question that political theory is seeking to answer, namely, just when is coercion justified and when isn’t it? After all, every wavelength of the political spectrum considers some coercion to be OK, and some to be “aggression.” Anarcho-capitalists believe that coercing a trespasser off of one’s property is OK coercion, and collecting taxes to be “aggressive” coercion; while Marxists consider dividing up the social product per “each according to his need” is OK coercion, while hiring guards to block workers from ownership of the means of production to be “aggressive” coercion. So the question is not who is for or against coercion (since everyone is for “just coercion” and against “unjust coercion”), but, rather, what makes a particular act of coercion just or unjust?
And to turn to that question, regarding the State, is to ask whether its existence is justified. While there are many possible justifications for the State, for our purposes, it is sufficient to consider just one of them, which recommends itself because of its simplicity and philosophical clarity. Hobbes contended that the only way that rational individuals can escape the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” life of humans without a sovereign is for them to surrender some of their natural liberties to a sovereign power. Now, if Hobbes is correct, then the individual who refuses, for instance, to pay the sovereign’s tax assessment has declared himself to be in the state of nature with regards to his fellows, a state in which, as Hobbes sees it, they are justified in regarding him as at war with them, and therefore can justly coerce him to pay the taxes the sovereign asks of him.
Against such a position, it just won’t do to say, “I haven’t voluntarily agreed to pay my taxes, therefore they are a form of aggression against me.” Per the Hobbesian view, the refusal to submit to a sovereign is the act of aggression here, and the tax collector is only enforcing what the demands of rational human behavior require of everyone.
Thus, we can see that this common libertarian argument (as exemplified by Doherty’s statement of it above) against the State is entirely circular as it is typically formed: The State is illegitimate because it engages in aggression, and we can say it must engage in aggression because its collection of taxes is illegitimate — but, of course, since the collection of taxes is how the State survives, to say their collection is illegitimate is to just re-state the thesis that the State is illegitimate. Thus, once one analyzes it carefully, that argument runs, “The State is illegitimate because the State is illegitimate.”
Or, to put it differently, if the State is legitimate, then so is its collection of taxes, and therefore collecting them is not an act of aggression. (In that case, in fact, it would be withholding of taxes due that would be theft!)
If this type of libertarian argument is actually to go through, here is what must be done:
1) It must be shown that the State is not a necessary element of social order. Now, libertarians have done some work showing that it is possible it is not — see, for instance, the work of Ed Stringham on early stock exchanges, Peter Leeson on pirate economics, David Friedman and Roderick Long on Icelandic anarchy, etc. But, I think, none of this is conclusive — the fact that I might sometimes hit a baseball with my eyes closed does not prove that opening one’s eyes is not essential to hitting success.
2) Having shown 1), then the State no longer has the status (as it does in Hobbes) of a unique constitutive element of social order, so that…
3) Now, since the Leviathan is no longer necessary for social order, the argument that the State’s collection of taxes are “unjustified coercion” has some bite!
But the work is all in #1! After all, if Hobbes is right, and without Leviathan we are in the “Warre of all against all,” then the sovereign is justified in doing whatever is necessary to keep us out of that state. And that, my friends, is the argument libertarians really need to address.