Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Goff on Taxation and Theft

Philip Goff has an absurd argument against the (often absurd) claim that taxation is theft at Aeon. Having first distinguished between legal and moral theft, he says:

If we wanted to say that tax is legal theft, then we would have to argue that people have a legal claim to their pre-tax income, and hence that the government commits legal theft when it takes the pre-tax income of its citizens. This idea can be quickly dismissed. Clearly if Ms Jones is legally obliged to pay a certain amount of tax on her gross income, then she is not legally entitled to keep all her pre-tax income. It follows logically that the state does not commit legal theft when it enforces the payment of this tax.

This is obvious nonsense. If by 'legally obliged' we mean that when a legitimate and licit proclamation of a legislature purports to obligate you to pay something, you are obligated to pay it, then Goff's response begs the question, even assuming that we are only talking about legal theft. There can be illegitimate and illicit laws, e.g., unconstitutional ones, and if someone is going around saying that taxation is legal theft, obviously they are denying that they are legally obliged to pay anything by any kind of legitimate and licit law. Nobody is claiming that if a tax law is legitimate and licit, taxation is theft; they are claiming that enforcing or executing the law in question is theft. Further, the very way Goff chooses to state the issue establishes that people have at last a default legal claim to their pre-tax income: if Ms Jones is legally obliged to pay a certain amount of tax on HER gross income (which is why she is obligated and not someone else, since it would be most unfortunate to be obligated to pay the tax on someone else's gross income), it must have some kind of legal status of being hers to begin with. Thus she has some kind of legal claim on it, depending on the exact legal status -- and since Goff hasn't examined that legal status, he has no way of saying whether the claim is relevant or not. So the gross income is legally hers in some way, and the only question then (if we are sticking with legal theft) is whether, granted that it is legally hers, there is any legitimate and licit law that can require her to pay a certain amount of it in tax. This is the very question at hand, and one that Goff begs.

There are many, many reasons not to take ordinary taxation, at least, to be legal theft; but it's a bad sign that, having argued against the easiest target, he has failed so badly.

So Goff moves on to the moral question. He starts out badly again by saying that gross or pre-tax income "is the money the market delivers to you". This is obviously not true; gross income is usually what the employer with whom you have a contract delivers to you. 'The market' does not deliver money to you; your employer is not 'the market'. 'The market' is what we call the system of exchange constituted by your employer, you, other employees, etc. It is an abstraction of your market-activity interacting other people's market-activity. One could let it slide as a figure of speech, if it weren't for the fact that the abstract character of the term clearly does work throughout Goff's argument. He goes on, in fact, to use it immediately to object to the argument that we are morally entitled to our gross income because we, having worked for it, deserve it. To this he says:

This is not a plausible view. For it implies that the market distributes to people exactly what they deserve for the work that they do. But nobody thinks a hedge-fund manager deserves many times more wealth than a scientist working on a cure for cancer, and few would think that current pay ratios in companies reflect what philosophers call desert claims. Probably you work very hard in your job, and you make an important contribution. But then so do most people, and the market distribution of wealth patently does not reward in proportion to how hard-working people are, or how much of a contribution they make to society.

The question, again, is not what the abstraction 'the market' does, because 'the market' is just a label for what we do in matters of exchange. So what we are really concerned with is usually something like this: You have an employer, of some kind, with whom you have a contract, of some kind. This employer has some money. There is at this point no legal or moral question that it is the employer's money; everybody, including the law and the employee, recognizes it as the employer's money. Under this contract, you are to do some work for the employer, and, also because of that contract, your doing that work obligates your employer to give you part of your employer's money. This money is your gross income, since this can all be done prior to any consideration of tax. So if it was morally and legally the employer's money, and it was the employer's moral and legal obligation under contract to give it to you; and if the employer did not give it to you, that would have involved violations of moral and legal obligations, how does your work not entitle you to that money? That is the question Goff jumps around -- he keeps denying that the rights involved are the kind his opponents think, but he never actually gives us a coherent (or any substantive) account of what rights actually are involved.

Goff's answer also makes a common error with regard to desert. In matters of talk about desert and merit, it has long been known that in some such talk the assumption is that the desert or merit is condign, and in some the assumption is that it is congruous. If something is deserved condignly, it is the reward required in strict justice simply by the action in and of itself. If something is deserved congruously, this means that one deserves it by equity rather than strict justice, because the action occupies a certain role or function in a conventional system of exchange. Thus, no one condignly deserves a trophy for running fact; in a running contest in which the prize is a trophy, one may nonetheless deserve it congruously by running fast enough. Congruous desert can be heavily dependent on liberality and generosity, but it can also be highly constrained by justice. Likewise here: contracts are constrained by expectations of fairness and mutual benefit, the employee condignly deserves to be given fair exchange in transaction, and the citizens condignly deserve to have their rights respected by the government. Whether they are getting the wages they congruously deserve with respect to the common good, however, is a distinct question. They should not be conflated.

This does not in itself salvage the desert argument from every objection, because the obvious next question is what is involved in deserving it -- if (as is not an uncommon view) the state is one part of it, the state may well have some kind of claim that can affect the nature of the desert, which could possibly give wiggle-room for taxes. But Goff's objection fails completely.

Goff goes on to recognize that another objection is that you are entitled to the gross income, and he is at least sensible enough to recognize that a major issue here is whether property has priority over property law, or vice versa. If property rights are purely legal, he is right that there are problems for one who would argue that taxation is theft, although he doesn't give a very good reason for thinking this, in part because he assumes the bad reasoning he has already given. But let's set this aside, since the most serious line of argument would be based on natural property rights. Goff argues that two things are required for this approach:

It requires accepting the general libertarian commitment to property being natural and not dependent on human laws or conventions. And it also requires denying the Left-wing libertarian claim that each of us has an equal moral claim on the resources of the natural world.

The first claim is not strictly correct, since to say that the right relevant to property is natural is not the same as saying that property is natural; one may have a natural moral claim with regard to things that are dependent on human laws or conventions, so that, for instance, we might say we have a natural right to just treatment by the law, even though treatment by the law, and indeed the law itself, is dependent on human laws and conventions. Thus the second is the key issue. With respect to the second, he goes on (rightly) to note that the usual right-libertarian approaches to the second leave open some perplexing questions, then says:

According to Right-wing libertarianism, the market distribution of wealth is morally significant because it is the distribution that respects the voluntary choices people have made with the property to which they have a natural right. But this is the case only if the market is perfectly free, ie if the state has no influence on the distribution of wealth. Yet there are very few countries in the world in which this is the case. In almost every country, there is a certain amount of taxation, at least to pay for roads and infrastructure, if not for education and healthcare. But even the smallest such state intervention entails that the market distribution of wealth no longer reflects the free choices of citizens, and hence by the lights of Right-wing libertarianism the citizens of these countries have no moral claim on their pre-tax income.

This is again a very bad argument. For right-libertarians, moral claims on property and income are not dependent on claims about the market distribution of wealth; the details differ somewhat from version to version, but the moral claims on property and income depend on labor and contractual exchange. What the right-libertarian thinks is not that government interference somehow negates the rights of labor and contract, but that it is interfering with the results of these rights, which would, without such interference, work things out in a more-or-less (i.e., to the extent possible given accidents and the like) morally fair distribution based on the supply and demand of labor and on contract negotiations. Right-libertarians are not people like Goff who think that claims to property and income depend on distribution, even a good distribution, at all; they are people who think that claims to property and income depend on work and personal interactions. The government has not replaced personal interactions; it is (on the hypothesis) involving itself in them in ways it has no right; the right-libertarian thinks that a result of this maldistribution; if rights were respected properly, over time the maldistribution would disappear. It is a bizarre argument to 'refute' right-libertarians by assuming that their view of distribution is that of progressive liberals. Thus the wrongness of Goff's conclusions:

In theory, Right-wing libertarianism does entail that people have a moral claim on their pre-tax income, and hence that taxation is theft, but only in hypothetical societies where there is zero or minimal state interference in the economy. In states in which the government intervenes in the economy through taxation – ie, in almost every developed state – market transactions are tainted and so are morally void.

But this is just blatantly false on any recognizable right-libertarian view; on such views, the government doesn't have any ability to make market transactions morally void, because the moral legitimacy of the transactions themselves depends on personal interaction. If the high school bully takes your lawnmowing money and then gives it to his grandmother to buy a movie ticket with, the moral problem is with a bully going around taking people's money, not with his grandmother's buying a movie ticket, and the fact that the bully is a bully doesn't mean that the grandmother's transaction is "morally void". Depending on the issues, and how, exactly our legal system handles issues of coercive takings, it is conceivable that there might be a legal problem with the transaction; but morally, the grandmother has the money, she herself did nothing wrong in getting it, nobody thinks she might have, the entire deal between her and the movie theater is an honest exchange, and there's nothing tainted about the transaction itself, any more than if the bully stole the money, then lost it on the sidewalk where the grandmother found it and thriftily picked it up and spent it. Now, this certainly raises questions. But it doesn't come near to making all market transactions "tainted" and "morally void".

None of this, of course, supports the notion that taxation is theft, and it is certainly the case that in passing Goff does raise genuine problems for it. But the particular ground on which he is trying to build the argument, the claim that when an employer pays you, you have no moral claim to the money prior to taxes, is a nonstarter. For one thing, as noted above, even to formulate the position coherently requires already recognizing some kind of moral claim to pre-income tax -- it's quite clearly the case that the government is not taxing Jane's employer but Jane, and it is taxing her for income that's hers and not someone else's. It is easily recognizable that people can cut fair deals where there is no government regulation or taxation at all, and that people have the right and moral authority make contracts for their benefit and the benefit of others, simply in themselves. So the right-libertarian is going to say that while honest dealings don't require any special justification, any intervention of the government into this must be justified; that, in fact, where the government is not protecting Jane from fraud or violence, or others from Jane's fraud or violence, it has no right or moral authority to intervene, especially against consent; and that when it does in the form of taxes, it is violating the rights of the parties involved.

We can see part of the problem if we look at the matter in terms of labor rights. If we set up a system in which people worked for employers, but employers paid the government rather than the worker (which by Goff's account would be perfectly just), and then the worker was paid whatever the government thought appropriate, this would be widely regarded as a violation of the rights of workers to pay: workers have a right to pay, even if the government has a right to taxes. But on Goff's account there can't be a labor right to pay: you don't have any moral or legal claim to your pre-tax income, so if the government taxes 100% of it, it hasn't violated your rights. And this is exactly how right-libertarians would tend to regard Goff's proposal: as an attack on the rights of workers. Similarly, Goff seems completely oblivious to the ways in which governments have historically used taxation as a tool of oppression, even though any right-libertarian would continually be thinking of these things. And this seems to be the fundamental problem: Goff treats his opponents as inconsistent upholders of his own view of how society should work, not as what they are, people who would naturally see his view as a defense of totalitarian oppression, and therefore he seems not to have any idea of how they actually see things. He thinks he is arguing for justice; he has no idea how to interpret accurately people who see him as arguing for injustice.

There are broader issues. Goff notes that "Almost all politicians and voters start from the assumption that each citizen has some kind of moral claim on her gross income." He has done other articles (much less bad) on the subject, and he always ends up saying something like this. He wants to say it is incoherent -- he certainly hasn't done this, since he never considers the possibility of defeasible moral claims, and his arguments involve several equivocations or at least controvertible assumptions. But the fact of that matter is that this very concession is a problem: it means that our social norms presuppose it, that our laws are expected to uphold it, that citizens elect officials expecting to uphold it, that politicians expect it to be understood when making laws, that, in short, the societies we have are societies in which it is posited to be true, and that our ways of doing things depend on this assumption, and that is is so even if it in practice must be taken as a rough-and-dirty, defeasible claim. Thus what is Goff actually describing when he says one has no moral claim to gross income? Not the way income works in the society we actually have.

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