It seems like it is Nozick-bashing day Down Under. First Ken Parish links to his favourite online criticisms of Nozick. Then John Quiggin follows up with a different criticism. Quiggin’s argument is that given some plausible assumptions about history, we can justfy (heavy) taxation even by Nozick’s lights. Premise one is that Nozick agrees that if one person, say the king, or one group, say the parliament, owned all the land, then they could justly charge rents on all who inhabited that land. Whether we call these taxes or not doesn’t change the fact that they are justified. Justification does not turn on whether something is called a rent or a tax. Premise two is that at some stage the land was owned by some such person or group. Premise three is that current states can be construed as owning the land they govern because they traded for it with the previous owners. Conclusion, all taxes are justifiable rents.
Quiggin illustrates premise three with a little folksy history of property law in Britain. It goes something like this. Once upon a time there was a king called William who owned everything and leased some of it out under various conditions, including the right to sublet. Later his heirs agreed to not change the annual rents without the approval of a body corporate of the renters. Later heirs transferred ownership to the body corporate (which continued collecting rents from lease-holders) in exchange for some nice palaces and a comfy annual payment. The body corporate expanded its membership to include everyone. Thus the modern state.
Now this isn’t meant to be a justification for any kind of taxation. A good libertarian could take it to be a reductio of Nozick’s views. Or they could take it to be an argument for emigration to some country where there is no such Nozickian defence of taxation available to the government. Quiggin thinks their hopes will be disappointed. He thinks "that given any plausible starting point, Nozick’s approach leads to the conclusion that the status quo, including taxes, regulations and other government interventions is just". But it’s hard to see how we can defend a version of premise three for all countries, or even for most countries. Indeed, at the end of the just-so folk history, we get the following conclusion.
The general implication is that, in any society with a constitutional history, the only set of property rights that can be supported by a Nozickian analysis is the status quo, including state powers such as the power of eminent domain and the power to tax. (My emphasis)
But many countries don’t have constitutional histories in the relevant sense. The various revolutions of 1776, 1789 and 1989 constiute decisive breaks in the stories of the revolting countries, as did several of the 1848 revolutions. We might be able to provide a chain of ownership from William the Conqueror to the people of Britain for the lands of Britain (provided we squint a little around 1649) but a similar story for Poland will be hard to tell.
That’s not to say it isn’t a lot of fun tweaking various libertarians from time to time. And Quiggin may still have an argument against Nozick, just not the one he intended. If his principles allow for unfettered taxation in Britain but not in Poland, that’s probably absurd enough to overthrow the theory. (Which is not to say, as several commentators on Ken’s site noted, that libertarianism itself is damaged. Lots of good theories have bad defences.) The whole thing reminded me of my favourite passage from Locke.
140. It is true, governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit every one who enjoys his share of the protection, should pay out of his estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own consent, i.e. the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves, or their representatives chosen by them: for if any one shall claim a power to lay and levy taxes on the people, by his own authority, and without such consent of the people, he thereby invades the fundamental law of property, and subverts the end of government: for what property have I in that, which another may by right take, when he pleases, to himself? (My emphasis)
As my colleague Dave Estlund once remarked, in the highlighted section Locke goes from being Newt Gingrich to Teddy Kennedy without drawing breath. (I would have said John Hewson to Jim Cairns.) The point is not that Locke was abandoning his individualist principles here. The point rather is that once we allow for any kind of collective bargaining at all, even completely voluntary collective bargaining, the terms of the social contract could end up looking a lot like familiar states. Some might think this was a good reason for libertarians to not rest too much weight on Lockean arguments, or anything like them.