Nozick and taxes

by John Quiggin on December 17, 2003

My post on equality of outcomes and opportunity produced a huge comments thread, much of which focused on the question of the original acquisition of rights, a big problem for Locke and Nozick. Rather than dive into the thread, I thought I’d point to an argument I put forward a few months ago, and repost a bit of it:

Nozick claims that libertarianism is right not because it produces good outcomes (he doesn’t argue one way of the other on this) but because a requirement for just process implies that property rights should be inviolable. Nozick’s position has been criticized in various ways, often focusing on the fact that he never specifies a just starting point. I want to present a different argument: 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. I illustrate this point with a story.

You can read the rest here

In essence my claim is that all existing property rights have been received from states which reserved rights of eminent domain and powers to tax when they granted the property rights. So someone who wants to claim that their property should be immune from redistribution is in the same position as a tenant who claims that, by virtue of their past tenure, they should be able to expropriate the landlord. There may be good consequentialist arguments for this claim, but they cannot be supported by arguments like those of Locke and Nozick.

When I first posted this piece, Brian Weatherson objected to the historical analysis arguing that revolutions constitute decisive breaks in the history of the relevant states. I disagree. Whether revolutionary governments expropriate existing rights and grant new ones, or honour pre-existing rights, the rights are still derived from the government, just as, to the extent that pre-existing debts are honoured, they are owed by the government.

I should clarify that the argument I’ve presented has no impact on consequentialist arguments for libertarianism and no implication that some past contract has closed off the libertarian option. If we are now convinced that we would be better off privatising public assets, scrapping taxes, removing restrictions on property rights and so on we can clearly do so, and (if you accept a Nozick argument) bind future generations not to reverse these policies without the consent of those affected. But nothing about current property rights obliges us to do this.

{ 51 comments }

1

DJW 12.17.03 at 5:39 am

Link’s not working, at least for me.

I’ve often had a similar thought about Nozick on this issue, but I’ve never been able to articulate it at all, so I look forward to reading your original post/paper.

Forget guest blogger; I suggest CT tender an offer to John.

2

Shai 12.17.03 at 5:58 am

he wrote “hef” instead of “href” but the link is still in the source: go here

3

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 6:04 am

Your argument relies on (what I believe to be) the faulty assumption that the government owned the property in the first place, and then granted property rights to private owners in the same way that a landlord grants limited rights to a tenant. But I see no good reason for making this assumption. While Lockean theories of initial acquisition, namely homesteading, may be lacking, so too are socialist, social democratic, and welfare statist theories of initial acquisition by society/government.

It seems to me that all initial acquisition theories are lacking. One way to deal with the problem is to assert some sort of statute of limitations. Another is to simply ignore rights-based arguments altogether and instead focus on consequentialist justifications for libertarianism, which is much more fruitful, in my opinion.

4

Jonathan Lundell 12.17.03 at 6:07 am

The link isn’t working because your browser (like most browsers) doesn’t recognize an “hef” attribute for an “a” tag.

Try http://mentalspace.ranters.net/quiggin/archives/001119.html

5

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 6:12 am

Perhaps that should have read, “the government legitimately acquired the property in the first place.”

Why assume that the government had the authority to grant property rights in the first place?

6

John Quiggin 12.17.03 at 6:30 am

Thanks for pointing out the broken link. It’s fixed now, I hope.

7

cw 12.17.03 at 6:31 am

Ownership of land has always been maintined by force or by laws backed by the force of a government.

It is much easier to live under the second system but then you have to pay for it. If the government is going to defend you property rights then it makes sense that you should pay taxes to cover these costs.

8

John Quiggin 12.17.03 at 6:35 am

Misha, I agree with everything you say, in particular that all initial acquisition theories are unsatisfactory.

I’m just pointing out that, if you do adopt an initial acquisition theory, and argue consistently, you don’t end up with a case for libertarianism.

9

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 6:36 am

But what if you can defend your own property rights? Or what if you have friends who can help protect them? Or what if you can purchase protection from a private security firm? In all these cases, it does not make sense that you should have to pay taxes to cover these costs, because you can choose to acquire defense from other sources.

And even if it is the case that defense of property rights can only be defending by a single institution with a monopoly on the initiation of force within a single geographic area, that would only justify Nozick’s “Night Watchman” state, but would do nothing to justify the larger welfare-regulatory social democratic state.

10

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 6:45 am

John,

I’m not sure whether you would or would not end up with a case for libertarianism if you adopt an initial acquisition theory. It would depend on the status of legacy contracts: contracts that stipulate some ongoing rule or regulation even after the property has been passed down through multiple generations. It seems strange to me that these contracts should still be binding long after all of the original parties to the contract are dead.

This is especially relevent to the question of whether or not a legitimate (confiscatory) state could be created under libertarian initial acquisition premises. Such a state would require unanimous consent among the initial property owners. But the waters become murkier when these owners die and leave the land, binded by government, to their children. Their children never unanimously agreed to this arrangment, and this seems to violate a central premise of libertarianism.

11

linden 12.17.03 at 8:27 am

“Whether revolutionary governments expropriate existing rights and grant new ones, or honour pre-existing rights, the rights are still derived from the government, just as, to the extent that pre-existing debts are honoured, they are owed by the government.”

Rights are never derived from the government. Rights are inherent in the people. Government should be constructed so as to intrude as little as possible on the rights of the people. One of these rights is the right to private property (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”) For the full list: See the Bill of Rights. People have different standards for what constitutes reasonable search and seizure. Some consider taxes unconsciable, others not, but things like eminent domain and taxes only exist because the people permit them to.

As for the question of ‘ground zero’, I would say this point is when the most recent social contract was agreed to.

12

Matthew 12.17.03 at 9:26 am

“Yes, but I really, really don’t want to pay taxes…”

13

crayz 12.17.03 at 10:47 am

Interesting points all. micha – I think whether or not you can defend your property now is somewhat irrelevant. You can’t simply proclaim a clean break from the moment that you no longer wish to take advantage of government services on.

The fact is that your property is only yours because the government protected/owned it in the past. Unless you come upon some brand new piece of land in the middle of the ocean, the land you are claiming to be yours free of obligation has certainly in the past been the subject of “investment” by others – i.e. government/society.

That is, you can no more justly say that land that has been defended in many ways(militarily, environmentally, etc.) by a gov’t/society is “yours” free of obligation, than you can borrow vast sums of money and then, when you have bought what you need with it, decide not to repay the debt.

If you want to get into a spaceship and fly to Mars and claim squatter’s rights on some land, be my guest. But your beach-front property has been protected from invasion, erosion, pollution, etc. for hundreds of years. You can’t say “oh, I don’t need your protection anymore, I’ll just stop taking it and stop paying you for it”(and this is aside from the overwhelming freerider problems with such an argument)

14

Brett Bellmore 12.17.03 at 10:54 am

Nozick’s effort to get from anarchy to the minimal state, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by spinning out a counterfactual tale of how it came about, failed. And it fails when you resort to the technique, too.

Yeah, in some parallel universe, that mugger might have been voluntarilly given my wallet as a gift. But what’s relevant is how he ACTUALLY got it.

15

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 11:50 am

You can’t simply proclaim a clean break from the moment that you no longer wish to take advantage of government services on. The fact is that your property is only yours because the government protected/owned it in the past.

If you come to my house and mow my lawn, without me asking you to do so, and then demand that I pay you for your service, do I have an obligation to pay? What if you claim that my lawn is only mowed because you mowed it and would not have been mowed otherwise?

16

Thomas Dent 12.17.03 at 12:04 pm

The lawnmowing analogy isn’t a very good one because nothing terrible follows from the non-mowing of a lawn.

Do you owe anything to your parents? Most of the world’s cultures would say yes, libertarians (presumably) no.

17

crayz 12.17.03 at 12:28 pm

If you come to my house and mow my lawn, without me asking you to do so, and then demand that I pay you for your service, do I have an obligation to pay? What if you claim that my lawn is only mowed because you mowed it and would not have been mowed otherwise?

Aside from this not being a good analogy, you have things completely backwards. Who was here first, the United States, or you? If you were a settler here and some people got together and created the US and included your land in it, you might have some legitimate greivance. Instead, you got your land from someone who explicitly or implicitly accepted the it was part of this country(and would accept the protections of the country and the costs of those protections), and he got the land from someone….etc. back 200+ years.

So for you now to declare that the land is some sovereign terroritory of micha is kind of naive.

18

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 12:32 pm

The lawnmowing analogy isn’t a very good one because nothing terrible follows from the non-mowing of a lawn.

I’m not sure why this should matter. Replace “lawn mowing” with “life-saving surgery”. Does anything important change? Do I now owe the surgeon payment for saving my life even though I didn’t ask him to perform surgery, and might have otherwise purchased services from another surgeon? Does it matter that I am only alive now because the surgeon saved my life in the past? Or do we need to consider the possibility I might be alive now even if this particular surgeon didn’t force his benevolence upon me?

As for whether or not children owe anything to their parents, I don’t think there is any moral obligation. But it is certainly a nice thing to do.

Do most of the world’s cultures say that children owe something to their parents? There are a few problems with this claim:

1. Is it true? What evidence do you have that this is so?

2. Is culture the same as government? Libertarianism is primarily a political philosophy restricting what government can do to people and what people can do to each other; generally, it does not place demands on cultural norms. At least in America, children do not have a legal obligation to provide for their parents. [Although parents do have a legal obligation to provide for their children. Most libertarians would agree with this discrepancy, as parents generally choose to bring their children into the world, whereas children have no choice in the matter.] Nor am I aware of any strong social norms which would lead people to shun those who do not provide for their parents.

3. Who cares what most of the world’s cultures say? Even if your claim is both true and relevant to libertarianism, an argumentum ad populum is not the best way to justify moral claims, especially when we consider that most of the world’s cultures have a long history of slavery, racism, sexism, etc.

19

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 12:44 pm

Who was here first, the United States, or you?

The implication here is that the United States is a moral entity just like you and me, capable of exercising its rights and morally obligated to respect the rights of other entities. What are these rights? How does the United States legitimately acquire property? Where does it get the money to do this? Was there unanimous consent in its formation?

This thread was supposed to be about original acquisition of rights. It seems that you are trying to skip this step and simply assume that the initial acquisition was just.

20

dsquared 12.17.03 at 1:38 pm

This thread was supposed to be about original acquisition of rights. It seems that you are trying to skip this step and simply assume that the initial acquisition was just.

Since your original example began with the words “if you come to my house”, there is an element of pot/kettle here …

In actual fact, something like this happened to me a couple of months ago. The council came to my house without asking, mended the roof and sent me the bill. It turns out that they are the freeholder, and they have the right to do this, because of a long chain of easements, transactions, and whathaveyou dating back to the Domesday Book. What’s different about your house?

21

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 1:51 pm

Daniel,

Yes, yes, very funny. I see just a wee bit of difference between trying to stay on topic on a website that is admittedly not my own, and coercive benevolence. I certainly have no power (or desire) to force everyone to stay on the topic John Quiggin raised, but it does seem useful to remind ourselves every now and then exactly what the hell we are supposed to be talking about.

I’m not clear on your particular housing situation, but as I mentioned earlier in this thread, I’m somewhat skeptical of legacy contracts which bind people long after the original parties are dead.

22

Nicholas Weininger 12.17.03 at 2:13 pm

Perhaps a bit tangential, but: there *does* exist an example in history of settlers literally coming upon a brand new piece of land in the middle of the ocean, dividing it up by consensual means, and protecting their rights to their property without a State. That example is the settlement of Iceland. So just initial acquisition is at least possible in the real world, however rare.

Also, David Friedman, in the last couple of chapters of _Law’s Order_, gives a number of examples of how property rights may arise and be sustained through the exercise of informal social norms.

23

crayz 12.17.03 at 2:17 pm

micah – just to go over the thread from my perspective:

1) you said assumption gov’t “owns” property is faulty
2) it was countered that the gov’t protects the property
3) you countered that maybe you don’t need the protection
4) I pointed out that whether or not you need(or say you need) it now, your ownership of property now cannot simply ignore history

Now if you want to say that the gov’t aquired authority over the land of this country unjustly, that’s fine. But I think if you’re going to ask that that authority be nullified because it was unjust, then you have to acede to taking all the land of the country and divying it up equally between the people living here. How can you fairly say that the gov’t that allowed you to aquire this property is unjust, and yet your keeping the property is all well and good?

24

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 2:51 pm

I pointed out that whether or not you need(or say you need) it now, your ownership of property now cannot simply ignore history

Well, I don’t think my argument requires any ignorance of history. What’s interesting about original acquisition theory is that it is just that: theory. It is not a description of what actually did happen; that would be history. Rather, it is a normative explanation of how property can be justly acquired. One of the reasons I don’t think original acquisition theory is very useful is that the similarity between theory and practice is not clear at all.

But I think if you’re going to ask that that authority be nullified because it was unjust, then you have to acede to taking all the land of the country and divying it up equally between the people living here.

Two points here:

1. As I said in my first post in this thread, while Lockean theories of initial acquisition may be lacking, so too are socialist, social democratic, and welfare statist theories of initial acquisition by society/government. Therefore, it doesn’t follow that all the land should be divided up equally. I seriously doubt that very many of the current land owners in this country (other than perhaps the government) inherited their land from previous owners several generations back. Rather, I suspect that the vast majority of land has changed hands repeatedly, and has been purchased with legitimately earned funds, primarily from wages paid for labor. Why should these people who worked hard to purchase their land now have to give it back to be redistributed to people who did nothing deserve it?

2. Even if I concede the previous point, I would have no problem accepting your proposal. Robert Nozick actually made this very same argument in ASU. Consider any potential distribution of wealth that would satisfy an egalitarian. Once the egalitarian is satisfied, Wilt Chaimberlain comes along and offers to play basketball in exchange for a small sum from those who wish to watch him do so. The exchange takes place, and now millions of basketball falls are a few dollars less wealthy, while Wilt Chaimberlain is a million dollars wealthier than before. If we accept the right of individuals to barter with each other, and the egalitarian was satisfied with the initial acquisition, there should be no egalitarian objection to this state of affairs, even though there is now much inequality in society. So if this is all it would take to satisfy egalitarians, I would be more than happy to adopt a one-time redistribution.

How can you fairly say that the gov’t that allowed you to aquire this property is unjust, and yet your keeping the property is all well and good?

My objection isn’t that the government allowed people to acquire property. My objection is that the government never aquired the property itself, so it has no claim of authority to regulate other property owners.

25

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 3:00 pm

Nicholas’ post reminds me: David Friedman has already addressed most of the issues raised in this thread in his response to Mike Huben’s “A Non-Libertarian FAQ.”

26

raj 12.17.03 at 3:01 pm

“a requirement for just process implies that property rights should be inviolable”

Oh, jeez, this is dumb. Property rights? Property rights are the bundle of rights that government will protect at any given time. The bundle of rights that one might call “property rights” have varied over time, and will continue to do so. Get over it.

27

cw 12.17.03 at 4:01 pm

It seems to me a theory of initial aquisition of property rights is usful only to rationalize or moralize about a particular system of property distribution. Property rights are abstract, have no reality in the physical world. Their is no physics of property rights.

What is real is the aquiring and holding of property. It’s one of those questions that a society is continually answering: what system are we going to use to aquire and protect property?

In this country, via the struggle of politics, we have developed a property system where–to a large extent–the government regulates aquisistion and holding of property, and charges us for it.

There are plenty of examples of more libertarian systems–those in historic central america for instance. Most of the time it seems like most of the property ends up in the hands of a few families.

I think our current system is better on the whole.

28

Demosthenes 12.17.03 at 4:05 pm

Micha: and, in turn, Mike responded.

(I’ve always been sympathetic to Mike’s comments on libertarianism. Then again, I have a more Hobbesian than Lockean view of rights anyway.)

29

Demosthenes 12.17.03 at 4:08 pm

Hmm. Ok, I should clarify- the above link isn’t a response to that particular rebuttal, but a general listing of Huben’s responses to Friedman’s ideas.

30

dsquared 12.17.03 at 4:09 pm

Just to clarify; I wasn’t getting arsey about property rights over CT (which would be out of place for me anyway, as I seem to remember I still owe Henry my share of the upkeep costs), just pointing out that by referring to “my house”, you appeared to be begging the question by assuming unproblematic ownership of your house.

I’m somewhat skeptical of legacy contracts which bind people long after the original parties are dead

But this is an absurdly strong requirement which leaves you “somewhat suspicious” of massive chunks of common law. My house is on a 125 year lease, and this is by far the most common model for property ownership in London.

31

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 4:31 pm

just pointing out that by referring to “my house”, you appeared to be begging the question by assuming unproblematic ownership of your house.

Good point, which brings me back to my original observation that neither libertarian nor egalitarian theories of initial acquisition are well grounded, and further, that there is no way (other than perhaps consequentialism) to resolve the dispute between the two.

I recall a philosophy professor of mine who used, as an example, the conflict between socialist and libertarian theories of property rights to explain Thomas Kuhn’s theory of conflicting paradigms that cannot be resolved by any rational process.

But this is an absurdly strong requirement which leaves you “somewhat suspicious” of massive chunks of common law. My house is on a 125 year lease, and this is by far the most common model for property ownership in London.

How can you go from “somewhat skeptical” to “an absurdly strong requirement”? I didn’t claim that legacy contracts were completely invalid; I merely expressed skepticism that such contracts should continue to hold after hundreds of years. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I am still entitled to a little bit of skepticism, no?

32

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 4:40 pm

Demosthenes,

Mike never responded to Friedman’s rebuttal, but Jonathan Andreas did. Jonathan’s response to Friedman’s rebuttal is available here. Friedman then responsed to Jonathan, available here.

33

Dick Thompson 12.17.03 at 4:52 pm

It seems that commenters who object to your view think that rights, or at least ownership, are prior to government. And how do they justify that beleief? AFAIK the answers are either theological or based on fanciful “states of nature”.

But the historical record, supported by archaology, does not show us any state of nature. It shows us human beings always organized into groups and ruled by a minority according to local laws and customs. The primate band is prior to rights and the growth of rights is the historical dimunition of the powers of the ruling minority.

34

Jeremy Osner 12.17.03 at 5:48 pm

Dick — I am neither a libertarian nor well acquainted with libertarian thinking, but: your final sentence, “the growth of rights is the historical dimunition of the powers of the ruling minority”, seems to me to point the way toward a justification of “rights”-ism which is neither theological nor based on appeal to a state of nature. If the growth of rights and diminution of government power is a historical imperative, then one could assert that it should keep going, rights should get continually more important over time until the end of history, when we will find ourself in a pretty, happy, enchanting capitalist anarchy. This sounds a little bit like Marx to me, I’m not sure what to make of that.

35

Decnavda 12.17.03 at 5:54 pm

Going back to the original post, John’s argument does a good job of showing how Nozick’s argument could lead to a Georgist view of land (all granted by the government reserving rights to tax & regulate), as well as rights over corporations, intellectual property, etc., etc.

Where this argument fails as to the status quo is the individual income tax. If Nozick’s argument is correct, then, irregardless of history, there is NEVER a right for the government to tax my earnings from my labor.

36

Gareth 12.17.03 at 7:04 pm

Whether Nozick’s argument works depends on what it is trying to do. One of Nozick’s goals is to undermine “pattern” theories of justice, and his argument works for that purpose. There he can say (1) presume that property is initially allocated in accordance with the “just” pattern; (2) allow people to make exchanges that make everyone involved better off; (3) the “just” pattern will disappear quickly.

However, this argument cannot establish that any particular set of property rights are just. And a lot can get bundled into the definition of “property rights”.

For example, micha is confused to point to “legacy contracts” as problematic. What is at issue is not contracts (which create rights only between the contracting parties), but property rights. A restrictive covenant on my land restricting it to residential use must bind my successor in title because the only right I have to transfer to them is the right to use the land for residential purposes. But logically, the same point could be made for a zoning by-law: if I bought the land knowing it was zoned residential, how is that different from buying it knowing there was a restrictive covenant on it? In some sense, it is part of my neighbour’s property rights that I am not allowed to build a factory there. So if the by-law is repealed, then my neighbour is expropriated.

Unfortunately decnavda, the same point can be made for income tax. Last year, I negotiated a certain income from my employer in exchange for work. We both knew that a certain percentage would go to income tax. We also both expected (as Canadians) that the government would provide me with a basic health insurance package at a nominal premium paid for out of those taxes.

If neither of those things had been true, we would probably have negotiated a different contract, with less gross pay, but with health insurance covered by the employer.

If a libertarian party came to power and reduced taxes and eliminated public health insurance, it would be interfering with the bargain we agreed to. Some people would get windfall gains; others uncompensated losses. The same if libertarians abolished Social Security in the US.

The point is that the “process” model of justice, once detached from historically-specific common law concepts of property and civil rights amounts basically to respecting people’s existing expectations. It is an argument against dismantling a welfare state or seniority rights as much as against setting them up in the first place.

37

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 7:41 pm

Dick,

I don’t recall anyone in this thread trying to justify the existence of rights. You are arguing against a straw man.

But I do agree with you that the traditional justifications for rights are extremely weak, which is why I tend to be more concerned with consequences.

Gareth,

But logically, the same point could be made for a zoning by-law: if I bought the land knowing it was zoned residential, how is that different from buying it knowing there was a restrictive covenant on it?

This is why my primary tactic in this thread was to deny the authority for government to implement such zoning laws in the first place. Otherwise, I would agree that the two are basically the same.

Unfortunately decnavda, the same point can be made for income tax. Last year, I negotiated a certain income from my employer in exchange for work. We both knew that a certain percentage would go to income tax. We also both expected (as Canadians) that the government would provide me with a basic health insurance package at a nominal premium paid for out of those taxes.

I don’t think this follows. While it is true that you both knew a certain percentage of your income would go to the government, your decision to go through with the labor contract in no way implies that you gave implicit consent to taxation. Imagine a mafia that moves into your neighborhood and demands a percentage of all wages in exchange for “protection.” The fact that you begrudgingly give in to the mafia’s demands does not mean that you consent to them. Until someone can establish where this authority to tax comes from, the state remains unjustified.

The point is that the “process” model of justice, once detached from historically-specific common law concepts of property and civil rights amounts basically to respecting people’s existing expectations. It is an argument against dismantling a welfare state or seniority rights as much as against setting them up in the first place.

This seems to be simply a definition of conservative ideology. The problem with this defense of the status quo is that it has nothing to do with rights or justice. To paraphrase what you wrote, if a libertarian party came to power two hundred years ago and eliminated slavery, it would be interfering with the bargain slave sellers and slave buyers agreed to. To which I say, So what?

38

ahem 12.17.03 at 7:48 pm

Rights are never derived from the government. Rights are inherent in the people.

But that’s begging the questions, since it’s just a reiteration of Jefferson-after-Locke, and the big problem with Locke is that he engages in some sleight-of-hand with the chronology. One aspect of this is that he analogises the ‘state of nature’ to the commons, whereas the commons itself comes into being because of state acts: to borrow from the philosopher Douglas Adams, they are ‘rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty’ within a system of titled property.

What’s slightly disturbing, I suppose, is that the patriarchal model which Locke targets in the first Treatise of Government probably comes closer to the model of original acquisition than Locke’s own counter-model. Not that the absolute (Filmerian) patriachal model isn’t flawed in the extreme; but Locke’s model has a rhetorical satisfaction because of its back-referencing of contemporary socio-corporate structures to ‘corporeal’ ones, i.e. the origins of property-protecting minimal societies.

I suppose you can argue that taxing individual labour is acceptable within a Georgist model because it’s accepted that the state creates the framework for the protection of one’s income derived from labour, and is entitled to its share. Yes, it’s a protection racket, but it’s one that is theoretically based upon egalitarian (or at least equable) principles.

39

Decnavda 12.17.03 at 7:55 pm

gareth-
Your argument against me flowed thus:

1. If A freely purchases property subject to a restriction against building a factory, and then freely transfer this property to B, B is still subject to the restriction because he can only recieve the rights held by A and no more. I agree, and I think Nozick would too.

2. By analogy, if I purchace a plot of land subject to zoning restrictions, those restrictions have moral force because I knew when I bought the property that it was subject to zoning restrictions. I agree. Nozick might balk, but John in this post demonstrated how it flows from his arguments because the land was, as historical fact, initially owned by the government at one time, and transfered to individuals subject to the government’s laws.

3. By analogy, if I took a job knowing that I am subject to an income tax, that tax has moral force because I knew about it before I accepted the job. Wrong. From a Noizickean point of view, what matters is not prior knowledge of coersive restrictions, but but the legitimacy of initial aquisition and the chain of transfer. John’s argument works for land because it was at a prior time, woned by the government and transfered subject to restrictions. But another premise of Noizickean theory is that each individual intially ownes their own labor. The government’s requirement that I pay it a tax on my labor is not legitimate because, unlike land, (or corporate charters, or intelectual property monopolies, etc.) they never owned my labor and never transfered my labor to me suject to any restrictions.

Your argument about respecting people’s expectation to welfare from the government is a good one, but it is separate from the question of how the government should raise the revenue to pay for these programs.

40

Decnavda 12.17.03 at 8:07 pm

“I suppose you can argue that taxing individual labour is acceptable within a Georgist model because it’s accepted that the state creates the framework for the protection of one’s income derived from labour, and is entitled to its share. Yes, it’s a protection racket, but it’s one that is theoretically based upon egalitarian (or at least equable) principles.”

Further, the difference between the state and the mafia is that, in a democracy, the citizen is a soverien of the state, so it’s more like the mafia imposing a protection racket on “made” men.

This is the best argument for the income tax I have heard of, and it is one with which I currently struggling, since on a personal level I REALLY do not like the individual income tax.

But this is a social contract version of Georgist theory, and does not in any way flow from Nozick’s arguments.

41

Micha Ghertner 12.17.03 at 9:34 pm

After giving this much thought, I think I came up with a way to save John Quiggin’s criticisms of Nozick from my rebuttal. (Of course, you say, Quiggin doesn’t need saving because I never successfully rebutted his arguments. Well, just bare with me anyway.)

Quiggin claims 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.”

I still disagree with this formulation of his argument, because historically, I do not believe that the government ever had a legitimate claim on the land, which is a necessary premise to reach John’s desired conclusions.

But I do think it is possible to construct a hypothetical situation whereby the status quo of a large, regulatory welfare state could have come about without violating any libertarian premises. And as John notes, this should present a problem for libertarians who base their political ideology on natural rights as opposed to consequentialism.

I posted the following hypothetical situation on Catallarchy.net in response to this thread:

    Suppose there is a small group of neighbors. This group of neighbors decides to form a homeowner’s association in order to solve various public goods: peace and quiet, zoning, private police protection, and so on. The association’s purpose, procedures, and limitations are laid out in a constitution, unanimously agreed upon by the initial owners. Whenever new owners wish to join this association, they must pledge fealty to the constitution by swearing to uphold it and abide by its authority. There are various elected officials charged with creating new legislation within the bounds of the original constitutional limitations. If they wish to change any part of the constitution, it requires support from two-thirds of the voting population.
    As time passes, the small homeowner’s association grows larger and larger, as new tenants wish to join. They do so not necessarily because they agree with everything the homeowner’s association does, but because all of the other homeowner’s associations available are even worse. This is their least-bad solution.
    A few hundred years pass. This homeowner’s association has now encompassed the whole of North America, minus some quirky neighbors to the north. A significant number of tenants really do not like the homeowner’s association’s rules and regulations, but they are in the minority and do not have the power to change the status quo. They were born into this system, or came here because they were even more oppressed elsewhere. But they never really chose this system, in the sense that they do not consent to its high taxes, burdensome regulation, and busybody paternalism. They simply have no other choice but to put up with the system, as bad as it is.
    Sound familiar? This is precisely the situation we now find ourselves in, except that in our reality, the Constitution has No Authority, because it was never unanimously agreed upon by its initial constituents.
    But let’s suppose that it was. Would libertarians end all criticisms of this state of affairs? It seems to me that such a society would satisfy all natural rights requirements, as it is essentially just a large private organization.
    In the same way that egalitarian premises can lead to inegalitarian conclusions, so too libertarian premises can lead to illibertarian conclusions. This doesn’t bother me very much as a consequentialist, but I think it may present a problem for rights-based libertarians.
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cw 12.17.03 at 11:45 pm

You guys seem to be trying to justify an origin of human rights via some source located outside of society. You want to do this in order to legitimize or deligitimize a particular system of property rights.

I don’t believe this can be done. There are no rules for human conduct (so far as I can tell) outside of human society (other than the laws of physics: gravity, entropy, fire bad, bread good, etc…). No natural law, no moral law, no christian, islamic, judaic law, etc… Therefore there is no objective set of standards to determine what rights humans should have or not have.

For instance, if I steal someone’s house and some non-human feature of the universe swings down to take retribution, then we could say that there is something in the structure of the universe that requires strong property rights for humans, an that human laws contrary to this are illegitimate.

But I’m pretty sure the structure of the universe contains no mechanisms for the enforcement of property rights, or any other rights. Thus there is no way to determine which system of property rights, or taxation, or whatever is legitimate or not by refering to nature.

To make this determination you will have to agree on a set of human-invented standards: our property system should be just, efficient, compatible with Jesus’s teachings, consistent with the goals of human evoloution, whatever….

As soon as you have created a set of standards you will have a small society, and can start to legislate and all well be well until someone comes along who doesn’t agree with your standards. She will tell you that your laws are illegitimate.

A society is, by definition, whatever set of arbitrary rules the members create, so any rule that society creates through it’s rule making process is legitimate.

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Jonathan Wilde 12.18.03 at 12:25 am

A society is, by definition, whatever set of arbitrary rules the members create, so any rule that society creates through it’s rule making process is legitimate.

Which members?

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cw 12.18.03 at 12:56 am

Whichever members are effective in creating the rules.

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Troy 12.18.03 at 1:02 am

Georgist philosophy on this question rocks —

Land, not being the product of anyone, belongs in common usufruct, and those who desire exclusive rights to land owe compensation to the community thereby dispossessed.

I can see absolutely no philosophical objection to the above.

Definitions about “compensation” and “community” are admitedly tricky, but David LLoyd George’s:

“To prove a legal title to land one must trace it back to the man who stole it.”

is the last word on this particular issue IMV.

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Jonathan Wilde 12.18.03 at 1:12 am

Whichever members are effective in creating the rules.

What about the 49% that are on the short end of the stick, and don’t agree on the rules?

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Brett Bellmore 12.18.03 at 1:26 am

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for lunch. The other 49% are the lunch. Still, I suppose it’s better than one wolf having two sheep for dinner…

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cw 12.18.03 at 3:04 am

It dosen’t even have to be as few as 49% who disagree. That sounds like a majority rules democracy. But any process a society uses to create it’s rules are legitimate in the sense that whatever the rules are IS the society. THe rules may be cruel, inefficient, unfair, confusing, whatever. But none of these abstract concepts exisit outside of society in the non-human universe, so it doesn’t do any good to say that these rules are bad becasue Jesus wouldn’t have like them, or they don’t support the thrust of human evolution, or they are against natural law.

The point I’m making by this is that it’s a waste of time to try to decide the legitimacy of certain rules acorrding objective, non-human standards, as it seem to me many people are doing on this thread. Of course there could be something I’m not understanding.

But if someone dosen’t like the rules of a particular society then they can try to change them, adjust to them, or move to a different society.

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Jonathan Wilde 12.18.03 at 3:11 am

It dosen’t even have to be as few as 49% who disagree. That sounds like a majority rules democracy. But any process a society uses to create it’s rules are legitimate in the sense that whatever the rules are IS the society. THe rules may be cruel, inefficient, unfair, confusing, whatever. But none of these abstract concepts exisit outside of society in the non-human universe, so it doesn’t do any good to say that these rules are bad becasue Jesus wouldn’t have like them, or they don’t support the thrust of human evolution, or they are against natural law.

Such a view boils down to a justification for the Nazi holocaust, antebellum slavery, and the killing fields. There were rules, created by “society”, they were enforced by “society”. Very effectively. The victims of these atrocities tried to change the rules, tried to adjust to them, and even tried to escape. But they ran into the human meat shredder of “society”.

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cw 12.18.03 at 5:10 am

RE J. Wilde

You are missing my point. I have been responding to the acres of posts above that seemed to me to be struggling to ligitimize various societal rules according to some kind of universal non-human standards (or maybe human satndards attributed to the universe). I have been trying to say that societal rules are made up by soley the people living in those societies, and they are not subject to review by gods or the laws of physics. The fact that the nazis for instance, commited such horrible things without suffering any divine retribution proves my point.

Which again is: a society can have any rules it’s members want. You can make up rules that lead to the extermination of millions and there will be no tidal waves or plauges of locusts or black holes.

Not that exterminating millions would be a good thing or a fair thing or a moral thing. Just that good, fair, moral are human abstractions.

My point is purely a technical one, but one that I think is important. Of course others may believe differently.

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Jonathan Wilde 12.18.03 at 2:25 pm

Which again is: a society can have any rules it’s members want. You can make up rules that lead to the extermination of millions and there will be no tidal waves or plauges of locusts or black holes.

And I am saying that there is a contradiction in this statement. When you say “it’s members” which members do you mean? Surely not the ones being exterminated. Otherwise, your statement simply boils down to an observation that the people who have power have power. Okay, no problem. But I assume that most people, whether they be libertarians, egalitarians, etc are arguing about which people ought to rule, and what the rules ought to be.

Back to your original statement:

A society is, by definition, whatever set of arbitrary rules the members create, so any rule that society creates through it’s rule making process is legitimate.

If by “members” you mean each and every member, then I submit that taken from the purely moral standpoint, this view is most consistent with market anarchism.

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