Taxation and conscription

by John Quiggin on April 24, 2004

A while ago, I made the observation that

since most libertarians envisage a minimal state with no real taxing powers but a continuing responsibility for defence, reliance on conscription would be almost inevitable. From the libertarian viewpoint, any form of taxation constitutes slavery[1], and fairness is not a proper concern of policy, so there can be no particular objection to the press gang as opposed to, say, voluntary recruitment financed by involuntary income taxes.

I was speaking in the context of the Aubrey-Maturin novels, set during the Napoleonic Wars, but the issue has come up again in relation to contemporary debates about the draft. Julian Sanchez has a very good discussion of the issues from a libertarian viewpoint, rejecting Nozick and arguing that rights over property are derivative of, and potentially far more qualified than, rights over one’s own labour.

My own view is broadly similar to Julian’s. Conscription may be justified in the kind of total war situation that also requires “conscription of wealth”, but not as a cheap way of filling the military.

fn1. Nozick is clear on this, and a lot of other libertarians say much the same thing, though usually more foggily. As noted below, however, it’s always a mistake to refer to “the” libertarian viewpoint.

{ 28 comments }

1

Elaine Supkis 04.24.04 at 2:14 pm

We are all cannon fodder. Especially civilians. We are all target number one in a war. All wars end up being exercises in seeing who can kill the most civilians the fastest. The best tool for this are nukes.

This is why nukes will rain down on all of us in the bitter end.

2

asg 04.24.04 at 2:57 pm

Of course, conscription is not just a bugaboo for libertarians. See Bryan Caplan’s “Distributive Justice in a Pure Service Economy” (http://www.gmu.edu/departments/economics/bcaplan/service) for the thought experiment.

3

Xavier 04.24.04 at 5:24 pm

It’s certainly true that libertarians oppose taxation, but it doesn’t follow that conscription is preferable. Even if you have an entirely conscripted military, there would be other expenses in fighting a war like buying supplies. Taxation would still be required. Minarchists accept that some taxation is necessary, and I think most would agree that taxation is a less offensive invasion of liberty than conscription. Only anarcho-capitalists believe in zero taxes, but they wouldn’t require conscription because they don’t believe in having any kind of state military.

4

Bill Carone 04.24.04 at 7:39 pm

“Only anarcho-capitalists believe in zero taxes, but they wouldn’t require conscription because they don’t believe in having any kind of state military.”

David Friedman can find situations where he would be for a draft, and he is an anarcho-capitalist.

5

Bill Carone 04.24.04 at 8:30 pm

John,

“rights over property are derivative of, and potentially far more qualified than, rights over one’s own labour.”

Most libertarians I know of distinguish labor from property. For example, they think that contracts exchange property rights and never labour (i.e. specific performance is not allowed).

For example, we might make a contract saying “If Bill paints John’s house by June 15, John pays Bill $1000 (wage). If Bill doesn’t paint John’s house by June 15, Bill pays John $2000 (penalty).” Nowhere in this “complete” contract does it say that John has a right to Bill’s labour, just Bill’s property.

So property is different from labour; one you can contract away, one you can’t. This isn’t terribly controversial, is it? More complicated, sure, but not controversial.

“since most libertarians envisage a minimal state with no real taxing powers but a continuing responsibility for defence”

It would be a huge argument against libertarianism if it required the state to provide defense without funding; that’s patently ridiculous.

However, that claim doesn’t seem logically required by any form of libertarianism, and I have almost never seen this claim made by any libertarian, so I don’t know how you came to this conclusion.

On your other blog, you replaced “most libertarians” with “Nozick” so why didn’t you do so here? You even claim again, without support, that “a lot of” libertarians hold this position, although “foggily.”

I’d like to know some of your sources. Which libertarians make this claim and which do not, based on your research?

“Julian Sanchez … rejecting Nozick”

Julian actually writes:

“The strongest thing I’d want to say is the formulation Nozick offers in a footnote to Anarchy, State, and Utopia, that ‘similarities between taxation and forced labor’ make it ‘plausible and illuminating to view such taxation in the light of forced labor.’ ”

Does Nozick say something other than this in ASU? Or is it simply “plausible and illuminating”?

“there can be no particular objection to the press gang as opposed to, say, voluntary recruitment financed by involuntary income taxes.”

Your argument here is false. Even if taxation and slavery are not different in kind (contra Sanchez), that doesn’t imply that they are not different in degree, and that you would want the least “amount of slavery” possible.

6

Robin Green 04.24.04 at 8:53 pm

[i]For example, we might make a contract saying “If Bill paints John’s house by June 15, John pays Bill $1000 (wage). If Bill doesn’t paint John’s house by June 15, Bill pays John $2000 (penalty).” Nowhere in this “complete” contract does it say that John has a right to Bill’s labour, just Bill’s property.

So property is different from labour; one you can contract away, one you can’t. This isn’t terribly controversial, is it? More complicated, sure, but not controversial.[/i]

Forgive me for being the class dunce, but I don’t understand how this works for services.

What property is Bill exchanging with John? Paint, yes, but that’s not sufficient. If he just gives John an unopened tin of paint, he’s not going to get paid.

And what about a more intangible service like answering the telephone? What property is being exchanged there?

I understand and agree with the prohibition on specific performance as a remedy for breach of contract. But that doesn’t mean that labour isn’t being exchanged if Bill paints John’s house – it is.

7

Robin Green 04.24.04 at 9:00 pm

I will learn to stop using [i]-style tags on CT.

8

Jeremy Osner 04.24.04 at 10:51 pm

Right but Bill (Carone)’s point in that illustration, if I understood it correctly, was that nothing in the contract obliges Bill to perform any labor — it simply obliges him to pay a penalty in property, if the labor is not performed. It is difficult to imagine a contract which did oblige one party to perform labor — unless the “penalty” section of the contract was to put the contractor into some kind of forced servitude.

9

John Quiggin 04.24.04 at 11:00 pm

Bill, I printed the original quote since the post as a whole makes it clear that this isn’t the position of all libertarians, but only of Nozick and some others.

As regards Nozick, he has a lengthy thought experiment purporting to show that an income tax at a rate of 25 per cent is exactly equivalent to being a slave 25 per cent of the time.

In lifetime terms, therefore, being drafted for two years is a modest imposition compared to income taxes.

10

Bill Carone 04.25.04 at 12:54 am

Robin, sorry that I was unclear.

You are right; “exchange of property rights” is incorrect; I will in future say “transfer of property rights,” allowing for the one-way transfers that do occur in service contracts (perhaps a legal theory type could talk about consideration at this point).

In this theory of contract, a contract specifies property rights (a.k.a. title) to be exchanged or transferred according to states of the world.

– If Bill paints the house, Bill gets title to $1000 in John’s bank account.
– If Bill doesn’t paint the house, John gets title to $2000 in Bill’s bank account.

That is all the contract says.

You can’t write a contract that gives John title to Bill’s labour, only Bill’s property. Therefore, this theory of contract seems to indicate a significant difference between the two.

“But that doesn’t mean that labour isn’t being exchanged if Bill paints John’s house – it is.”

That isn’t what the contract is saying, and it isn’t what anyone agreed to. In no way does John get title to Bill’s labor (in this theory of contract). It is illustrative to think of exchanging property for labor, but that isn’t really what happens.

Am I making more sense?

Jeremy,

“unless the “penalty” section of the contract was to put the contractor into some kind of forced servitude.”

This theory of contract, as I understand it, only allows transfer of title, which does not include forced servitude. It could include e.g. the right to all income earned over, say, $10,000 for the rest of your life, which would be similar to forced servitude in some ways, different in others.

John,

Sorry I misinterpreted your post; I read it as claiming more than it did. I worry that people will get the wrong idea about libertarian arguments.

11

masaccio 04.25.04 at 1:51 am

I cannot think of very many cases where specific performance requires performance of labor. Most of the time, specific performance cases arise from duties not to do something, such as non-compete clauses. In the case of recording contracts, to take an example, the performer may be contracturally bound to make a certain number of albums for a label, but if she doesn’t, the penalty is what? to make her write some music and sing it? No, the problem only arises when she makes an album for another label. The the damages are monetary.

In the case of a contract to sell land, or goods, specific performance relates to an act acceptable to the libertarian.

I cannot believe I am responding to this line of thinking. I read Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead one summer while I was in college, and I think the only people who could possibly take them seriously are so literal-minded that they think that either of these tombs of prose count as literature.

12

Mike Huben 04.25.04 at 2:27 am

While Bill Carone may be correct that current US contract law will not enforce claims on labor, I suspect that in the past and internationally contracts have enforced claims on labor. Seaman’s articles, for example. And of course, there is disagreement among libertarians about whether such contracts should be enforceable in libertaria, where you well might have “voluntary” slavery contracts.

The basic reason Nozickian libertarianism can be ignored by most people is that we accept that rights are human creations: legal fictions. That’s one of the important lessons of the legal realists of the early 20th century. Thus, we create the rights we prefer. When presented with the real-world problem of taxation versus conscription, the answer lies in what we prefer rather than some apriori mumbo jumbo.

If you want to see how wierd libertarianism is, check out my
Critiques Of Libertarianism
http://world.std.com/~mhuben/libindex.html

13

Bill Carone 04.25.04 at 2:56 am

“While Bill Carone may be correct that current US contract law”

Whoa there, sport; I am no legal theorist, and certainly no expert on current law. I am delivering a simplified explanation of one type of contract theory that supports the idea that libertarians think that property and labor are different in kind.

“If you want to see how wierd libertarianism is, check out my
Critiques Of Libertarianism
http://world.std.com/~mhuben/libindex.html

And if you want to see how weird Mike Huben’s arguments are :-), see David Friedman’s response.

Both sites are good to look at; ignore the childish rhetoric (and only the childish rhetoric).

“most people …accept that rights are human creations: legal fictions.”

For example, most people think torturing children is wrong because of a legal fiction, right?

There are arguments for this, but don’t pretend that “most people” think so. That is “mumbo jumbo.”

14

Ken 04.25.04 at 3:01 am

“The basic reason Nozickian libertarianism can be ignored by most people is that we accept that rights are human creations: legal fictions. That’s one of the important lessons of the legal realists of the early 20th century.”

Wow. One of the most important lessons of the legal realists was a complete repudiation of the Declaration of Independence?

“since most libertarians envisage a minimal state with no real taxing powers but a continuing responsibility for defence”

Most libertarians of the minarchist variety envisage a state that does have real taxing powers, but extremely limited latitude in what it is permitted to use those taxes for. Taxes for defense is kosher; taxes for giving free money to people is not.

But most libertarians of whatever variety will agree that taxing people to pay other people to fight is vastly preferable to forcing people to fight.

15

Bill Carone 04.25.04 at 3:27 am

Masaccio,

“In the case of recording contracts, to take an example, the performer may be contracturally bound to make a certain number of albums for a label, but if she doesn’t, the penalty is what? to make her write some music and sing it?”

Are you supporting my point or attacking it? From your “I can’t believe” paragraph, it seems that you disagree, but the rest of your post seems to agree with me.

Your example supports the idea that the label doesn’t have title over the performer’s labour, only over his or her property (i.e. money damages). Thus, this supports the idea of a difference between property and labor; one can be contracted away, one cannot. This is not an “unlibertarian” theory of contract; it is similar to ones that emphasize “inalienable rights.”

Mike Huben said, “I suspect that in the past and internationally contracts have enforced claims on labor.” Would you, Masaccio, say that these sorts of contracts should be allowed? The theory I have described would not.

“In the case of a contract to sell land, or goods, specific performance relates to an act acceptable to the libertarian.”

I clearly didn’t know what specific performance was; I thought it mainly applied to labor, not property (e.g. even if you have a contract, you can’t force Britney to sing, but you can force her to pay damages for not singing). This is an example of “no specific performance” but doesn’t cover all aspects (e.g. if a contract with you to sell a piece of art, you might not be able to force me to give it to you, but instead might have to accept monetary damages instead). Luckily, my error doesn’t affect my argument (and, even more luckily, IANAL).

16

Mike Huben 04.25.04 at 3:44 am

Whoops: I meant legal positivism, not legal realism.

Bill: David Friedman’s response is well written, but not well thought out. One day I’ll have to post my response. As for torturing children, many parents think it’s their right. Belief in invisible rights is like belief in souls (as far as I’m concerned) and that explains why people disagree about what they actually are.

Ken: you need look no farther than the US Constitution for “repudiation” of the Declaration Of Independence: it is a philosophically austere document that doesn’t invoke invisible deities or rights. Indeed, it in no way grants the DOI any legal validity.

17

Jacob T. Levy 04.25.04 at 5:30 am

Neither Nozick nor Friedman endorses the claim that taxation is morally worse than conscription. Friedman clearly says taxation is preferable if conscription can be avoided. Nozick analogizes taxation to forced labor; but conscription is forced labor.

18

Bill Carone 04.25.04 at 4:58 pm

Mike,

“David Friedman’s response is well written, but not well thought out.”

I would suggest people read both and come to their own conclusions; Mike may be a little biased :-). Neither are that long or that hard to read.

I find Friedman’s response quite persuasive, and I find Friedman’s writing quite a bit more “well thought out” that Mike’s on their respective websites.

“As for torturing children, many parents think it’s their right.”

But most people disagree (especially for my particularly gruesome description of what I meant by “torture”). Again, there are good arguments for your position, but don’t pretend that “most people” agree with it, and therefore they don’t need to consider libertarianism.

In fact, most people disagree with your position, and therefore you can be safely “ignored by most people”, according to your own argument, right?

19

Bill Carone 04.25.04 at 5:00 pm

Jacob,

“Nozick analogizes taxation to forced labor; but conscription is forced labor.”

I asked John Quiggin if Nozick just analogized or not, and he said, “[Nozick] has a lengthy thought experiment purporting to show that an income tax at a rate of 25 per cent is _exactly_ equivalent to being a slave 25 per cent of the time.” [emphasis mine]. So he seems to think Nozick meant more than an analogy.

Do you have support for your statement over his?

20

masaccio 04.25.04 at 8:53 pm

Bill Carone: It seems to me that your point about service versus property in the case of legal action is true, but vacuous. I cannot think of a case where a court would order someone to perform services, in your painter example, or my recording artist example. The few exceptions, such as requiring people to close a contracted sale do not contradict your point, either, as they do not involve performance of anything other than a ministerial (another semi-technical legal term) service.

As to conscription, I think it is yet another example of the libertarian goal of distancing themselves from the rest of the public, in a typical fit of solipsism.

My remark about the badly-written Ayn Rand books was apparently clear.

21

Mike Huben 04.26.04 at 12:54 am

Bill:

Friedman’s response is largely a recitation of favorite libertarian propaganda, so it’s small wonder that many libertarians find it persuasive. But let’s take two examples.

First, he tries to dictate his preferred meaning of utopian, so that my usage would be wrong. That’s silly on the face of it. He’s not a language dictator, and apparently needs a better dictionary.

Second, when I claim that government is the foremost defender of our rights, he trots out a number of favorite libertarian factoids, but nowhere identifies an alternative foremost defender.

I don’t expect most readers to spot the problems with Friedman’s arguments: that would require far more thinking than most people would spend on it.

As for your example of torture of children, there is a difference between revulsion and contradictary assumptions. If I reject Nozickian libertarianism because I reject the assumption of natural rights, that is philosophically different than if I reject torturing children because my stomach turns. A turning stomach does not indicate natural rights.

22

Bill Carone 04.26.04 at 3:45 pm

Mike,

“it’s small wonder that many libertarians find it persuasive.”

I’m not a libertarian; it’s a hobby. Most anti-libertarians I read didn’t seem to actually understand or address the strongest of libertarian arguments; like you, they restrict themselves to the weaker arguments, then say that nobody should listen to any of them. This is false and deceptive.

If you are going to argue against something, you should argue against the strongest possible form it can take.

Now your FAQ states up front that it isn’t trying to make good arguments, just give debating tips; rhetoric is apparently more important than substance.

But once you start saying things like “you don’t need to understand or even think about the arguments on the other side” you need more substance.

“A turning stomach does not indicate natural rights.”

I know. As I said twice before, there are arguments for the position that “gruesomely torturing children isn’t really wrong; it’s just an arbitrary fiction.”

You seemed to claim that most people agreed with claims like that, therefore they can ignore libertarian arguments rather than spend time thinking about what is wrong with them. Your premise is false, so your argument is invalid; do you disagree?

“First, he tries to dictate his preferred meaning of utopian, so that my usage would be wrong.”

What is your definition of utopian? Impractical? Impossibly ideal? Very remote in some sense? These are what I get from a dictionary.

You state that libertarianism is utopian because it hasn’t happened. I can’t think of a definition of “utopian” that makes your statement both (1) valid, and (2) useful.

If you simply mean “utopian” as “hasn’t happened yet,” then your statement is valid, but useless (and deceptive for people who use dictionary definitions for “utopia”). It doesn’t add anything to the argument, unless deception is your purpose.

If it means any of my above suggestions, then it is invalid; the fact that something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it is impossibly ideal or impractical, or even remote (Friedman’s point).

“Second, when I claim that government is the foremost defender of our rights, he trots out a number of favorite libertarian factoids, but nowhere identifies an alternative foremost defender.”

1) Yes he does; he says private law enforcement has been “foremost” in two particular time periods, and has done better in those times that government systems do in our time (18th century England, Saga Iceland).

Your claim that he “nowhere identifies an alternative foremost defender” is therefore false, even if you don’t believe England or Iceland are valid examples.

2) The “libertarian factoids” (ah, framing :-) show the damage government does alongside the defense; Friedman probably is trying to argue that to be a foremost defender of rights, you should probably not violate more than you defend.

For example, do you think that slaveowners are the foremost defenders of their slaves rights? After all, although they violate many more rights than they protect, no one else protects any of the slaves’ rights at all.

A suggestion: If you don’t have time to completely respond to Friedman’s response, perhaps you could put a partial response on your website, so the discussion between you two can continue.

23

Mike Huben 04.26.04 at 5:40 pm

Bill, I’m not going to debate here extensively, partly because it’s not a good venue, and partly because you (like Friedman) carelessly misread (or in your case rewrite my argument) to make your propaganda fit. For example, you rewrite me as saying “you don’t need to understand or even think about the arguments on the other side”, when I stated that we can ignore arguments when they are based on assumptions we disagree with. That doesn’t mean we can ignore the issues, just those particular arguments.

Your argument about my usage of utopian being “deceptive” could apply to an usage of any word with multiple meanings. For example, your use of “invalid” is deceptive because you’re not talking about sick people. But Friedman should have known better: as you observe, I give a reason for selecting the word utopian, and he ignores it to dictate a different meaning. Here’s another that fits my FAQ very well: “an ardent but impractical political or social reformer”. That can be used in an adjectival sense.

As for foremost defenders, by focusing on law enforcement, both you and Friedman ignore national defense. Conquest causes problems for rights and liberties, you know. And of course my discussion was about the present: raising historical examples does not suggest a different foremost defender today. And sure medieval Iceland spent no public monies on defense: it was a remote island with nothing of value except fisheries. Oh, and that had a robust system of slavery based on viking, speaking of protection of rights.

Mike Huben

24

Bill Carone 04.26.04 at 9:39 pm

Mike,

“Bill, I’m not going to debate here extensively,”

Fair enough. I do hope you write a response to Friedman, even if it is only a partial response due to time constraints.

25

Mark Koyama 04.27.04 at 11:47 am

Of course no libertarian would support conscription. For an account of how an defence services could be provided by private firms look no further than The Myth of National Defense
By Hoppe, Hans-Hermann (ed).

I find Mike’s attack’s on ‘libertarian propaganda’ miguided and misdirected to the say the least. Libertarianism is best understood as a set of intellectual arguments rather than as a political position. There is no danger of libertarians ever coming into power and abolishing the state. Nor is David Friedman running for political office. So it is hard to see how his attempt to engage in an intellectual debate consitute ‘propaganda’.

26

Bill Carone 04.27.04 at 5:43 pm

“Of course no libertarian would support conscription.”

Again, David Friedman would support conscription under particular circumstances. I linked to him above.

“So it is hard to see how his attempt to engage in an intellectual debate consitute ‘propaganda’.”

I don’t understand this either; when I attempted to show the invalidity of Mike’s arguments, he said I was propagandizing for the libertarians. Given that I am not a libertarian (and wasn’t making arguments for libertarianism, just showing where his arguments went wrong), I found it quite puzzling.

27

Mike Huben 04.28.04 at 3:25 pm

Propaganda: The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause.

And why wouldn’t that definition apply to libertarians or sympathizers of their views? Even if they are not in the Libertarian Party?

I love the way you guys are attempting to change the discussion to an ad-hominem attack on me through my word usage.

28

Bill Carone 04.28.04 at 7:56 pm

Mike,

“And why wouldn’t that definition apply to libertarians or sympathizers of their views?”

It doesn’t apply to me; I am neither. I know too much to be convinced by simple libertarian arguments, and I know too little to engage the complicated ones. So I have to remain pretty much unaligned.

Throughout this whole discussion, I have argued that, although you have said many things that may be true, you are also saying many false, invalid, useless, and confusing things:

1) Most people believe in legal positivism – false (torturing children example).

2) Most people can ignore Nozickian libertarianism because most people believe in legal positivism – invalid (false premise).

3) David Friedman never provided an alternative “foremost defender of our rights” – false (he provided two: neither convinces you, but they are there).

4) Libertarianism is utopian since it hasn’t ever happened (given utopian means impractical or impossible) – invalid (just because something hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it is impossible or impractical).

5) Libertarianism is utopian since it hasn’t ever happened (given utopian means hasn’t ever happened) – useless (doesn’t say anything) and confusing (to people who know the more typical definitions of “utopian” and think you are actually making argument 4 above).

(Note I changed “deceptive” to “confusing” since my choice clearly was, well, confusing :-)

Given these false, invalid, useless, and confusing things you say, you haven’t provided me with much evidence that your arguments are more well-thought out than Friedman’s, another claim you make.

You have responded, it seems, quite personally and insultingly, calling me careless, calling me a propagandist, and saying I am attacking you.

“I love the way you guys are attempting to change the discussion to an ad-hominem attack on me through my word usage.”

Saying that I am puzzled by your behavior is not an ad-hominem attack. Perhaps you could explain it to me: why is it that you respond to “Your argument is wrong, isn’t it?” with “You must be a careless libertarian propagandist attacking me,” instead of “You misunderstood my argument,” or “You are misinterpreting my use of the word ‘propaganda.'”?

As for your word usage, it is confusing, no? For example, my understanding is that “utopian” and “propaganda” are both mostly used in negative ways, and using either word to describe your opponent in a non-negative way is easy to misunderstand.

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