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4. Binary Intervention: Taxation > 7. Canons of "Justice" in Taxation

D. Voluntary Contribution to Government

A few writers, disturbed by the compulsion necessary to the existence of taxation, have advocated that governments be financed, not by taxation, but by some form of voluntary contribution. Such voluntary contribution systems could take various forms. One was the method relied on by the old city-state of Hamburg and other communities—voluntary gifts to the government. President William F. Warren of Boston University, in his essay, “Tax Exemption the Road to Tax Abolition,” described his experience in one of these communities:

For five years it was the good fortune of the present writer to be domiciled in one of these communities. Incredible as it may seem to believers in the necessity of a legal enforcement of taxes by pains and penalties, he was for that period ... his own assessor and his own tax-gatherer. In common with the other citizens, he was invited, without sworn statement or declaration, to make such contribution to the public charges as seemed to himself just and equal. That sum, uncounted by any official, unknown to any but himself, he was asked to drop with his own hand into a strong public chest; on doing which his name was checked off the list of contributors. ... Every citizen felt a noble pride in such immunity from prying assessors and rude constables. Every annual call of the authorities on that community was honored to the full.82

The gift method, however, presents some serious difficulties. In particular, it continues that disjunction between payment and receipt of service which constitutes one of the great defects of a taxing system. Under taxation, payment is severed from receipt of service, in striking contrast to the market where payment and service are correlative. The voluntary gift method perpetuates this disjunction. As a result, A, B, and C continue to receive the government's defense service even if they paid nothing for it, and only D and E contributed. D's and E's contributions, furthermore, may be disproportionate. It is true that this is the system of voluntary charity on the market. But charity flows from the more to the less wealthy and able; it does not constitute an efficient method for organizing the general sale of a service. Automobiles, clothes, etc., are sold on the market on a regular uniform-price basis and are not indiscriminately given to some on the basis of gifts received from others. Under the gift system people will tend to demand far more defense service from the government than they are willing to pay for; and the voluntary contributors, getting no direct reward for their money, will tend to reduce their payment. In short, where service (such as defense) flows to people regardless of payment, there will tend to be excessive demands for service, and an insufficient supply of funds to sustain it.

When the advocates of taxation, therefore, contend that a voluntary society could never efficiently finance defense service because people would evade payment, they are correct insofar as their strictures apply to the gift method of finance. The gift method, however, hardly exhausts the financing methods of the purely free market.

A step in the direction of greater efficiency would have the defense agency charging a set price instead of accepting haphazard amounts varying from the very small to the very large, but continuing to supply defense indiscriminately. Of course, the agency would not refuse gifts for general purposes or for granting a supply of defense service to poor people. But it would charge some minimum price commensurate with the cost of its service. One such method is a voting tax, now known as a poll tax.83 A poll tax, or voting tax, is not really a “tax” at all; it is only a price charged for participating in the State organization.84 Only those who voluntarily vote for State officials, i.e., who participate in the State machinery, are required to pay the tax. If all the State's revenues were derived from poll taxes, therefore, this would not be a system of taxation at all, but rather voluntary contributions in payment for the right to participate in the State's machinery. The voting tax would be an improvement over the gift method because it would charge a certain uniform or minimal amount.

To the proposal to finance all government revenues from poll taxes it has been objected that practically no one would vote under these conditions. This is perhaps an accurate prediction, but curiously the critics of the poll tax never pursue their analysis beyond this point. It is clear that this reveals something very important about the nature of the voting process. Voting is a highly marginal activity because (a) the voter obtains no direct benefits from his act of voting, and (b) his aliquot power over the final decision is so small that his abstention from voting would make no appreciable difference to the final outcome. In short, in contrast to all other choices a man may make, in political voting he has practically no power over the outcome, and the outcome would make little direct difference to him anyway. It is no wonder that well over half the eligible American voters persistently refuse to take part in the annual November balloting. This discussion also illuminates a puzzling phenomenon in American political life—the constant exhortation by politicians of all parties for people to vote: “We don't care how you vote, but vote!” is a standard political slogan.85 On its face, it makes little sense, for one would think that at least one of the parties would see advantages in a small vote. But it does make a great deal of sense when we realize the enormous desire of politicians of all parties to make it appear that the people have given them a “mandate” in the election—that all the democratic shibboleths about “representing the people,” etc., are true.

The reason for the relative triviality of voting is, once again, the disjunction between voting and payment, on the one hand, and benefit on the other. The poll tax gives rise to the same problem. The voter, with or without paying a poll tax, receives no more benefit in protection than the nonvoter. Consequently, people will refuse to vote in droves under a single poll-tax scheme, and everyone will demand the use of the artificially free defense resources.

Both the gift and the voting-tax methods of voluntary financing of government, therefore, must be discarded as inefficient. A third method has been proposed, which we can best call by the paradoxical name voluntary taxation. The plan envisioned is as follows: Every land area would, as now, be governed by one monopolistic State. The State's officials would be chosen by democratic voting, as at present. The State would set a uniform price, or perhaps a set of cost prices, for protective services, and it would be left to each individual to make a voluntary choice whether to pay or not to pay the price. If he pays the price, he receives the benefit of governmental defense service; if he does not, he goes unprotected.86 The leading “voluntary taxationists” have been Auberon Herbert, his associate, J. Greevz Fisher, and (sometimes) Gustave de Molinari. The same position is found earlier, to a far less developed extent, in the early editions of Herbert Spencer's Social Statics, particularly his chapter on the “Right to Ignore the State,” and in Thoreau's Essay on Civil Disobedience.87

The voluntary taxation method preserves a voluntary system, is (or appears to be) neutral vis-à-vis the market, and eliminates the payment-benefit disjunction. And yet this proposal has several important defects. Its most serious flaw is inconsistency. For the voluntary taxationists aim at establishing a system in which no one is coerced who is not himself an invader of the person or property of others. Hence their complete elimination of taxation. But, although they eliminate the compulsion to subscribe to the government defense monopoly, they yet retain that monopoly. They are therefore faced with the problem: Would they use force to compel people not to use a freely competing defense agency within the same geographic area? The voluntary taxationists have never attempted to answer this problem; they have rather stubbornly assumed that no one would set up a competing defense agency within a State's territorial limits. And yet, if people are free to pay or not to pay “taxes,” it is obvious that some people will not simply refuse to pay for all protection. Dissatisfied with the quality of defense they receive from the government, or with the price they must pay, they will elect to form a competing defense agency or “government” within the area and subscribe to it. The voluntary taxation system is thus impossible of attainment because it would be in unstable equilibrium. If the government elected to outlaw all competing defense agencies, it would no longer function as the voluntary society sought by its proponents. It would not force payment of taxes, but it would say to the citizens: “You are free to accept and pay for our protection or to abstain; but you are not free to purchase defense from a competing agency.” This is not a free market; this is a compulsory monopoly, once again a grant of monopoly privilege by the State to itself. Such a monopoly would be far less efficient than a freely competitive system; hence, its costs would be higher, its service poorer. It would clearly not be neutral to the market.

On the other hand, if the government did permit free competition in defense service, there would soon no longer be a central government over the territory. Defense agencies, police and judicial, would compete with one another in the same uncoerced manner as the producers of any other service on the market. The prices would be lower, the service more efficient. And, for the first and only time, the defense system would then be neutral in relation to the market. It would be neutral because it would be a part of the market itself! Defense service would at last be made fully marketable. No longer would anyone be able to point to one particular building or set of buildings, one uniform or set of uniforms, as representing “our government.”

While “the government” would cease to exist, the same cannot be said for a constitution or a rule of law, which, in fact, would take on in the free society a far more important function than at present. For the freely competing judicial agencies would have to be guided by a body of absolute law to enable them to distinguish objectively between defense and invasion. This law, embodying elaborations upon the basic injunction to defend person and property from acts of invasion, would be codified in the basic legal code. Failure to establish such a code of law would tend to break down the free market, for then defense against invasion could not be adequately achieved. On the other hand, those neo-Tolstoyan nonresisters who refuse to employ violence even for defense would not themselves be forced into any relationship with the defense agencies.

Thus, if a government based on voluntary taxation permits free competition, the result will be the purely free-market system outlined in chapter 1 above. The previous government would now simply be one competing defense agency among many on the market. It would, in fact, be competing at a severe disadvantage, having been established on the principle of “democratic voting.” Looked at as a market phenomenon, “democratic voting” (one vote per person) is simply the method of the consumer “co-operative.” Empirically, it has been demonstrated time and again that co-operatives cannot compete successfully against stock-owned companies, especially when both are equal before the law. There is no reason to believe that cooperatives for defense would be any more efficient. Hence, we may expect the old co-operative government to “wither away” through loss of customers on the market, while joint-stock (i.e., corporate) defense agencies would become the prevailing market form.88

  • 82. Dr. Warren's article appeared in the Boston University Year Book for 1876. The board of the Council of the University endorsed the essay in these words:
    In place of the further extent of taxation advocated by many, the essay proposes a far more imposing reform, the general abolition of all compulsory taxes. It is hoped that the comparative novelty of the proposition may not deter practical men from a thoughtful study of the paper. (See the Boston University Year Book III (1876), pp. 17–38)Both quotations may be found in Sidney H. Morse, “Chips from My Studio,” The Radical Review, May, 1877, pp. 190–92. See also Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, pp. 801–03; Francis A. Walker, Political Economy (New York: Henry Holt, 1911), pp. 475–76. Smith, in one of his most sensible canons, declared:
    In a small republic, where the people have entire confidence in their magistrates and are convinced of the necessity of the tax for the support of the state, and believe that it will be faithfully applied to that purpose, such conscientious and voluntary payment may sometimes be expected. (Smith, Wealth of Nations, p. 802
  • 83. The current poll tax began simply as a head tax, but in practice it is enforced only as a requirement for voting. It has therefore become a voting tax.
  • 84. See below on fees charged for government service.
  • 85. Voting, like taxation, is another activity generally phrased in terms of “duty” rather than benefit. The call to “duty” is as praxeologically unsound as the call to sacrifice and generally amounts to the same thing. For both exhortations tacitly admit that the actor will derive little or no benefit from his action. Further, the invocation of duty or sacrifice implies that someone else is going to receive the sacrifice or the payment of the “obligation”—and often that someone is the exhorter himself.
  • 86. We are assuming that the government will confine its use of force to defense, i.e., will pursue a strictly laissez-faire policy. Theoretically, it is possible that a government may get all its revenue from voluntary contribution, and yet pursue a highly coercive, interventionist policy in other areas of the market. The possibility is so remote in practice, however, that we may disregard it here. It is highly unlikely that a government coercive in other ways would not take immediate steps to see that its revenues are assured by coercion. Its own revenue is always the State's prime concern. (Note the very heavy penalties for income-tax evasion and counterfeiting of government paper money.)
  • 87. Spencer, Social Statics; Herbert and Levy, Taxation and Anarchism; and Molinari, Society of Tomorrow. At other times, however, Molinari adopted the pure free-market position. Thus, see what may be the first developed outline of the purely libertarian system in Gustave de Molinari, “De la production de la sécurité,” Journal des Economistes, February, 1849, pp. 277–90, and Molinari, “Onzième soirée” in Les soirées de la rue Saint Lazare (Paris, 1849).
  • 88. These corporations would not, of course, need any charter from a government but would “charter” themselves in accordance with the ways in which their owners decided to pool their capital. They could announce their limited liability in advance, and then all their creditors would be put amply on guard.
         There is a strong a priori reason for believing that corporations will be superior to cooperatives in any given situation. For if each owner receives only one vote regardless of how much money he has invested in a project (and earnings are divided in the same way), there is no incentive to invest more than the next man; in fact, every incentive is the other way. This hampering of investment militates strongly against the cooperative form.
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