Mises Wire

Anarchy, State and Utopia: Robustly against Redistributive Taxation for 50 Years

Robert Nozick’s classic of political philosophy Anarchy, State, and Utopia turns fifty this year. His blasting of the redistribution of wealth shook academia to its core in 1974, and its intellectual tremors are arguably still being felt to this day. Nevertheless, Nozick’s arguments are clearly lost in the “real world”; high taxes and high benefits still run amuck. Indeed, even in the heyday of neoliberalism—the 1980s—Margaret Thatcher often justified her tax cuts on the basis that they advantaged the poorest in society. Did Nozick get it right in advocating for libertarianism, or did John Rawls really come to the correct conclusion in defending the social democracy that most states now embody? Little has not been written in the scholarly dispute; yet Nozick’s case remains close to totally unheard in popular debate. It’s about time that is put right.

In making his first argument against redistributive taxation, Nozick asks us to picture our ideal distribution of wealth across society. Then imagine that Taylor Swift produces a new album and becomes very rich due to many people buying it. Suddenly, egalitarians argue that there is injustice within society because, for example, the poorest could be made better off via an income tax on Taylor Swift’s earnings. To these thinkers, Nozick asks this though: If the original distribution was just and the step to the next distribution was just too, how can any injustice have been introduced? He answers by saying that no such injustice can have been introduced because productive activity (e.g., selling a new album) does no wrong and that the just shares of everyone else remain the same. Hence, redistributive taxation—founded on an ideal pattern of wealth across society—must be opposed, for no injustice from productive activity per se ever arises to be corrected.

Against this line of thinking, egalitarians have argued that the system of natural liberty Nozick favors is unjust because it largely distributes wealth to people on the basis of their natural talents, which are “arbitrary from the moral point of view” due to them being from undeserved social, familial, and genetic factors. In virtue of this moral reasoning, Rawls argues that everyone must decide upon principles of justice behind the veil of ignorance where everyone is ignorant of everything about themselves (which is always infected by the aforementioned factors) and unaware of where they will turn up in civil society when this thought experiment is ended. According to Rawls, participants will favor the difference principle, which ensures the worst-off in society are as well-off as possible, because these participants would not want to risk being in any worse situations themselves; this requires redistributive taxation. Nozick pushes at the very foundation of this thinking.

In a cutting passage opposing Rawls’s theory of justice, Nozick points to the total implausibility of eliminating everything that is “arbitrary from a moral point of view” from people behind the veil of ignorance. Existence itself is morally arbitrary; after all, neither the particular egg nor sperm that combined together to form you deserved that meeting. Excluding existence from behind the veil of ignorance would ensure that no principles of justice are produced as no one would exist to come up with any of these principles. This is not a conclusion any moral realist can accept. Even Rawls’s idea to simply treat natural talents as undeserved and thus warranting distribution according to maximizing the position of the worst-off is implausible too. No one deserves their two eyes, two arms, or two kidneys, yet redistributing these would be wrong; therefore, serious doubt must be cast on any principles of justice that attempt to eliminate such undeserved entitlements.

A final argument Nozick makes is that to redistribute taxation per se seriously undermines self-ownership. Following Herbert Spencer, he asks us to consider a set of slaves whose owner wishes to increase his returns on them. To do this, he transfers his right to control their occupation and spare time back to them and only maintains a right to a middling portion of their income. Should they refuse to pay this portion of their income though, he keeps the right to imprison them. Nozick holds these people remain slaves; thus, for the same reasons, he holds that people today are slaves via income tax too. Sure, this slavery is enormously better than the chattel slavery of the eighteenth century, but its essence remains, as individuals are forced to give up the fruits of their labor to others under the threat of violence against them.

Nozick rejects the idea that income taxation is not minimal slavery under the presence of democracy too: were the slave owner to transfer his income rights to a hundred of his former stock and ninety of the least productive extract 40 percent of the income from the top ten workers after a vote on the proposal, the slavery would remain; by parity of reasoning, it remains under democracy as well. Nor does giving the best workers subsidized healthcare, education, and pensions detract from this. As for “the social contract,” Nozick is happy to dismiss it “as not worth the paper it’s not written on.”

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick rejects redistributive taxation on the basis that the arguments for it implausibly imply that productive activity creates injustice, that our flesh and blood should be redistributed, and that minimal slavery is required too. It is time his arguments are put into the popular debate and the injustice of redistributive taxation is ended. Many will question the prospects of politicians adopting these robust positions, and I can see their point. Yet arguing for lower taxes because they raise revenue simply accepts the immorality of redistribution and reaffirms it. This affirmation must end. The productive are not workhorses to pull the worst-off along; they are ends in themselves and ought to be free from the blasted reins of redistributive taxation.

Image Source: lhwilkinson via Flickr
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