November 9, 2011 columns

Political Obligations and Paying Taxes

The question of political obligation is both one of the most interesting and the most neglected in political philosophy. Most philosophers begin with the assumption that we are obligated to obey and support the state—whether because of a social contract, natural law, some other theory, or for no stated reason whatsoever—and work their way forward from there.

It may very well be that we have such obligations to (legitimate) states—but it’s a conclusion in need of argument, not simply assertion.

Within this broader field of the philosophy of political obligation1 is the intriguing question of specific obligation. Simply, if I have an obligation to obey the state, which state do I owe that obligation to? By accident of birth, I was born on a piece of land claimed by a particular state. Am I obligated to support that state? If so, why? And what if the state I was born into is unjust, perhaps even horrifically so?

Further, even if I do have a duty to support the state I was born into, at what point does that obligation arise? Is it at the moment of birth? Or is it when I’ve taken some action to explicitly or implicitly create the duty to obey?

These are not easy questions, but they are important ones—and I’ll be exploring them more in upcoming posts.

These issues are also very much in play, as evidenced by Elizabeth Warren’s popular argument for higher taxes.

Elizabeth Warren Maps the Terrain

At a campaign stop in September, Warren made the case that the benefits we all receive as a result of living in this particular society (the United States) obligate us to pay taxes to this particular government (the federal government in Washington). Because the rich benefited more than the rest of us—as evidenced by how much more they have than the rest of us—the rich are obligated to pay a larger amount.

Warren’s position wasn’t novel. Nor was it thorough. But in articulating it, she made explicit intuitions many people have about political obligation. This makes her remarks fertile ground for exploring this crucial question of political theory.2

Briefly, Warren’s argument for political obligation looks something like this:

  1. Everyone who is rich today would not be rich if it weren’t for certain benefits (police protection, roads, education of the workforce) provided by the state and paid for by taxes.
  2. Because of this, the rich owe their success (in part) to society.
  3. This creates an obligation on the part of the rich to repay their debt to society by contributing to the pool from which similar benefits are provided to others in the future.
  4. Therefore the rich should pay (more) taxes.

Some time ago, I looked at the problem with (3). Namely, it’s not actually clear that receiving a benefit—especially one unasked for and so not quite “accepted”—creates an obligation to repay that benefit.

Here, however, I want to explore the trouble in Warren’s move from (3) to (4).

Obligation to Whom?

Let’s admit for the sake of argument that Warren is on firm ground all the way through (3). Receiving benefits does create obligations to repay those benefits. The question is, who is the obligation to?

This is the missing step in Warren’s argument, one that exposes a blind spot in much political thinking. Society (i.e., the group of individuals we consider our fellow citizens) pays taxes to the state. The state uses that money to provide benefits to members of society, including me. Because I gained something from those benefits—I benefited from them—I have an obligation to repay the provider. For Warren, that provider is not society broadly construed but, rather, very narrowly the state that happens to have set up shop in Washington, DC.

If we try to explicate Warren’s move from (3) to (4), we get something like this: Accepting benefits paid for by others means I am obligated to assure that others gain similar benefits in the future.3 The benefits to me, bought with taxes and provided by the state, can only be given to others in the future by that same state. So “providing future benefits” and “providing future benefits via the state” amount to the same thing.

But are they? I go out to dinner with a friend at Red Lobster and he picks up the check. “It’s my turn,” he says. For sake of argument—and also because it’s probably true—let’s say that this creates an obligation on my part to provide him with a meal in the future. Note that this obligation is to my friend and for a meal.

I could discharge this obligation in a number of ways. I might take him out to dinner at some later date and pay for it. I might invite him over to my place for a dinner I cook myself. If he’s confined to his home for some reason, I might come over and cook for him—or I might have food delivered. What matters is that I received a benefit from my friend and I repay it by providing him a similar benefit.

Something similar is going on in Warren’s argument for political obligation. I’ve accepted a benefit paid for by “society” and so I, in turn, must provide society with similar benefits in the future. But then Warren makes a very odd move—the one from (3) to (4). She claims that the only way I may discharge my obligation to society is by giving money to the state. Reframed in the restaurant example above, Warren appears to be claiming that the only way I can repay my friend for buying me a meal at Red Lobster, is by giving money to Red Lobster so that it can, in the future, provide my friend with a meal.

Clearly something has gone wrong. I owe my friend a meal. But I don’t owe Red Lobster anything at all. Just as there are other ways for me to discharge my obligation to my friend—buying him dinner somewhere else, cooking him dinner, etc.—it seems perfectly reasonable to conclude that there are other ways I can discharge my obligation to society. I might give money for scholarships to private schools, thus “repaying” the education I benefited from. I might invent a new and efficient means of transportation, thus “repaying” the mobility from roads I benefited from.

Repaying Benefits—But How?

Warren’s argument—her move from (3) to (4)—works only if the state is the sole means by which benefits may be provided to society.4 And clearly that’s not the case. In fact, given inefficiencies in many state-run programs, my obligations may be better discharged by giving my money or time to some other person or organization than the government.

A simple example should suffice to demonstrate this. Imagine I’ve received $10,000 from Social Security since I retired. Accepting Warren’s theory of political obligation, this means I’m obligated to repay to society some portion of that $10,000 in similar services. Consider two ways I might do this. First, I could send a check for $10,000 to the Social Security Administration. They would divide it up among ten senior citizens. But, before doing so, $1,000 of my $10,000 is consumed by overhead—staff, buildings, electricity, etc. So each senior citizen ends up getting a check for only $900.

Alternatively, I could mail the checks myself. I pick ten seniors at random, write a checks, and send them to each. Now each senior receives the full $1,000. It seems clear that this second option is better—from the perspective of benefiting society directly—than the first.

But this appears to direct us to the conclusion that, even if Warren is right through step (3), the rich still are not, according to her argument, obligated to repay their benefits in the form of taxes. In fact, they may be advised not to do so and instead to help people directly, contribute to efficient charities, and so on.

What Role for the State?

None of this means we shouldn’t pay taxes. There may very well be services we benefit from that only the state can provide. But as a broad claim about how benefits lead to obligations which in turn lead to the need to pay (more) taxes, Warren’s argument doesn’t hold up.

Political obligation is a complex topic, one that rewards contemplation. And it’s also one of the most significant areas of political theory when it comes to establishing the proper relationship between citizen and state.


  1. Explored at length in the invaluable—and highly readable—book, Moral Principles and Political Obligations by A. John Simmons, which holds a well-deserved spot on Libertarianism.org’s Libertarian Theory reading list. 

  2. I addressed some of the problems raised by her arguments in a post over on Cato-at-Liberty, but I want to expand on one aspect of that here on Libertarianism.org. 

  3. Alternatively, Warren might argue that the rich need to pay for the benefits they’ve already received. This makes the social contract less of a “pay it forward” system and more of a “fee for service” one. However, this isn’t what she’s claimed. Instead, she said, “Part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” [emphasis added] 

  4. And it may be for those goods that are truly public goods in the economics sense. There may be goods that only the state can provide. But Warren doesn’t appear to be making that argument. Most of the things government does today are not about providing true public goods. Yet much (most?) of the taxes we pay go toward those things.