May 18, 2012 columns

Why Having a “Debt to America” Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Having a Moral Duty to Pay Taxes

Sixty-seven million dollars. That’s the tax bill Eduardo Saverin’s avoiding by renouncing his U.S. citizenship just as he’s expected to earn billions from Facebook’s IPO.

By not paying that $67 million, Saverin’s being greedy, ungrateful–even traitorous. Or at least that seems to be the consensus view among the tech press and the political talking heads. And it’s a view I strongly rejected in a post here a couple days back.

Noah Kristula-Green over at the Daily Beast thought so little of that post, he labeled it “The Weakest Defense of Eduardo Saverin.” Kristula-Green argues that Saverin gained much–if not everything he has–from America’s system of laws. Thus he owes the state for much–if not all–of his riches, and so ought to pay up. (Or, rather, he ought to pay more than he already will, because he’s not escaping the U.S. tax free.)

“If you think that Saverin should be convinced to maintain his U.S. citizenship,” Kristula-Green writes, “this is an incredibly important argument to get right.”

That’s true. But Kristula-Green doesn’t succeed.

Let’s start with a major assumption being made–one that must be argued for, but isn’t. This is the question of whether paying taxes is the only (or even the best) way of discharging debts you have to America for benefits you received from being a citizen. I wrote a rebuttal of the “only taxes will do” position last year.

The short version is simply that my debt from benefits received is ultimately owed not to the state, which may have been the immediate supplier of the benefits, but to the citizens who sacrificed to pay for them. Because of this, the debtor can discharge his debt in any way that helps those citizens. That may mean paying taxes, but it needn’t mean that exclusively. Rather, if Saverin benefited from all of us, his obligation (if he has one) is to in turn benefit us back. I argue he’s done that enough by being partly responsible for Facebook. But even if that’s not enough, I don’t quite see why he must “benefit” us by way of a check to the IRS instead of, say, funding private scholarships or launching a new business to put even more Americans back to work.

Further, while it’s true that Saverin benefited from America’s judicial system, that would seem to imply only a duty to give back to the judicial system. It’s unclear why it means he’s morally obligated to pay into a pot from which the judicial system will get something, true, but which will also be used to bail out banks, drop bombs on people in Afghanistan, subsidize rich sugar growers, and outfit SWAT teams perpetuating the shockingly immoral war on drugs.

Kristula-Green goes on to ding me for “express[ing] skepticism with the idea of a state at all.” To support that claim, he links to a post of mine on fair play theory, part of a series I’m writing on the philosophy of political obligation.

The question of political obligation–even if it makes us skeptics–matters. It’s not an easy question, but it’s one we need to address if we’re to have meaningful discussions within political philosophy. It’s a exploration that may lead to anarchism, but it needn’t necessarily take us that far. As I wrote in an earlier post,

Recognizing just how hard the question of political obligation is does carry some normative weight outside anarchist circles. The modern state, with its high taxes, voluminous legislation, and robust regulatory regime, acts as if we have a significant number–a huge number–of obligations to it. The modern state exercises a great deal of authority over us.

But if justifying that authority and grounding those obligations proves morally difficult, then at the very least we ought to be more skeptical the next time the state adds another obligation to its list. And the state adds obligations all the time.

What’s more, none of this is particularly controversial among philosophers. In fact, most of the arguments I’ve discussed in my series, raising problems with fair play and gratitude and so on, also appear in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the topic, which itself pulls from A. John Simmons’s groundbreaking book, Moral Principles and Political Obligations, as well as the work of Simmons and others in the 30 years since its publication. Simmons’s position, what he calls “philosophical anarchism,” may actually be the dominant view among academic philosophers (surely not a reactionary, right-wing bunch) who’ve made a study of political obligation. And if it’s not dominant, it’s certainly the most influential.

In short, explaining why we have political obligations proves awfully hard. Assuming it’s easy won’t make the question go away.

What’s more, we all have a theory of political obligation and authority, even if we’ve never examined it. We all have a point at which we say what the state asks of us is too much. We can all imagine some situation where we’d feel the state has no right to spend our tax dollars on that.

In closing, do I, as Kristula-Green claims, “express skepticism with the idea of a state at all?” Yes and no. Throughout my series, I’ve generally avoided attacking premises such as “the state benefits us” or “we are better off with government than without” precisely because, even if those premises are true, it’s not clear that genuine political obligations of the kind expected of us by large, modern democracies necessarily follow. In fact, I believe they don’t. I believe that while it’s possible for political obligations to arise, they can only occur in very narrow circumstances (i.e., through some form of legitimate consent) and with very narrow scope. I also believe that no currently existing state meets those requirements. Thus none of us actually bear political obligations.

(Please note this is not the same thing as claiming we are without moral obligations and so are free to murder, steal, oppress, and so on. I explain the difference between moral and political obligations here.)

But denying political obligations doesn’t mean I therefore reject the idea of the state and embrace anarchism. Rather, while I think the state has no moral authority over us, we still have good reasons to want live within it and support (some of) its activities. Thus we should act as if political obligations do in fact exist, while recognizing that enforcing them may, because they are a fiction, be immoral. We may even have very good reasons for adopting this tactic. Perhaps having a state that enforces its (illegitimate) authority is just so much better in its consequences that we’re willing to put up with the moral violations it entails.

So this makes me skeptical of the state, yes, but not of the idea of the state at all.

There are many things Eduardo Saverin probably ought to feel morally bound to do with his $67 million. Paying what amounts to voluntary taxes, by choosing to stay in the United States, isn’t one of them.