columns

Oct 12, 2018

Are Taxes a Democratic Alternative to Charity?

Progressives provide confused narratives about taxation, justice, and the popular will because they misunderstand what the democratic state is.

Recently, on Twitter, the Brookings Institution’s Vanessa Williamson offered the following remark:

Continuing in the thread of tweets that followed, Williamson explained that “taxes are public funds,” not “allocated according to the whims of rich people.” Williamson’s worries are not without some validity, particularly if we accept her premises about taxes and the democratic process. On its face, a social and economic system that simply abandons the poor or needy to the unpredictable caprices of a small group of well-heeled patricians seems inferior to one that builds in an adequately funded safety net, made accountable through democracy. It is those premises, however, that pose the problem, for neither taxation nor democracy is as unassailable as Williamson thinks. A complete treatment of these remarks could potentially fill volumes; they carry a host of mistakes and misunderstandings belied by their brevity. In particular, though, they reflect a set of beliefs about the practical relationship between justice or fairness and coercive violence, the notion that the former in some way requires the latter.

Today’s political left—e.g., progressives, “liberals,” socialists, social democrats—reliably advances the idea that free people, left to their own devices, will do the wrong thing, their actions producing aggregate social results that most of us find quite undesirable. They won’t, for example, donate to charities in sufficiently high amounts, so they must be taxed by the state; they won’t provide adequate funding to the arts, so, again, they must be forced to do so, etc. Their ultimate claim, then, seems to be that an ordering of society premised on nonviolence and the assumption of equality in authority between individuals produces bad outcomes, that fairness requires, in a fundamental way, some people (those who hold political power) to use violence against others. The violence is justified because certain results must be achieved; or, as it is put in the popular formulation, the ends justify the means. Always and everywhere, the left seems to distrust the motives of people left unmolested by the forces of political authority, convinced that freedom is a dangerous chaos that favors the most malevolent actors, whereas politics and government are the instrumentalities of justice. As discussed elsewhere, the trickier questions surrounding the relationship between the state and the public good, however defined, seem to be simply stipulated out of the conversation.

Williamson’s tweet is consistent with her general attitude on taxes; in her book Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes, she argues that “Americans see paying taxes as a civic obligation and a political act. To be a taxpayer, Americans believe, is something to be proud of.” Americans are not, she says, “knee-jerk opponents of government.” Williamson’s thesis thus calls up the old idea that American government is in fact a kind of voluntary mutual aid society, the result of a social contract to the terms of which Americans have freely assented. It’s not that we don’t trust freedom, Williamson seems to say, but that this system, brimful though it is with harmful taxes, laws, and regulations, is what a free people choose. To this, the nineteenth century American libertarian Benjamin Tucker offers a suitable response: “Were it really such, I should have no quarrel with it, and I should admit the truth of [these] remarks.” It would be difficult for a principled libertarian to find grounds for objection to such a voluntary association.

A brief consideration of taxation as a practice dispatches the idea that tax revenues represent voluntary payment for services rendered. As Frank Chodorov recommended, “we might look to the origin of taxation, on the theory that beginnings shape ends, and there we find a mess of iniquity.” Chodorov observes that, contrary to Williamson’s naive assumptions, taxation was not born of some high-minded dedication “to the public good,” but of conquest. “A historical study of taxation,” write Chodorov, “leads inevitably to loot, tribute, ransom—the economic purposes of conquest.” Hardly a left or right (whatever those categories mean) position, Chodorov’s was merely a recognition of historical fact; if its recitation scandalizes or inflames Williamson, then this points to deep misunderstandings about the role of government in human history. Taxation is nothing if not an artifact of conquest, of our submission to conquest. The obstinate denial with which the character and history of taxation are ignored betrays the fact that human society remains in its political infancy, yet unable or unwilling to confront certain unpalatable details of our institutions. It’s rather easier to deludedly believe that we are the government.

Still, her confusion about taxes notwithstanding, there’s something to Williamson’s point that almsgiving alone will not suffice. Benjamin Tucker observed that we live in “a world too prone to accept benevolence and charity in the stead of justice and righteousness.” He looked forward to “the displacement of monopoly and charity, those parents of pauperism, by competition and equity,” resulting from respect for the fundamental law “that no man shall invade the equal liberty of his fellow.” Tucker, then, would agree unequivocally with Williamson that “[c]harity is fundamentally aristocratic,” even as he damns taxation as a form of invasion and “the majority principle” as still another form of tyranny. “Philanthropy,” he writes, “cannot palliate plunder.” Principled libertarianism entails the argument that we should advocate neither voluntary charity alone nor taxes and redistribution. It’s a false choice. The former cannot compensate for the windfall of artificial privilege, instituted ultimately by state violence, and redistribution is itself the problem to be addressed, unless, again, we believe that the status quo merely awards everyone his just deserts, that the winners won and the losers lost without foul play. It turns out that the political left and right are frequently making the same incorrect claim that in fact the system existing today is essentially a free market; they disagree only as to whether the results of this putative free market are fair, the right insisting that they are, the left that they must be corrected by the state. Thus are we led to a question: wherefrom does the poverty of the poor (in any given instance) arise? If it arises from various legal and regulatory impositions that disadvantage the poor, then they are entitled to justice, not merely charity. If, however, a certain level of poverty is unavoidable, assured by the nature of things, even under hypothetical conditions of perfect justice, then we might ask whether Williamson and her like would countenance injustice in order to remedy poverty. What kinds of claims can an individual—or a democratic majority—make to riches justly and legitimately acquired?

In any case, Williamson’s confidence in the soundness of American democracy is itself unwarranted. That American democracy is “corrupted by oligarchs” is, as Williamson correctly points out, not actually a flaw in her argument, provided we accept her other, largely unspoken premises about the benefits and effectiveness of democracy in and of itself (that is, “uncorrupted” democracy). After all, if the will of the people has been subdued by powerful oligarchs, then arguably the remedy is democracy of a purer, more authentic kind. But, as we shall see, it is far from clear that democracy (in any of its myriad forms) is the ideal we ought to pursue. Facile endorsements of democracy, like Williamson’s, are uncontroversial to precisely the extent that they are vague, empty of detail about the substantive mechanics of the program. After all, few today object to the abstract democratic ideal at its most unspecific: popular sovereignty, or a government of, by, and for the people. Just how such a governing system is to be achieved as a practical matter is of course the subject of much debate (as between, for example, advocates of direct democracy and those of some form of representative democracy). If democracy is just simple, brute majoritarianism, then it is self-defeating as a means of promoting the self-rule of the people and of defeating tyranny. It could abide, in principle, the enslavement of almost half the population. And consensus democracy perfected might be something consistent with the libertarian ideal of respect for difference and individual autonomy—as Randy Barnett explains, “We the People as individuals,” rather than “as a group, as a body, as a collective entity.” Here, democracy would be redundant, individualism accomplishing the goal of popular sovereignty.

Genuine free market competition is, as an accountability mechanism, far superior to the democratic election, the results of which are thrust upon even those who voted against the winning outcome or abstained altogether. Far from serving the public good, elections are a semi-sanitized civil war, a zero-sum contest premised on the barbaric idea that some people simply must rule others. Free market exchange, in contrast, cannot take place without the consent of all interested parties, claiming no power to impose on anyone else. Nothing is so readily and immediately accountable to the people as the honest business claiming no privilege, no arbitrary entitlement to the people’s money through taxation.

We should take care not to treat democratic results as inherently good, not to regard democracy as valuable in and of itself, viz., apart from the results it yields. As political philosopher Jason Brennan explains in Against Democracy:

Democracy is a tool, nothing more. If we can find a better tool, we should feel free to use it. Indeed…we have a duty to use it. Justice is justice. Bad decisions are not rendered just simply by political fiat. Political decisions are high stakes. How dare anyone make such decisions incompetently?

Democratically elected legislatures made it illegal for individuals to use contraceptives, to marry someone of another race, to have sexual relationships with someone of the same sex, to decide what happens in your own womb, and to marry someone of the same sex, to name just a few of countless examples. Democracy is inherently dangerous to those in the minority, defined not only in terms of race, but also religion, sexual orientation, or cultural practice, among many others. As William Godwin asked, “Is this a condition so desirable, that we should be anxious to entail it upon posterity for ever?” It would, after all, be strange to assume that the results of any given vote will, just by happy coincidence, accord with the requirements of justice, unless of course we believe that the vote count is itself what makes a proposed policy just (or unjust, as the case may be). Presumably, Williamson is not making this claim; probably, she believes that some policies are unjust (or undesirable for some other reason) even if a majority (or a supermajority, etc.) happens to favor them, or that there are some rights that must be protected from the tyranny of the majority quite regardless of the polls. One thus wonders where Williamson got the impression that “[t]axes are the only money in our economy that are in principle dedicated to the public good,” which seems to simply assume the truth of the claim that wants proving. What’s more, as Williamson knows, the United States Constitution already contains several provisions that deliberately limit the power of democratic majorities, for instance, the term that gives each state two senators despite rather extreme variations in population. The population of California, for instance, is greater than that of the twenty-one least populous states combined, yet of course each of those twenty-one states has two senators. Assumedly, Williamson finds this component of the country’s constitutional makeup problematic for democratic accountability.

Regardless, we are quite a ways from anything like ideal democracy or a government of the people here in the United States, a fact that counsels caution in giving government more power. Here, unelected federal government functionaries do the work of governing the country. Law professor K. Sabeel Rahman offers a serviceable explanation of the basic idea: “Unlike generalist legislatures or formalist judges, administrative agencies could address the complexities of the modern economy and industrial society by harnessing their expertise, professionalism, and independence to serve the public interest.” It is the conceit of the administrative state that it attains, in some transcendent way, levels of knowledge and of dispassionate objectivity that are in fact, and indeed must be, unattainable by it. As legal scholar Philip Hamburger aptly points out, the administrative state is “a state within the state,” possessed of the power to create legal obligations (backed by violence) even as it exists outside of both the traditional constitutional framework and Williamson’s cherished democratic accountability. When Williamson extols the virtues of taxation and government power generally, she is defending not the power of the people, but the arbitrary prerogative power of an unelected, unaccountable officialdom—of a kind, we should hasten to add, that would be offensive to a genuinely self-governing people. As a matter of practice, these millions of bureaucrats make, interpret, and enforce the law, their power safely beyond the reach of both voters and legislators.

Progressives have nevertheless regarded this system as a democratic form of government. Political scientist Joseph Postell explains this paradoxical and paternalistic conception of democracy, one against a principle stating that the people should rule, thus: “A socially democratic society may actually transfer power away from the people for the sake of securing the best interests of the people, understood as a set of democratic outcomes.” To define democracy merely as popular government was to embrace, in the words of Herbert Croly, “primitive American democracy.”1 That the people ought to hold the political power was, like individual rights, free markets, the constitutional separation of powers, and limited government, among those “primitive” and outmoded ideas the progressives sought to discard.

We’ve noticed by now at least a few problems: (1) the practice of taxation—of a comparatively small group of people taking monies from others by and through credible threats of violence—seems to be a vestige of military conquest and by no means necessarily concerned with the welfare of the general public; (2) even if we assume that American democracy is in good health, functioning as it should to achieve the will of the people (whatever that means), it is nonetheless unclear whether democracy will produce good and just results in any given case; and (3) American democracy does not, as a matter of fact, seem to be in good health, captive as it is to various pressure groups and fundamentally subordinate to a large and powerful administrative state, almost none of which is changed by the results of elections. Given these and a host of other compelling reasons, we should be reluctant to adopt Williamson’s sunny picture of the relationship between taxes and the public good. She relies too heavily on the popular distinction between the public sector and the private sector (libertarians do this, too; they just favor the other side), taking it for granted that the public sector serves the public. Instead, the federal government ought to be treated as a corporate body, privately owned (by those flesh-and-blood individuals who actually hold decision-making power) and having its own interests. The analysis proceeding from this proper starting point, the government’s taxing and spending activities start to appear more suspect.


  1. Philip Hamburger elaborates, “Far from ignoring popular sentiment, the advocates of administrative power assumed that the state’s unified will could be understood as an expression of the unified will of the people. In the nineteenth century, it no longer was plausible to espouse an absolute royal prerogative in opposition to popular feelings. But an absolute administrative power, carried out by the state on behalf of the people, could be reconciled with populist tendencies.”