Immanuel Kant said taxation was justified when it increased human autonomy by providing for people’s basic survival needs or for the protection of property rights.

Chris W. Surprenant is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of New Orleans, where he directs the Alexis de Tocqueville Project in Law, Liberty, and Morality. He is the author of Kant and the Cultivation of Virtue (Routledge 2014), co‐​editor of Kant and Education: Interpretations and Commentary (Routledge 2012), and has published numerous journal articles in moral and political philosophy.

He holds a BA in philosophy and government from Colby College, and a PhD in philosophy from Boston University.

At the end of my last piece, I claimed that there appears to be a problem of consistency within Kant’s political philosophy when looking at his comments on justified taxation. While Kant argues that coercive action is justified only as a means to hinder a hindrance to freedom (whether performed by the state or any other entity), he also claims that the state may tax citizens to support the poor.

But isn’t taxation to support the poor just a form of illegitimate coercion? Kant doesn’t think so. His argument rests on his (perhaps flawed) position concerning ownership of land, the relationship between land and other external things that can become private property, and the role of the state in promoting individual freedom.

Most of Kant’s comments on taxation can be found in a small section of his Metaphysics of Morals, pages 323 through 328 in volume six of the Akademie edition of Kant’s complete works. He begins this discussion with the relationship between land, private property, and the state, writing: “Since the land is the ultimate condition that alone makes it possible to have external things as one’s own, and the first right that can be acquired is to possession and use of such [external] things, [as a result] all such rights must be derived from the sovereign as lord of the land” (MM 6:323).

Kant makes three points in this passage: First, having access to some physical space is a necessary condition to possessing something external to me. One way to think about possessing something is that it is yours even when you’re not using it. But that requires you to be able to put it down in such a way or in such a location that others don’t recognize you as having relinquished your claim to the item or discarded it.

Second, the first right individuals have relates to their possession and use of private property. Earlier in the Metaphysics of Morals Kant claimed that “Any action is right if it can coexist with everyone’s freedom in accordance with a universal law” (MM 6:230). And so Kant sees the recognition of private property as being consistent with respecting the freedom of everyone, even when people possess an unequal amount of property.

Third, Kant identifies “that relation of human beings among one another that contains the conditions under which everyone is able to enjoy his rights, and the formal condition under which this is possible in accordance with the idea of a will giving laws for everyone” as the condition of “coexistent freedom” (MM 6:305–6). Since coexistent freedom requires the existence of a sovereign authority to act as an arbiter of competing rights claims, private property rights are derived from the sovereign as the recognized authority over or within a particular geographic space.

Kant’s position on taxation follows from this account of property rights being derived from the sovereign as the original proprietor of the land under his jurisdiction. He writes: “On this originally acquired ownership of land rests, again, the right of the supreme commander, as supreme proprietor (lord of the land), to tax private owners of land, that is, to require payment of taxes on land, excise taxes and import duties, or to require the performance of services (such as providing troops for military service)” (MM 6:325).

So, for Kant, the sovereign is justified in taxing private landowners to provide for the preservation of the state, either by paying for necessary services (e.g., military defense), helping individuals who are worse off due to no fault of their own (e.g., orphans), or supporting organizations that help these individuals and the community (e.g., the church).

But why should the tax be levied against private landowners? Why single out just the wealthy (i.e., landowners) to pay taxes, and not tax all of the citizens equally or proportionally based on their income, wealth, or consumption?

Kant’s answer to this question is practical: “The wealthy have acquired an obligation to the commonwealth, since they owe their existence to an act of submitting to its protection and care, which they need in order to live” (MM 6:326). The poor would be under a similar obligation, but they are poor. They have nothing to contribute, and having the means to do something is a necessary precondition for being obligated to do it.

At this point, Kant moves away from this theoretical discussion of taxation and to a practical discussion of how best to take care of the poor and destitute, as well as how much public funding these individuals should receive. His solution is that “the poor should be provided for…by legal levies,” but only given so much as to sustain them. His reasoning? “[T]his arrangement does not make poverty a means of acquisition for the lazy…and so does not become an unjust burdening of the people by government” (ibid.). For Kant, therefore, Robin Hood taxation is justified only to the extent that the state is taking the minimum amount necessary in order to sustain the poor.

That Kant would take this practical position on taxation is not surprising given his discussion of autonomy and the role of the state in securing an external condition that makes autonomous action possible. Autonomy is connected with an individual’s ability to participate in the process of rational deliberation, but an individual’s external circumstances, circumstances which are often beyond his control, play a significant role in determining whether it is possible for him to be autonomous in practice. One function of Kant’s political philosophy is to examine how these external conditions can be established such that all individuals have the opportunity to be free.

For Kant, human freedom is a function of living in civil society. He argues in his “Universal History” essay, for example, that reason itself is a capacity that must be developed within civil society (UH 8:21–22). Beyond this somewhat controversial psychological claim about the positive role of civil society in the development of reason and the free Willkür (i.e., freedom of choice), he also presents a far less controversial claim about civil society’s negative role in its development.

Consider life for someone living in Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature, a condition in which individuals are in constant fear of sudden and violent death. It seems unlikely that an individual whose survival is threatened constantly would be able to act from reason and not from basic instincts. What makes it impossible for an individual to be autonomous in Hobbes’s state of nature is that his life, health, liberty, and possessions are not secure.

If state authority is justified because it helps to secure the external conditions that make autonomy possible, then we can see why some degree of taxing the rich in order to support the poor is legitimate. What is at issue is not fairness, but the freedom of the individuals who are destitute. Without state support to provide the basic necessities, these individuals would constantly fear lacking the means just to survive. For Kant, no one can be autonomous when living in this condition.

Looking back, coercion was justified when it hindered a hindrance to freedom. While taxation is a form of coercion, it is justified coercion when the funds are used to remove individuals from an external condition that hinders their ability to be free by providing them with basic necessities. But providing anything beyond these basic necessities allow poverty to become “a means of acquisition for the lazy,” and an “unjust burdening of the people by government.”

Works Cited

Kant, I., Metaphysics of Morals (MM), in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, trans. by Mary Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

______, “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent” (UH), in Immanuel Kant: Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. by T. Humphrey, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983.