Is Redistribution Theft?

Good morning everybody! We at PEA Soup are happy to have another piece of public philosophy here at The Pebble. This entry is brought Dr. Scott Sehon, Professor of Philosophy at Bowdoin College. Is redistributing wealth theft? Professor Sehon discusses.

 

Introduction

It is a common refrain in some circles that taxation for the purpose of redistribution is theft. You see the claim from libertarian leaning scholars and other writers, but also from the likes of Rush Limbaugh. But what exactly is the reason for the claim that redistribution is theft? While most conservative authors seem to merely take it as obvious, Walter Williams, who was an economist at George Mason University, provides an argument:

Here’s an important question: Would rape become morally acceptable if Congress passed a law legalizing it? You say, “What’s wrong with you, Williams? Rape is immoral plain and simple no matter what Congress says or does!” If you take that position, isn’t it just as immoral when Congress legalizes the taking of one person’s earnings to give to another? Surely if a private person took money from one person and gave it to another, we’d deem it theft and as such immoral. Does the same act become moral when Congress takes people’s money to give to farmers, airline companies or an impoverished family? No, it’s still theft, but with an important difference: it’s legal and participants aren’t jailed.

Generalizing just slightly, I take the conclusion of Williams’s argument to be this:

Redistributive programs performed by the government (whereby taxes are collected and then, for example, given to farmers through subsidies or to poor people via programs like food stamps or welfare) are immoral.

I will claim that, when carefully analyzed, Williams’s argument either has implications that are unacceptable to just about everyone (including Williams) or that it simply begs the question by assuming exactly what it purported to show.

Williams’s Argument

Williams starts with a compelling point: rape would not become morally acceptable simply if the government chose to legalize it. He then suggests that the point generalizes, and that any clearly immoral action does not suddenly become moral if done by the government; if it is immoral when done by a private person, it is immoral when done by the government. He then applies this to taking money from one person and giving it to another: if Bernie simply takes money from Mitch’s wallet without his consent and gives it to Alexandria, then that is theft, and is wrong. So, according to the premise of the argument, it is still theft if the same action is performed by the government. But that’s what redistributive programs effectively do: take money from some taxpayers without their consent and give it to other citizens. So redistribution is immoral. Breaking this down into a series of numbered steps, the argument would look like this:

Redistribution Is Immoral 1.0

(1) If an action is immoral if performed by a private person, then it is immoral if performed by the government. [Premise]

(2) Taking money from a person without their consent is immoral if performed by a private person. [Premise]

(3) Taking money from a person without their consent is immoral if performed by the government. [From 1 and2]

(4) Redistributive programs involve taking money from a person without their consent. [Premise]

(5) Redistributive programs if performed by the government are immoral. [From 3 and 4]

The argument is valid: step (3) really does follow from the first two premises, and the conclusion follows from steps (3) and (4). The premises seem plausible. There might be some exceptions to premise (2), but it seems that something like it will be true. As for (4), many of us pay taxes quite willingly and thus might be seen as consenting, but there are others who only pay their taxes because they know they will otherwise go to jail. They are not consenting in any ordinary sense. (One might claim that people implicitly consent when they take advantage of any government service, or simply use the roads that the government built. Here I would agree with Nozick when he says that such “tacit consent is not worth the paper it’s not written on”.)

However, if Williams is serious about premise (1), then he will be poised to demonstrate something much stronger than the conclusion he draws about redistribution. Some people don’t willingly pay taxes at all for anything. Given the existence of these people, any government expenditure involves taking money from people without their consent. Law enforcement, for example, is a program whereby taxes are collected and then used for police and courts. Accordingly, if Williams affirms Redistribution Is Immoral, it seems he must likewise affirm the following parallel argument:

Law Enforcement Is Immoral

(1) If an action is immoral if performed by a private person, then it is immoral if performed by the government. [Premise]

(2) Taking money from a person without their consent is immoral if performed by a private person. [Premise]

(3) Taking money from a person without their consent is immoral if performed by the government. [From 1 and 2]

(4) Law enforcement programs involve taking money from a person without their consent. [Premise]

(5) Law enforcement programs if performed by the government are immoral. [from 3 and 4]

The logic of Law Enforcement Is Immoral is exactly the same as that of Redistribution Is Immoral; the third step still follows from the first two premises, and the conclusion in (5) still follows from steps (3) and (4). The claim in premise (4) about law enforcement is just as plausible as Williams’s original premise (4) concerning redistribution. And premises (1) and (2) are exactly the same as in his argument. If Williams is serious about his argument, he must also accept that law enforcement is immoral. Of course, further parallel arguments could be run for any government program insofar as it is funded by taxes. What really follows from Williams’s premises is that any taxation whatsoever is immoral. While there are some anarchists who embrace this conclusion, the libertarians and conservatives who scream that redistribution is theft are not among them. Williams himself explicitly says that there are some taxes we are all “duty-bound” to pay.

Revising the Argument by Begging the Question

How does Williams attempt to avoid the conclusion that all taxation is immoral? Here is what he says:

Lest there’s misunderstanding, there are legitimate and moral functions of government, namely that of preventing the initiation of force, fraud and intimidation, and we’re all duty-bound to cough up our share of the cost.

Williams leaves this as an afterthought that is supposed to take care of the problem with his argument. But it is not so simple. If his premises imply radical propositions, he can’t just say, “but I don’t infer those propositions.” It’s not up to him what to infer from his premises; they imply what they imply. If he wants his premises to imply less, he must change the premises—he must qualify them in some way. Williams doesn’t tell us exactly how he plans to do this, so I will speculate on his behalf.

In the quote, Williams mentions that there are “legitimate and moral functions” of the government, so perhaps he would deny premise (1) of Law Enforcement Is Immoral and replace it with something like this instead:

(1a) If an action is immoral if performed by a private person, then it is immoral if performed by the government, unless it is for a legitimate and moral function of the government.

Williams can then claim that law enforcement is a legitimate and moral function of the government, and thus it will not follow from (1a) and the other premises that law enforcement is immoral.

However, having abandoned the original premise (1) in favor of (1a), Williams can no longer affirm Redistribution Is Immoral 1.0, for it has the old version of the premise that he now denies. He would need to reconstruct the argument starting with (1a) instead. The new version would start as follows.

Redistribution Is Immoral 2.0

(1a) If an action is immoral if performed by a private person, then it is immoral if performed by the government, unless it is for a legitimate and moral function of the government. [Premise]

(2) Taking money from a person without their consent is immoral if performed by a private person. [Premise]

Instead of the original (3), this is what would now follow:

(3a) Taking money from a person without their consent is immoral if performed by the government unless it is for a legitimate and moral function of the government. [from 1 and 2]

Williams then adds:

(4) Redistributive programs involve taking money from a person without their consent. [Premise]

But now it no longer follows that redistributive programs performed by the government are immoral, for we haven’t ruled out the possibility that redistributive programs are a legitimate and moral function of the government. We could add that as an explicit premise and then finish the argument this way:

(5) Redistributive programs are not a legitimate and moral function of the government. [Premise]

(6) Redistributive programs if performed by the government are immoral. [From 3a, 4, and 5]

Redistribution Is Immoral 2.0 is valid, but there is a rather glaring problem: defenders of redistribution will, of course, deny premise (5); they will claim that redistributive programs are a legitimate and moral function of the government.

The real point is this: Williams portrayed himself as giving an argument for the claim that redistribution was immoral if performed by the government. But to get that conclusion, while avoiding analogous conclusions about all other government programs, it turns out that Williams must simply assume as a premise the claim that redistributive programs are not a legitimate and moral function of the government. The very thing that he was supposed to be arguing for now functions as something he simply assumes. As philosophers put it, Williams has begged the question.

The Lesson: Government Is Different

To recap, Redistribution Is Immoral 1.0 had premises that even Williams had to reject, for his premises, along with other facts, would imply that any government program at all would be immoral. Williams can avoid that radical conclusion by explicitly assuming that some functions of government are legitimate and moral, but that redistribution is not among them. But then his argument against redistribution simply begs the question, assuming exactly that which was to be shown.

But there is still an interesting question for the rest of us. Redistribution Is Immoral 1.0 was valid and had three premises. The problem was that those premises, along with other facts, led to the absurd conclusion of complete anarchy. Anyone who rejects that conclusion must reject one of the three premises. Premise (4) of that argument is clearly true: redistributive programs do involve taking money from people without their consent. Premise (2) is also plausible: if an individual takes money from someone without their consent, they do something immoral. That leaves premise (1), the claim that any action that is immoral if performed by a private person is likewise immoral if performed by the government. Our choices are either to affirm the radical anarchist position or to deny premise (1). There is no middle ground.

Everyone in the mainstream of contemporary politics will deny the radical anarchist position and thus will need to deny premise (1). That is an interesting result, and perhaps Williams is to be commended for drawing our attention to it, albeit perhaps unintentionally. All of us, other than those who reject all government as immoral, must say that there is something morally different about actions performed by government than the same actions performed by a private person. What grounds this difference? What is the legitimate basis for coercive governmental authority? Although Williams draws our attention to this question, he is not the first to raise it, since it has long been a central question of political philosophy.

7 Replies to “Is Redistribution Theft?

  1. “if Williams is serious about premise (1), then he will be poised to demonstrate something much stronger than the conclusion he draws about redistribution. Some people don’t willingly pay taxes at all for anything. Given the existence of these people, any government expenditure involves taking money from people without their consent.”

    This is completely untrue. It makes an assumption of its own that is invalid and has never been valid. It assumes that ALL of the people MUST contribute for the government to be able to spend, and that is not true, Never has been. It is not necessary for all people to contribute to government to function, nor has it ever been necessary.

  2. Great post!
    “Our choices are either to affirm the radical anarchist position or to deny premise (1). There is no middle ground.”

    I think a better way to avoid the anarchist position targets premise 2.

    I think (2) is not always true. It is ok to steal in order to accomplish something really important (e.g. saving a life). Those who think a society without taxation would be really terrible can say that the government does have a good enough reason steal/tax. Then the debate between them and the anarchists will be a mostly empirical one about what society would be like without mandatory taxation.

    So taxation is theft, but theft isn’t always wrong.

  3. Doesn’t Mike Huemer make the original argument and just bite the bullet that all government is immoral? A lot of the taxation is theft people are willing to endorse anarchy.

    Something goes wrong with the argument when your interlocuters do not find the implication you claim is unpalatable as being unpalatable.

  4. More precisely, all taxation is extortion (roughly, making demands backed up by aggressive threats to person or property). It is a separate issue what is then done with the money. And consent (whether given reluctantly or “willingly”) does not stop it from being extortion. Anarchy (no rulers) is not anomie (no rules or laws). Therefore, libertarian-anarchy is not an oxymoron. All law and enforcement can, and should, be privatised. See, for instance, Bruce Benson’s The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State (2011).

  5. I would think that Williams could make a principled distinction between taking money from people for redistribution and taking money from people to provide public goods (in the economist’s sense of non-excludable and non-rivalrous). Could he not claim that because markets cannot typically provide those goods, the government is permitted (or perhaps obligated) to provide them through taxation? While it might be wrong to take a person’s money in order to give it to another in need, it is not wrong, he might argue, to provide goods (such as street lighting) that everyone wants and to do this by forcing those who will inevitably use them to pay their fair share. (This is not my view by the way. I reject premise one. I am just wondering how you would respond to this possible objection.)

  6. If an action is immoral if performed by a private person, then it is immoral if performed by the government. [Premise]

    The premise is dubious. Some examples: a village may exclude a person contagious with a deadly disease while a single person may not exclude others from the village. A village may control use of commons but a private person may not control use of commons. A private person may not declare a national boundary but a government may; a collective may decide who its members are but a private person does not get to decide who the members are.. A private person may not wage war, a government may. A government (or other collective entity) may decide property and transfer rules, a private person may not. It is not even clear that there are property and transfer rules in the absence of a collective entity. The premise assumes a libertarian political theory grounded in natural rights of property.

    Taking money from a person without their consent is immoral if performed by a private person. [Premise]

    Person 1 leaves money behind. Person 2 picks up the money. On this premise, person 2 has done something immoral as person 1 did not consent to transfer the money to person 2. Unless, of course, one thinks the notion of consent is importantly pre-social, or decides that the local norms concerning consent are in fact universal and atemporal

  7. Governments have long been regarded as instruments of restraining evil. Inasmuch as restraining evil is a good, there is at least this one good that governments ought to pursue. Of course, there are other goods that it might pursue as well, including aid to orphans and the poor. In all of these instances these are good for individuals as well, the difference being that governments have more resources to accomplish some of them, even if in doing so it does absolve us from doing them as well.

    So far there is no apparent inconsistency. If an individual, intending to do good, say to aid a aging neighbor, forces someone who can clearly afford it to cough up some funds to aid his neighbor, we might legitimately regard his actions as immoral. Such a judgment would be nuanced by the urgency of my neighbors need (perhaps he is having a heart attack and I need a car). But in most cases, we would attempt to persuade this well-meaning person to seek other less violent remedies.

    All the difficulties associated with Williams’ argument dissolve where compulsion is not employed in obtaining the governmental funding, including the redistribution of income. This is the same for the well-intended person. If he were to petition a well-off neighbor for funds or a car, there would be no moral quandary.

    We can maintain the moral equivalence of government and the individual by allowing compulsion under certain circumstances (my neighbor is having a heart attack). Can the government plausibly claim such moral necessity? There are, after all, many individuals who have become reliant upon their services, and, we might add, redistributions. Of course, there was a time when such redistributions were made possible by the voluntary donations of others, and one might argue that the government is, in a sense, implicated in the dependent predicament of some, that is, their current reliance is not sufficient justification for the continuation of the forced taking of funds from others when voluntary alternatives might be pursued.

    Finally, there is at least one instance where the government is not considered the moral equivalent of the individual, and that is the justice system. Individuals do and must judge others, but they are not permitted to act upon those judgments in the same way that governments are allowed. We cannot imprison someone. There are ways in which individuals can act upon their judgments. We can, for example, shun someone, excluding someone from our company. Most especially, the scope in which we can kill someone is significantly smaller than that which governments are allowed. We can kill someone in self-defense and in some instances in the defense of others, but only the government can execute someone or engage in wars. Perhaps such permission can be seen as extensions of what is allowed to individuals, that is, for the defense of our country or that of others, at least, this is what just war theory allows.

    It seems to me, then, that I am not prepared to abandon premise (1). As such, if compelled taxation for the likes of redistribution or police forces is to be justified, it is to be justified on the same grounds as that for individuals. We do think that there are justifiable grounds for individuals to use force. Similar grounds would also justify the use of force by organized entities like a government.

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