While there are several political issues that are not highly contested amongst the general populace, taxation—due to its widespread effect on nearly every aspect on one’s life as an individual actor in society—is one such topic that generally draws noticeable criticism from all affected parties. At the expense of oversimplifying the ensuing rationale, wealthy individuals will generally advocate for lower taxation because a redistributive tax structure will result in excess money from the upper-class moving to individuals and social programs that are primarily utilized by the lower classes, and vice versa, poorer individuals tend to favor higher taxation for the same reasons listed above. Of course, the aforementioned scenario does not accurately represent everyone’s beliefs—for instance a wealthy person can still consider it to be morally reprehensible to not have high taxes to aid the less fortunate as much as possible, and just as easily a poor individual could favor lower taxes because they believe higher taxes will stagnate possible jobs that the rich can offer. Nevertheless, the extent to ‘who?’ and ‘how much?’ in regards to taxation will yield countless answers and theories as to why said answer is most sensible. However, one aspect of taxation that is normally overlooked—or arguably relegated to the wayside as a result of cognitive dissonance—is whether taxation is a violation of personal liberty in the form of forced labour. Advocated by Robert Nozick, the state’s intervening in the form of taxation—the forcing of the worker to work longer than they would need to in order to cover their basic needs—limits the agent’s alternatives and, thusly, constitutes forced labour. Accordingly, when productive workers’ abilities are used to help others who do not work or are less productive in a redistributive manner, productive individuals are manipulated as “…means to other people’s ends” –a prospect that Nozick considers unjust (Swift 2006: 35). In contrast, as will be illustrated furthermore, Nozick’s claim that ‘taxation is forced labour,’ though a very interesting argument, is not entirely accurate because self-ownership is not synonymous with ownership of the goods produced by the self. Therefore, if the state does not infringe upon the tenets of self-ownership when implementing a tax code as I will argue it does not, the fruits of one’s labour can rightfully be taxed by a democratic state that has the desire to best serve its society through components of redistributive measures. Herein I will reason why taxation should not be characterized as forced labour and why taxation is compatible with the fundamental aspects of personal and societal liberty—namely the right to self-ownership and the right for the state to redistribute parts of the fruits of labour.
Before refuting that ‘taxation is forced labour,’ it is important to consider exactly why Nozick makes this claim. For instance, Alan Haworth, sardonically points out in reference to Nozick’s libertarian stance, “For Nozick, the horror [of forced labor]…manifests its presence each time a millionaire is taxed a penny” (Haworth 1994: 71). Clearly, Haworth is trying to appeal to society’s empathy for their fellow man, and very few people would disagree with the notion that millionaires should be taxed much more than a penny. However, Haworth is missing Nozick’s point entirely: the amount of money that the millionaire is being taxed is irrelevant to Nozick’s argument because it is the infringement of personal liberty that is unjust. Accurately writes Edward Feser, “Our sense that forced labor is unjust stems not merely, or even primarily, from imagining forced labor as strenuous; it also stems from the involuntary character of that labor, from our belief that no one has the right to force another person to labor if that person does not want to do so. Slavery is slavery however well the master treats the slave” (Feser 2000: 224). Therefore, in order to properly dissect Nozick’s argument, one must put aside whether they consider high or low taxation to be ‘morally admirable’ or ‘the kind thing to do’ because Nozick’s logic purely rests upon whether the state is justified as opposed to whether the state is being, for example, benevolent or stringent in its tax structure. Thus, whether the taxpayer benefits from the redistributive tax system is irrelevant according to Nozick because of the initial infringement upon self-ownership by the state—and Nozick uses this as justification for why taxation can still be classified as forced labour in a democratic society (where presumably the state’s constituency voted to enact a redistributive tax structure supported by the majority). As Feser notes, “…such principles [forced taxation] entail that the state and its beneficiaries have an entitlement or enforceable claim to and thus at least a partial property right in your labor and therefore in you. They are part owners of you” (Feser 2000: 224). Hence, forced taxation would be unjustifiable because we cannot submit our self-ownership without entering into a form of slavery—equally unjustifiable to Nozick.
As a libertarian, Nozick obviously views the right to self-ownership as sacred, and any government violating its citizens’ right to self-ownership as corrupt. Therefore, in order to have any chance at justifying redistributive taxation, it must be proven that self-ownership is not violated. Essentially, self-ownership entails the ability for the agent to act without being infringed upon or without fringing upon others—a proper sentiment of advocates of the minimal state. Notwithstanding, Nozick’s argument fails to account for the possibility that the rights of others could forbid one from earning money without paying taxes for the general welfare of fellow statesmen—certainly a plausible condition in a democratic society. So, whereas if the state acted without democratic consent then taxation could be considered unjust, when the people vote to enact taxation and submit parts of the fruits of labour (money), claiming that the state is unjustly ‘forcing labour’ directly contradicts libertarian democratic principles. Further illustrating the point that taxation cannot possibly constitute as the violation of self-ownership is G.A. Cohen’s ‘lottery eye scenario’ where separate lotteries consisting of artificial and natural eyes would theoretically be conducted for those born eyeless (Cohen 1995: 244). As would be assumed, the public finds the artificial eye lottery to be justifiable and the natural eye lottery to be unjustifiable for the same reasons as taxation: the former lottery does not violate self-ownership because artificial eyes—like state-created money—are not solely owned by the self whereas the latter lottery does violate the right of self-ownership in that people are endowed with natural eyes that the state has no right to regulate for communal use. In short, the claim that taxation violates rather than complements self-ownership is simply fallacious because the fruits of labour—what is being taxed—cannot be categorized as self-owned, and, as will be demonstrated, the state can rightfully claim ownership over parts of the fruit because of the role of the state as a provider and protector.
Even though it has now been established that taxation does not violate self-ownership, it is still possible that taxation could constitute forced labour. After all, Nozick’s claim that a state income tax takes away money from the working individual—effectively forcing ‘unpaid’ extra work hours (forced labour) in order to satisfy basic needs—initially appears sensible regardless of the fact that self-ownership is not violated. According to Nozick, people own the fruits of their labour for the simple reason that the fruits are a result of hard work—a result that the state does not have the right to redistribute to others who may not work as rigorously. John Rawls, a left-wing welfare state advocate in stark contrast to Nozick, attempts to make the claim that people do not completely own the fruits of their labour on the basis that natural talents undeservedly create an unequal playing field that the state should rectify for the good of mankind, but Nozick accurately counters by asserting, “This [Rawls’] line of argument can succeed in blocking the introduction of a person's autonomous choices and actions (and their results) only by attributing everything noteworthy about the person completely to certain sorts of ‘external’ factors. So denigrating a person's autonomy and prime responsibility for his actions is a risky line to take for a theory that otherwise wishes to buttress the dignity and self-respect of autonomous beings” (Rawls 1971: 72, Nozick 1974: 214). Even from the philosophically deterministic school of thought, denying the autonomy of personhood in the way that Rawls’ theory insinuates creates substantial dilemmas pertaining to the accountability of man’s immoral actions if ‘external forces’ could always be deemed a credible defense. Nevertheless, Rawls’ argument against individuals completely owning the fruits of their labour is not the soundest approach. Instead, Stefan Reining offers a different reason why people do not completely own the fruits of their labour and why taxation cannot be classified as forced labour—stemming from a scenario in which a sole individual has the ability to produce a medicine that can cure a rare, deadly disease. He proposes, “If this person produced an abundance of this medicine, much more than she will probably need for herself, why should she have a right to prevent the people in her vicinity from delivering a small portion of the medicine among themselves…? If she does not have this right, then she also lacks the right to receive the whole market price when offering the exercise of her producing abilities on the basis of a work contract” (Reining 2012: 10). Nozick’s claim that the individual completely owns the fruits—money, medicine, etc.—is simply implausible because there is no way that the individual can dictate the behavior of the people who eventually garner the medicine. In other words, if she owned all of the fruits of her labour, the behavior of the eventual buyers would have to be synonymous with forced labour—and that makes no sense. And as for the monetary ‘fruit,’ a democratic tax structure justifies state taxation, and additionally, it is justifiable that some money goes back to the state in order for the state to best serve and aid those affected by the products of labour. In conclusion, workers do obviously work more hours in order to satiate basic needs in a society with taxation, but, since self-ownership is never violated and individuals do not completely own the fruits of their labour, democratic, fair taxation is justified and not on par with forced labour.
Cohen, G.A. (1995). Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Feser, Edward. (2000). “Taxation, Forced Labor, and Theft”. The Independent Review 5, pp. 219-235.
Haworth, Alan. (1994). Anti-libertarianism: Markets, Philosophy, and Myth. New York: Routledge.
Nozick, Robert. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Oxford: Blackwell.
Rawls, John. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Reining, Stefan. (2012) “On Nozick’s Claim that Taxation is on a Par With Forced Labor”. Academia. pp. 1-12.
Swift, Adam. (2006). Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians. Cambridge: Polity Press.