Taxes are a big deal. We all pay them at virtually every economic interaction. Some people want high taxes and some people want low taxes. Some people want to tax the rich more and some people want everyone to pay less. Some people want bad health decisions to be taxed more; like soda or cigarettes. No matter where you stand on issues like this there is one thing about taxes that virtually all Americans agree on: Taxes are morally permissible. It is acceptable for your city, state, and the Federal Government to tax you and if you do not pay those taxes for long enough they can put you in jail or prison. This is a big problem, morally speaking.
As far as interpersonal interactions go, what crime has someone committed by not paying taxes? Theft? Assault? Rape? No. It’s similar to refusing to pay protection money to the mafia. Not paying taxes is a completely peaceful act and no one is harmed. There are three ways that taxation can be framed so that jailing a person for tax avoidance is morally right.
The first is to assume that the government owns the money that you earn. That way, if you fail to hand over what it asks for, it can be considered theft from the state. This cannot be right because a government is not a real entity. It is a group of individuals acting in cooperation, but free of the rules that we usually apply to individuals. To say that the government owns your income is to say that a special class of people own what you make. In addition, what do we call individuals that do not own what they produce and any income that they create? We call them slaves. This is the assumption that we are slaves of the state, but with a greater degree of freedom then the slavery of the past.
The second is to imagine that taxes are the way that government charges us for the services that it provides. It is right to say that if you receive a good or service that you should pay for it. I don’t think anyone has an issue with this, but that is not what is actually happening. If it was, then we would call them bills, not taxes. As a single adult male I use virtually no government programs or services, but I am taxed as if I use all of them. My property is taxed yearly to pay for schools that I don’t use. I don’t even have kids. I do not use Social Security and even if I wanted to it will likely collapse on itself before I even have the opportunity. I don’t use Medicare or Medicaid. I don’t use any of the safety net programs. We’re all paying for the interest on the national debt. I didn’t draft the budgets that created the over $17 trillion debt. I do drive on government roads, though. You got me there, even if I am forced to drive on them. This paints a pretty bad picture. The productive people in the US have been turned into workhorses to pay for the goods and services that other people use. This is either slavery or theft, my friend. Please don’t bring up the social contract. The very concept has been turned into a yolk to be placed on your neighbor. The concept of taxes paying for the services you use is untrue and not defensible.
You can also take a utilitarian view of taxation. I think this is the most widely held view that people have. The argument goes something like this: “There are certain societal goals that are best accomplished by the forced pooling of resources and power. This includes things like national defense, a safety net, education, and so on. Come on, bro! It’s for the good of society!” If the majority of individuals in society really do have preferred societal goals and standards, and I believe they do, then why do we need to use force to achieve them? The utilitarian unwittingly accepts the premise that good ideas need force to be implemented. From there it is only a small step for a bad idea to pretend to be good one and get pushed onto the rest of society. The utilitarian point of view also suffers from a lack of principle. Almost any position can be reached as long as it is argued well enough, even if those arguments are not completely accurate or even honest. There is also the problem of a false devotion to compromise. If compromise is held as a high enough virtue then it only incentivizes one or more of the groups in an debate to hold ever more extreme positions so that the “middle” will be pulled in their ideological direction and their opponents can be attacked for not being willing to “compromise”.
The worst part of the whole concept of taxation is the cold hard indifference to the individual’s moral convictions. This is a serious issue whether you think taxation works because the state owns your income, it is payment for used services, or it is a practical tool for achieving societal goals. What is the individual to do if the money being taken is being used in a way that directly violates that person’s conception of morality?
This leads me to my last point. I think it is the most powerful argument against taxation that I have come across. It’s so powerful that it might even be able to end friendships. The argument goes like this. You and I are allowed to disagree, right? It is right and good that we can have different beliefs and still be civil. It follows that we both should be able to act on those beliefs, especially if they are based in a moral belief. Neither of us have the right to force the other to act in a way that undermines that belief (as long as that belief is peaceful, of course). What good is a belief if you are not allowed to act upon it or exercise it? It’s no good at all.
I am morally opposed to the war on drugs. It has quadrupled the incarcerated population in the United States from 1980 to 2003. A huge portion of the population increase is non-violent drug offenders. It has taken a harsh toll on the black community. It has fueled a huge black market for drugs that is filled with violence and death. It has utterly failed in its purpose to reduce or stop drug use. Mostly, it violates your right to peacefully put whatever substance in your body that you want to. I am morally against the actions we are taking overseas in the war on terror. The government has spent trillions of dollars and killed up to a million people in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am morally against the bailouts to wall-street and the politically connected. There are more, but I think you get the point.
Now comes the personal part. If we both agree that we are allowed to disagree and that we are allowed to follow our conscience, then we agree that I should not be thrown in jail for wanting to act in accordance with my convictions. By this I mean refusing to pay for what I consider immoral. If you agree with this conclusion then it is possible for us to continue our association knowing that we are both tolerant people seeking a peaceful society. Now for the punch to the gut. If you do not agree and you think that men should come to my door and put me in a cage for disagreeing with you then we cannot pretend that we can have peaceful disagreements because you are willing to use violence on those that disagree with you. For you, consent doesn’t matter and force is allowable if you believe in the ends. You ignore the element that separates sex and rape or charity and theft. You operate in a morality that allows for the use of violence. This argument will clear out your group of friends and family in a hurry.
Therein lies the problem. Whatever you think about taxation there is no avoiding the fact that it tramples the individual’s ability to act according to their conscience. I think that this reality is a big part of what has created the intense political divide in the US. Taxation sets up a win/lose situation. The group that wins gets to dictate what the rest of society has to pay for no matter their objections. There is no alternative and that is what drives people to fight as hard as they can to impose their beliefs on society. Even if this is not openly recognized, how can a society last while operating on this premise? Taxation is immoral, it tramples the individual’s conscience, and it drives people apart. We would do best to find a peaceful way to fund the things that society wants.
US debt: http://www.usdebtclock.org
Policy Basics: Where Do Our Federal Tax Dollars Go?: http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=1258
Incarceration in the United States: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States#Violent_and_nonviolent_crime