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Citizenship in the United States, or remaining a citizen, is a choice of a free individual.

Some argue, choosing to remain a citizen and receive the benefits of such an arrangement is an agreement to be governed under the existing laws of the country and therefore is a consent to be forcibly taxed in any amount determined appropriate by the elected Congress of the United States.

Where is the flaw in this reasoning and, if there isn't one, are Objectivists justified in their claim that forced taxation is unjust?

There is a bit of a chicken or the egg argument here, which I think needs unraveling.

Is forced taxation unjust if you agree to the use of force?

I apologize for the multiple angles/questions. For me, they all drive to the same issue/concern.

asked Apr 15 '15 at 12:56

MarcMercier's gravatar image

MarcMercier ♦
6712

edited Apr 15 '15 at 12:58

I can quickly think of some flaws with this argument:

1) Silence is generally not consent.

2) To renounce one's United States citizenship, it is not enough to simply choose not to be a citizen. One must also travel abroad and fill out some forms at an embassy.

3) One of those forms asks for information in order to calculate an expatriation tax.

4) The United States taxes not just citizens, but resident and non-resident aliens as well, and that's just income tax. There are also many other taxes which have nothing to do with citizenship.

5) Non-citizens can't freely enter the United States.

(Apr 16 '15 at 10:12) anthony anthony's gravatar image

If getting out of taxes were as simple as chanting the words "I renounce my citizenship," almost everyone would do it. In actuality, to avoid all US taxes, if you had a significant amount of income, you'd have to avoid all or almost all physical presence in the US and dealings with US people (citizens and resident aliens) as well.

It seems to me that the real argument is not that U.S. citizenship is a consent to be taxed, but that mere presence in the United States is a consent to be taxed. If this is the real argument, then I think the answer below is much better than you give it credit for.

(Apr 16 '15 at 10:18) anthony anthony's gravatar image

In fact, the much easier way most people can avoid US income tax is simply to not have a lot of income. About 50% of the population of the US does this. Much easier than establishing a new life abroad in a jurisdiction without even higher income taxes.

But also as I said above, income taxes aren't the only taxes. Escaping all taxes of all kinds at all levels of government without living a truly impoverished life would be quite a feat. Probably possible, but it'd take some doing (probably have to somehow have your home owned by a property-tax-exempt charity).

(Apr 16 '15 at 10:27) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Anthony, thank you for the comments, however the bullet points you cite, although factual, do not highlight flaws in the argument posited in my question. My hypothetical does not include merely existing within the borders, or staying silent, but actually choosing to be a citizen of the country. 1. Are you choosing to be a citizen here? 2. If so, does that mean you agree to be taxed under the existing laws? 3. If so, then are you consenting to the use of force? 4. If so, then can you claim it to be immoral or unjust? I must answer "yes" to the first three of those questions. I wonder about #4.

(Apr 16 '15 at 11:20) MarcMercier ♦ MarcMercier's gravatar image
  1. Are you choosing to be a citizen here?

No. I was never given a choice. I am a citizen of the United States because the Constitution says I am a citizen of the United States.

  1. If so, does that mean you agree to be taxed under the existing laws?

You are taxed under the existing laws whether you are a citizen or not. You might as well ask whether or not choosing to be a redhead (or to remain a redhead) means agreeing to be taxed under the existing laws.

(Apr 16 '15 at 12:03) anthony anthony's gravatar image

As far as how my bullet points tie to flaws in your argument:

1) Part of the argument is that "choosing to remain a citizen and receive the benefits of such an arrangement ... is a consent." But silence is not consent.

2) Part of the argument is that "remaining a citizen, is a choice of a free individual." But it is not simply a matter of choice. One cannot simply choose to stop being a citizen.

3) Part of the argument is that consenting to citizenship constitutes "consent to be forcibly taxed." But there's a catch-22. To renounce one's citizenship you have to pay an expatriation tax!

(Apr 16 '15 at 12:09) anthony anthony's gravatar image

4) Part of the argument is that consenting to citizenship constitutes "consent to be forcibly taxed." But the vast majority of taxes are imposed on people whether they are citizens or not.

5) Part of the argument is that "remaining a citizen, is a choice of a free individual." But to the extent this is a choice in the first place (see 2), the choice is coerced, because a non-citizen of the United States can be forcibly deported and denied re-admittance.

(Apr 16 '15 at 12:12) anthony anthony's gravatar image
showing 2 of 7 show all

The question describes a type of "social contract" theory of politics, and then asks for refutation. The most basic flaw is that the theory is presented as an out-of-context "floating abstraction" without any indication of how it relates to, and arises from, any more fundamental facts of reality. I.e., it is a political theory presented without validation. On the onus of proof principle in epistemology, no further refutation is needed unless or until the proposed theory is accompanied by its own positive attempt at validation.

For example, here are some of the issues that the proposed theory fails to consider (due to absence of any deeper context):

  • Why does "consent" have anything to do with the authority of societies and their governments over individuals? Where does the idea of "consent of the governed" come from, and on what basis?

  • Is it only the U.S. that the "social contract" theory applies to, or does it apply to all societies and their governments? Are all societies to be accepted on a "take it or leave it basis," as equally valid and proper?

  • If the U.S. is to be regarded as a valid and legitimate society and government for individuals to choose to live under (or leave), what makes it valid? Is it because of "consent"? If so, why is "consent" the deciding factor (as already noted)?

  • Is a society and its government to be regarded as existing first, prior to any issue of consent, and then consent arises secondarily somehow, in conjunction with the prior existence of the society?

  • Where did the U.S. form of government come from, and what makes it objectivity valid? Or is objective validity irrelevant to the existence and nature of societies and their governments?

  • Would it be proper for individuals to seek to change aspects of their government that they disagree with, provided that they do so through persuasion and consensus, exercising their freedom of speech?

  • Where does freedom of speech come from and why is it essential to a proper government? Or is it?

  • What "benefits" does the U.S. Government offer to its citizens and residents? Are all of the purported benefits valid and proper? Why or why not, and by what standard?

  • Does opposition to forced taxation imply that one is seeking to change the U.S. Government? If one does so through persuasion and consensus (exercising one's freedom of speech, if individuals have that freedom), why would such a process necessarily be considered contrary to the U.S. Governmental system? What about other changes in U.S. Governmental provisions, as evidenced by the various amendments to the U.S. Constitution? Are those changes valid or invalid, and by what standard?

  • Does the U.S. Government today have anything to do with the original Declaration of Independence? If the Declaration is still applicable in some form, what specific aspects apply today (or ought to apply) and why? For example, the Declaration says that all individuals possess inalienable rights. Is that still true, in practice and in theory? What is the relation between the U.S. Government today and these alleged inalienable rights? Can the government properly dispense with such rights if a majority vote so decides? Is "consent" to be taken as consent to have one's rights taken away? The question states:

...consent to be forcibly taxed in any amount determined appropriate by the elected Congress of the United States.

Does this mean that wealthy CEOs and successful entrepreneurs should have their wealth taken away from them and redistributed to everyone who has less, if Congress votes in favor of it?

There is a Wikipedia article on "Social contract," describing how numerous thinkers over the centuries offered a wide range of very different "social contract" theories. ("Social contract" thus is really a package deal, an exercise in definition by non-essentials.) The article even includes John Locke as the originator of one such "social contract" theory, along with many other thinkers such as Hobbes, Rousseau, Grotius, Pufendorf, and even Immanuel Kant. One can learn a great deal about the American system by studying the political philosophy of John Locke, but not nearly as much from the others. Despite Wikipedia's classification of Locke's view as a "social contract" theory, there is far more to Locke than that, and more fundamentally so (although a fully complete theory of government and its validation has had to wait for Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism to be defined).

If one wants to learn more about how Objectivism establishes the essential principles of political theory from their deeper foundation in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics, here are some of the key elements in that foundational context (refer to numerous applicable topics in The Ayn Rand Lexicon for additional details):

  • Existence, identity and consciousness as metaphysical axioms; meaning of "axiomatic"; man as possessing a rational faculty, which serves as his basic means of cognition (awareness of reality); fundamental nature of reason.

  • Fundamental nature of living entities, including man; alternative of life or death; concept of "value," with life as the most basic standard of value for any living entity, and man's life (qua man) as objectively the most basic standard of value for man.

  • Reason as man's basic means of survival, as well as (and because of) reason as man's basic means of cognition; productiveness and voluntary trade guided by reason as the proper way for man to live, by the standard of man's life qua man.

  • Reason cannot work under physical force. Consequently, the initiation of physical force against others is destructive of man's life and therefore morally evil, by the standard of man's life qua man as man's standard of value.

  • The social form of human existence can be of great value to man, offering knowledge and trade as the two great benefits to be obtained. But these benefits are possible only if man lives by rational productiveness and voluntary trade with others, not by initiating physical force against others; concept of individual rights (rights of individuals).

  • Government as man's agent of retaliatory physical force when needed against those who initiate its use; proper functions of government, limited to protecting man's individual rights; government financing as voluntary (opposition to forced taxation).

The question also mentions that Objectivism regards forced taxation as unjust. That is true but is not the primary basis for opposition to forced taxation. Objectivism opposes all forms of initiation of physical force against others, including forced taxation, as morally evil, not merely unjust.

If some observers have been relying on Libertarian or Conservative sources for guidance on what the philosophy of Objectivism stands for and why (focusing on justice disconnected from rationality, for example), they will find a far more definitive, accurate, and comprehensive presentation in Ayn Rand's original works. The two excerpts in the topic of "Social Theory of Ethics" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon are particularly relevant in opposition to any "social contract" view of politics. So is the Lexicon topic of "Individual Rights."

Update: An Objectivist Perspective

In the comments, the questioner restates the essential argument more concisely, and subsequent comments by Anthony provide a cogent response. Here is the questioner's restated version:

My hypothetical does not include merely existing within the borders [of a country], or staying silent, but actually choosing to be a citizen of the country. 1. Are you choosing to be a citizen here? 2. If so, does that mean you agree to be taxed under the existing laws? 3. If so, then are you consenting to the use of force? 4. If so, then can you claim it to be immoral or unjust? I must answer "yes" to the first three of those questions. I wonder about #4.

This is actually rationalism -- logical inference not tied to reality. What I find most striking about this line of thinking is the complete absence of any concern for the principle of individual rights (and its importance in the founding of America). The Objectivist view is that societies and governments properly exist only to serve the rational self-interests of the individuals who comprise the society. A society and its government are invalid and likely to be destructive of individuals to the extent to which those societies fail to recognize and protect individual rights.

Individuals are free, of course, to renounce their rights and join a society that violates individual rights and subjects its members to mandates backed by the readiness to initiate physical force against them if needed to assure their continued obedience to the "will of society." Today, a disturbing number of individuals from around the globe are freely (though naively) choosing to join ISIS and submit to the massive, brutal physical force that ISIS imposes on all who oppose it in any manner. Some individuals may, indeed, very willingly submit to such a setup, while many others likely will not submit to it if they have a real choice (including an alternative country or territory to go to that is more consistently rational in its founding principles). If societies allow individuals to choose freely whether to remain in the country or leave, that is a good sign. It is a step in the direction of limiting the evil of otherwise oppressive regimes. Vast numbers of individuals worldwide will, indeed, freely "vote with their feet" if given the opportunity.

Societies and their governments do not "own" the land and resources within the country's territorial borders, in the Objectivist view of a proper society. A proper society has no "right" to tell individuals to leave if they refuse to obey government edicts that have nothing to do with protecting individuals who do not voluntarily choose to submit to the edicts nor to abandon the property which they may acquire within the country for their own individual use as they see fit. Governments properly exist, in the Objectivist view, only to protect individuals from attacks by criminals and foreign invaders, and to settle disputes according to fair and objective adjudicative criteria. Such protection is the only proper "benefit" that a government can offer, in the Objectivist view; anything more requires seizing the property of others in the form of forced taxation and endless other methods.

The questioner repeatedly chides Objectivist responses as not responsive to his exact points. The excerpt above, for example, is preceded by:

... the bullet points you cite, although factual, do not highlight flaws in the argument posited in my question.

But the Objectivist responses are attempts to offer a broad Objectivist perspective on the issues raised by the question, not necessarily to take the question at face value on its own terms and limit the response to narrow details and non-essentials that miss the "larger picture." If the questioner seeks an Objectivist perspective, he may be able to find valuable insights here. Objectivism is a comprehensive, thoroughly integrated view of man and existence, including the nature of human societies and their value or disvalue to man.

Objectivism is not a philosophy that will be of much use for individuals who may prefer, entirely voluntarily, to be slaves of an oppressive regime, or to submit fully and willingly to some mixed society that may grant limited freedoms to its members as privileges which the society can rescind at any time if the society deems it to be in "the public interest" to do so. Over time, mixed societies will become increasingly oppressive if their policies and underlying philosophy are unopposed by a better philosophy. Objectivism is a philosophy for those who want to exist for their own sake, in peace with their neighbors, living their lives by rational productiveness and voluntary trade, with protection of their persons and property from other individuals or governments that try to initiate physical force against them. If the questioner isn't interested in what Objectivism has to say on the issues he raises, there are likely to be many others who are interested; there is always a wider audience for the questions and answers that can be found on this website.

answered Apr 16 '15 at 00:30

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
467718

edited Apr 17 '15 at 08:08

Ideas for Life, thanks for the attempt. I don't find this to be directly responsive however. I would love to consider some responses from other Objectivists on this board.

(Apr 16 '15 at 09:03) MarcMercier ♦ MarcMercier's gravatar image

Randy Barnett (not an Objectivist, but a generally good legal scholar) has a good refutation of various species of "implied consent" arguments in his book Restoring the Lost Constitution, which are worth reading even if you skip the rest of the book (although I enjoyed the rest of the book too). In essence, his point is that the idea of "consent" is only meaningful if it does not encompass situations in which the person who is supposedly "consenting" did not have a real choice between alternatives. In other words, if we consider a person's action (or inaction) to be implied consent even when the person had no real choice but to take the action (or inaction), then "consent" becomes a meaningless concept because it would apply to every action (or inaction), and therefore does not distinguish anything from anything else.

In the case of "consent" to taxation by the mere fact that you remain a citizen, this clearly does not make the taxation any less of a rights violation. There are at least two reasons why this is so.

First, the "consent" is not actual consent, for the reasons discussed by Professor Barnett. You have no real choice about whether or not you will be taxed by a government. Your only choice is which government is going to tax you, not whether you will be taxed. In other words, you cannot simply leave the US (and your citizenship thereof) and thereby avoid taxes, because you have to live somewhere, and wherever you choose to live you will be subject to taxation by the government that has jurisdiction over that location. Because you cannot take any action or make any choice that would allow you to avoid taxation, it is meaningless to say you have "consented" to taxation.[1][2]

Second, even if we stipulated for the sake of argument that you have consented to the taxation by staying in the US, that does not mean that the taxation is not a rights-violation, much less that it is moral. When a person consents to an event that would otherwise be a violation of the person's rights, it is possible for the event to become not rights-violating due to the consent. However, whether or not the event becomes not rights-violating due to the consent depends on the nature of consent. In other words, not every type of consent can transform an otherwise rights violating action into a not rights-violating action. For example, if one "consents" to X, but the consent was extracted by the threat of force, then X is still a rights violation.[3] As another example, if one "consents" to X, but the consent was extracted by fraud, then X is still a rights violation. As another example, if one "consents" to X, but the person supposedly consenting is not competent to consent, then X is still a rights violation.

In the case of taxation, the "consent" is clearly extracted by the threat of force. In particular, there are at least two threats to consider--the threat of the US if I don't pay taxes, and the threats of the rest of the world's nations if I try to leave the US. If I elected to not pay my taxes in order to register my non-consent to taxation, the US government would initiate force against me. Moreover, if my choice to stay in the US is considered to be consent, then this consent is clearly extracted by the threat of force from every other nation in the world. In particular, every other nation I could go to is threatening me with the use of force if I come there and don't pay taxes. Thus, however you look at it, my "consent" was extracted by threat of force (whether threat of force from the US or threat of force from other nations), and thus the consent does not absolve the rights violation.[4]

Finally, there is the consideration of what it is right (i.e., moral) for a government to do. Just because an action is not a rights-violation, does not mean that the action is right. A simple example on the personal level is dishonesty--generally not a rights violation, but still immoral. The same is true on the national level I believe. For example, if the people of a nation actually and truly consented, without coercion, to whatever the government decided to do to them, then it would still be morally wrong for the government to say, summarily execute random people. It might not be a rights violation, and thus other nations might not be justified in stepping in to stop the actions, but that doesn't mean that the actions cannot be condemned as immoral and improper for a government to do. In other words, while a proper government should respect rights at a minimum, that does not mean that anything that is not a rights violation is free-game.

Now things might be more interesting if there existed a viable nation out there that actually respected rights (and hence did not have compulsory tax). If people were free to leave their current nations and move to this free nation, then it might be more reasonable to say that those who chose not to have "consented" to their government's abuses. The existence of a meaningful alternative (the free nation) that is within their power to chose may be enough to render their choice to stay actual consent.

  1. Note that the argument that staying in the US is consent to taxation would logically imply that the US government can do anything it wants to its citizens, including any other rights violation you can think of all the way up to murdering them. In particular, if the act of staying in the US is consent to having force used against you incident to taxation, then why isn't the same act of staying in the US also consent to have force used against you incident to other government actions? In essence, the argument is that your staying in the US is consent to all government actions per se. The reason the proponents of the argument single out taxation (instead of, say, murder) is that murder is so blatant that the average person would reject the proposition outright, but most people agree that taxation is necessary and therefore are more willing to accept uncritically the argument based on this assumption.
  2. Consider this example: five people surround you and tell you that you have to be beaten up by one of them, but that you can chose which one of them will do the beating. Would the fact that you select one of the five people mean that you have "consented" to being beaten? Would it absolve the person you selected from guilt? Obviously not--you had no choice about whether you would be beaten, and thus could not be said to have "consented" to being beaten. Given that you were going to be beaten, you merely consented to who would do the beating, but not to the beating itself.
  3. To illustrate this point, consider this example: a person is waylaid by bandits, who point guns at him and say "your money or your life." The person, having no way to escape or protect himself, hands over his money without struggle. Now, would you say that the bandits are now the rightful owners of the money and have not violated the person's rights by taking the money, since the person willingly agreed to hand the money over without resistance? I would guess that you would agree that the bandits are not the rightful owners of the money, and that the victims cooperation did not make the taking of the money not a rights-violation. (there are actually two rights violations here--the threatening with the guns, and the taking of the money, but this example focuses only on the rights violation represented by the taking of the money, since there should be no question about whether the person "consented" to being threatened).
  4. The fact that a third-party is threatening force does not make any difference. For example, if the bandit in the first example who you had to pay the money to was not the same as the bandit who was threatening you with the gun, that does not change anything. The bandit who took the money is still guilty of theft, even if someone else was holding the gun. Similarly, the fact that it is the threat of force from other countries that keeps you from leaving the US does not mean that your staying in the US somehow justifies the US taxing you.

answered Apr 28 '15 at 13:52

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦
944619

I have a real problem with Randy Barnett's reasoning, and I think one of your comments at the end highlights it:

"If people were free to leave their current nations and move to this free nation, then it might be more reasonable to say that those who chose not to have 'consented' to their government's abuses."

No! The government does not own the land of the United States. I bought the land I live on from someone who bought the land from someone who bought the land (etc.) from someone who found a section of unowned forest and turned it into livable space. It is my right to live here.

(Apr 28 '15 at 17:11) anthony anthony's gravatar image

In fact, to a large extent that hypothetical isn't even just a hypothetical. When it comes to state laws, there are localities which are subject to no state income, property, or sales taxes. But that doesn't make it any more reasonable to say that any who chooses to live in California (for example) thereby consents to state income, property, and sales taxes.

(Apr 28 '15 at 17:25) anthony anthony's gravatar image

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Asked: Apr 15 '15 at 12:56

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Last updated: Apr 28 '15 at 17:25