By Jared Miller July 19, 2018
Talking to Libertarians about taxes can be… exhausting. Between shouts of “taxation is theft!” and some stuff about roads, we often come off as flippant and dismissive. But at least we can all agree that taxes are basically garbage, right? And surely some taxes must be worse than others, right?
Good. Let’s start there.
It isn’t contradictory to say that taxes are wrong and still admit that the state of affairs brought about by some small degree of taxation — both limited by and beholden to the natural rights of individuals — is preferable to the state of affairs that would exist without them. Yes, taxes are garbage. No, we can’t eliminate them completely without some negative outcomes. The hard part is choosing the least harmful way to prevent those negative outcomes.
So to the extent that there may be some hierarchy of tax “badness,” two kinds top the list: income tax, and property tax. These two most directly violate the rights of individuals to the product of their labor. Nevertheless, there is some disagreement among libertarians about property tax.
Most libertarians agree that property tax is inexcusable, but some see it as the most fair and equitable form of taxation, if taxation is to exist at all. Others still, known as geolibertarians, believe that land is “common property,” and cannot be truly “owned” except by the community. They view the tax as a kind of rent to the community. I admit, they have a strong, well reasoned argument, but it runs directly perpendicular to the rest of the principles of private property.
Frederic Bastiat did an excellent job laying out the case for property rights. He begins with a hypothetical time without government, and the fact that individuals must act to maintain their lives. They do so by applying their skills and abilities to the natural world. Their work, over time, turns resources from that world into useful products or services.
Life, faculties, production—in other words, individuality, liberty, property—this is man,” argues Bastiat. Since these things are required for an individual to survive and flourish, they “precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.”
All natural resources can be thought of this way. Trees, for example, exist with or without man. Lumber (the product of his labor) does not. And in order to act upon those trees, he must first have ownership of them, or permission from their owner. The purpose of the law, then, is to protect from assaults on those fundamental rights.
This is why property tax is seen so negatively by most libertarians; It negates one of the most fundamental human rights. The practical result of property tax is that now instead of owning property, it is rented. If you do not pay that rent, you are evicted.
Even if we disagree on how or if taxes should be collected, there is no way around this point. We can disagree about extended consequences, about what is equitable, about the “right” way to tax, about how much or even whether to tax at all. But as long as you are required to pay property tax, you do not own your land. The government does.
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