By Carl Milsted
Proposition 1: Taxation is theft.
Observation 1: Anarchy has failed worldwide. Every society that was anarchistic has either been conquered or created a government of its own. That is, unless you count Somalia, which is hardly a libertarian paradise.
Libertarians have a serious dilemma. Either we make a Machiavelli trade-off and allow some theft to enable the minimal state that maximizes liberty, or we plunge ahead calling for no government and hope for the best, based on some daring theoretical extrapolations. The former makes us uneasy. The latter subjects us to ridicule. 99+% of the people consider anarchy to be too risky to be attempted.
There is a way out of this dilemma. In the Bible, a thief was supposed to pay be double. Should he do that, he can go free. Murray Rothbard called for the same principle in The Ethics of Liberty. In other words, theft is morally acceptable if all victims are paid back double.
Consider the case of national defense. In order to defend against foreign aggressors, a majority of the people form a defense association. Several different minorities desire alternative forms of defense, or want to freeload and not pay for defense at all. The majority association performs the task of defense at the minimal cost. There are huge economies of scale in national defense. Home missile defense systems are not practical.
Now, suppose the majority assesses a tax on everyone to spread the burden of supporting the new defense system. This is theft of the minority. However, suppose that the economies of scale are such that this tax is less than half of what people would have had to pay for defense on their own. Now we have theft with adequate compensation.
Without government people generally pay more for defense. When Rome ruled, the rich had villas and bought luxuries. After Rome collapsed, the rich lived in castles and paid for henchmen. In tribal societies, nearly all able-bodied males are warriors, and spend a considerable amount of time preparing for war. This was true for the ancient Celts and Germans during Roman times as well as for the Native Americans not that long ago.
We can apply this logic to other government services where the economies of scale are so compelling, such as for country roads.
The doctrine of theft with adequate compensation allows for government only where the case for government is very strong. If the market can provide the service, even if somewhat poorly, then the market should still provide it.
Note that I have not disproved the possibility of anarchy working and being a better arrangement than what we now have. I have only stated that the empirical case is weak, and that the risks involved in completely doing away with government are high. The real point I am trying to make is that one can be a moral libertarian and still believe in having some government, with some authority to tax. And it is possible to hold this belief without rationalizing away the proposition that taxation is theft. A libertarian does not have to be an anarchist.
This point is crucial for libertarians who want to affect the political process. Since anarchy is rejected out of hand by 99+% of the people, it is incredibly important to make it clear that anarchy is not essential to the libertarian philosophy.
Dr. Carl Milsted, Jr. is a Senior Editor of The Free Liberal. He is the author of holisticpolitics.org, organizer of the Libertarian Reform Caucus and chairman of the Libertarian Party of Buncombe County, NC. He also runs Quiz2d.com, an online version of the popular Nolan quiz.