So ?We? Have Decided
Tibor R. Machan
Randy Cohen, the New York Times Magazine?s ethicist, who answers a few
question in each issue about what is and is not ethical conduct regarding
certain specific problems, recently admonished a reader for wondering
whether students who do not pay taxes ought to vote in a college town they
will leave when school?s out. He counseled that ?it is irrelevant that few
students pay property taxes. We eliminated economic requirements for
voting long ago: you needn?t own property; you needn?t pay a pool tax.?
He went on in this vein for a while in his September 11, 2005, column,
forgetting entirely that the question wasn?t about what the law is but
what someone ought or ought not to do. (All the above could be right,
historically, and it could still be wrong to vote when one hasn?t a stake
in the place where one votes. It could be construed as wrongly imposing
one?s will on others!)
I chimed in with an email to him noting that taxation is extortion. It
is the dubious institution that's based on the monarchical tradition when
governments (the monarchs) owned the realm and taxes were the tribute they
collected for permitting ordinary folks to live and work in this realm.
Kind of like charging rent in one?s apartment building. Only the monarch
had no right to the realm, as it was later discovered.
Cohen fired back with the point that, well, ?we have decided long ago? to
levy taxes, as if this could nail the ethics of it good and hard. In fact,
all this can do is confuse matters since we, of course, have decided
nothing of the sort. Some people?the American framers and many who took
political power after them?have decided to impose taxes on us all?well, on
those of us who haven?t the savvy to dodge the thing good and hard. As a
matter of us having decided?that is to say, some of us having made this
decision for all the rest of us?the implication that that makes it all OK
comes to something very bad, indeed.
After all, didn?t ?we decide? to make slavery possible in the American
South? Isn?t it also true that ?we (that is to say a lot of Germans)
decided? to engage in genocide against the Jews? (Yes, Virginia, Hitler
came to power democratically.) Didn?t, also, ?we (the Iranian mullahs)
decide? that women will be kept in their place in that country?
All this royal ?we? stuff is precisely what the American Declaration of
Independence trumps by identifying our unalienable individual rights to
our lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness. According to a consistent,
honest interpretation of that venerable sketch of the new, radical,
American political tradition, we do not get to decide for other people,
not unless they consent. And such consent is meaningless if it is done for
me by you, or for you by me. It is supposed to be about you and me and the
rest of us agreeing to what happens to our persons and estates?ourselves
and our resources. That is the greatest bulwark the human mind has
identified against tyrannies, be they powerful families, individuals or
But of course what can we expect from ?the ethicist? of The New York
Times Magazine, published by an organization of human beings hell bent on
promoting (an admittedly soft version of) socialism around the country
and, indeed, the globe. They would of course hire an ethicist who will
spread the ruse about how ?we have decided? something he and The Times
would have wanted us all to decide. In fact we haven?t decided it at all
but were pushed into it as done by the Mafia. This involves being extorted
for part of our labor and wealth all the time, in return for which we are
permitted, like their victims, to remain somewhat safe.
Not to despair, however. The idea of individual rights and of a just
community in which they are fully respected and protected is so radical in
human history that it is understandable why even an ethicist for a
prestigious magazines will not have managed to grasp them clearly enough.
The idea that support for various worthy projects must be obtained from
voluntary contributions and not confiscated is so new that Mr. Cohen is
probably totally baffled by it.
Maybe in a not to far away future it will no longer be so baffling and
even the ethicist of The New York Times Magazine will answer questions
from readers recognizing that taxation is extortion that should have been
left behind with serfdom, in the feudal era.
Machan is the R. C. Hoiles Professor of Business Ethics at the Argyros
School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, Orange, CA, a research
fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author of A
Primer on Ethics (1997).