Friday, April 02, 2010

The Ethics of Tax Resistance*

Tibor R. Machan

Governments hate it when you succeed at escaping their tyrannical reach and so we have been witnessing extensive efforts by the feds to curtail tax dodging and avoidance. This has led to some considerable pressure exerted on banks in Switzerland, Lichtenstein and other places with serious bank secrecy laws, to release the names of those who bank there hoping to escape the IRS. (The U. S. government wields not only military might!) Extorting money from the citizenry is the bread and butter of governments. No serious effort has ever been made even in America to find and implement ways of funding the legal system without using extortionist methods. Yet, how could one have an unalienable right to one's life and liberty and such while government puts a gun to one's head saying, "Your money or you go to jail"?

Tax resistance may be morally defended on grounds nearly identical to resisting any kind of aggression against oneself. If one is accosted on some city street and threatened, one has the right to defend oneself. The right of self-defense is derivable from the basic right one has to one’s life, one that rests on one's nature as a human being as a moral agent. If one carries on in one’s life peacefully and is nonetheless attacked, one is justified―has the right to―resist. This also holds if the attack is aimed at confiscating one’s resources, even if one misuse these--wastefulness may not be criminalized in a free society unless it involves dumping, imposing it on others, as in pollution.

Government sanction of conscription may, even ought to be resisted. Draconian cases could be cited here, involving slaves or concentration camp victims taking measures to escape. There is no moral doubt about whether resisting being subjected to these is ethically justified (although in nearly all such cases government apologists defend themselves via either the doctrine of implied collective consent or invoking some "greater good")! The gist of the errors of such systems can be seen in the Declaration of Independence where instead of governments, it's individuals who have sovereignty. Or, in other words, instead of divine rights for monarchs, it's individual human beings who have basic, unalienable rights, including to their lives, liberty and property (the term Thomas Jefferson used in an early draft based on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which referred to “property and pursuing happiness.”).

Taxation, which is extortion, has no place, any more than serfdom, in a just legal order so whether it's ethically justified to dodge or avoid it should not pose an insurmountably difficult moral problem. (There are, of course, considerations as to the proper means by which tax laws, as others that are unjust within a substantially just system of laws, would need to be resisted.)

What we face here is akin to what confronted abolitionists in the era of chattel slavery who were often urged to refrain from using radical means by which to resist. Arguably, one size does not fit all in how oppression of any kind ought to be resisted, opposed, combated, and so forth. Different victims could be justified in taking very different steps to counter oppression, including taxation. For some it would be most appropriate to make use of the available political processes, for some other means could be best. Taxation could, for some, be a minor although impermissible imposition, especially if they are wealthy enough so it makes little difference to the way they choose to live their lives. The context is relevant to how one is justified in addressing oppression. (For a simple example, if one is a large, powerful individual then being assaulted could be nearly inconsequential and not worth spending the time and resources to resist.)

Although there could be variations in how one ought to resist (dodge, avoid, legally contest, etc.) taxation, the answer to whether those subject to the institution are ethically justified in making the effort to resist it is in the affirmative. Yet, as with all matters of conduct involving other people, a sort of moral due process is required. One may not resist a trespasser by killing him and that kind of consideration would apply in how one goes about resisting an evil such as taxation.

In any case, the often voiced objections to tax dodging and tax avoidance are without merit.

*Several longer discussions of this topic are forthcoming in a special issue of the Journal of Business Ethics.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Due Process versus Desired Results

Tibor R. Machan

Human justice is directly concerned with process, indirectly with results. This appears to have escaped President Barack Obama, especially during the recent political battle over whether Obamacare may be implemented or is it perhaps in violation of the U. S. Constitution. And was it perhaps enacted without regard to justice, to due process?

I am no constitutional scholar but it seems to me that in America it is perfectly proper to inquire about whether a piece of legislation has been enacted in a way that does violence to due process, the method of making law that free men and women are due. So when during the final hours of the debate about Obamacare Mr. Obama himself derisively dismissed the concern of many about the process by which it was being made into law--for example in his 11th hour interview on Fox TV--the American citizenry gained an important insight into just how his administration plans to govern. What the president was insisting upon is that what matters to him and his team are results, not process. He wanted the bill to succeed, whatever process would bring this about and it is quite likely that this is how he plans to pursue the rest of his agenda.

Now life, of course, is itself a process. Human life in society manifests itself in innumerable processes, aiming at innumerable results. There is only one common result all human life ought to aim for but it comes in a great variety of forms, which is human happiness. This is supposed to be the reward of the morally good life of the individual human being. For this reason a good society has a system of legal justice that protects the processes whereby men and women will not have anyone around them obstruct their pursuit of happiness. It is the protection of that pursuit that is crucial to the law, not the result itself which is the citizenry's own business, their own task to achieve.

A parallel situation obtains concerning attempts to adjudicate dispute among members of the citizenry. A criminal trial is such an adjudicative process. And here again the result is only indirectly the concern of the legal system, the process is the crucial factor. And this is clear from the fact that the system often leaves the result in the hands of a jury, private citizens with no political and legal office. The system is supposed to ensure that every trial follows sound procedures--due processes of law!

But the tenor as well as the aims of our legal system have been changing. Politicians, including their legal appointees, are focused not on process but on results. The country is in danger of becoming a semi-civilized lynch mob. This could be appreciated from watching the news reports of all the fuss associated with the how dismissive President Obama was toward concerns expressed about the process that finally produced Obamacare.

And all this should not surprise us too much. Although the United States of America was conceived in terms of a legal system focused on due process, in time the government began establishing too many specific goals for us all to pursue. If the proper processes of the law do not produce an educated public, relief for the poor, environmental purity, total racial harmony, decent speech, or health insurance for all, then let's just drop them and charge ahead anyway.

When such a role is conceived for our government, is it surprising that the people are willing to throw out due process as they protest the ensuing results? What many wanted from the recent debate about Obamacare is to make sure that bringing about the result does not do violence to individual rights (as, for example, coercing people to buy insurance certainly would). Did the American political process manage to abide by the principles to which all political maneuvers must conform? Or did those who wanted Obamacare proceed without regard for the principles on which the government is supposed to rest?

In the eyes of most protesters, for example members of the Tea Party, it could very well look as if due process was tossed to the side. Supporters of Obamacare made it clear they couldn't care less about how the legislation made it into law so long as it did so somehow, with some semblance of legitimacy. This is a very ominous sign of where the country is headed. Hugo Chavez would find it promising.