By Carl Watner
In mid-May 2017, I received a proof copy of Gerard Casey’s book, FREEDOM’S PROGRESS?- A HISTORY OF POLITICAL THOUGHT. In this massive tome of 960 pages, I found several references to a book by Richard Murphy, titled THE JOY OF TAX – HOW A FAIR TAX SYSTEM CAN CREATE A BETTER SOCIETY.
Reading that book didn’t make me sick, but it did make me feel, as Gerard Casey put it, “as if I had fallen down the rabbit hole into some alternate reality” where paying taxes was the norm and where anyone who thought otherwise was considered “paranoid” (as Murphy labeled my way of thinking in an email). Murphy’s book deserves attention because it propagates the views that government is an institution which should exist and which should be supported by taxation. Furthermore, it asserts that when a citizen earns an income, part of the income automatically belongs to the government. Why? Because the taxpayer has agreed to the government’s laws and to “the social contract” under which the citizen and the government coexist.
After I read Murphy’s book, I emailed him. Here are the questions I asked him:
1) How does the government’s property (which the taxpayer is holding in trust until the tax is paid) come into the citizen’s possession?
2) Who created the property and who transferred the property into the hands of the taxpayer(s)?
Could you please explain?
Although Murphy declined to let me quote from any of his emails, I did forward it to Gerard Casey, who responded as follows:
First, congratulations on getting a response from Professor Murphy. Let’s take it step by step.
[Murphy wrote] “The government’s property is [the] tax owing.”
I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean, unless it’s something like “The government’s property is the tax that is owed to it.”
So, where’s the theory of property that would support such a claim? … Any theory of property must, in addition to providing for acquisition by exchange, provide for original acquisition, otherwise, the whole process could never start. Where is Murphy’s theory of original acquisition? If a government could be shown to have originally acquired all the land over which they now exercise control, then they would relate to their citizens as landlord to tenant. Did/does any government even make such a claim, let alone defend it?
[Murphy wrote] “It comes into the taxpayers’ possession when they make money on which they owe tax.”
Leaving aside the question-begging nature of this assertion, it implies that the government’s property only comes into existence when you (or some other idiot: “only fools and horses work”) makes money. If all the citizens stopped making money, the government would have no property!
[Murphy wrote] “My argument is that they never own the gross sum of their income, they only own the net sum after tax is due, meaning that the tax due is always the property of the government that they merely hold in trust for it.”
This is not an argument; it’s an assertion. An argument requires at least one premise and a conclusion. His conclusion is that the government owns the tax you owe it, and which you are holding in trust for it. The question is, what’s the premise on which this conclusion rests?
[Murphy wrote] “No one as such transferred this property to the tax payer: the property was created by the taxpayer but is not theirs to enjoy because it belongs to someone else – the government.”
His whole screed is simply the repetition of the same non-argumentative assertion – you don’t own all of your income – the government owns part of it. (Why not all of it, by the way, and why the proportion that it does claim?) Interestingly, this last repetition of his assertion contains the seed of a counterargument against it. If X creates Y then, prima facie, barring some form of antecedent alienation, X has the best claim to own Y. So, if the taxpayer creates the property, then it is hard to see why it (or part of it) should be deemed to belong to someone else. Was there an antecedent agreement to this effect between tax-levier and tax-payer, justified by some variation on the ‘tacit consent’ argument? If so, then the usual objections to this dubious doctrine apply. If not, then what?
I then wrote Murphy a second time as follows:
Before I sent you my email, I had composed a short article titled “Oh, The Joy(s) of Slavery!” (draft attached) in which I tried to lay out your definition and argument for tax. I sent you my email in an attempt to better understand your position.
It appears that the basis of your position on tax is that
(A) all money and property possessed by the citizens of a country belong to the government.
Am I correct in thinking this?
If so, how did the government come to own everything? What is your theory of original acquisition? It would appear that the property that I own was obtained by my exchanging my labor for money and then exchanging that money for food, shelter, and clothing, which other individuals have produced. Other individuals come to own things in the same way. How do such products created by the activities of individuals become the property of government?
If your position is A, is that position an axiom, neither having nor requiring evidential support, or does it rest upon some evidential base? If so, what is that base?
No one I know has explicitly agreed that when they create property it then automatically becomes government property. Does your position depend upon some form of the doctrine of tacit consent? You would probably respond that their agreement is implied by an individual’s continued presence in the country where they reside. However, I can assure you that there are some citizens who would deny this.
Would you agree that A (above) imposes on citizens a form of involuntary servitude, that is, slavery? If not, why not?
When Murphy responded, he appeared very upset with me. He would not agree to let me quote from his emails because he considered my interpretation manipulative and bizarre. He basically accused me of putting words in his mouth. He would not agree that the government owned all the citizens’ income and property, but only that before people create their income, they have agreed to be taxed. Then whatever they “owe” in taxes automatically becomes the government’s property (which they hold in trust for the government until such time as the tax is due).
After all of these email exchanges, Gerard Casey sent me a link to another article containing arguments similar to Murphy’s. It was written by Philip Goff, an associate professor in philosophy at the Central European University in Budapest, and is titled “Is Taxation Theft? – The assumption that you own the contents of your pay-packet, although almost universal, is demonstrably confused.” So Murphy is not the only academic thinking this way. This is government propaganda and indoctrination, pure and simple. Its aim is to make the citizen a docile taxpayer, who never questions the legitimacy or morality of government or its revenue-collecting processes.
In looking back, Murphy is correct that he never actually wrote that all the taxpayer’s property belonged to the government. However, he clearly asserts that the government has a lien on the taxpayer’s property and income, which if not satisfied allows the government to confiscate enough of it to satisfy its lien. I would have been more prescient to have asked him where and how this lien originates. Even better, I should have asked him why he assumes a coercive, monopolistic institution, like government, should even exist.
You, the reader, must decide who is right and who is wrong. Do you really think you owe the government the tax(es) it demands? That decision will affect your pocketbook for the rest of your life.
Here follows the original essay I sent to Murphy:
In his 1973 libertarian manifesto, FOR A NEW LIBERTY, Murray Rothbard observed that “it is startling for someone to consider taxation as robbery, and therefore [view the] government as a band of robbers. But anyone who persists in thinking of taxation as in some sense a ‘voluntary’ payment can see what happens if he chooses not to pay. … [So] [w]hat distinguishes the edicts of the State from the commands of a bandit gang? … Indeed, it would be a useful exercise for nonlibertarians to ponder this question: How can you define taxation in a way which makes it different from robbery?”
Now comes Richard Murphy to answer these questions in his book, THE JOY OF TAX (2015). His answer is clear and concise:
… tax is that property held in trust by an individual or company that is due to the state whose rightful and legal property it is.(46, emphasis in original)
In other words, as Murphy puts it, “tax is actually the government’s money that we sometimes hold on its behalf.” (46)
What Murphy neglects to explain is: How did this money (or property) belonging to the government get in to the hands of the taxpayer in the first place? Was it stolen by the taxpayer from the government? Who originally created this property and how did it come into the hands of private citizens? Although he does not come out directly and say it, the whole premise of his explanation is that all property and money “owned” by the citizens of a country belongs to the government, but he never explicates how the government comes to own everything. This also explains his statement that “the action that we call paying tax is actually the process by which we transfer to the government that part of the funds that we hold which rightfully are not ours but are in fact the property of the state.” (46) And as he adds a page later, “We do not own our gross income, we only own our net income. (47-48)
Murphy takes issue with the online Oxford Dictionary’s definition of tax as “A compulsory contribution to state revenue … .” (33, emphasis in the original) He claims that taxes are not collected under duress because people (a) have “the right to vote in elections that result in the formation of governments that set the taxes in the countries in which they reside”; (b) “those same people also have a right to try to influence the democratic process”; and (c) they “have a right to leave the country if they really do feel they are being compelled to do something they do not want.” (35) Nevertheless Murphy admits that it is “impossible to deny” that there is some “element of compulsion to tax,” but he points out that compulsion is not an essential element of the tax system. (40) He argues that since most people consent to the government they live under, any compulsion found in the laws enforcing collection of taxes is not really compulsion. Follow this reasoning if you will:
Just as most of us refrain from burglary without the requirement of any law to tell us not to do so, so do most of us in a modern democracy voluntarily pay our tax. It is for those who break the norm of society, by refusing to comply with what most of us think is the right thing to do, that we have law that penalizes anyone who persists in doing the wrong thing. The fact that we have these laws and use them relatively rarely … is not evidence of compulsion but the exact opposite, which is that compliance is the norm that needs to be enforced only exceptionally. (41)
In other words, the violent penalties (imprisonment and/or confiscation of your property) for not filing a return and/or not paying your tax is not compulsion. Or if you believe Big Brother in 1984, “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery.”
Nowhere in his discussion does Murphy discuss how property comes into rightful ownership. He simply assumes that the government owns everything in the area over which it claims jurisdiction. As I observed earlier, Murphy’s philosophy of “voluntary” tax is based on the claim that “tax represents the ‘consideration’ paid by people who live in a country in exchange for the social contract that exists between them, its government, and each other.” (156) What this social contract implies is that all monies and property coming into the possession of the citizen belongs to the government. So long as the citizen pays his rent (the tax) to the actual owner (the government) he may retain temporary possession. Failure to pay will result in seizure (foreclosure) of the property and it being auctioned off to the highest bidder, who will then have to make payments to the state.
Near the beginning of his book, Murphy writes that “the ability to tax is an exercise in economic power over others.” (18) Later he writes that “the reality is that … tax can be seen to be one of the cleverest of human inventions … .” (51) Legitimizing taxation in the eyes of the taxpayers, and convincing them that they actually owe the tax is not only diabolically devious and deceptive, but is the simplest and least costly way of reducing the amount of violence required to collect money and property from the government’s citizenry. Taxpayers are happiest when they think there is no alternative (as in “death and taxes are inescapable”); just as slaves are happy when they think there is no alternative to slavery. Both the taxpayer and the slave are content to turn over the products of their labor to whomever “exercises” economic power over them. But voluntaryists are not content to be tax slaves because they view taxation as “sophisticated slavery” and “a disgrace to the human race.” Voluntaryists find no joy in slavery. Nor do they find any joy in taxation. If Richard Murphy enjoys paying his taxes, let him do so, but let him keep his Joy to himself.
Anonymous, “Do You Really ‘Owe’ Those Taxes?” THE VOLUNTARYIST, Issue 159, 4th Quarter 2013.
Richard Murphy, THE JOY OF TAX, London: Transworld Publishers, 2015. Page numbers within parentheses refer to this edition.
Marco den Ouden, “Sophisticated Slavery,” THE VOLUNTARYIST, Issue 163, 4th Quarter 2014.
Murray Rothbard, FOR A NEW LIBERTY, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1973. See pp. 54-55 in the first section (“The State as Aggressor) of Chapter 3, “The State.”
Carl Watner, “Moral Challenge II,” THE VOLUNTARYIST, Issue 141, 2nd Quarter 2009.
Carl Watner (editor), RENDER NOT: THE CASE AGAINST TAXATION, Apple Valley: Cobden Press, 2011.
Philip Goff, “Is taxation theft?” https://aeon.co/essays/if-your-pay-is-not-yours-to-keep-then-neither-is-the-tax accessed September 23, 2017.