Taxation and Slavery

In his recent comment,* Jacob made several references to slavery, both historical and metaphorical. I’d like to unpack them a bit since they reflect the foundation of some of our differences.

In his first reference, Jacob references the historic institution of slavery. He suggests that “the majority of Americans were better off as a result of slavery.” It is certainly true that the American economy as a whole was built on slavery. And in addition to Southern slaveholders there were many Northerners who directly and indirectly profited from slavery. But I’m not sure that it’s fair to say, especially at the time of the Civil War, that “a majority of Americans were better off” because of those held in bondage. Furthermore, I’m not sure how this example supports Jacob’s argument: property (slaves) were taken by the government from some citizens (without compensation) in order to expand the overall level of liberty. Isn’t that the kind of redistribution he’s suggesting shouldn’t happen?


Because we live in a nation with a Constitution that once condoned physical slavery, it’s the metaphorical use of the concept of slavery that bothers me most. (In this usage, Jacob is perfectly in line with other conservative commentators, so my disagreement isn’t with him so much as the broader libertarian movement.) As Jacob aptly demonstrates, it is possible to define slavery in such a way that taxation sounds very similar to slavery. In his words,

The citizen paying higher taxes … become[s] a ‘slave’ to the government – forced to work for the benefit of others by the force of others (the threat of jail for not paying taxes is certainly a force).

But there are several practical levels at which I think this equivalence breaks down.

1. The tax-paying citizen is not ‘forced to work’ in a sense comparable to the way that actual slaves were forced to work. Citizens of the U.S. can choose what kind of work to do, who to perform it for, how much work to perform, when to perform that work, etc. If they do not wish to be liable for so much taxation, they can work less (thus earning less taxable income) or get active in changing the tax policy. Actual slaves, on the other hand, were literally forced to work to support others. They had no choices in the nature, manner, or duration of the work they were to perform.

2. The “threat of jail for not paying taxes,” though indeed qualifying as a form of force, is not comparable to the immediate presence of physical force common in America’s slave-holding past. One who does not pay their portion of the federal tax requirements may face fines or jail. But actual slaves would and did face severe beatings and other physical punishments, including death, for their unwillingness to work.

3. Taxation is a necessary part of citizenship and does not strip taxpayers of their basic Constitutional rights. In fact, the very requirement of taxation reaffirms one’s status as a citizen. The institution of physical slavery, on the other hand, stripped slaves of even their personhood, transforming them into property accountable only to their owners. Suggesting that a loss of purchasing power is somehow akin to a loss of personhood strikes me as grossly unfair to the memory of those who lived in actual slavery in this nation.


Fundamentally, I simply do not regard money as the key measure of liberty. So I don’t think of taxation and redistribution as a form of taking liberty from one person and giving it to another. Yes, with less money I have less freedom in the marketplace. But I don’t think that’s the primary measure of liberty which the government should be concerned with. If the cost of everyone having some access to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and of promoting “the general welfare” is a bit less market freedom for individuals, that seems perfectly reasonable to me. To my thinking, that’s part of being citizens of this great nation, not a mild form of slavery.†



* I’d love to hear from more of you and hope you are enjoying this dialogue. It’s been much more fun responding to Jacob than writing into the dark.

† I should mention here that I’m not actually a fan of the Robin Hood approach to government policy. In my state we often get ballot propositions in the form of “Increase the tax on those making more than X million by [some tiny percentage] to pay for [this obviously great cause].” I always vote against them. If the cause is so great, shouldn’t we all be willing to put a bit of skin in the game? These proposals also seem to violate the spirit of the Constitutional prohibition on bills of attainder – Why should the wealthy be solely responsible for paying for [this obviously great cause] just because they have more money than us?

One Response to Taxation and Slavery
  1. Clinton
    June 15, 2012 | 10:38 pm

    I agree with you on all of those points however there was one thing that jumped out at me that I wanted to address. This is going to be going off of the current discussion, although I believe it does affect it.

    “Why should the wealthy be solely responsible for paying for [this obviously great cause] just because they have more money than us?”

    This is a huge issue in today’s political landscape and rightfully so i think. When you look at the different levels of pay at different quintiles you see just how much of a transfer has happened between the employees and the c-level execs and higher. When the pay for CEO’s and the like have grown something in the realm of 250% over the last 30 years and pay for your average middle class has stayed flat, you have to begin to wonder what is the cause of this.

    Now some of this can be related to globalization and cheaper overseas workers which will inherently increase profits for a large company. It can also be related to increased use of technology in place of humans. However around the time of Reagan, companies have started to cater and care more about quarterly profits for shareholders than keeping a vibrant and prosperous middle class. So much for the trickle down.

    Now you even have a majority of Fortune500 companies who increase Executive compensation packages by moving the amounts for things like Exec. retirement pensions onto the employee pension side. The book ‘Retirement Heist’ gives a mind bending rundown of company after company who have done this(and presumably) still do.

    So to get to your point, i think the reason people clamor for taxing the rich is because that is all they have left in their bag of tricks. They are merely trying and recoup the savings, retirement or health coverage that they once had and no longer do because of those at the top transferring more to themselves. It has been a characteristic that has been rather pervasive throughout most if not all of large business industries. It is also well documented, but people seem to be willfully ignorant of it. Im not sure why.