Are Societies Owned?
By Tibor Machan - December 12, 2011

Libertarians tend to view taxation as unjustified. It is something associated with statism, a kind of coercive institution that expropriates resources from members of society rather than securing the resources voluntarily. Statists, however, criticize the libertarian view, claiming that in a way taxation is voluntary, only apparently not so. Such defenders of statism as Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, in their book The Myth of Ownership,[1] have made this case and they have done so along lines worth some attention here.

Assume you wish to sell antiques, so you rent space in a building owned by someone and agree that whenever you make a sale, some of what you fetch goes to the owner. Craig Duncan claims this is analogous to the nature of taxation. The country is like the building. "The building's owner … charges vendors a percentage of their sales intake—say, 20 percent—as payment for the opportunity to sell from one of the building's stalls…. The owner is not stealing [the vendor's] money when he demands this sum from [the vendor]."[2] According to Duncan it is by comparison to this kind of situation that taxation ought to be understood, not, as I and other libertarians argue, as extortion by some members of society (the government) of the rest who live and work there or, as Nozick claimed, as something on par with forced labor.[3]

But the analogy is a bad one. No one owns a free society. No one who lives in a free society is provided with the opportunity to strike up a deal with some owner of that society or to choose, from among different owners of societies, in which he or she might live and work.

Instead, people would be born into a free society where others, including their parents, relatives, or guardians, own homes, places of work and so on. Other people—the government—would not have the authority to coerce them into paying them "taxes" and to put them in jail if they refuse to pay up, with no chance of bargaining about the percentage, of whether to pay a flat fee (whether they win or lose in their various commercial endeavors), a percentage of some possible take and so forth.

All of these latter options are, however, possible when an antique seller rents a stall from someone who owns a building where customers may seek out vendors. But free societies, unlike the place where an antique vendor may or may not rent a stall, are not anyone's property.

Professor Duncan does, however, correctly describe societies that are not free. In a feudal system, for example, the king or tsar or other monarch owns the society. In a dictatorship the dictator is the owner. In fascist societies the leader in effect owns the society. And in democracies that aren't governed by a constitution that protects individual rights the majority owns the society. These owners then charge a rent from those they permit to live and work on their property.

That kind of system is, indeed, the natural home of the institution of taxation. Such societies are also the natural home of serfdom, where others than those who own it live and work only when permitted to do so. They have no rights other than those granted at the discretion of the owners. Both serfdom and taxation arise naturally in societies that are owned by someone.

In free societies, however, no one owns the society. Individual citizens may or may not own all kinds of things in such free societies—land, apartments, family homes, farms, factories, and innumerable other items that may be found before human beings have expropriated them from the wilds or what has been produced by or traded back and forth among the free citizenry.

Of course, in complex, developed free societies the citizenry will most likely have instituted a legal order or government, based on the principles of freedom—individual rights to life, liberty and property, for example. And they will probably have instituted some means by which those administering such a system will be paid for their work—user fees, shares of wealth owned, a flat sum, or something more novel and unheard of (e.g., contract fees). Citizens can come together, roughly along lines of how the original American colonists came together, and establish a legal order or government that will be empowered, without violating anyone's rights, to provide for a clear definition, elaboration, and defense of everyone's rights. Then, once such a group of citizens has come together and instituted a government with just powers—powers that do not violate but protect individual rights—the proper funding of the work of such a government can be spelled out.

What is crucial here is that such funding must occur voluntarily, namely, as the kind of funding that does not violate anyone's rights. Unlike the case Professor Duncan gives us, where someone has prior ownership over the various items in society that can be owned, in a free society ownership is achieved through various types of free action. This includes coming upon something unowned and appropriating it—land, trees, lakes, whatever—or being given in trade various things by others or, again, being born into the world with various assets or attributes that may well be used to create wealth through production, use or exchange.

A truly free society, then, does not belong to anyone but is a region wherein individuals are free to come to own things. It is one within which those who live there are free to embark on actions that involve, among other things, the acquisition of property. That is part of being free, not being coerced by others to give up what one has peacefully acquired, not be prohibited by others from embarking on various actions, including peaceful acquisition (including production and trade).

In short, a free society is based on principles of individual rights, not on having gained permission from prior owners of the society on analogy with how a renter of a stall in an antique mall comes into possession of that stall. In free societies ownership is a right everyone has by his or her nature as a human being and it isn't granted as a privilege by a prior owner, ad infinitum.

[1] Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership (London: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[2] Craig Duncan & Tibor R. Machan, Libertarianism, For and Against (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 46.

[3] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).