This article was published in the Summer 1995 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
Taxation: Voluntary or Compulsory?
by F. W. Read and Benjamin R. Tucker

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editor's note
Read (Jus, 17 June 1887)
Tucker (Liberty, 30 July 1887)
Read (Jus, date uncertain)
Tucker (Liberty, 22 October 1887)

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Editor's Note: Under the heading "Heritage," we propose from time to time to offer selections from early libertarian classics which, while in the public domain, are now out of print, difficult to obtain, and/or largely forgotten. These selections will be chosen with an eye to the contribution they can make to the work of the Free Nation Foundation.

The present selection is a condensation of a debate between two 19th-century friends of liberty: F. W. Read, defending limited government, whose contributions appeared as letters in the British classical liberal journal Jus, and Benjamin Tucker, defending free-market anarchism, whose contributions appeared as editorials in Liberty, the foremost American anarchist journal of the period.


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Read (Jus, 17 June 1887): The voluntary taxation proposal really means the dissolution of the State into its constituent atoms, and leaving them to recombine in some way or no way, just as it may happen. There would be nothing to prevent the existence of five or six "States" in England, and members of all these "States" might be living in the same house! The proposal is, it appears to me, the outcome of an idea in the minds of those who propound it that the State is, or ought to be, founded on contract, just as a joint-stock company is. ... The explanation of the whole matter, I believe, is that ... the State is a social organism, evolved as every other organism is evolved, and not requiring any more than other organisms to be based upon a contract ....

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Tucker (Liberty, 30 July 1887): Some very interesting and valuable discussion is going on in the London Jus concerning the question of compulsory versus voluntary taxation. ... The idea that the voluntary taxationist objects to the State precisely because it does not rest on contract, and wishes to substitute contract for it, is strictly correct, and I am glad to see (for the first time, if my memory serves me) an opponent grasp it ....

It is perfectly true that voluntary taxation would not necessarily "prevent the existence of five or six 'States' in England," and that "members of all these 'States' might be living in the same house." But I see no reason for Mr. Read's exclamation point after this remark. What of it? There are many more than five or six Churches in England, and it frequently happens that members of several of them live in the same house. There are many more than five or six insurance companies in England, and it is by no means uncommon for members of the same family to insure their lives and goods against accident or fire in different companies. Does any harm come of it? Why, then, should there not be a considerable number of defensive associations in England, in which people, even members of the same family, might insure their lives and goods against murderers or thieves? Though Mr. Read has grasped one idea of the voluntary taxationists, I fear that he sees another much less clearly, namely, the idea that defence is a service, like any other service; that it is labor both useful and desired, and therefore an economic commodity subject to the law of supply and demand; that in a free market this commodity would be furnished at the cost of production; that, competition prevailing, patronage would go to those who furnished the best article at the lowest price; that the production and sale of this commodity are now monopolized by the State; that the State, like almost all monopolists, charges exorbitant prices; that, like almost all monopolists, it supplies a worthless, or nearly worthless, article; that ... the State takes advantage of its monopoly of defence to furnish invasion instead of protection ... and, finally, that the State ... enjoys the unique privilege of compelling all people to buy its product whether they want it or not. If, then, five or six "States" were to hang out their shingles, the people, I fancy, would be able to buy the very best kind of security at a reasonable price. ...

All these considerations, however, are disposed of, in Mr. Read's opinion, by his final assertion that "the State is a social organism." ... Again I ask: What of it? Suppose the State is an organism, what then? ... Yes; so is a tiger. But unless I meet him when I haven't my gun, his organism will speedily disorganize. The State is a tiger seeking to devour the people, and they must either kill or cripple it.

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Read (Jus, date uncertain): The tiger is an organism, says Mr. Tucker, but if shot he will be speedily disorganized. Quite so; but nobody supposes that the atoms of the tiger's body derive any benefit from the process. Why should the atoms of the body politic derive any advantage from the dissolution of the organism of which they form a part? That Mr. Tucker should put the State on a level with churches and insurance companies is astounding. Does Mr. Tucker really think that five or six "States" could exist side by side with the same convenience as an equal number of churches? The difficulty of determining what "State" an individual belonged to would be insuperable. How are assaults and robberies to be dealt with? Is a man to be tried by the "State" of which he is a citizen, or by the "State" of the party aggrieved? If by his own, how is a police officer of that "State" to know whether a certain individual belongs to it or not? The difficulties are so enormous that the State would soon be reformed on the old lines. Another great difficulty would be that the State would find it impossible to make a contract. If the State is regarded as a mere collection of individuals, who will lend money on state security? The reason the State is trusted at all is because it is regarded as something over and above the individuals who compose it at any given time; because we feel that, while individuals die, the State remains, and that the State will honor State contracts, even if made for purposes that are disapproved by those who are the atoms of the State organism. ... Again, is it no advantage to us to be able to make treaties with foreign countries? But what country will make a treaty with a mere mass of individuals, a large portion of whom will be gone in ten years' time?

But apart from the question of organism or no organism, does not history show a weakening of the State in some directions, and a continuous strengthening in other directions? We find a gradual disappearance of the desire "to furnish invasion instead of protection," and, as the State ceases to do so, the more truly strong does it become, and the more vigorously does it carry out what I regard as its ultimate function, that of protecting some against the aggression of others. ... What Individualists are trying to do is to show the State that, when it regulates factories and coal mines, and a thousand and one other things, it is acting against its own interests. When the State has learned the lesson, the meddling will cease.

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Tucker (Liberty, 22 October 1887): In answer to Mr. Read's statement ... I cannot do better than to quote the following passage from an article by J. William Lloyd in No. 107 of Liberty:

... individuals complex, secondary, tertiary, etc. [are] formed by the aggregation of primary individuals or of individuals of lesser complexity. Some of these individuals of a high degree of complexity are true individuals, concrete, so united that the lesser organisms included cannot exist apart from the main organism; while others are imperfect, discrete, the included organisms existing ... quite as well, or better, apart than united. ...

... The State, unlike society, is a discrete organism. If it should be destroyed to-morrow, individuals would still continue to exist. Production, exchange, and association would go on as before, but much more freely, and all those social functions upon which the individual is dependent would operate in his behalf more usefully than ever. The individual is not related to the State as the tiger's paw is related to the tiger. Kill the tiger, and the tiger's paw no longer performs its office; kill the State, and the individual still lives and satisfies his wants. ...

Mr. Read finds it astounding that I should "put the State on a level with churches and insurance companies." I find his astonishment amusing. Believers in compulsory religious systems were astounded when it was first proposed to put the church on a level with other associations. ... But the political superstition has replaced the religious superstition, and Mr. Read is under its sway.

I do not think "that five or six 'States' could exist side by side with" quite "the same convenience as an equal number of churches." In the relations with which States have to do there is more chance for friction than in the simply religious sphere. But, on the other hand, the friction resulting from a multiplicity of States would be but a mole-hill compared with the mountain of oppression and injustice which is gradually heaped up by a single compulsory State. It would not be necessary for a police officer of a voluntary "State" to know to what "State" a given individual belonged, or whether he belonged to any. Voluntary "States" could, and probably would, authorize their executives to proceed against invasion, no matter who the invader or invaded might be. Mr. Read will probably object that the "State" to which the invader belonged might regard his arrest as itself an invasion, and proceed against the "State" which arrested him. Anticipation of such conflicts would probably result exactly in those treaties between "States" which Mr. Read looks upon as so desirable, and even in the establishment of federal tribunals, as courts of last resort, by the co-operation of the various "States," on the same voluntary principle in accordance with which the "States" themselves were organized.

Voluntary taxation, far from impairing the "State's" credit, would strengthen it. In the first place, the simplification of its functions would greatly reduce, and perhaps entirely eliminate, its need to borrow, and the power to borrow is generally inversely proportional to the steadiness of the need. It is usually the inveterate borrower who lacks credit. In the second place, the power of the State to repudiate, and still continue its business, is dependent upon its power of compulsory taxation. It knows that, when it can no longer borrow, it can at least tax its citizens up to the limit of revolution. In the third place, the State is to be trusted, not because it is over and above individuals, but because the lender presumes that it desires to maintain its credit and will therefore pay its debts. This desire for credit will be stronger in a "State" supported by voluntary taxation than in a State which enforces taxation.

All the objections brought forward by Mr. Read (except the organism argument) are mere difficulties of administrative detail, to be overcome by ingenuity, practice, discretion, and expedients. ... They seem "enormous" to him; but so seemed the difficulties of freedom of thought two centuries ago. ...

It is true that "history shows a continuous weakening of the State ...." ... This tendency is simply the progress of evolution towards Anarchy. ... It is exactly in the line of this process ... that the Anarchists demand ... the substitution of voluntary for compulsory taxation. ... They propose to create a public sentiment that will make it impossible for the State to collect taxes or in any other way invade the individual. Regarding the State as an instrument of aggression, they do not expect to convince it that aggression is against its interests, but they do expect to convince individuals that it is against their interests to be invaded. ...

For myself I do not think it proper to call voluntary associations States, but, enclosing the word in quotation marks, I have so used it because Mr. Read set the example. D

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