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Taxation and Justice


Abstract: However much may set apart Hobbes and Locke, these two progenitors of our modern intellectual tradition are in full agreement on one cardinal point, namely “that civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniencies of the state of nature, which must certainly be great.” For anyone impressed with the arguments of these two and many other great thinkers, taxes must appear as more than “what we pay for civilized society”, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., famously put it. Taxes are what we pay for living in any kind of lasting peace and security at all.

How far the scope of legitimate state action might extend, what revenue might be necessary to sustain it, and how benefits and burdens are to be distributed, are matters of conviction and debate; what is certain, however, is that the requisite expenses will not be trivial, and hence that the serious question of just taxation cannot be wished away. Even for so staunch an erstwhile libertarian as Richard Epstein, “The sad truth is that even the limited government called for by laissez-faire is a large and complex undertaking” – and thus an expensive one. Nor is it at all self-evident, as none less than Adam Smith reminds us, that taxes deserve to be associated with servitude; on the contrary, proud and self-confident citizens ought to consider their payment of taxes “a badge, not of slavery, but of liberty”, denoting that while they are indeed subject to government, they are their own masters rather than someone else’s property.

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