All Commentary
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Taxation as Vandalism

Taxation is a Crime of the State and the Enemy of Innovation

Imagine a small town with only a few small businesses. The best, most prosperous business is the general store, which sells citizens many of their daily necessities. Just across the street is a shop that sells and installs windows. Unlike the general store, the window shop is not doing well at all. The town is policed by one sheriff, an idealistic man who believes that it is not only his right, but his duty, to do what is best for his community to ensure the safety and happiness of all its residents to the best of his ability.

The sheriff is patrolling his town one day when he walks between the general store and the window shop, across the street from each other, and sees that the latter is in shambles, while the former is thriving. This situation strikes him as quite unfair. Why, he asks himself, should the proprietors of these two stores, who (he presumes) spent comparable amounts of time and money in building their businesses, be separated by a large and growing disparity in their wealth and consequently their living conditions?

The sheriff decides he will take it upon himself to remedy the situation—to level the playing field—so he puts a brick through each of the general store’s windows. The window store is immediately flooded with business replacing all the general store’s damaged property. The sheriff is satisfied. He has succeeded in spurring the business of a struggling entrepreneur. His town is once again in harmony.

A month or so later the sheriff is walking the same beat. He notices that once again the general store, having recovered from the vandalism of the previous month, is maintaining a healthy business, while the window store is once again struggling. He decides to repeat his previous actions, once again tossing a brick through each of the former’s windows. And once again, the window store’s business surges as it is charged with replacing the damaged panes in the general store.

But the sheriff realizes that, left to its own devices, the general store will once again recover and resume its thriving business, while the window shop will again falter. So he decides to repeat his window-breaking routine every so often. By doing so, he reasons, he will be supporting an industry that would otherwise fail. He acknowledges the price that the general store will have to pay, but immediately dismisses this thought, realizing that such a thriving business certainly has the money to replace its windows every now and again.

Before this rampage of vandalism by the community’s civil servant, the owner of the general store had been contemplating ways in which to reinvest the revenue that his business was creating. He boiled the situation down to two options. On the one hand, he had been considering an expansion of his facilities. His business had been doing so well that he began to buy more products of more varieties, and, after a while, needed additional storage and shelf space. On the other hand, he thought, he owed much of his success to the hard work of his dedicated employees and felt they deserved a pay raise.

But before he could decide which of the alternatives suited him better, someone had begun to break the windows of his shop regularly. Although his business was not at risk, the costs associated with replacing the windows added up. He had to forgo his plans either for a physical expansion of his business or a bonus for his employees. (See Frédéric Bastiat’s discussion of the “broken-window fallacy.”)

After numerous occasions of vandalism at his shop, the owner of the general store goes to the sheriff and explains to him that the costs of replacing his shop’s windows are hampering his business and that he would like the sheriff to investigate. Much to the shopkeeper’s surprise, the sheriff admits that he, in fact, has been wreaking the destruction on the general store. The sheriff explains his logic, telling the owner that if those windows had not been broken, the business across the street would have gone belly up. As an officer of the law, the sheriff continues, he is charged with safeguarding the public—providing not just physical protection, but financial protection as well. He says that he cannot very well sit idly by and watch as members of the community who have entrusted their well-being to him are driven out of business and forced into poverty.

The general-store owner protests, but what can he do? Under threat of force (that is, of the law) he is told that he must endure the violation and destruction of his personal property for the benefit of the community. The sheriff continues to hurl bricks through the general-store window, and eventually the owner learns to live with this nuisance. Rather than expand his business—and the public service that it offers—or pay his employees more, he is forced to endure the oppression of the law for the sake of a business that could not survive on its own.

This is the crime of the state. Pragmatically, taxation is the enemy of innovation, the broken window in the general store. Philosophically, taxation is the moral—and universalized, or at least nationalized—equivalent of the sheriff’s vandalism. The state feels, in the service of the public, that it must violate the property of some for the benefit of others.

One need not advocate anarchism, however, to see the problems inherent in such a policy. Taxation arguably serves its purpose in providing public services. If the sheriff had restricted his duties to the physical protection of the community’s citizens, he would have been doing his job aptly. Likewise, the role of government must be restricted to the protection of the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. The state oversteps its bounds, however, when it violates one of those three rights—as the sheriff did, and as the federal government of the United States does—even for the benefit of others.

If the sheriff had not intervened, the owner of the window store may have realized that the community did not provide sufficient demand for his product for him to run a successful business. He could then have opened his own general store and competed with the one across the street. He could have vacated the building and rented it to the general-store owner, who needed additional space. But the sheriff’s violation of the right to property, actions that embody the spirit of welfarism and coercive equality espoused by so many in our own government, cannot be justified on any terms.

The United States is moving dangerously close to (and has maybe even arrived at) a system under which those charged with protecting and trusted to honor our rights regularly violate them in the name of mindless rhetorical utopianism and forceful egalitarian mediocrity.