I wrote this blog post in response to the views expressed in the article “Chicago teachers escalate toward historic strike” at the news website Waging Nonviolence. I have been subscribed to the weekly mailing list of the website since May 18, 2012 when I read the article “Thoreau’s gift that keeps on giving – even for gay marriage in Texas.” I disagreed with the article’s view on marriage (the government part of marriage, not the gay part—my view is that government marriage privileges should be abolished, as I explained in my comment on the article), yet I enjoyed the news story enough to sign up for the site’s mailing list. I am a big fan of civil disobedience and non-violent social change, so I could not resist. Since that first article I have found that I disagree with many of the views published on the website—including the view on government schools that will soon be discussed here—despite the fact that both the website and I put our principles of non-violence above all else.
My goal here is to appeal to your support of non-violence to persuade you to put in the mental effort to carefully think through the issues I am about to discuss to make sure that you are not accidentally supporting the violence that you oppose on principle. It is my sincere belief that by supporting more government you are supporting such violence, even when you are supporting government to try to advance the cause of the wonderfully charitable service of education. Let it be known that this is not an unimportant matter and that the position I am about to argue here is not to be brushed aside lightly, especially by those who value peace, non-violence, and voluntary consensual interactions between loving, caring people.
Everyone who considers themselves pro-peace who supports increasing taxes to pay teachers higher salaries or to higher more teachers ought to reconsider their view.
There are many people who believe in a “right to public education,” but what is this right and do people really have it?
Note that I fully agree that every child, whether rich or poor or whatever, deserves the opportunity to receive an education. But, this does not mean that people have a right to said education.
To see why, let’s imagine a small society of three people (A, B, and C) living on an isolated island. Person A wants to be educated and claims that she has a “right to public education.”
Imagine there is the following problem. Neither B nor C wants to teach A for free and A is completely broke so she has nothing to offer B or C to get either of them to teach her voluntarily. Also note that neither B nor C is willing to voluntarily give anything to the other to get the other to teach A voluntarily.
So how can A have her “right to public education” respected? There are two ways:
(1) She can force one of them (e.g. C) to educate her against their will, or
(2) She can force one of them (e.g. B) to pay the other person (C) so as to get the other person (C) to educate her voluntarily.
The first option is clearly a form of slavery. Person C is being forced to work for A against her will and therefore is being enslaved.
The second option is clearly theft. Person B is having her money taken from her and given to C without her consent.
Therefore, no consistent person can be opposed to slavery and theft while at the same time believe in such a “right to public education.”
Now you might say, “Wait a minute, isn’t there a third option? What about what we are doing now?”
The answer is that the current way of providing people with their “right to public education” is the second option. People are taxed; the money is given to teachers; the teachers educate people voluntarily.
You might object, this time probably with several reasons jumbled together: “Hold on, taxation isn’t theft. It’s true that when we tax someone we are taking their money and giving it to teachers, but we are doing this with the taxpayer’s consent so it is not theft. Taxation without consent may be theft, but we have a democratic government in which we are all given the equal right to vote and collectively decide how to spend a certain portion of our money on matters of public concern, such as education. Further, it’s not as though one group of people is being taxed while another is receiving the money. We all pay taxes and we all receive the benefits of public education, so nothing is being stolen from anybody.”
There are a few different arguments here. From experience I know that it is quite difficult for people to be persuaded that they are all flawed, probably due to their fear of what “anarchy” would be like.*
While I could take the time and effort to meticulously lay out several pages of counter-arguments here explaining why the above objections** do not succeed in justifying taxation, nor in proving the claim that taxation is not theft, I believe that I can accomplish nearly as much with far less effort by replying to the central theme of the objections.
The arguments that taxation represents a third way—distinct from the theft or extortion of option (2)—to have someone’s “right to public education” respected rely on the claim that representative governments, voting, or other democratic processes manage to introduce some sort of consent into the system making taxation something other than extortion. This is wrong. Remember, you personally may be fine with paying taxes, but this does not mean that everyone else has consented. You personally may enjoy your one-in-a-million voice in deciding how the government spends your money, but this does not mean that everyone else has consented to the process. To quote philosophy Professor Roderick Long:
It may be objected that in democratic countries, the government represents the will of the citizens; since the citizens are understood to consent to the government’s actions, those actions cannot count as “aggression” against the citizenry. Volenti non fit injuria.
The notion that voting counts in any meaningful sense as “consent” was subjected to devastating criticisms in the 19th century by the English classical liberal Herbert Spencer, in his essay The Right to Ignore the State, as well as by the American abolitionist Lysander Spooner, in his pamphlet No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority. Both works are available online; those tempted to regard majority rule as a form of self-government are invited to consult them.
The above quote is from Roderick Long’s short yet inspiring article An Open Letter to the Peace Movement. The letter, written shortly before the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, addresses those in the peace movement, who although correct in their opposition to violence between nations, often fail to see that they support certain forms of violence within nations. I highly encourage everyone reading this (and all of your friends and family not reading this) to read his letter—now if you have three or four minutes and now if you don’t. It’s that good.
* Note that if taxation is theft then a society without theft is a society without taxation. Since a society without taxation is a society without government, or “anarchy,” it follows that a society without theft must be “anarchy,” which is of course completely out of the question since we all know that life in “anarchy” must be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” So we know that taxation simply cannot be theft, at least not in all cases. But to be serious, if you are interested in learning why Hobbes was wrong, my last blog post Dispelling the Myth of Violent Chaos attempts to answer the concern that “anarchy” must be the nightmare that most people assume it to be.
** There are more objections than those that I jumbled into the paragraph in the article. For example, some people argue that being taxed to fund a school is just like being sent a bill for any other product or service that a person agreed to purchase. To this objection I would ask, when did people agree to purchase government education and how do they choose to stop purchasing it? Why do they have to move somewhere else to stop purchasing it? People do not have to move in order to stop purchasing groceries at a particular grocery store or yoga classes at a particular yoga school. Certainly it would be unjust for the YMCA to threaten to lock you in prison for choosing to drop your membership with them, regardless of whether you choose to continue living in your current home or not. Certainly the same is true with government. It is unjust for the government to force people to continue “purchasing” their services even if the people choose to continue living in their current homes. A similar objection is the claim that the government owns your house and all of your neighbors’ houses and all of the businesses in town and across the country and therefore has the right to collect “rent” from you and everybody else. This claim is completely unfounded and anyone wishing to defend it would have to provide a reason as to why the government’s claims of ownership to your house, my house, and our neighbors homes and businesses are greater than your claim, my claim, and our neighbor’s claims of ownership before I could critique the position further. Another point on this subject: A good test to see if your argument in defense of taxation is nonsense or not is to apply it to the three-person island scenario mentioned in this blog post. Who or what is “the government” on the three person island? How did “the government” come to own all of the land on the island. If you believe that the “social contract” is a genuine concept, try to explain how it comes into being in the island scenario. What if there are people who do not explicitly agree to it? What if there are people who explicitly do not agree with it? In what sense is it a contract if at all? Can it really be used to justify acts that otherwise would be considered theft or extortion (see option (2) of the island scenario above)? Lastly, you may object that taxation is different than theft in our current society, but what about in the island scenario? I highly encourage you to try inserting this third method of providing the “right to education”—taxation—into the island scenario and see what kind of results you get. Is it a legitimate activity in the island scenario or does is it always end up looking like theft or extortion? You may be able to answer your own objections using this island scenario analogy. Lastly, if you still believe that your objections are genuine and that taxation to fund peoples’ “right to public education” does not violate peoples’ rights to not have their property stolen from them, the works that Roderick Long mentions in his letter and the countless resources on the About Market Anarchism page of the Molinari Institute website provide more detailed counter-arguments to the objections I have mentioned here as well as many additional objects that you may have.