Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Supreme Court Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes once stated "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." It is a quote often repeated by statists towards libertarians in order to “prove” that libertarians are against having a civilized society. Plus there is the hope that any libertarian who would disagree with that statement would be cowed by the impressive credentials of the originator of the quote. The problem with the quote is that Justice Holmes was technically correct, but was lying by omission.

The full expression should be "Taxes are the price we pay for government, and government is the price we pay for a civilized society." It is very important to include the middle term. Including the middle term shows both what taxes actually pay for and where taxes actually go to. Including the middle term also portrays the government as a burden, a price that must be paid, instead of a blessing.

Breaking the syllogism down into its component parts makes it much easier to argue. "Taxes are the price we pay for government" defuses any argument that a statist might make about how libertarians, by opposing taxes, therefore oppose civilization. It expresses clearly that taxes are nothing more than the paycheck of the government, and that there is no direct link between taxes and civilized society

"Government is the price we pay for civilized society" is very arguable. Minarchists may agree; anarchists certainly don’t. It also makes a stronger case that the government can be the agent of disorder. If taxes are paid so that the government will provide stability and security, and the government not only fails to do so but causes the opposite, the expanded expression including the middle term shows that taxes should be withheld from the misbehaving government.

The shortened version popularized by Justice Holmes, while partially true, is dishonest in the extreme by what it leaves out. When shortened it is a pro-government argument, but when expanded it can be used by libertarians.


Kent McManigal said...

I say civilization is what humans manage to create in spite of taxation and externally-imposed government (The State).

Anonymous said...

Well said, Ken. Great post, Ayn.