The Night Watchman

A Small Beacon in the Night of Unreason
raised and maintained by Per-Olof Samuelsson


Mises on Conscription and Taxes

As you probably know, Ludwig von Mises was in favor of conscription, as well as of a limited extent of taxation. This issue recently came up on a Swedish blog. Since what I have to say about it is far too long for a blog comment, I decided to write a short essay about it instead. (In English, just to reach more people.)

It seems, at first blush, that Mises is contradictory here, since both conscription and taxation are clearly anti-freedom – and it is also a point on which Mises is at odds with Objectivism: Ayn Rand was clearly against conscription (see her essay "The Wreckage of the Consensus" in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal); and she proposed, as the ultimate goal, a system of voluntary taxation (see her essay "Government Financing in a Free Society" in The Virtue of Selfishness).

I, too, think that Mises was wrong and Ayn Rand right on these issues; but Mises' arguments should not be dismissed without a proper hearing. So I will begin with a fairly long quote from Human Action (p. 281f; also available on the web).

In the market economy, the laissez-faire type of social organization, there is a sphere within which the individual is free to choose between various modes of acting without being restrained by the threat of being punished. If, however, the government does more than protect people against violent or fraudulent aggression on the part of antisocial individuals, it reduces the sphere of the individual's freedom to act beyond the degree to which it is restricted by praxeological law. Thus we may define freedom as that state of affairs in which the individual's discretion to choose is not constrained by governmental violence beyond the margin within which the praxeological law restricts it anyway.

This is what is meant if one defines freedom as the condition of an individual within the frame of the market economy. He is free in the sense that the laws and the government do not force him to renounce his autonomy and self-determination to a greater extent than the inevitable praxeological law does. What he foregoes is only the animal freedom of living without any regard to the existence of other specimens of his species. What the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion achieves is that individuals whom malice, shortsightedness or mental inferiority prevent from realizing that by indulging in acts that are destroying society they are hurting themselves and all other human beings are compelled to avoid such acts.

From this point of view one has to deal with the often-raised problem of whether conscription and the levy of taxes mean a restriction of freedom. If the principles of the market economy were acknowledged by all people all over the world, there would not be any reason to wage war and the individual states could live in undisturbed peace. But as conditions are in our age, a free nation is continually threatened by the aggressive schemes of totalitarian autocracies. If it wants to preserve its freedom, it must be prepared to defend its independence. If the government of a free country forces every citizen to cooperate fully in its designs to repel the aggressors and every able-bodied man to join the armed forces, it does not impose upon the individual a duty that would step beyond the tasks the praxeological law dictates. In a world full of unswerving aggressors and enslavers, integral unconditional pacifism is tantamount to unconditional surrender to the most ruthless oppressors. He who wants to remain free, must fight unto death those who are intent upon depriving him of his freedom. As isolated attempts on the part of each individual to resist are doomed to failure, the only workable way is to organize resistance by the government. The essential task of government is defense of the social system not only against domestic gangsters but also against external foes. He who in our age opposes armaments and conscription is, perhaps unbeknown to himself, an abettor of those aiming at the enslavement of all.

The maintenance of a government apparatus of courts, police officers, prisons, and of armed forces requires considerable expenditure. To levy taxes for these purposes is fully compatible with the freedom the individual enjoys in a free market economy. To assert this does not, of course, amount to a justification of the confiscatory and discriminatory taxation methods practiced today by the self-styled progressive governments. There is need to stress this fact, because in our age of interventionism and the steady "progress" toward totalitarianism the governments employ the power to tax for the destruction of the market economy.

Every step a government takes beyond the fulfillment of its essential functions of protecting the smooth operation of the market economy against aggression, whether on the part of domestic or foreign disturbers, is a step forward on a road that directly leads into the totalitarian system where there is no freedom at all. [All italics mine.]

I have given this long quote, so that you will not think that Mises' stand on these issues is merely arbitrary and thoughtless. And when Mises writes "praxeological law", you may simply substitute the word "reason". So Mises' argument boils down to this: when a government drafts men into war, and when it levies taxes for what are obviously the proper tasks of a proper limited government, it demands nothing more than what reason itself demands.

This much is true: when a free (or even semi-free) nation is threatened by a totalitarian dictatorship, then men should be prepared to fight the threat in a war. And if we want to live in a society where the government confines itself to its proper functions (police, armed forces, courts, prisons for criminals), then we should pay for it. It would be irresponsible not to do so; and irresponsibility is neither rational nor ethical. And it is certainly in our interest to do so; even dying on the battlefield is preferable to living under dictatorship. "Give me liberty or give me death!"

So what's the catch? Where does Mises go wrong here?

Well, the simple answer is that when the government forces someone to go into war, or forces him to pay taxes, it is force – and it certainly is not force in retaliation, which is the government's proper function. (It is of course retaliation against the enemy, but it is initiated force against its own citizens.) Force is a negation of reason. So, no matter how rational it is to join a war effort in defense against totalitarianism – or to pay for a government's proper functions – if some person does not realize this on his own, using his own mind, forcing him will not make him realize it either. It would just turn him into "an enemy of the state".

Now, someone is certainly going to object to this reasoning on "practical" (or "pragmatic") grounds and say something like: "If the government did not have the power of conscription, where would it get its soldiers?" (Or: "If taxes were voluntary, who would pay them?") But a free country would never lack volunteers if it should be threatened by totalitarians. And a voluntary soldier is a motivated soldier. One may count on his willingness to fight. What motivation would a drafted soldier have? Not much, I may venture to guess.

(The idea that no-one would pay taxes if they were voluntary I think is plainly ridiculous. Consider: how would we ever reach a state where voluntary taxation is an option, if not a majority of people were already convinced that a strictly limited "night watchman" state is the ideal? If we ever get such a state, then the vast majority would certainly be willing to finance the government's proper functions, too. There will be some exceptions, of course, but certainly not so many that they threaten to ruin the government. And you may also consider how small those voluntary taxes would be, compared to what we have today. – Parenthetically, even Mises' own idea, which is compulsory taxation for proper government services and no more, would mean small taxes compared to today. Still, Ayn Rand's idea of voluntary taxation is more consistent.)

It has been suggested (on the blog I mentioned) that Mises' error here stems from his utilitarianism – and I think this is true. (Mises rejected the idea of inalienable rights, and so he would not be foreign to weighing a citizen's right to be left alone against the necessity of defending freedom in a war. But this in itself shows nothing than the futility of utilitarianism.)

It has also been suggested that Mises' error was due to the time in which he wrote this – when both Nazism and Communism loomed large. But this is clearly not so. A praxeological law – i.e. a general law applying to all human action – simply cannot be valid just for some particular decade or century. And besides, the threats today are no smaller than the threats of the 30's. Islamic totalitarianism is fully as dangerous as Nazism or Communism, and today's Iran is no better than Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia.

But you might object that my reasoning is "utopian" – since I am talking about a society that we do not have today and will take a very long time to achieve. Now, taking a job as a soldier is nowadays voluntary in the US; but the ideal of voluntary taxation certainly today looks like a "pipe dream". (We should still fight for it, but it will take a very long time.) To this objection I have nothing more intelligent to say than that it shows that we are living in a veritable quagmire. (And this website – unfortunately – is "a small beacon in the night of unreason".)

And, of course: if I am wrong – if there will not be enough voluntary soldiers to defend freedom, and if people simply will not pay taxes, if voluntary – then mankind will simply get the totalitarianism it would then richly deserve. So please, mankind: do not prove me wrong! For your own sake, not merely for mine.

And even if Mises is mistaken here, I think it is a fairly small mistake – it is certainly small compared to many things that go on uncontested in the world. (Mises never made "big misteaks", if you get the joke.)


While I am on this subject, I would like to take up an "anarcho-capitalist" argument that I recently read in an article by Murray Rothbard.

The gist of this argument is that one could not and should not delegate one's right to self-defense to the government, because the government itself is an agent of compulsion – and specifically, because the government levies compulsory taxes. So how could a government that compels you be trusted to defend your freedom?

Mises himself, of course, has an answer to this: " As isolated attempts on the part of each individual to resist are doomed to failure, the only workable way is to organize resistance by the government." And Rothbard seems to prefer those "isolated attempts". (Here, Mises and Rothbard are on opposite sides of the same false coin – the general false coin of "statism versus anarchism".)

But what I want to stress is that Rothbard's dilemma here is solved by Ayn Rand's proposal that taxes should be voluntary.

Now, the root of "anarcho-capitalism" is the idea that a proper, limited government is not even possible – and its solution is to "spread statism thin" by splitting society up into small groups, each one fending for itself. But this idea is their problem, not mine. I just wish they would stop standing in the way for us who believe in the possibility of limited government and are willing to work toward it. It is hard enough to fight statism; we do not need the added obstruction of having to fight anarchism as well.


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