Taxation, slavery, the state, and Robert Nozick

I was checking my blog and discovered that in a little over a year I had not mentioned Robert Nozick, or at least I can’t find the post where I did if I am mistaken about not mentioning him. So, I want to rectify that oversight. And what better way than to mention Professor Nozick and taxation?

The idea that all taxation is theft has been covered by a legion of writers over the years. Most see it as a violation of property rights which forms the basis of the market anarchist’s system. Taxation is not only rejected because it is legalized theft but also because it is a form of slavery. The famous libertarian Robert Nozick has argued that taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor.


Robert Nozick starts from the same reasonable assumption as Murray Rothbard; that people own themselves. If you don’t believe that people own themselves, perhaps you are reading the wrong blog. But if you do believe in self-ownership you must agree that this means that people own their time, talents and labor. Nozick argued the standard Lockean argument for private property that we produce goods by mixing our labor and talents with resources and goods in the natural world. This mixing generates the ownership of the items we have modified and made valuable. Now, if the government taxes our income it is taking away our time, talents, and goods produced by our labor. Taxation is the taking of our labor and talents by force which means that the taking means effectively that the government owns our talents and labor and so owns us. According to Nozick (and so very many others), taxation means that the government takes away our self-ownership which is called slavery.

So far I think most libertarians would find Professor Nozick’s arguments that I have presented here to be sound, and maybe even rather pedestrian. If you agree with this kind of reasoning that taxation is slavery, forced labor and theft then you are probably a libertarian: a radical one I hope.

However, even though most libertarians go along with the Nozick so far there were problems with his stance.

Murray Rothbard on Robert Nozick:

Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia[2] is an “invisible hand” variant of a Lockean contractarian attempt to justify the State, or at least a minimal State confined to the functions of protection.

Beginning with a free-market anarchist state of nature, Nozick portrays the State as emerging, by an invisible hand process that violates no one’s rights, first as a dominant protective agency, then to an “ultraminimal state,” and then finally to a minimal state.

Before embarking on a detailed critique of the various Nozickian stages, let us consider several grave fallacies in Nozick’s conception itself, each of which would in itself be sufficient to refute his attempt to justify the State.[3]

This matter of Nozick seeking to justify the minimal state is one of the reasons that market anarchists can seem to be so testy at times with those who look to be our natural allies but are, in fact, not our allies at all. Robert Nozick was on my side on many issues, but in the end he claimed that the State arises naturally from some libertarian style anarchy and that has never been observed in the long history of humans on this planet. Governments arise out of violence and keep their power via force and the threat of force.

Nozick’s most obnoxious argument in favor of the State is that “unlike other goods that are comparatively evaluated, maximal competing protective services cannot exist.” Surely this idea is absurd on its face as we have seen that competing providers of protective services have indeed existed in the past.

In the end, one must feel saddened that a libertarian of Nozick’s stature in the end defended the state. Better he had been a plumber than just another intellectual defending the predator state. Well, that might be a bit harsh, but I do wish he had seen that any state at all will ultimately lead to tyranny.


5 thoughts on “Taxation, slavery, the state, and Robert Nozick

  1. Pingback: "The Horror! The Horror!"

  2. I’m commenting a few years after the post, but IMHO, Nozick’s “Anarchy State and Utopia” is contradictory on this point because in chapter 13 — the chapter on utopia, he describes the ultra-minimal state as a kind of “meta utopia” where peoples with different ideas about how to run a society are free to go off together and “make a go of it.” But wait! That suggests that there’s nothing wrong with a bunch of tax-loving individuals going off and forming a high-tax society. In short, I argue that Nozick himself is guilty of one of the thingsd he constantly rallies against in his book — ignoring the history… the events that created the context for the transaction under discussion. In this case, the history is that we-the-people CHOOSE to stay in this country, and by so choosing, we are accepting the bundle of benefits and burdens (including taxes). Therefore, by Nozick’s own logic, taxes are NOT theft. So which Nozick should we believe? We should believe the deeper-thinking Nozick… the one that considers the history.

    • Interesting argument – but surely Nozick would be against the idea of “a bunch of tax-loving individuals going off and creating a high-tax society” if it meant that it infringed upon the rights of other individuals i.e. by forcing non tax-loving individuals to partake in a system of taxation against their wishes?

      • In Nozick’s meta-utopia (where individuals are free to leave any society and join another), how could a high tax society infringe the rights of someone voluntarily choosing to stay? The “Taxation is theft” argument is ONLY sound in societies that prevent citizens from leaving (or the degree to which they make leaving burdensome)

        • You make a good point. So, how would you interpret Nozick’s argument in our current society – given that individuals do not have an alternative option to leave easily or opt out of the system? I am trying to mentally reach a decision of the extent to which I believe he demonstrates that taxation is theft – and the extent to which it is unjustified. Given that he shows in a meta-utopia it is justifiable as it would be voluntary to partake in the system, does this mean taxation is indeed theft in our current system where leaving is implausible / burdensome?

          I am leaning towards the idea that that it is a ‘justified’ theft, given that the alternative seems to be having a system without redistributive justice that most citizens benefit from.

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