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Nozick on redistributive taxation and forced labour


To: Plinio C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Nozick on redistributive taxation and forced labour
Date: 27th April 2011 13:52

Dear Plinio,

Thank you for your email of 19 April, with your essay for the University of London BA Political Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'Is redistributive taxation on a par with forced labour?'

As someone with socialist/ distributionist inclinations, I would like to agree with you that Nozick is wrong to claim that redistributive taxation is on a par with forced labour. However, I disagree with your characterization of Nozick's project of 'seeking to base [a] political theory on a single value ignoring others.' That makes it sound as if Nozick is putting forward his views in the spirit of 'best explanation', as one might seek to base a physical theory on as few hypothesized unobservables as possible. The idea would be that if you can get your political theory to work, using just one kind of value as the basis for the theory, then that would be sufficient to show that appeal to any other values is redundant.

There are parallels in other areas of philosophy: if you can get a theory of meaning in terms of verification conditions to 'work' then, arguably, appeal to truth conditions is redundant. Verification conditions are 'manifested' in linguistic usage (as argued by Michael Dummett) and are therefore more respectable from an empiricist standpoint. Appeal to the idea of truth conditions is making a bigger, more 'risky' claim.

But Nozick isn't saying this. He is issuing a challenge to anyone who wishes to defend rights other than those based on contract or defined negatively as 'non-interference' rights. If you say that the hungry have a 'right' to be fed, Nozick can say, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' Intuitions or gut feelings have no value in philosophical debate if you can't offer a persuasive argument. Contract and non-interference are two concepts which offer a persuasive basis for rights, *and nothing else does*.

In other words, the onus is on, say, the redistributionist to defend their view that the hungry have a right to food, etc.

But Nozick isn't content to leave things there. He offers some remarkably inventive thought experiments designed to help us let go of our insufficiently examined prejudices regarding the nature of rights.

You offer two arguments against Nozick. The first is designed as a wedge to get Nozick to accept that there are some rights which he cannot account for. Do children have a 'positive natural right to be maintained by their father'? You think it would be difficult for Nozick to say no, given the strong intuition that courts are right to enforce maintenance payments. Well, let's not challenge this intuition. Your example is of marriage, but let's make things more difficult for ourselves and consider the case of a man who makes a woman pregnant then leaves her. In these cases too (at least in the UK) courts can enforce maintenance payments. The basis for this has nothing to do with the belief that fatherless children have a right to support. The father, and he alone, has this special obligation.

You could argue that there is some kind of implicit 'contract' when a woman consents to sex, or alternatively, that to engage in sex with the intention of not contributing to maintenance if pregnancy results is a form of interference with the rights of the woman. Consider, e.g. the case where a man lies to a woman that he has 'taken proper precautions', and contrast this with the case where the woman has lied to the man. I won't deny that Nozick has work to do here, but this is beginning to look like a rather ineffective wedge, precisely because the rights of the offspring have arisen directly as a result of the man's knowing and voluntary action.

Your second argument concerns Nozick's example of forcing Smith to give up some of his leisure time to help the needy. According to Nozick, there is no difference in principle between this case and the case of taxation. Your objection is to the effect that a gradation or spectrum of cases between A and B doesn't show that B is 'really' A. Some 'principled' distinctions can be vague.

Nozick is arguing explicitly ad hominem. His target here, as you state, is someone who thinks that taxation for the purpose of redistribution is not forced labour, whereas being required to give up some of your leisure time against your will is forced labour. Suppose a government introduced a scheme whereby you could 'buy' your way out the obligation to pay income tax by undertaking a sufficient number of hours of community service. I would do it.

The term 'forced labour' is very emotive. Jury service is 'forced labour', in a sense, so is conscription. What Nozick would say is that everything depends on the *purpose* for which you are being required to give up your time. Some purposes are legitimate from the point of view of his theory of rights, and others -- those whose aim is redistribution -- are not. So I tend to agree with him on this point, that IF I am required to work extra time to pay the tax man in order to feed the hungry, then this is no different in principle from being required to give up some of my leisure time to help out in the community soup kitchens.

All the best,