Debunking the Idea that Net Taxpayers Own Public Property
If I were to pick one issue that causes the most infighting amongst libertarians, it would almost certainly be immigration.
Some within the liberty movement see controlling borders as a rightful function of government, while others see it as a restriction of liberty and a harmful intervention in the marketplace.
This issue is not limited to fighting between those who believe in the existence of a state and those who advocate for its abolishment; even anarcho-capitalists have fought amongst themselves over it.
This quarreling comes from a disagreement over what to do with the borders while the state still exists.
Those anarcho-capitalists who are against all forms of border control argue that national borders are illegitimate, as the land the state claims to own was not homesteaded in a traditional sense or acquired via a voluntary transaction with the previous owner. Rather, it was wholly claimed by a small group of people with a monopoly on force (the state) who did not actually mix their labor with the land.
Those who are in favor of the state enforcing borders (while it exists) argue that exclusion of outsiders is legitimate because the taxpayers are the rightful owners of public property.
This idea comes from the fact that taxpayers have been robbed from in order to fund the creation and maintenance of it.
The call for this property to be put into the hands of the individuals who paid for it is essentially a call for a form of restitution, in which those who had money taken from them are compensated with land rights.
One could make a convincing argument that an individual should receive the rights to what their tax money paid for, but only if logistics are ignored.
There is no way of knowing exactly where an individual’s tax money went. It is possible that some net taxpayers have paid little to nothing toward the maintenance of public property, but rather had their money go toward military spending, entitlements, or even paying down the public debt. It is also practically impossible to figure out who is a “net taxpayer” and how their standing as a net taxpayer relates to others (whether they deserve more compensation than their neighbor, for instance).
To theoretically make such a calculation, one would need to add up every tax amount that an individual has paid in his lifetime (of which there is likely no record, unless someone has a receipt of everything they’ve ever bought in order to calculate sales tax) and then subtract the amount that this person has benefited from government services, including entitlements, public infrastructure, and national defense.
Any calculation of this benefit would be entirely subjective, as there is no objective mathematical formula that can be used to decide exactly how much an individual has gained from public services. Person A may have received an education in a public school that helped him advance further in his career than person B. Person C may have benefited more economically from the right to use public roads than did person D. Person E may have been on welfare, but this may be because his business was a victim of government regulation that caused it to fail.
There is no real way of knowing or quantifying any of this.
It cannot just be ignored, either, as doing so would make such a calculation incomplete and would not represent a true metric of who has benefited or suffered a loss from government aggression.
I would personally argue that every person who has been stolen from is a victim of the state (even if they have received welfare benefits), given that they have had money taken from them without their consent. But the discussion within this article must take place in the “net taxpayer” framework, in which input and output are taken into account.
Let us assume for a second that we could objectively calculate who the real victims of the state are.
Even in this situation, it would be wrong to say that each victim is automatically the rightful owner of public property.
Such victims would certainly be owed restitution, as long as it was possible to compensate them without creating more victims (thus additional taxation would not be an appropriate method). But performing this restitution through giving the victims shares of public property is only the preferred method of those who advocate it, not a method commanded by deductive reasoning.
There are numerous ways that victims could be compensated for the loss of their tax money (or for other losses); it does not necessarily have to involve state land. One can, indeed, argue that it is the best possible way to do it, but “best” is subjective and cannot be deemed to automatically be in effect.
Because of the fact that a method of restitution has not yet been decided upon, it is inaccurate to say that net taxpayers are already the present owners of this property. Thus, they cannot yet rightfully exercise control over it.
To further illustrate why taxpayers are not entitled to public property, I will use a brief analogy.
Suppose that a thief steals a valuable painting from me and trades it for a television. In this case, I am not the rightful owner of the television, but rather of the painting. It is what has been stolen from me and what should be returned, even if it ends up in someone else’s hands. The painting should be given back to me, with the television going back to its original owner (and the thief receiving nothing).
The same is true in regard to what has happened to the taxpayer. The taxpayer has had money stolen from him, not land. The fact that the thief (in this case, the state) has traded that money for land does not make the taxpayer the rightful owner of said land. The land should be returned to its rightful owner, which if there was no previous owner, is the state of nature.
One could argue that whatever organization the government paid to alter the land (such as a construction company who worked on a road) should become the legitimate owner, but it is likely that the company was granted an illegitimate monopoly on that area prior to homesteading.
As the great Murray Rothbard wrote in The Ethics of Liberty:
“On the other hand, there are cases where the oil company uses the government of the undeveloped country to grant it, in advance of drilling, a monopoly concession to all the oil in a vast land area, thereby agreeing to the use of force to squeeze out all competing oil producers who might search for and drill oil in that area. In that case… the first oil company is illegitimately using the government to become a land-and-oil monopolist.”
The corporations building the roads, libraries, and other public works are given an unfair advantage by the state in that they are given the right to have no competition in homesteading the area; a rival company is not allowed to start building on the virgin land of the proposed road site, even before construction begins. Thus, it would be wrong under libertarian principles to grant the property titles to these firms.
Given all of the problems listed above, I would propose that public property be opened up to perspective homesteaders in the event of the dissolution of the state. Whoever mixes their labor with the land should be given the private property right to it. While taxpayers have certainly been victimized by the state, such victimization does not entitle them to absolute control of public property.
* John M. Hudak is an anarcho-capitalist writer whose work has been featured at Think Liberty, Antiwar.com, and JohnMHudak.com. He is the Connecticut State Coordinator for Adam Kokesh’s 2020 presidential campaign.
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