Property is so ubiquitous in society that it can be difficult to recognize its artificial status. Thus poverty is commonly viewed as a kind of natural and (merely) “unfortunate” lack, like lacking the strength or intelligence that could boost one’s opportunities. We thus (mis)conceive of the poor as lacking the ability to achieve their ends, as if their misfortune were a purely natural rather than social imposition. An illustrative thought-experiment may help us to see things in a new light.
G.A. Cohen asks us to imagine a society where people are issued with legal “tickets” specifying their liberties, i.e. what actions they may perform. Armed officials intervene to thwart attempts to do something not licensed by one’s tickets. Cohen continues:
But a sum of money is nothing but a highly generalized form of such a ticket. A sum of money is a licence to perform a disjunction of conjunctions of actions – actions like, for example, visiting one’s sister in Bristol, or taking home, and wearing, the sweater on the counter at Selfridge’s.
A poor person has the capacity to approach and board the train to Bristol. But security guards would intervene to physically prevent this, were she to attempt it. Thus, “as far as her freedom is concerned, this is equivalent to ‘trip to Bristol’ not being written on someone’s ticket in the imagined non-monetary economy.” This illustrates how poverty is a socially imposed unfreedom, and property a socially constructed "right". The poor do not suffer any natural lack or inability. Rather, our institutions are such that poor people will be physically prevented from performing actions that would otherwise be open to them. There's nothing in the object's nature which confers ownership to some other individual. Its status as "property" is conferred on it by us.
That's not to say that "anything goes", or that any system of legal rights instituted by a society would be equally legitimate. Any system which allowed the rulers to arbitrarily seize all a worker's holdings and leave them to starve would be plainly immoral. The system must be set up in a fair and equitable manner. But we needn't assume that this means absolute property rights over all of one's holdings. Indeed, I previously argued that taking mild redistributive measures, say via a basic income guarantee, are the only way to ensure that one's post-tax holdings will be rightly inviolable.
Extremist propertarians like Timothy Sandefur are led to the absurd conclusion that "taxation is theft" because they fail to recognize the social character of property rights. As I explain in the linked post:
On this more holistic view, you cannot see pre-tax income as your "natural" or "deserved" earnings. 'Pre-tax' is a misnomer: tax is not an imposition on some prior economic system, it is a fundamental part of the system. A sales tax is simply part of the price of what you buy. Income tax is just a factor that determines your earnings. "Ownership" is not a natural relation between you and an object, but a social relation between fellow citizens: it is an agreement to refrain from interfering with the socially-recognized (i.e. "post-tax") holdings of each other.
Any limitations built into the institution of property rights are confused by propertarians with subsequent (post-institutional) violations of those rights. Sandefur writes, "there is no moral distinction between a robbery committed by one robber, and one committed by a large group of robbers" -- as if the state were breaking laws rather than creating them! It is theft to take that to which another is entitled. But entitlement derives from institutional rules, and our institutions are so set up that individuals are entitled to (only) their post-tax holdings. We may dispute the merits of alternative institutional systems. But that will take some argument, rather than closing down debate by presupposing a groundless pre-institutional conception of "natural" property rights.
A few other quick points in response to Sandefur's post:
1) He claims that to tax someone is "exactly like forcing him to labor for you". That's transparently foolish, of course, the guy knew about the tax rate when he signed his employment contract. He could have chosen to stay at home and abstain from any labour at all if he so wanted. Perhaps he would have starved. This could lead one to the more reasonable claim that the proletariat are forced to work for a taxed wage, in the sense that they have no reasonable alternatives. But note here that the 'work' is every bit as forced as the 'tax'. And I assume Sandefur would deny that the proletariat are forced to labour for capitalists, even though they would otherwise starve. So I challenge him to meet the charge of inconsistency I once levelled against one of his co-bloggers. The full argument can be found here.
2) Sandefur writes: "The citizen is being forcibly deprived of the earnings he got in exchange for his work — that is, an important part of himself."
Is what an employer gives you in exchange for your work really an important part of yourself? More plausibly it is the labour which is central to the self here. So what should really concern us is not taxed wages, but the fact that workers are effectively forced to prostitute their labour to begin with. (This clearly ties in with the above point.)
3) Sandefur claims that a citizen's "wealth... represents his liberty." I certainly agree, as should be clear from my above use of Cohen's 'ticket' thought experiment. But then I'm puzzled by why Sandefur is so unconcerned by the huge disparities in liberty afforded to different citizens. And given the diminishing marginal utility of money, we could expect some moderate redistribution to yield a net increase in vital human liberties. It would seem perverse to hold that one's liberty to obtain caviar is more important than another's liberty to obtain basic sustenance, for example. (Note that a basic income guarantee would likely have especially beneficial consequences for substantive human freedom.)
4) Sandefur asks how we can justify state involvement in economic but not religious matters. The answer is simple enough on indirect utilitarian grounds: freedom of thought and religion is crucial for human flourishing. Freedom from taxation isn't. Quite the opposite, in fact: we need some degree of redistribution in order to ensure that every person can meet their basic needs. (The freedom to eat takes priority!) So the analogy is entirely superficial.
Update: Timothy Sandefur pretends to respond, though it isn't clear that he read any further than the term "social construction" before reeling out his stock anti-positivist rant. Since I'm not a positivist, I'm not too sure of the relevance to my post. I quite plainly wrote that "That's not to say that "anything goes", or that any system of legal rights instituted by a society would be equally legitimate." But it would seem too much to ask of some people that they actually read (and, ideally, comprehend) what one writes before insulting it -- as "idiotic and deserving of the bitterest ridicule", no less! How embarrassing this must be for his (far more reasonable) co-bloggers...