Autumn is usually the time when countries’ parliaments try to reach an agreement on the amount of taxes to be paid during the twelve months of the coming year. If, as many people seem to believe, “taxes are the price of civilization,” this seems to imply not only that we live under the implicit threat of barbaric chaos, but also that there is some mischievous organization out there which, in order not to unleash that chaos on our doorstep, demands that we pay an expensive ransom.

In other words, if taxes are the price of civilization, that is a sign that someone has effectively and successfully claimed for themselves “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” in our common territory. This person, or group, is called the State (it is Max Weber – surely not an anarchist – who states this at the very beginning of his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation”).

Curiously enough (or perhaps not), the way that this modern State of ours legitimizes its “monopoly of physical force” is precisely by telling us that such “kidnapping” is done in our name (“we are the state.”) and for our own good (“it was the National Health Service that saved us.”). Nonetheless, the kidnapping remains – and in this, libertarians, beyond looking up to Frederic Bastiat (“The state is the great fiction by which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else.“), also end up agreeing with Engels: “the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy.”

What they do not agree on is what constitutes the relevant social classes. The libertarian class struggle is not the one that Karl Marx brought into the world (despite the 3rd volume of his Capital ending precisely when he was at last going to explain us “what constitutes a class“…). To libertarians, as long as this “kidnapping argument” serves as the foundation of government, the class struggle will always be between the governing and the governed (see Dunoyer, Comte and Thierry, or Calhoun), that is, between those who live off the ransom and those who pay for it.

As has been noted for several centuries (see La Boétie or David Hume), the rulers, being a minority, would easily be put at a disadvantage in a direct clash. Rulers need to make the citizen believe that they are the only bulwark that prevents the Hobbesian “state of nature” from swallowing up the routine of everyday life. To achieve this, the most effective way is for the State to create an ever-larger layer of the population whose livelihood depends, at least in the short term, on maintaining this civilizational kidnapping – be it by belonging to the literal or figurative (administrative, functional, academic, retired) armies of the State, be it by having close relatives who belong to them, or be it by, say, benefiting from Minotaur-subsidized goods and services. This layer of the population will constitute the class whose interests and “guarantees” ensure the maintenance of the ruling minority. If, in the meantime, one is able to centralize power and undermine the autonomy of all the independent fortifications that could oppose the expansion of the Bismarckian Minotaur, so much the better (on this point, de Jouvenel is required reading).

Still, it is interesting – and important! – to note that most liberals in the classical tradition do not support this pessimistic and cynical view of the nature of the state. Ludwig von Mises, who confided with Weber in Vienna for a few months in 1919, goes so far as to claim in his last work that government is “the most necessary and beneficial institution” of life in society. To classical liberals like Mises, “if all men were able to realize that the alternative to peaceful social cooperation is the renunciation of all that distinguishes Homo sapiens from the beasts of prey, and if all had the moral strength always to act accordingly, there would not be any need for the establishment of a social apparatus of coercion and oppression.” To these authors, it is not even correct to say that the State constitutes a “necessary evil,” because in their view the evil is not in the State but in the imperfection of human beings (John Locke, three hundred years earlier, was saying essentially the same thing).

Thus, taking both arguments into consideration, perhaps the most sensible thing to do would be to follow Mark Skousen and settle that taxes are, in fact, “the price we pay for failing to build a civilized society”, a definition that is also in line with the Spencerian libertarian ideal, since from it we can derive that “a centrally planned totalitarian state represents a complete defeat for the civilized world, while a totally voluntary society represents its ultimate success.”

Now, note the dichotomy that emerges from these two alternative “prices”. If taxes constitute “the price of civilization”, this suggests not only such “civilizational kidnapping” as libertarians see it, but also such social engineering as envisioned by social-progressives, who consider it on the State to foster the advance of civilization. If, on the other hand, taxes are “the price of uncivilization”, such definition makes it clear that the burden is on the individual to promote (and implement) a set of institutions and moral rules that, little by little, fulfill the civilizational fate of mankind and leave behind the “uncivilizational” vestiges of the State – of the “machine for the oppression of one class by another” (something that the communists from Marx’s time would supposedly also like to achieve, but through completely counterproductive means…).

Moreover, the economist in me also can’t help noting that, if taxes are “the price of civilization”, then it means that this “good” – i.e. civilization, social peace – is probably the only one whose price has continued to escalate since the dawn of modern civilization, regardless of the monetary policy pursued by the central bank (a development which, in accordance with the libertarian view, does not speak well for government management of this “public good”…). On the other hand, if taxes are seen as “the price of our failing to build a civilized society”, then the reason for our current tax burden becomes clear…

So, whatever the reader’s preferred definition of what the State is and should do, I believe that the Fall period could well serve as a sort of “Budget Lent”, in which we honestly reflect on the essence of taxes and the State.

Pedro Almeida Jorge is an Economist and Library & Translations Coordinator at Instituto +Liberdade, in Portugal.