Natural Rights and Taxation

A moral right is a correlative or flip side of a moral wrong. The right to have X means that it is morally wrong or evil to deny the holder from having X by stealing or destroying it. The right to do X means it is evil for others to forcibly prevent a person from doing X.

People have the natural right to do anything that does not coercively harm others, and the natural right to be free from coercive harm. Natural rights are based on natural moral law, as expressed by the universal ethic. By the universal ethic, all acts, and only those acts, which coercively harm others are evil. I and others have written on natural moral law, easily searched on the Internet.

A legal privilege is a special power or income granted to particular people because of their political status. A king is privileged because of his inheritance and laws regarding this. A slave owner is privileged to own another human being. There are no privileges in natural moral law, since one of the premises from which the universal ethic is derived is human moral equality, an equality of moral worth, implemented as equality before the law and equal legal rights.

In the Constitution of the United States, the 9th Amendment states, in its entirety, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The other rights are common-law and natural rights. Therefore the U.S. Constitution recognizes natural rights, and all laws in the USA should be consistent with the 9th Amendment, although in practice, the 9th is ignored and not widely understood.

This brings us to two court cases. In Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105 (1943), the Supreme Court stated that a law requiring solicitors to purchase a license was an unconstitutional tax on the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to freely exercise their religion. The Court ruled that “The state cannot and does not have the power to license, nor tax, a Right guaranteed to the people,” and “No state shall convert a liberty into a license, and charge a fee therefore.”

In another case, the Court ruled similarly, that “If the State converts a right (liberty) into a privilege, the citizen can ignore the license and fee and engage in the right (liberty) with impunity.” (Shuttlesworth v. City of Birmingham, Alabama, 373 U.S. 262).

The principles behind the statements of the Court have to apply generally. The federal and state governments may tax privileges, but may not tax a natural right. Since people have a natural right to engage in labor for wages, taxes on wages violate natural rights and therefore the Constitutional rights recognized by the 9th Amendment. Taxes on trade and goods also violate natural rights, which is why state laws claim, incorrectly, that, when they impose a sales tax, they are taxing the privilege of selling goods. (For example, it is written that “California assesses a sales tax on sellers for the privilege of doing business in California.”)

If natural rights are violated by taxing wages, the same applies to the products of labor and the income from the products. Thus a person has the natural right to fully keep and trade produced goods and the financial counterparts as shares of companies and their incomes.

The U.S. Constitution does provide government with the power to tax. Article I, Section 8, states, “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises.” The 16th Amendment restricts the income tax to being levied as an indirect tax, but otherwise did not alter or add to the powers of Article I.

There is an apparent contradiction. Article I empowers government to tax imports and goods, and other taxes, but the 9th Amendment prohibits taxing acts which are natural rights.

Clearly the founders did not oppose taxing as such. But the letter and spirit of the law have to go beyond the intents of the founders. The Constitution also did not explicitly outlaw slavery, despite its recognition of preexisting rights. When slavery was later abolished, this was in accord with justice as prescribed by natural moral law and the 9th.

If a parent says to a child, you may go outside and play, and also says, do not throw rocks at the squirrels, the permission to play does not imply that anything goes. Thus when the Constitution authorizes taxes, but then, in an Amendment, says, by implication as recognized by the Supreme Court, that government may not tax a right, then the power of taxation has been constrained.

The U.S. Constitution creates an imposed but limited government, and the founders recognized the need for revenues. The sources of government revenue boil down to two original sources: labor and land. There is human exertion, and there is what nature provides.

Since human exertion and its gains are a natural right, the only source left is nature’s resources, land. Thus the moral question is whether the ownership of land is a natural right. This issue is, of course, much disputed. In my judgment, the moral law of property is, “To the creator belongs the creation, and where there is no creator, the benefits belong to the people in equal shares.” The universal ethic is based on the premise, from the nature of humans being, as John Locke wrote, “all equal and independent,” the independence being that thinking and feeling occur individually.

The benefits of land are measured as its economic rent. Therefore, the rent belongs to the people, and by natural moral law, the individual right of the possession of land is conditional on paying the rent to the rightful owners, the people. A tax on land rent does not violate the natural rights of the title holder.

Although the rent really belongs to the people and not to an imposed government, since government is already an imposition, it violates natural rights the least when rent is used for public revenues to pay for public goods that generally benefit the people. The people receive the rent in kind rather than in cash.

If consistently implemented, the 9th Amendment, backed up by the Murdock case, implies that the income tax as well as excise taxes should not tax the right of labor and trade. The greatest challenge of humanity is to recognize the full spectrum of human natural moral rights.

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A similar article by me appears in progress.org as “Rights and Privileges”.

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2 thoughts on “Natural Rights and Taxation

  1. Out of curiosity, what are your views on secession? My understanding is that you’re arguing land is a privilege and that land rents should go towards funding public goods. Secession however creates an opportunity for the land owner to direct funds towards their preferred public good.

    Consider for example the City of Industry in the Los Angeles Metropolitan area. The City of Industry has low local taxes and has a negligible resident population (219 people according to Wikipedia). Few funds are collected and what few funds are collected aren’t exactly used for genuine public goods. Would it be wrong for other communities in the LA metro to secede their current cities and join the City of Industry if by doing so they effectively redirect rents away from funding public goods?

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