Sunday, July 30, 2006

An Exploratory Look: At the Right to Income and Ownership and Labor Taxation

The debate about taxes has been a longstanding theme between Liberals and Libertarians over the morality of labor taxation. Most liberals have taken a consistent position that taxation is a necessary variable and is perfectly compatible with individual liberty. Libertarians on the other hand have taken the position that taxation on labor is tantamount to slavery. Use of the term liberal has changed as has the term libertarian over time. "Language of proprietorship," is what Alan Ryan has called the differential source of their disagreement (it truly boils down to semantics sometimes) and to assess the relative strengths of their arguments. The respective definitions of self-ownership used by liberals and libertarians are deeply problematic—though for entirely different reasons.

The idea of Ownership, when focusing on two major classes: the control rights and the right to income. A minimalist definition of self-ownership consisting of this control rights (called, appropriately enough, "control self-ownership") and will also show that control rights do not directly imply a right to income, a result that greatly complicates libertarian efforts to argue against redistributive labor taxation. Liberal and libertarian definitions of self-ownership will also determine whether any architectonic principles exist to justify the configurations of incidents contained in these definitions. As we see, libertarians face a difficult, perhaps insuperable, challenge in getting the various elements of their conception of self-ownership (namely, the control rights and the right to income) to cohere, whereas liberals face the very different challenge of integrating a coherent conception of self-ownership into an ideological environment that may be inhospitable to it.

Determining the meaning of a right to income is a surprisingly challenging task. This right figures prominently in libertarian arguments against labor taxation. Libertarians count it among the standard incidents of the "liberal concept of ownership. Its meaning is not immediately obvious; however, one can proceed by considering several alternative definitions of it. One rather direct interpretation of the right to income would be that it guarantees the owner a specific sum of money. This right might or might not be contingent upon an actual economic exchange taking place. Clearly, any such right would imply a duty on the part of others to transfer money to the owner. A number of reasons militate against the adoption of this direct approach, though. Such a right seems to be of a type fundamentally different from that of the control rights.

To find a definition of the right to income that fits well into the system of control rights that we have already developed could become a daunting task. A second, related point is that positive rights such as the proposed right to income are difficult to fit into any system of compossible rights, owing to their tendency to conflict with other rights in the system. Finally, the proposed right to income is inherently vague, and leads to questions about the specific level of income to be provided and the identity of those persons obligated to provide it.

An alterative approach to defining a right to income is to think about this right as being a direct implication of a seller's power of transfer. If a seller has the power to transfer a product, service, or factor to a buyer, then does he not as a necessary consequence have a right to the income of that sale from the buyer? The price that a seller receives in an economic exchange is, strictly speaking, independent of his power of transfer; rather, it is dependent on the buyer's power of transfer.

The seller's right to income is directly implied by the buyer's power of monetary transfer. In other words, all that a seller needs to have a secure right to the income from the sale of some item is the protection of the power of potential buyers to transfer money to him. Notice that the right to income is: the right of use, the power of transfer, and an immunity from expropriation form a coherent grouping with the right of exclusion (which serves a justificatory role), while the right to income stands apart due to its derivation from an entirely different source—namely, the (monetary) transfer powers of other people. This cleavage between control rights and a right to income is implicitly exploited by liberals in their ongoing debate with libertarians over the meaning of self-ownership and its implications for redistribution.

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