Why do libertarians focus so much on taxation?

…as answered on Quora….

Libertarians pride themselves — not unreasonably — on their principles, which they say make sense from root to leaf of society. Whereas most of politics is argument over fruits and twigs, libertarians aim to go much deeper, down the trunk to the structure in the soil.

Politics is the art of influencing the behavior of the State, and taxation is the most basic state activity. Organizations without the power to tax do not qualify as States. Libertarians extol voluntary (reciprocal; multilateral) interaction, and correctly point out that taxation is hegemonic . . . based, ultimately, on initiated violence and the threat of it. So libertarians look at taxation suspiciously — at best.

Classical liberal theorists were of a similar mind. French economist J.-B. Say, for example, argued that “A tax can never be favorable to the public welfare, except by the good use that is made of its proceeds.” The idea here is that taxation itself is the worst way of going about building a civilization, but if there is no other way to protect the public, then tax, and expend the conscript resources only on projects (rule of law, national defense, say) that truly benefit everybody.

Libertarians often argue that most government spending, these days, does not fill the old liberal standard of benefiting everybody. Instead, most spending of taxed resources aids some at the expense of others, and amounts not to serving a plausible public interest, but, instead, serving private, or factional interests.

Therefore libertarians argue against all variants of statism on grounds that would have been familiar to the old liberals, often making arguments like this: government funds built on taxes must inevitably present a “tragedy of the commons” where individuals and factions fight each other to exploit the common resource each for maximum advantage, gaining more than the other — or at least not gaining too little to become a net taxpayer. This endangers the common resource — just as overgrazing of a common field, or over-fishing of a commonly owned lake, river, or stream — and can have the effect of favoring the greedy and powerful over the masses, and eventually leading to the degradation of the commons.

Classical liberal economists, individualist social theorists, and libertarian political philosophers have been elaborating variations on this theme for centuries. These arguments have demoralized statists, over and over, to the point that they turn to obscurantism (Marxian fancies or Keynesian farragoes) or mere name-calling, in response. (Statism is the idea that the public good can be served by massive state regulation and spending, all dependent upon taxation.)

But this is mostly conflict over branches. Down at the root libertarians emphasize what the old liberals usually just “understood”: taxation is expropriation by force, and is an intrinsically bad way to run a civilized enterprise.

And, on this level, we see many to the far left taking the opposite approach. It is not uncommon, these days, for “progressives” and socialists and other statist politicians to look upon taxation as a good thing in and of itself. It is good to take most of the wealth of some people, and some of the wealth of most people, and not only to “do good” with that wealth. People should not have that wealth. They do not deserve it. They cannot properly use it. Marshaling the State to confiscate this wealth is a virtuous and indeed noble activity!

President Barack Obama took that tack when he argued that the capital gains tax rate should be kept high or even raised even if lower rates would yield more revenue. He flouted J.-B. Say’s rule; he flaunted the thief’s ethos, right in our faces. And when he and Senator Elizabeth Warren floated the “you didn’t build that” meme, they were carrying on that fundamentally illiberal program. It is an attack on voluntary society and an upgrading of the State to a kind of super-paternalistic (and maternalistic) Authority.

Libertarians focus on taxation to counter these fiends. Taxation is the key to the whole super-state mania. Libertarians see in the statist defense of the intrinsic righteousness of taxation an assault on civilization’s liberatory principle: the growth of reciprocity, voluntary cooperation, and peaceful relations. And libertarians see in the lip-smacking lust to ply the State to take other people’s money as the grossest corrupter of morals: the celebration of greed and envy and malice under cover of bogus “social justice” and pharisaic “caring.”

Libertarians oppose the demagoguery behind super-state transfers of wealth, hoping that humanity can avoid the cementing of tyranny by means of the greatest long con in history.