Tom Woods recently had a debate between Bob Murphy and Walter Block on whether or not libertarians should accept government money (through employment, services rendered, or welfare). You can listen here.

My take on this question takes a bit from both of their arguments as I think they both make good points, however I think Murphy edged Block out just a bit in this debate. Walter’s reductio absurdum don’t really work (roads, currency, etc) because with those things we have no choice It’s like arguing the slave gives his imprimatur of approval to the slaveowner because the slave accepts food, clothing, and shelter from the slaveowner. He doesn’t, he has no choice in the matter (technically there is a choice in the sense that yes one can choose to die, but that’s not a practical nor principled choice).

I think what it comes down to is choice. If one has no choice in the matter then it is acceptable to use such government monopolized service. However, when there is a choice then one can debate principle vs outcome and neither is really “wrong”. Walter makes a good point in that if one can undermine the core mission of the state by working for it/with it then that can be a net gain for liberty (Ron Paul being the most notable example). But Bob also makes a good point in that if everyone withheld their services from the state, it would cease to exist. Of course getting 100% of people to simultaneously withdraw their consent is never going to happen so in the real world we have to make decisions about whether our actions on balance harm or help more people. Now yes, that utilitarian principle is one you can drive a bus through and use it to justify anything practically. But I’m saying we are only concerned with applying that principle in the very narrow question of “should a libertarian participate in state actions voluntarily?”. One can choose to be entirely pacifist when it comes to the state and simply accept all its abuses and never try to get anything back, there is nothing wrong with that. But there is also nothing wrong with defending oneself from the transgressions of the state – proportionate reciprocal responses to aggression being permissible are a cornerstone of libertarian philosophy.

Simply taking money from the state for the sake of doing so such that it has less serves no purpose whether they give it to you for performing a service or you steal it directly. The state is a thief and will simply thieve some more to get back whatever it wants. Thus your taking indirectly harms others via the state as your proxy. So I disagree with Walter on this one. There is no amount you can take that will weaken it, they will always just take more. However, to the extent the state has taken from you, then you are fully in your rights to take an equal amount back (or to be very principled about it, an amount that equals the difference between what the state took and what you believe you would otherwise have paid a free market entity performing the same functions as the state.) So if one can get tax credits, government aid, grants, etc that offset the excess amount robbed from one in taxes, that is ok. If one exceeds what they had stolen from them, then that would be wrong and one must stop.

So in a practical example, Bob should feel fine about accepting payment to give a lecture at a state school if his remuneration never exceeds what he paid in taxes (or should have paid for services received). But Bob should not set up a lecture business that accepts billions of dollars from the state to give lectures. That zero boundary between net tax payer vs tax receiver demarcates one’s transition from capitalist to crony-capitalist.

So in summary, here is the decision tree:

  1. Do I have a choice? If “no”, then it is permissible to use such service, since after all, you have no choice.
  2. If you have a choice then is the amount you are getting less than the excess amount robbed from you in taxes for a given time frame? If yes, then go right ahead, nothing wrong with taking from the thief that took from you
  3. If the amount exceeds the amount robbed from you in taxes then here is where it gets speculative and subjective: on balance are you advancing the cause of liberty by receiving more than you lose in taxes? If yes then this is ok, but… this is a very difficult thing to determine, be cautious. If no, then you should not engage in such activity if you want to remain principled and not open yourself up to the charge of being a hypocrite.