"This is an extremely well researched and thorough exploration of utopian literature, effectively back to the beginning of the written word. Morris covers every major work of literature with a utopian element, and works through the tax (both pecuniary and constructive) present in all of these works. His explanation and analysis of economics and doctrine of tax laws is of the highest order." — Jennifer Bird-Pollan, University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law
At its core, taxation is an ethical question. It requires people to sacrifice for the benefit of others, whether or not they also benefit themselves. This interdisciplinary exploration of utopian taxation provides a novel approach to examining relations between a state's view of the general welfare and the sacrifices this view requires of its citizens.
For many people, taxation is a detail, an afterthought, a nuisance akin to taking out the garbage—there is an acknowledged need, but little interest in dwelling upon the particulars. Such "particulars," however, affect the relation of citizens to each other and to the state. Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century explains, "Without taxes society has no common destiny, and collective action is impossible." Henri Saint-Simon (1760–1825) declares that "the greatest, most important power entrusted to the Government is the power to tax the citizens. All its other powers spring from this right." In this way, though "Nothing could be more mundane than taxes," admit Murphy and Nagel in the Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice, "they provide a perfect setting for constant moral argument and possible moral progress." Taxes, says Piketty, "invariably give rise to new sources of knowledge and not only to tax receipts and popular discontent."
Our cultural memory, if we choose to consult it, contains the record of past societies that have failed as well as pictures of possible societies yet to be tried. In Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), for example, he stresses the tendencies of corruption that require the sacrifice of one group in society for the benefit of another. In the case of the sacrifice imposed by taxes, he notes, as a general principle, that "The obscure millions of a great empire have much less to dread from the cruelty than from the avarice of their masters; and their humble happiness is principally affected by the grievance of excessive taxes, which, gently pressing on the wealthy, descend with accelerated weight on the meaner and more indigent classes of society."
This book addresses utopian political philosophy and its ethical underpinnings from the neglected perspective of taxation, defined in its broadest terms. I chose utopias for the same reasons that investigators exploring other problems control variables, adopt simplifying assumptions, and develop conceptual models. And while moral concerns permeating taxation are illustrated in the context of utopian literature, this is not an argument for a stand-alone tax utopia or a practical treatise on tax reform. Most utopians devote little time to describing their pecuniary tax systems. In More's Utopia and Bellamy's Looking Backward, for example, there is no pecuniary taxation because there is no money. Hertzka's Freeland and Wells's A Modern Utopia are exceptions. But ridding one's utopia of pecuniary taxes is not a utopian triumph, for—as I attempt to show—this merely transforms the nature of the required sacrifice, resulting in a new mode of taxation.
When construed most broadly, Black's Law Dictionary advises, the term tax, "embraces all governmental impositions on the person, property, privileges, occupations, and enjoyment of the people." And, it continues, "although a tax is often thought of as being pecuniary in nature, it is not necessarily payable in money." Since I define taxation more broadly than government revenue, to include other potentially unrequited sacrifices government demands from its citizens (non-pecuniary demands), taxation is placed in its wider historical and functional contexts as a political device for promoting government's vision of the general welfare. It is also these nonmonetary forms of taxation that utopias frequently embrace.
A government's tax system is a political experiment in shared sacrifice; its outcome is measured by the lives of the citizens whose welfare it affects. Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) frames this problem in its broadest context: "Society is held together only by the sacrifices men can be induced to make of the gratifications they demand: to obtain these sacrifices is the great difficulty, the great task of government." Utopias are experiments in what sacrifices people can be induced to make; the state's measures for levying these sacrifices embody its system of taxation. Taxation, therefore, poses an ethical quandary as it requires (coerces) people to sacrifice for the benefit of others, whether or not they also benefit themselves.
In a discussion of exploitation in An Economics of Utopia, Simon Zadak argues that "From More's Utopia, to Orwell's 1984, to Piercy's Women on the Edge of Time, utopia as a literary genre has one central preoccupation, how one group oppresses another, and visions of how that might not be so." One form of oppression is exposed by examining a society's tax system. This feature of taxation led Thoreau (1817–1862) to quip, following a controversy about an assessed but unpaid tax, "I did not see why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster." His simple question reveals the balance of sacrifice society confronts, exposing disparate views of the general welfare. Adam Smith (1723–1790) anticipated Thoreau's concern when he warned, "To hurt, in any degree, the interest of any one order of citizens, for no other purpose but to promote that of some other, is evidently contrary to that justice and equality of treatment which the sovereign owes to all the different orders of his subjects."Both Thoreau's question and Smith's observation highlight the need to search a society's form of taxation for signs that it demands treating one class or segment of society as the means to benefit another.
Must there be taxes even in utopia? If so, the tax system should mesh with, and integrate into, the spirit of the envisioned ideal society; failing to do so, I argue, will inevitably alter that spirit. While there exist models of apparently tax-free utopias, with Thomas More's Utopia as one example, unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the resulting societies pay heavily for this outcome in other ways—in what I call non-pecuniary or constructive taxes. In More's Utopia, for example, the citizens must sacrifice their privacy and private land holdings to ensure the society's somber virtue and the promise of "more than enough of the necessities and even the conveniences of life." But while More was successful in eliminating money, and its perceived evils, from Utopia—in the case of taxation he merely altered its form. Restrictions on privacy alter the nature of the society it is imposed on; people who were once accessible, forthcoming, and honest, for example, may now present themselves as cautious, defiant, and shifty. It is an invisible tax and for that reason more troubling than its pecuniary counterpart as it may be levied without our knowledge or consent.
Among the advantages of pecuniary taxation is our ability to quantify the mandatory sacrifice it imposes. Among its disadvantages is our tendency to focus on the relative rates or amounts of a tax rather than on its moral roots and implications for society. As a corollary, our inability to quantify non-pecuniary (or constructive) taxes renders their moral evaluation problematic. How do we weigh the effects of marriage restrictions based on race or gender, for example, against constraints on religious freedom or one-child laws? When a tax cannot be quantified, its evaluation and comparison to other taxes becomes aesthetic, cultural, moral, or visceral. Thus, while states require non-monetary sacrifices from their citizens, it is instructive to see these sacrifices as elements of a larger mechanism of control of which pecuniary taxation is only one element.
Taxes that can be quantified can be analyzed for their affects on rich and poor, men and women, corporations and people. Quantified taxes can be paid or evaded in dollars, euros, pounds, rubles, rupees, wons, or yuans. Pecuniary taxes can be measured and compared and classified as progressive or regressive, direct or indirect. Nonpecuniary or constructive taxes are unquantifiable with the result that it is impossible to measure or compare them. In Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, Dr. Leete boasts: "We have no revenue service, no swarm of tax assessors and collectors." It is an idle boast, however. The absence of money in Bellamy's utopia means there is no pecuniary taxation; but the required sacrifices necessary to support his ideal society, the functional counterparts of pecuniary taxes—what I term constructive taxes (constructive in the sense of construed)—are assessed and paid in another medium.
Constructive taxes are surrogates for conventional pecuniary tax systems and common staples of utopias. Examples include 1) privacy deprivation, 2) limitations on access to truth, 3) mandatory work assignments (including gender limitations), 4) marriage and family restrictions (including eugenic procedures), and 5) conventions governing land ownership (private or public). These non-pecuniary levies allocate sacrifice in addition to, or in place of, their pecuniary counterparts and like other forms of taxation their charge may be narrowly targeted or broadly imposed.