Public works, art, and classical liberal Austrian economists

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    In the western civilization courses, it seemed to me the leaders who invested in art and literature were viewed as contributing to the public good and advancing enlightenment. How do classical liberals and Austrian economists reconcile conflicting viewpoints on taxation even when used responsibly?



    If I came to your house with a gun, took money from you, but as I was doing so told you about how I was going to take this money and feed and shelter over one thousand homeless people, does it morally change the act of robbery?

    Frederic Bastiat might have said it best in “The Law” with:

    “Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”

    Taxation is still an act of removing from someone by violent means a part of their earned wealth. Spending it “responsibly” or “irresponsibly” does not change the fact that taxation was theft.

    I might be wrong on this point, and if I am please call a point of order here, but the concepts of what is held up as a Classical Liberal were seeds not yet planted until The Enlightenment era’s a few hundred years or so after Western Civilization to 1500 AD.




    Mike is right that this is how libertarians would approach the subject of tax-funded anything today. However, I still think its possible to assess the way tax money has been spent historically, beyond the observation that taxation is theft. For instance, such money spent on beautiful art is better than that spent on annexing your peaceful neighbour. That being said, as outlined in Hoppe’s “Democracy: The God that Failed”, pre-modern government was essentially private. Ruler’s might patronise art and architecture from the revenues of their personal estates (or fisc), at a time when there was no market to sustain such activities independently. This doesn’t make their behaviour a model to follow to a T, but clearly there is more nuance to history than rejecting all money spent by governments or rulers.

    Jason Jewell

    The point about pre-modern government being essentially private is an important one. And if the taxation is assumed, obviously it’s better to spend the money on good things than on bad things. Of course, none of this is an argument for taxation.


    Dr. Jewell,
    I am having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of a private government.
    Your point about assumed taxation seems to hit the target. I understand that some kings may have spent their resources only on personal comforts rather than commissioning art projects, and that may affect the way they were historically regarded. Perhaps some of the later revolutions wouldn’t have taken place the way they did if the ruling class considered public quality of life as a priority.


    Although I agree that taxation is theft and I appreciate the relevant quote from Bastiat, I’m not so certain we can apply those principles universally. Do you believe it is practical for us to live in a society with 0% taxes?
    It is in my mind possible that some public works such as aqueducts or city walls may not have been constructed if not for some measure of forced cooperation. In many ways my skepticism might be applied more universally. If people did not unite under a single banner and lived entirely alone with small families are we certain they would be willing to invest their resources in large scale project, or if they would unite to resist an external threat? How well would they fare against a trained standing army? If the USA today had zero taxes, zero standing military, etc… Wouldn’t it just be conquered by a more powerful united superpower? I have to wonder to what extent we are willing to recognize the practicality of our ideology.
    If I could change the government I would certainly downsize, reduce spending, and thereby reduce taxes.
    Essentially, I find myself guilty of considering some parts of the state “a necessary evil” (that doesn’t necessarily have to be evil).
    I absolutely hate to call libertarianism a utopian philosophy, but perhaps some of the ideals are a bit too idealistic for our generation. It just seems that what we should be able to do and what we have to do are completely disparate.



    No one I have ever read on the subject of anarcho-capitalism or libertarianism ever said it was a utopian philosophy. I believe the one thing that all schools of all disciplines can agree is that an utopia is not possible in this world.

    There was a time in the USA in which we collected significantly less taxes than we do now as a nation. The income tax has only been around for roughly 40% of this nations history. Yet, there are roads previous to 1913. The US has had a standing military of one form or another previous to 1913. I work in a private corporation which has a complex series of roadways and helipads as well as armed security and even a co-generation power station which provides a significant amount of the companies energy use at its main plant… all without the cost of indirect expenses such as Government to provide any of them (but yes, Government to pay taxes to for having them).

    The military or the protection of the State from other States, seems to be an objection that always comes up. In fact, the Minarchist Camp always brings up the State’s duty to protect its citizens as the foremost chief duty of government.

    The United States fought in Vietnam. We had technological superiority, in air strikes and land. We had everything a standing army could possibly want (save the American riffle arguments for a later date) yet we could never break the resistance to our forces in Vietnam. They had significantly less technology, significantly less everything. Taxes did not win the war against America during the Vietnam War. Stalin had a standing army during WW2. All he did is use and abuse the forces and threw them at Hitler while Hitler overwhelmed himself…. but taxes didn’t save Hitler and they did not defeat him either. As not to be misunderstood here, I am not saying that an army does not cost money, or that large armies are fed only with donated xyz.

    If you were to look at the Persian Invasion of Greece we can better illustrate both of our points.

    The Persians tried to invade Greece in 490 BC, but Darius 1 was defeated. Darius 1 had a son Xerxes 1.

    Xerxes 1 told the Greeks he would be back.

    Themistocles was an Athenian who basically tricked the populace by selling them a lie. There was a silver deposit which was discovered in Athens and every single Athenian was going to get a piece of that silver deposit. It was a substantial amount of silver per citizen too. Themistocles tells the populace that one of these merchant island buddies is being attacked and they need to help defend them, and it is in their best self interest to do so because they are a hub for commerce for Athens. The citizens agreed to give up their claim so that Themistocles can start building ships. BUT HE LIED! In reality Themistocles was building these ships to fight Xerxes 1 who would return 10 years after Marathon. With out the silver deposit funds, they would not have been able to build up the ships in time to defend themselves from any invasion by any foreign States (Greece was a bunch of small city-states and not a unified country).

    In 480 BC Xerxes 1 did come and Themistocles defeated him at the Battle of Salamis. This happened at the same time as the Battle of Thermopylae with King Leonidas, which Leonidas lost but it galvanized Sparta and the Cycladic States and eventually concludes at Plataea with Xerxes 1 being completely driven off (479 BC).

    The ships required being built way ahead of time. The ships required that there be significant training to be able to man. The Spartans were their own standing army (at least the class in their society which was free – that its own complex subject) so the training and knowledge of war was with that class automatically. But, the rest of Greece did not share this culture, yet they played a significant part in defending and beating back the Persian army.

    So it is with this idea that there can be said something for the build up of a defense structure in order to prevent a foreign power from coming over and making war. But what if you knew that “ever blade of grass has a riffle behind it?” Would a country in which there is an armed citizenry be a enough of a deterrent to prevent an invasion? I tend to side with history to say that this is a great deterrent, observing that it also does not automatically create for someone a comfy life. But if you are to be an individual, responsible for your self in all ways, your defense is only part and parcel with your ability to feed and cloth yourself.

    I think Tom Woods did great job in this podcast with Bob Murphy:

    Andrew Deckert did a great job giving a quick outline of the topic here:

    And of course, you cannot talk about Privatization in a Libertarian conversation and not bring up the work of Walter Block:



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