10 April 2010

Avatar and taxation

The Economist: Free Exchange | R.A. | "Avatar", and the legality of taxation

Nick Rowe hasn't seen "Avatar". I'm assuming that's why he's making this argument:
The policy problem in Avatar is that some blue people own all of some valuable natural resource, and won't let anybody else have any.

[...]

Inheritance taxes, and taxes on undeveloped natural resources, could have solved the problem in Avatar just as well as in the UK. Wealth taxes could have worked also. The blue people would have needed to sell off some of the valuable stuff, just to pay the taxes on it.

[...]
The "blue people" are residents of a planet not earth. Humans show up to this planet, want the valuable substance, and begin taking it. Mr Rowe is indicating here that the humans should have just taxed the blue people, but that seems like a pretty problematic suggestion. They would first need to obtain the right to levy a tax on people who are occupying what we might infer is a sovereign planet.

The situation is not like a Britain, in other words, in which there are lots of Britons but only some of them have land. Instead it's like a world in which Americans would like Saudi Arabia's petroleum and therefore decide to levy a tax on Saudi Arabia. Or, it's kind of like sailing over to America when the occupants were all Native Americans and demanding that they pay a tax and oh, by the way, if you want to sell us your land so that you can afford to pay the tax that's fine by us. Taxation, set up this way, is basically the same thing as just taking the land or resources you want.
Taxation is always the same thing as taking the resources you want, no matter which way it's set it up.

As a practical matter taxation may be necessary for nations, but that doesn't make it any morally different than taking what you want from others.

The only way to square R.A.'s assertion that it's okay for Britons to take property from other Britons, but not okay for Americans to take property from Suadis, is if people do not have claims over others' property in general, but do have such a claim if the property is owned by a subject of the same government.

The lines on maps don't have any moral relevance.  If you can have the state legitimately take some stuff from this guy who lives near you, there's no reason they couldn't also legitimately take some stuff from that guy way over there.  There's a world of practical difference between the two, but no ethical difference.

R.A. is putting too much stock in the sovereignty of nations.  There's no reason the natives of Pandora or  pre-Columbian North America can proclaim themselves sovereign and free from taxation but me and my buddy and his neighbor can't do the same thing.  That's communitarian thinking, assigning moral weight to what a big group of people can do, but paying no heed to the rights of the individuals who make up the group.  Communities don't have rights except those held individually and severally by their members.

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