On the Other Hand...

Neither Tax Nor Punishment

by Jim Davies

Two or three years back I was invited to be the guest on a live radio show, whose host was, I thought, a rather laid-back guy who just liked exploring the unconventional. Five minutes in to the show, I found I'd greatly under-rated his mind; it was like a barracuda. 55 minutes later I was bloodied but unbowed, and think myself lucky that he invited me back for Round Two some weeks later.

It all hit the fan at that first five-minute point after he'd asked me what I'd regard as an ideal society, and I'd replied that it would be one without either tax or punishment. I thought that would put me in control of the microphone for the rest of the show, but boy, was I ever wrong. From then on, I had to fight for every inch. The experience made me think it all through a great deal more!

Zero taxes

That's perhaps the easy bit, though I note with surprise that quite a few allegedly bright people have trouble with it. Many, many of us try to imagine how life would be without taxes - especially at or near to April 15th. And it's not too hard, for the most part; and the imagining is much to be encouraged.

All the things that government does with the money it confiscates from us would still get done, if and only if people actually wanted to buy them, but they would be provided by a freely competing marketplace of suppliers and, so, be furnished at something like half price. As a result, the whole of society would be a very large percentage better off; partly from the increase in productivity that only free-enterprise competition can bring, and partly from the fact that a large number of government "services" would disappear because nobody in his right mind would choose to buy them.

The net result would be an immediate increase in our standard of living, of something close to 60% or 70%. Anybody can see that, who has a calculator and who takes 30 uninterrupted minutes to consider the matter.

The knee-jerk objections to that view are also not hard to demolish, for the most part: "Who would pay for national defense?" is the most common, with "Who would keep law and order?" a close second. Now, I admit that it's ultimately impossible to predict exactly how a free market in protection services would provide solid answers to every detailed nuance of those questions; but have sufficient faith in the market to be sure that it will do it some way - and the main thrust of those answers is quite plain, as soon as the educated mind is seriously given over to the question.

Not at all as easy, is the question of how society would function well without punishment, which was the other half of my answer, live on that radio show.

Zero Punishment

The identification of punishment as the other great evil in society I attribute to Jorge Amador, who edits a think-magazine called "The Pragmatist" - for I well remember the shock of reading it there first. How on Earth could we have a peaceful society, if the means to punish evil (crime) were abolished? Why would anyone behave himself, if there were no penalty to restrain him?

The error that I'd been making was to suppose that punishment - Retribution by some Authority - is the proper way to deal with offensive behavior. It's one of the great unquestioned assumptions of conventional wisdom. Yet it's dead wrong.

It pervades every detail of the government justice system. Did O.J. murder his ex-wife and her friend? - if the answer is "yes", he will be punished by being sent to a government prison. But what of the Brown and Goldman families? - perhaps, Judge Ito will courteously thank them for any testimony they bring, and that will be that. They will be sent home emptyhanded as well as mourning.

The main victims being unhappily dead, the secondary victims are their families and friends - and every one of them is treated as incidental. Government courts merely determine whether someone has broken a Government Law, or not.


This is an outrage, a parody of true justice. A proper justice system would first identify the aggressor (perhaps not much different thus far) and then set about recompensing the victim, as far as can be done, at the perpetrator's expense. See the difference?

Today's system is centered upon retribution - punishment - for violating some written Law. A proper justice system would focus instead on restitution - on setting right (as far as is possible) something that has damaged someone.

With incurably violent, repeat aggressors, prison may still be the only answer - with the products of labor in that prison being passed to the victim, as compensation. With others (like O.J., perhaps?) there's little risk of repeat and so the restitution can be ordered at once; a large settlement from the O.J. fortune might be appropriate.

So even conventional justice would be vastly improved by abolishing punishment - that is, cases of one-on-one violence or theft. But when we come to cases in which the government is itself a party, the improvement is immense.

These are cases in which real victims (like the Browns and Goldmans) do not exist; it's just a matter of whether the accused has broken a Law, or not. The only "victim" would be the arrogant authority of government itself. Thou shalt not possess pot or keep guns, thou shalt surrender thine income to keep us in comfort, and thou shalt do this, that, and the other, and jump just so high.

There, the whole purpose of a justice system has been turned upside down. There, since there is no victim, there should be no "crime". There, the abolition of punishment would end a long, dark night of tyranny.