We begin with a basic question: do we need government? Ayn Rand answers that we do. No one can deny that some authority is necessary to maintain order, protect from invasion, and keep society functioning. This response, unfortunately, forces another question: how do we pay for government? Under Objectivism, any mandatory collection is unacceptable, since it ultimately relies on the coercive power of the state. We are left to pin our hopes upon "voluntary" funding.
How can a government, charged with guarding the liberty of its citizens, possibly support itself with only donors' largesse? Rand claims that there is no need to worry, since individuals will support their government for the same reasons that they "buy insurance." Yet I cannot see a whit of similarity between the two concepts. The proceeds from insurance are almost entirely private, while a donation I make to the state, after being spread throughout the military and law enforcement, will bring me only infinitesimal benefit.
In her essay "Government Financing in a Free Society," from The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand suggests two other voluntary means to support government: a lottery and a fee for protecting contracts.
These are both shockingly obtuse. After all, to be profitable at a useful level, a state lottery must deploy coercion, lest it be preempted by private competitors who needn't swipe a chunk of proceeds to run the government. And the contract fee's supposed effectiveness, as extolled by Rand, rests on a piece of argument so facile that it is hard to take seriously:
"When one considers the magnitude of the wealth involved in credit transactions, one can see that the percentage required to pay for such governmental insurance would be infinitesimal - much smaller than that paid for other types of insurance - yet it would be sufficient to finance all the other functions of a proper government. (If necessary, that percentage could be legally increased in time of war; or other, but similar, methods of raising money could be established for clearly defined wartime needs.)"
Gee, Ayn... why is so much wealth involved in credit transactions? Maybe because the costs of transaction are so low? Wouldn't your proposal, um, ruin that?
Rand's observations are immune to even the most obvious point in tax analysis: you can't estimate a tax's revenue from its current base, because that base inevitably changes from the incentives altered by the tax. Nowhere is this more evident than with credit transactions, which occur in such volume precisely because capital is so liquid, exchanging hands without any significant loss. Apply even a 2% tax (or "fee") and you will see the vast majority of transactions evaporate; after all, 2% is a sizable fraction of the stock market's average annual rise, and rational investors will keenly avoid paying it. In this scenario, with a drastically reduced pool of transactions, you'll then need to raise the rate to support government. This, of course, will lead to yet another dramatic reduction in liquidity, in a cycle that will only terminate when the economy is strangled into submission.
This is not a particularly complicated argument. When Ayn Rand spends a lifetime preaching the virtues of capitalism, her failure to consider such a simple set of consequences is shocking. And what of the transparently incoherent lottery idea? Or the failure to come up with a single workable way to fund government? Ayn Rand may sing the praises of reason, but she isn't very good at using it.
This isn't only an indictment of Ayn Rand. It is a crippling blow to her entire philosophical enterprise. Her ideas for "voluntarily" supporting government are lousy for good reason -- there is simply no realistic way to accomplish the task. When such a fundamental part of Objectivism's political program turns out to be impossible, there is no plausible recourse for its supporters.