Taxation vs. Theft


A common theme among folk of a libertarian bent is “Taxation is theft.”  “But…but…but…” others reply, “no it isn’t.”

Well, they’re right.  Technically, it’s extortion.  The government doesn’t sneak into your house when you’re not home and grab money from your dresser.  No, instead they say “Nice little freedom you have there.  Be a shame if something happened to it.” and so you pay (or your employer in the case of withholding).

A lot of political argument comes from people trying to argue that, no, taxation really isn’t theft (or extortion).  It’s taking money from someone with or without their consent but because a bunch of people got together and decided to give a smaller group the power to make those decisions is someone magically does not become theft (extortion–and going forward, I think I’ll just say “theft”.  You folk know what I mean by now.) They’ll follow that with all sorts of things that we need the money for.  Defense.  Police.  Fire fighting.  And the ever popular “Muh roads.”

And part of that argument is actually valid.  We do need funds for certain minimum functions that allow society to function.  And yes, even for roads. And not all of those things are well managed by a market of voluntary exchanges with prices determined by supply and demand.  (Note:  roads will be built even in the absence of government.  But since part of the benefit is external–many of the folk who benefit from the road are not party to the transaction in its construction–there would be fewer than the actual demand would call for.)

This, however, is not an argument that taxation is not theft.  And the circular argument that the law demands taxation therefore making it not-theft is no better.  I’ve discussed before how “government does it” does not make something right and rights, which here I include property rights, must exist independent of government or the concept becomes meaningless.  So, it’s not an argument that taxation is not theft but perhaps it’s an argument that theft is sometimes necessary.

And that is the key, right there.  Taxation is theft and, thus, the bar on what should be funded by taxes is high indeed.  It needs to be high enough to justify that theft.

Thus, “they have more than I think they should” is not a valid argument for taking from them via taxes.  So long as they obtained what they have by voluntary exchanges without use of actual force or outright fraud (and both of those would be matters for the law and the courts themselves), then it’s their money and you have no claim on it.

Thus, “but I want it” is not a valid argument for taking from them via taxes.  I want a vintage GT40 too but that wouldn’t justify stealing one.

Thus, “but…the poor” is not a valid argument for taking from others via taxes.  Again, if they got that money via voluntary transactions without use of actual force or outright fraud, then they’ve probably done more to help “the poor” (by employing them or providing goods and services to them) than the tax money ever will.

Here’s a test you can try:  if someone “needed” money desperately for some reason and stole it from you for that purpose, would you be inclined to let it slide?  Would you be “lock him up!” or more “yeah, okay, I can see it.” Be honest.  This might require considerable self-reflection and perhaps more self-awareness than many people have.

But if you wouldn’t be okay with someone stealing from you for that purpose, then how in the world can you justify stealing from someone else for the same purpose.  If you do, then you’re a thief, pure and simple.

And in that I include every single one of you who supports taxes on the promise that someone else will have to pay them.


6 thoughts on “Taxation vs. Theft”

  1. The key to rationalizing taxation de-facto (NOT de-jure) lies in the union of two factors:
    1) OVERHEAD: Is the thing proposed for tax funding something that no one would purchase for its own sake (i.e., for positive gains he would accrue from it)?
    2) EXTERNALITY: (Sometimes called “non-excludability”) If the thing were to be funded, could its benefits be restricted only to those who had paid for it?

    An example of an overhead expense is homeowner’s insurance. We don’t buy it because we actively desire it for its own sake, but because without it we would be exposed to unacceptable risks. However, its benefits flow exclusively to the purchaser, so it is not an externality.

    An example of an externality would be a nicely landscaped front lawn. Many a homeowner puts a lot of money and effort into the appearance of his front lawn. However, others get a benefit they didn’t pay for: the enjoyment of its beauty. However, this is not an overhead, as the homeowner does it for its own sake (and usually, from pride of accomplishment).

    The following are overhead expenses that are also externalities:
    — Armed forces;
    — Justice system;
    — Roads;
    — Bureau of Weights and Measures.

    There aren’t many others.


  2. In home state we just had an initiative on the ballot that was a prime example of what you were talking about. We had a need for infrastructure for water storage, the initiative proposed paying for it by a tax on sports betting. Lots of people were fooled by the allure of having “somebody else” pay for the need. Still waiting to see if it passed (I was staunchly opposed).


  3. excellent note about extortion.
    You might have mentioned that rebel insurgents, commies & drug/illegal cartels and religious based insurgent, often fund themselves on exactly that threat:
    give our group money, or we destroy some of your wealth.

    Protection money.

    The establishment of “government” was to fund a protection against bandits, and not allow free riders of people living in the protected city but not paying for the defense.

    It takes a lot of education, and usually some market success, to fight against the easy desire for the gov’t to take money away from the rich in order to do “good things” that “we” should do.

    See Chile, the most successful Latin America country since Pinochet, where now socialists are complaining about inequality. Because the education system is full of socialist oriented folk. Like the Stranglers’ song Always the Sun:
    “I was always told in school, everyone should get the same”

    Life, and reality, is not fair. But this is different than injustice, and there is no just way to compensate for the unfairness. Libertarians would be better teachers, maybe, if the unfairness of life was more recognized and acknowledged.


  4. Taxes, like government, is a necessary evil. The government/ fire metaphor works here too, in that taxation also needs to be carefully limited and contained, lest it go out of control and destroy things.


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