It is usually more fun and quite possibly more important for me to respond to misunderstandings of libertarianism made by fellow libertarians than it is to respond to people outside of the movement. The core principles have basically been set in place. There is certainly room for debate in how these ideas can be applied in some situations but it is flat out incorrect to call your views “libertarian” if they go directly against the core principles.
Steven Sadowski of BeingLibertarian.com wrote a piece critical of some libertarians for using the phrase “taxation is theft” and then goes on to chide anarchists. Let’s take a look at why he’s so very wrong about his position.
That’s right, you’re not dreaming, you read that right: Taxation is not theft.
Now, before you accuse me of being a Libertarian In Name Only, allow me to explain. One of the things that drew me to the Libertarian Party is that the platform was logically consistent. The other two parties seem bipolar and hypocritical as they argue for both choice and regulations simultaneously. We Libertarians have principles, and we see them to their logical conclusions even if they land us in politically unpopular positions. This is why I am imploring every ‘big L’ Libertarian to stop it with the “Taxation Is Theft” bromide.
It’s interesting that Sadowski is careful to explicitly point out that he identifies as a “big L” Libertarian. For those unfamiliar, “Libertarian” refers to a member of the Libertarian Party while a “libertarian” refers to someone who believes generally that the unfettered market is superior to the state consequentially and/or ethically. They are not mutually exclusive as a person can be both a Libertarian and a libertarian; a person can also be one without being the other.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s at least safe to assume that a member of the Libertarian Party holds some degree of libertarian views.
I don’t recall the first time I saw the “Taxation Is Theft” tag, but just like the “Kilroy Was Here” tag, it has spread across the libertarian blogosphere just as insidiously. If we are not careful, it will envelop our party as candidates will undoubtedly be asked to pledge to two things: the NAP, and that taxation is theft. I believe the origins of this motto are anarchistic, and anarchists cling to our party like barnacles; we need to get our ship into fresh waters so they fall off.
I’m not sure that there needs to be any worry about pledging to anything of substance in the near future, as the Libertarian Party’s 2016 presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, said that the Non-Aggression Principle “goes over my head” at a party debate before the election.
Anyway, by saying that the “taxation is theft” tag comes from anarchists, is Sadowski implying that anarchy and libertarianism should be distinguished? It would appear so since he wants them to “fall off” his ship so he can sail to another disappointing election cycle. Anarchy, and specifically the anarcho-capitalism that he refers to, is libertarian. Anarchy is the logical conclusion of libertarianism: voluntary transactions and associations are superior to coercion, so all institutions ought to be operated on a market basis. There is no room for a state.
If you think about what it means to say “Taxation Is Theft,” you are endorsing the notion that government has come to you like a thief in the night, taken your money, and left you with nothing in return. Unfortunately, that is not factually, or grammatically true.
No, it doesn’t. It means you are endorsing the notion that taxation is when the government takes your property without first receiving the proper permission. It would only be incorrect to say that “taxation is theft” in the strictest legal sense. If someone asked if you could give him a Kleenex to blow his nose, but you were holding a generic brand of tissue, would you say no? That is like saying that “taxation is theft” is wrong.
Is taking something that isn’t yours theft? Yes. Does the government take something, i.e. taxes, that doesn’t belong to it? Yes. Well, therefore, taxation is theft.
Yes, the government does take your money by force, but you do get something for your tax money, and, by definition, that is not theft; it is extortion.
Sadowski is absolutely incorrect. If you’re going to make a semantic argument, make sure that you have your basic definitions down. Extortion is “the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats.” That actually does describe taxation (it is correct to say that taxation is extortion), but getting something in return from a shakedown is not what qualifies something as extortion.
Now let’s see what conclusions Sadowski draws from this.
I will grant the anarchists one thing: “Taxation Is Extortion” doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way “Taxation Is Theft” does, but I’d gladly sacrifice marketing for accuracy. The only person who does not believe that we need a police department and the various agencies that uphold contracts and protect us from companies that would pollute for greater profits, is an anarchist. They actually believe that the government is worthless. They believe that if every government agency and department went away, that the town in which they lived would magically be taken over by a wave of volunteerism and self-sufficiency.
What? He’s actually defending the government’s extortion. Sadowski believes that the market cannot provide things like the police, courts, and environmental protection. In his mind, that makes it okay to steal from people to provide them with these services. But isn’t that the same argument someone would make for the government providing health care or education? Isn’t that the same argument someone makes for the government providing any good or service?
If it were true that the market is incapable of providing something that the government does, Sadowski would have to give some reasons why. A cheap straw man of anarcho-capitalism is not enough. No anarchist believes that society could be ordered without a state because of “magic.” That is such an intellectually lazy and malevolent position to take. To be unaware of any literature on how the market could provide the police, courts, environmental protection, and the like means that you’ve never even bothered to look. That is fine for the average person since they do not have much of a reason to ever think about it. But if you’re going to go on the offensive against anarchists, perhaps you should be more than completely unfamiliar of their arguments.
Sadowski’s ignorance of anarchism and even libertarianism in general is highlighted by the last few words above. He refers to “volunteerism” as though people will perform some sort of work for free. What he’s trying to refer to is “voluntarism.” While most of the letters are the same, it’s something different. Voluntarism is the idea that people should be able to act according to their own free will and that it is wrong to coerce them when they are acting peacefully (you know, that Non-Aggression principle thing). This includes voluntary transactions where a person might be willing, for instance, to pay someone to provide them protection from violence (i.e. police).
His assertion that anarchists believe that their own individual town would be self-sufficient is so ridiculous on its face that it requires no further comment. I have a hard time thinking that Sadowski believes his own drivel.
To them, taxation really is theft. If the Libertarian Party is not careful, like a Trojan horse, we will have allowed the anarchists to lure us into a logical inconsistency usually reserved for Democrats and Republicans. Why run for office if that office is worthless? Why have a party if the system in which it operates is a scam leading to theft?
At this point the ignorance has to be willful. I am not a member of the Libertarian Party and do not have much interest in politics, but how is the reason for an anarchist’s involvement in politics not completely self-evident? Many libertarians are politically active not because they want to run the government but because they want to alleviate as much of the violence and theft as possible. While it is up for debate whether or not this is a fruitful endeavor, to claim that the goal of the anarchist who gets involved in politics is to induce more theft is absurd.
Taxation is extortion, much like the mob protection service ‘offered’ to shop owners in the neighborhood. You may not have asked for what government has said you ‘needed,’ but you are getting something, whether it be a library, a highway department, a consumer protection agency, or a recreation center.
Begrudgingly, you may actually benefit from it.
In other words, Sadowski thinks that you should accept the violence of the state because it gives you some stuff. If he’s willing to accept that violence, that’s fine for him, but please let me make that choice for myself.
And it sounds like his view on the mob’s extortion is “Hey, it may not be great, but at least we’re protected!” Extortion by the mob is flat out wrong and no amount of rationalization will make it ethical. Furthermore, the only “protection” that you get out of it is that they won’t commit violence against you. In other words, you’re not actually getting anything. What are you getting is your money taken from you against your will. This again just reinforces that Sadowski does not understand what extortion is.
Instead of being trapped by this errant slogan, Libertarians should be arguing how to make the necessary functions of government fair, efficient and constitutional. If we make pragmatic arguments, not only will we be grammatically and factually consistent, but we will act like the adults in the room worthy of election. And that’s why we have a political party, yes?
I would love to hear Sadowski’s arguments for how to make any function of government fair or efficient. I have an entire website here that provides arguments for why the government is neither fair nor efficient.
Call taxation whatever you like, but keep your dirty hands off my property, Mr. Sadowski.