The new “thing” among libertarians over the last few days is posting “taxation is theft” memes. And according to this meme, it’s led to a big spike in searches by curious people (or it’s just libertarians seeing how high their memes rank on image search). So I decided to Google “taxation is theft” to see what kind of results there were. Much to my chagrin, one of the top hits is an article called “Why Taxation Is Not Theft” from the blog Whistling in the Wind.
I figured I’d give it a read since I thought taxation was a fairly straightforward concept.
According to Wind (I’ll refer to the author as “Wind” for now on), the taxation is theft argument is nothing more than “melodramatic hyperbole” and used an analogy to explain why:
Think of taxes as like paying rent. The state owns the land and if you want to live on the land you must pay rent. The state is like a shopping centre (or shopping mall for my American readers). If you want to enter it you must agree to abide by its rules. If you refuse, you will be punished by the security guards.
Wind is correct except for the part that the state does not own the land. It merely made the claim that it owns it but in reality has no legitimate claim. It’s generally agreed that the only valid ways to acquire property is through homesteading, voluntary trade, or gifts. Simply writing down on a piece of paper “This stuff is mine,” for example, does not constitute a valid claim.
Anyway, even if this analogy were correct, it would only justify property taxes. We’ll see if Wind justifies other forms of taxation (he doesn’t).
If you don’t like this shopping centre go to a different one instead. A libertarian may complain that this is unfair because no matter where they will go they will have to live in a state and therefore be subject to someone’s rules. But if you refuse to go to one shopping centre you still have to go to one somewhere. Likewise if we abolished the state, then no matter where you went you would still be one someone else’s private property and therefore subject to their rules.
The complaint by the libertarian would be fair. If I purchase a piece of property from a willing second party, what right does an uninvited third party have in charging rent and making other rules? It’s rather convenient to make the claim that the state owns the property (or otherwise has the right to be involved) without feeling the need to explain why. Remember, property existed before the state.
But let’s take a moment to consider being subject to the rules of rightful property owners. Even in the flawed system of the state, moving around from private property to private property works out pretty well. Most private property owners, like the shopping mall used in the analogy, create pretty simple rules—rules that they don’t even feel the need to explicitly post before people enter. They include things like don’t steal, don’t assault people, and don’t be a major nuisance. These are rules that nearly every single person intuitively agrees with already. Although most wouldn’t notice it, it means they only ask that you follow the Non-Aggression Principle. The Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) is one of the core ideas behind libertarianism and states that it is wrong to commit violence or threaten violence against peaceful individuals. So if all property were privately owned, that doesn’t sound too bad.
It is not theft if you receive something in return. If someone steals my car, that is theft. If I have to sell my car in order to pay my rent, that is not theft. Libertarians sometimes act as though taxes disappear into a black hole and are never seen again.
What do you think would happen if I went over to Wind’s house, took some of his money without his permission, and then returned at a later date with some food? Of course I would have taken some of the money for myself (I certainly have to be paid for my services), some of the money would have been lost “in the system,” and it’s almost certain that he wouldn’t like a lot of the food I bought since I have no idea what his preferences are. If he temporarily went out of his mind and objected to it, I would say, “That’s what happens when you live here. If you don’t like it, you can move somewhere else.” He would then apologize and hope I take more money next time to build a solar plant that doesn’t work in his backyard.
In reality, we receive from the government protection and a commitment to justice. We also receive education, healthcare, transportation, safe food, employment protection and enforcement of contracts. There is also redistribution and welfare in the event of sickness, poverty and old age.
Okay, we’ve established that you cannot just take property from someone without their permission even if you exchange it for something else and give it to them, so what makes it even worse is that the products and services the state provides are pretty terrible. If they weren’t, I don’t think we’d have politicians on both sides of the aisle arguing over who would solve all of the problems of the state better.
The more important point, however, is that the market, free from government intrusion, could provide all of those services quite well. It already does provide a lot of them. If the state were that much better than providing these better than private interests, then it should be able to beat them in competition. But the state claims a monopoly on many of these services and makes it illegal to compete.
So libertarians make the bizarre argument that the government is a thief who gives more than he steals (due to economic inequality most people receive more than they pay in taxes).
Considering the United States government is literally trillions of dollars in debt, I don’t see it as a bizarre argument.
Furthermore, what sort of thief lets you decide how your money is spent or how much he takes? If I told a car thief that myself and the neighbours had decided that he shouldn’t take my car, would he listen? Yet the government is subject to the will of the people. We choose whether we want our taxes to be higher or lower when we vote.
What if your neighbors decide that they’re okay with the thief taking your car? Does it make it okay? Is it permissible for the state to do whatever the voting populace decides? Was slavery okay in the United States because the people didn’t vote it away for awhile?
I have a question for you, Wind: do you get your morality from the state?
Based on the failure of libertarians to win elections, most people seem quite content with taxation. There’s nothing stopping a libertarian party from being set up and winning an election. If taxation really was theft, then such a party would easily win a landslide and could promptly end the theft.
It’s not that taxation is not theft; the issue is that most people don’t consider it to be theft. And just because people do not consider it theft does not mean it is not theft. Nearly everyone used to think that the earth was flat. Did that make it flat?
I understand that the acceptance of taxation is the status quo and unfortunately for libertarians that means the burden of proof lies with us. But when we present a reasonable case, it’s not much to ask for a reasonable rebuttal.
A key element of the definition of theft is that the victim does not consent to it. But if people do not vote for parties that promise to reduce taxes, but instead for parties that keep taxes at the current level, then must not consider themselves the victims of theft. They must consent to taxes.
I don’t think that my property is up for the other people to vote on. I certainly do not consent to being taxed, but I pay them (as little as possible without getting caught) because there is a real threat of violence if I don’t pay them even if I don’t want to accept anything the state provides.
So let’s say I spent hours and hours talking to Wind about taxes and at the end of it he says, “I understand what you’re saying, but I’m okay with the system and the state taking taxes from me.” It would be wrong for me to try to force Wind to live otherwise even if I think it would be better for him. He’s perfectly free to live in a state if he chooses. He is not free, however, to force me to live in his state or any state. My explicit dissent trumps any implicit consent. This is true for any implied contract.
But a libertarian would argue that they never agreed to this. Even if they receive more than they pay, they never consented to pay anything. But that is an implicit part of citizenship. Being a citizen comes with rights and responsibilities. You have a right to protection and certain services but also a responsibility to pay for these services. You have a right to vote but a responsibility to accept the result even if your party does not win. Sure I never consented to being a citizen of Ireland, but then again I never consented to capitalism either. I never agreed to live in a society with either democracy or private property. I never agreed to elections being held every five years or the current distribution of property. Do we have to have a social revolution every time someone disagrees with the way things are? The fact is that there are lots of things we never agreed to, but have to live with. We have to live under some sort of political and economic system that will be to some extent arbitrary, but it simply isn’t feasible to have everyone make up their own rules.
Wind is appealing to social contract theory. As I alluded to above, outside of the make-believe social contract, there are no valid implied contracts where explicit dissent does not invalidate it. Taking an example used by Michael Huemer in his book The Problem of Political Authority, there is an implied contract at restaurants that you will pay for your food after you order it. If you were to walk into a restaurant and tell the waiter that you had no intention of paying for your food, you would be under no obligation to pay for it if they gave it to you anyway.
The state operates a bit differently. Still using the restaurant example, the state forces you to eat at the restaurant, so there would not be any obligation to pay at any point since you were never given the choice in the first place.
As far as consenting to a system of private property or capitalism, how could that even happen? That would be like saying, “I never consented to having hands!” It’s more or less the natural condition, but I suppose that you could change any of those things. No one is forcing you to partake in capitalism or private property. You can cut your hands off if you want. I am, however, being forced to abide by the laws of the state, which include taxation.
The problem with most libertarian arguments is that it assumes we have only rights but no responsibilities. It assumes that we have no duties to the poor, the sick, the elderly or even to children. If a man was starving and a libertarian had two loaves of bread, he wouldn’t share it with the man unless he felt like it. That is not a political ideology but a mental problem called sociopathology.
Since Wind previously described voting as a right, I’m not sure he understands what a right is.
Anyway, he falls victim to the tired libertarian straw man, which Frederic Bastiat debunks in The Law:
Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.
Does Wind believe that people are so selfish that they wouldn’t offer a loaf of bread to a starving man? Has he ever even met a libertarian before? Charity does exist in the world. On top of that, the best places in the world to be poor are the places that respect private property the most. I’d much rather be poor in the United States than in Venezuela.
We do have responsibilities to others in society and the government exists to enforce them. Our common humanity unites us and means that the suffering of others is our suffering too. We cannot rest easy if the streets outside our house are full of destitute. A libertarian world would be a cold and empty one, where people sit alone counting their money, blind to poverty, hunger and misery.
If the state exists to enforce obligations to others and people wouldn’t feel obligated to others without the state, how did the state come into existence since the state is a manmade construct?
He goes on to make the “You didn’t build that” claim a la Obama, saying that “we are hugely dependent on others and society.” This is true to an extent. I did receive a lot from others during my life, but I’ve already paid them. Yes, I’m dependent on the farmer that helped me to put food on my table, but what do I owe him now? And for all of the work done before me, should I sprinkle change on people’s graves? For the non-private transactions that I’ve benefited from, Wind is denying the antecedent if he claims that the market couldn’t provide instead them instead of the state.
In reality, libertarians do not truly object to coercion or taxes, they only object to the government doing so. If a private landlord compelled people to live by onerous rules about drugs, guns and religion, libertarians would have no problem. Yet when the government does the same thing, libertarians are up in arms crying oppression.
Would a libertarian accept terrible service at a business? Or would they take their business elsewhere? The whole point behind libertarianism is that we want to be able to have options if our current choice ends up bad. While a libertarian might respect a property owner’s right to be able to make his own rules, by no means does it mean the libertarian would participate.
If a starving man agreed to work for half the normal wages because otherwise he would die, a libertarian praises the free market. If a man has to pay half his wages in taxes without which he would die, a libertarian is outraged.
There might be praise for the market because the man lives as a result of it providing a job for him. There’s outrage because the state starves the man. Why does Wind think the bad guy is the libertarian here?
I was hoping for something better considering this was the top result on Google for arguments against taxation being theft. But Wind only attempted to justify one form of taxes (property) and did a pretty terrible job in doing so. He just doesn’t understand some simple concepts.
It is important to remember that the state is made up of people. These people are the same as you and I, so they have no right to do anything that you and I would not be permitted to do. Even if we all vote on it, you cannot transfer a right that you do not have.