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To Tax Is to Steal?

Admittedly, not many people take the extreme view that taxation is a form of robbery, but there are some libertarians and others who do believe this, and it is interesting to consider just how much truth there might be in this belief. In the process we have to touch on the ideas that morality cannot be contained in words, and principles cannot be applied to all contexts uniformly. But let's start with a simple example or two, just to confuse the reader's current thinking on the matter. Then, with luck, we can start to clarify things a bit.

If a man took your money against your will you would probably consider it theft in most circumstances. Now, what if he said he was collecting "taxes" and removed the money from your wallet at gunpoint? Chances are you would still call him a thief. But what if a majority of the people around you voted for the man as their robber-in-chief and then he took your cash? Would that be okay? You can see that we are getting closer and closer to a democracy here, and that the line between theft and justified taxation is not a clear one. Let's continue.

What if all the people in your neighborhood (other than you) voted to take your money for "good purposes" like educating kids or fixing sidewalks or hiring a band to play in the park, and they hired a thug to do it... and they contributed their own money as well in various amounts? Would that make it okay? What if you disagreed with how they spent the money, but they assured you that they meant well? Would they be justified in taking your money by force or would it be stealing? What if you got to choose from several people, all of whom promised to take your money and use it in some way they thought was good? Would choosing who got to take your money be okay even if you didn't want to give any and they had to threaten you with violence and years of confinement?

There are no clear lines, of course even if you (like myself) believe we are better off with government and taxation than without these aspects of civilization. I find it very offensive that I am forced to pay for non-defensive wars which kill thousands of innocent people, and yet, because I don't want men with guns to take me to jail, I pay my taxes. But honestly, I never once signed a contract agreeing to pay anything to a government, so am I being robbed?

Some advocates of the rights of individuals would say yes. They think taxation is theft. The basic reasoning is simple enough; to take from a person without that person’s permission is stealing, regardless of the worthiness of the purpose. To put it another way, if I don’t have the moral right to take my neighbor’s money without his permission, such an action doesn't become moral because I get together with others. The consensus of the mob does not make an action right, does it?

Now, does that principle really change if we elect others (government) to steal the money? I could hire someone to steal from my neighbor and people would still call this a theft, so do numbers alone make the action moral? And does it change anything to claim that it is for the victim’s own good? isn't that for him to decide?

Okay, you understand the basic argument, and there are not really any easy answers to it (if you think so just try them in the presence of a smart libertarian). And yet, even when exposed to this ethical viewpoint most people accept some degree of government taxation and control as morally justified. It's true that they almost never have good arguments for their position, and (in my experience) they almost never choose to think about the arguments which suggest taxation is theft. However, those who favor taxes are not necessarily wrong. It’s just normal (perhaps regrettably) to forgo any serious and challenging thought about matters that “everyone” agrees upon. But what are the arguments for the right to tax people?

I think arguments which claim "rights come with responsibilities" are perhaps the weakest. That approach suggests that if a man does not do whatever others claim to be his "responsibilities" he has no rights. Me, the founders of the United States, and many other political philosophers favor the idea that rights are inherent in all humans -- that you don’t have to "buy" them as the "rights come with responsibilities" argument insinuates.

A stronger argument for taking people’s money by force is that the alternative of anarchy is worse, even, perhaps, for individuals who would rather not pay taxes. Without an apparatus to protect individuals (a government), the existence of rights and freedom in theory doesn’t mean much, does it. Anarchy isn't likely to result in everyone leaving you alone. In the end it most likely just leads to powerful individuals and groups taking control and becoming... a government.

Of course, this argument simply proposes a moral principle of seeking "the best for all," rather than a cogent argument against the logic of taxation-as-theft. It seems likely that most taxation schemes will fall into whatever definition we can imagine for the concept of theft. Of course, we can redefine ownership in order to get around this. We can say that a person only owns the "excess" of what he or she produces, meaning that amount beyond what is necessary for maintaining a civilization (and we could further argue that ownership is only a concept that makes sense in a social context, thus allowing it to be defined by that context). We could also drop the belief that stealing is wrong, and say, "stealing is morally wrong except when it accomplishes more good than bad."

Approaches like the ones suggested above might be better or logically more sound, but they probably won't satisfy those who want to hold onto every penny they make or every absolute principle they worship. Still, words can never "capture" morality or any complex concept entirely. In fact, if we try to use our everyday languages like we use the language of mathematics or symbolic logic, we'll come to all sorts of conclusions we don't like or accept. Consider this syllogism;

1. Theft is immoral.
2. Taking a person's property without permission is theft.

The logical conclusion is that a mother who takes avocados from a rich man's tree without permission, in order to save the life of her starving son, is acting immorally. I propose that language fails us in this case, and we better try using it a different way or just dropping it. The immoral action would be to let the child starve (and, at least in the extreme, that suggests a moral argument for welfare programs at taxpayer expense). Of course this gets us into all sorts of questions of morality, philosophy, linguistics, and epistemology.

We can't ignore arguments just because we don't like what they suggest about our prior beliefs. After all it does seem unfair to me to take money for any purpose justified only by the brute force of the mob (democracy) and the people they elect to do their dirty work. I would love it if we found a way to move toward a consensual system of taxation (it is possible -- an argument for another time). But I do not want a seemingly logical argument to take precedence over civilization, and the latter happens to require funding of governments at the moment.

There are no easy answers here, and there are many more questions. Here are four to get you thinking about whether and when taxation is theft or when it might become so.

1. For what purposes or types of purposes can we morally justify taking a person’s money or property by force or threat of force? (Note: Without the threat of imprisonment or taking of property by force few would actually pay their taxes, thus taxation does currently involve the use of force, even if this is well-hidden by custom.)

2. How much of a person’s money can we take based on the purposes that justify this taking, and who should determine this?

3. How do we determine how much each person should be taxed, and if this isn't done fairly does the process become mere theft once again?

4. Is there a moral difference between voting for others to take money from people and doing it yourself, even if used for the same purposes?

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Taxation is Theft?