On my old hand-scripted blog Wirkman Netizen — now decommissioned — I wrote a longish post  about the slogans “Taxation Is Theft!” and “Taxation Is Robbery!” and took the contrary-to-my-comrades position. Since the main essay is offline, I guess I should repost it, here. My points are somewhat technical, but my aim is practical. Which might make it hard to categorize.

taxationistheft

Taxation Is Not Theft

Libertarians are too fond of slogans such as “Taxation is Theft” and “Taxation is Robbery.” They get quite a charge out of such maxims. And, with these maxims, they do manage to get a good idea across to some people, people who come to see that taxation is, indeed, a form of expropriation, and that it is analogous to forms of theft such as robbery, and that maybe we can do better.

Perhaps we can pay for public goods without engaging in extortion and expropriation.

But to people who really want those public goods, and who are capable of elementary distinctions in language, they are not convinced by these slogans. They are put off by them.

And they have good reason to be. Taxation is not theft. Not really.

Taxation is the expropriation of private property according to an established rate, as put into law by an established state.

Robbery and other forms of theft are illegal kinds of expropriation, and piecemeal at that. Taxation is a legal kind of expropriation.

To many libertarians, this distinction is not much of a distinction at all. They have pretty much thrown out the distinctions between legal and illegal, and are in a continual revolutionary mode of thinking, ready at a moment’s notice to throw out whole chunks of the rule of law and state practice.

So of course they equate all kinds of expropriation.

Well, not all, since libertarians do support some forms of expropriation. They have no trouble expropriating the loot of thieves from thieves, after court adjudication. And they have no trouble expropriating from a person found liable, in court, to a tort claim.

They just don’t support taxation.

My Contention: The main reason radical libertarians will not get anywhere is their complete lack of understanding of the normal mindset, which is not constantly in revolutionary mode. Radical libertarians who trot out slogans such as “taxation is theft” do not address the respect a non-revolutionary has for the rule of law.

Indeed, because of this revolutionary stance — and I’m not talking about physical, bloody revolution so much as a particular stance regarding ideas and consent — these libertarians cannot deal with normal folk.

They offend normal folk; libertarians often (and with good reason) strike normal citizens as lunatics, perhaps dangerous lunatics.

This is one reason why I choose my words more carefully — or at least differently— than radical libertarians. I wish to address normal folk in normal language. I believe it is incumbent upon me to make every step towards a revolutionary mindset clear. I wish to pull no wool over any eye. I believe we have to approach greater liberty with complete honesty. No rhetorical trickery.

And I regard slogans such as “taxation is theft” as something close to rhetorical trickery.

It may be that we will someday be able to support all worthy public projects without any taxation.

But however we manage to do this (and I’ve lots of ideas, not limited to simple slogans like “the market will take care of it”), it will have to be done within the framework of the rule of law.

And people in such a future society will have to regard the means used at that time in something other than constant revolutionary mode. Even if they can think of better ways, they will have to show some respect for the rule of law of the day.

As libertarians, by and large, do today. Most pay their taxes, if grudgingly. They are revolutionists only in speech.

Hypocrisy? Not really. But, as I’ve argued before, if it is, then this kind of hypocrisy is better than stupid, feckless revolt, or the sad parade of individualist martyrdom.

This all came to mind in the debate I mentioned on David Friedman’s Ideas blog. Writing on No Treason, John T. Kennedy has this to say about the debate:

In a comment to Friedman I point out that he has called taxation robbery and robbery is widely considered unattractive and indefensible. Does this mean that in using the word “robbery” Friedman dishonestly mischaracterized the motivations of all who support taxation? No, he correctly characterized the act of slavery.

I must add some precision here: Expropriation is not an act of slavery, but merely that, the taking of property. Slavery is the most extreme type of expropriation, perhaps, being the theft of one’s autonomy and practical ability to choose and move about, and ability to hold property justly acquired (or not). But slavery, the most extreme crime against liberty (just as murder is the most extreme crime against life), is only by analogy an act of theft.

Further, if Friedman has used the phrase “taxation is robbery,” he may indeed have erred. Not so much in terms of dishonesty, but in missing a whole element of society that most non-revolutionaries accept without much thought, but which libertarians too often rule out of consideration, give little or no thought to.

So, what is taxation again? Taxation is like theft, in that it is expropriation. But the state is not “just like a group of robbers and bandits.” It is distinct. It gains the general, practicing consent of the bulk of the populace. Most citizens of modern states remain unable to see how they can manage without the state, and many, perhaps most, treat it as a major source of their own well-being.

This makes a difference. Why? Intentions do make a difference. They add a level of meaning to interaction.

To call the state, either pointedly or by implication, nothing better a group of bandits, is to misunderstand it, first, and to antagonize its supporters, second. The “taxation is theft” mantra does more than just imply that “the state is a robber band.” Why? Because everyone knows that the power of the state comes from taxation. That is the basic power, the foundation of the rest. That is why, in fact, one of the basic powers that the colonials wished for their states, in union as well as separate, when they seceded from Britain in 1776, was the power (indeed, right) to tax.

How much better to avoid the mantra, and say something like this: “Yes, too often, the state does behave like bandits; too often its very mode of existence encourages a banditry ethos in society, making us all worse off through internecine expropriation and conflict.” By toning down the language of invective a bit, we go back to simile and revert from bold metaphor treated as stark, unliterary truth.

After all, “Taxation is theft” is a metaphor. It is not a logical identity. To presume such is to engage in a philosophical error, and to misunderstand a crucial element of normativity in society.

Libertarians will not succeed until this error is consistently avoided, and a more reasonable dialectic becomes dominant in the movement — that is, a more reasonable and nuanced way of dealing with those people whom libertarians say they want to convince.

twv

Links

This has appeared twice on the Net before, at wirkman.net and wirkman.com [dead links]

Brian Doherty discussed it briefly on Reason’s Hit and Run.

I discussed it on video, in my usual semi-coherent fashion, here:

And last year I discussed this essay, quoting it in part, here: “Taxation Is…

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