“Taxation is theft.”
The simplicity, elegance, and truthfulness of this assertion has made it a favorite of mine. It is very versatile: it can be worn on a t-shirt or baseball cap, enabling you to spread your message to dozens of people within a relatively short period of time; it can be plastered on signs, shouted at the top of your lungs, or slapped on the bumper of an old Chevy for the world to see. In addition, it makes a great conversation starter, whether in person or on the internet, as it almost always draws controversy.
No claim I make on a regular basis draws sparks nearly as much debate as this one. I suppose I can understand why: it challenges the very foundation upon which the government is built, the most powerful and influential institution in society today (sad, but true). However, responding to the same objections over and over gets tiring, especially on social media. Therefore, I have decided to write this essay, in which I will anticipate and answer every protest I can imagine (as of the first publishing, that number stands at eight). I probably won’t remember all the objections I have encountered, and there may be several I have never heard before, so this post will be updated when appropriate.
1. “But without taxes, who will build the roads?”
By far the most common (and therefore annoying) concern I receive, other variations include replacing “taxes” with “government,” or “roads” with “police, military, courts, prisons,” etc., or stating it as fact (“Without taxes, we would not have roads.”) Twitter is probably the most prominent platform for this one.
This is not an argument against taxation being theft. It is an argument for why taxation is necessary, but that is irrelevant in this context. If I interpret this comment in a logically coherent manner, it appears to me as, “Taxation is not theft because without taxes we would not have roads.” This obviously does not follow.
Now, It is certainly an important discussion to have, but this is not the time or place for it (I will cover it in another post, which I will link when I have written it).
2. The “Legality” argument.
I first encountered this one in a Youtube debate, if I remember correctly. This argument relies on cherry picking dictionary entries. Some dictionaries (particularly the first result in a Google search) include the words “criminal” or “illegal” in their definition of “theft,” which can give the initial impression that this argument has some ground to stand on. However, simply checking a few different brands of dictionaries clears up this confusion very quickly.
Here is the definition often cited: “the action or crime of stealing.” Now, you might think (as I initially did) that you can get out of this by pointing out that the definition says “action or crime,” seemingly leaving open the possibility that the “action” does not necessarily have to constitute a crime. Now that might silence some critics, but the more ambitious ones have taken me to the definition of “steal” from the same source: “take (another person’s property) without permission or legal right and without intending to return it.” Correctly, these people point out that the term “legal right” is used; however, I could once again argue (slightly less convincingly, in my own opinion, but legitimately) that the word or implies that stealing might occur with permission but without legal right, or with legal right but without permission. Not knowing the intent of the authors of the dictionary entries, or whether there was any collaboration between the two definitions, this contention could be either true or false.
In the event that the above does not satisfy you, consider that there are other dictionary definitions available. While it is true that Merriam Webster’s regular definition includes the legality of the action as well, other dictionaries, such as Dictionary.com, do not. Their definition of “theft” is, “the act of stealing; the wrongful taking and carrying away of the personal goods or property of another; larceny.” No mention of legality at all. Cambridge, similarly, defines theft as, “the act of taking something that belongs to someone else and keeping it; stealing,” “steal” being defined as, “to take something without the permission or knowledge of the owner and keep it or use it.” The dictionaries we have in my English class (The American Heritage Desk Dictionary & Thesaurus) also do not include any mention of the law.
If for some reason you must still insist that I am using the word “theft” with a legal connotation, because you’re just one of those people, fine, you win: under your definition, taxation is legalized theft. Now leave me alone.
3. “But they give some of it back.”
I first heard this one from my World History teacher on one of the first days of my 10th grade year, but I have heard it several times since.
Similar to number one, this really does not constitute an argument against taxation being theft. Yes, we can again look to the dictionaries, many of which include the stipulation that the intent to return must not be present in a theft. However, this is not universal, and regardless, I don’t know what you would call it if somebody stole your TV and gave it back a few years later, but I would call it theft. Giving it back isn’t theft, but the person took it from me in the first place without my consent.
Besides, the government gives some of it back, but not all of it, which is even implied in the statement itself. Furthermore, they may give it back in forms that I would find less useful than that in which they took it in the first place. I would rather keep my money in the bank, or be allowed to invest or buy things I want at the present than have the money returned to me when I’m old and about to die.
4. “The Constitution authorizes it, so it cannot be theft.”
The “Constitution” argument is typically espoused by fellow constitutionalists, though they tend to lean conservative as opposed to libertarian like myself.
The Constitution determines what is legal and illegal for the government to do. Therefore, this argument is, like number two, based on the premise that something is only theft if it is illegal, which is not the exclusive way theft is defined.
5. “Taxes are simply payments for the services the government provides us.”
Proponents of this argument actually flip the assertion that taxation is theft on its head; they hold that not paying taxes constitutes theft, as it is analogous to refusing to pay for services rendered, say, in a restaurant.
The problem with this analogy is that services rendered in a restaurant or other market setting are requested by the consumer prior to their being provided. The government, meanwhile, provides you with services you may or may not want, and then mandates that you pay taxes.
Therefore, the proper analogy would be closer to this: a restaurant worker invites you into the building, sits you down at a table, serves you a t-bone steak, and then hands you the bill. Of course, if this is the government we’re talking about, the t-bone would cost $300 dollars and they would only charge you $200, leaving the restaurant $100 in debt for your children to pay off with the same scheme for generations to come.
6. “We vote for our representatives, and therefore we consent to the taxes they levy.”
This is a variation of the “Social Contract” theory, which I will cover in more detail in number seven. Interestingly, this is actually a favorite of a minority of anarcho-capitalists and minarchists (who typically believe that taxation is theft).
There are several flaws in this particular variant of the social contract argument, starting with the fact that voting does not amount to consent. For one, voting options are restricted, even by the government itself. In some races, there is not even an opposition candidate, and in the majority, only two to four people are listed as options on the ballot. Most of the time, write ins are accepted, but this is not always the case; and even if it was, people are unwilling to vote for candidates they do not believe will win, fearing that they will “waste” their vote. It is a mathematical calculation: because refusing to vote does not exempt you from government, and voting for a completely anti-taxation candidate (which are rare to nonexistent) provides no such protection either, the most reasonable choice is to vote for the “lesser of the evils.”
Another problem with the “voting” justification for taxes is that many people do not vote, or at the very least do not vote for the winning candidate. Consent is evidently not present for anybody who voted for a candidate other than the winner.
7. “Social Contract Theory”
The social contract (or compact) theory basically holds that every member of society has an implied contract with everybody else, typically including consent to be governed and taxed. Forms of this argument include the “voting” angle (discussed above) and, “If you don’t like taxes, why don’t you just move to Somalia?”
First of all, supporters of this theory cannot pin down exactly what is included in this supposed contract. Does it include, as Hitler might have argued, total submission to the government in all cases, even to death? Did the Jews consent to be slaughtered?
Furthermore, nobody actually signed the “contract” directly, leaving implied consent to be the only form of consent possible. Implied consent is a lot tougher to prove than direct consent, and must be much more obvious. A good example of implied consent is ordering food at a restaurant, in which there is an understood agreement between the consumer and the producer that the consumer will pay for the food at the price listed on the menu. In this situation, both parties know exactly what they are doing when they make the transaction, as the pre-established norms are evident to all involved. The social compact is not nearly so well-defined or widely understood, and therefore rests on much shakier ground; much too shaky to justify what would otherwise constitute widespread theft.
And what about people like myself, who very openly and loudly declare, “I do NOT consent!”? Is it really possible to hold that I’ve implied consent even after I’ve directly contradicted that concept? Well, the clever among you might ask, if I don’t consent, why don’t I move to Somalia, or go live out in the woods somewhere? By staying, you say, I consent to taxes whether I think so or not. I would pose the following scenario: a gang controls your neighborhood. Every day, they come by with a gun and tell you to put $25 dollars in the bag, or they’ll drag you away from your family and lock you up until they can get the money, with interest. Now, one could argue that it would be smart to leave this neighborhood, but if you liked other aspects of the area or had no other place to go, you might stay. You would continue being robbed every day, but you would put up with it in order to better provide for yourself and your family. Does this constitute consent? Obviously not. Enduring robbery doesn’t change the fact that it’s robbery. And like regular criminals, governments exist essentially everywhere, so apparently you consent to taxes or any other type of theft wherever you go.
Once again, I’m sure there are other arguments out there, and if you want to make one, feel free to do so. However, if your argument is listed here already, please consider it fairly and thoroughly, and if you still don’t agree, then have that conversation with me. As I’ve said, I will update this essay whenever I come across a legitimate argument I need to counter, and I will make future posts about why coercive taxation is not necessary, which I will link here.