Let us consider an idea that perhaps isn’t really worthy of consideration, the idea that taxation is theft. This is a common idea in certain libertarian political philosophies, so I don’t really need to reinvent the wheel. I found a perfectly good rebuttal upon a basic search.
The article suggests three different ways to interpret the claim that taxation is theft:
- Theft is a legal crime, and so is taxation.
- Taxation is morally wrong for the same reasons that theft is morally wrong.
- Taxation is pragmatically bad for the same reasons that theft is pragmatically bad–e.g. claiming it depresses GDP.
I skimmed the comments to see if there were any other interpretations, and concluded we should add one more:
4. Taxation resembles theft in that there is an involuntary exchange of wealth under threat of force.
Of these four interpretations, three can be quickly dismissed.
1. Nobody argues that taxation is legally a crime, so I will speak of it no more.
3. If the point is only to talk about the pragmatics of taxes, then comparing taxation to theft is a very bad way to communicate the point. Anyone who communicates so badly deserves to be mockingly misinterpreted until such a time they decide to rephrase.
4. I note that the same superficial similarity exists between theft and legal fines. A fine is also an involuntary exchange of wealth under threat of force.
Now let’s talk about the last interpretation, the idea that taxation is morally wrong for the same reasons that theft is morally wrong.
This is an interesting analogy, because to be honest, I’m not sure what specific aspect of theft makes it morally wrong. I’d probably come up with some game-theory-based argument, but I’m a game theory geek and I suspect readers may come up with something completely different. That theft is wrong is not in doubt, but saying that X is wrong for the same reason that theft is wrong strikes me as uninformative even if true.
If the idea is that theft is wrong specifically because it’s involuntary and coercive, I will reiterate my earlier point that this applies equally well to legal fines.
But perhaps the idea is that theft is wrong because it takes away property that people rightly deserve. And so, if we claim that taxation is theft, it amounts to a claim that people “deserve” their pre-tax wealth.
This is absurd for a number of reasons. For one thing, it implies that CEOs and hedge fund managers, some of whom literally earn 1000 times as much as me, are actually 1000 times more deserving of income. I can accept that wealthy CEOs work harder than I do, and some might even have a high impact commensurate with their incomes, but that’s a matter of opportunity, not “deserving”. There are a limited number of slots for really high impact jobs, and it’s not like the rest of us are undeserving people of such poor character that we deliberately chose other jobs with less impact.
It also seems to me that no one really “deserves” the amount of wealth provided to them by their families. If someone grows up in a wealthier family than me, have they in fact stolen from me? Would libertarians support a 100% estate tax and gift tax to work towards righting this wrong?
Or how about the fact that inflation reduces the value of your dollar. Is inflation also theft?
And how about the alternative to welfare favored by libertarians: charity? Charities either deserve money or they do not. Why is it more just for charitable causes to be funded by donations rather than government programs? Of course, the libertarian response is that funding for government programs are coerced while charitable donations are not. But then we’re circling back to this idea that coercion is just plain wrong, regardless of context or consequences.
TL;DR: The idea that taxation is theft is as absurd as it sounds, and does not become less absurd upon deeper reflection.