Taxation, theft, and “deserving”

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:

  1. Theft is a legal crime, and so is taxation.
  2. Taxation is morally wrong for the same reasons that theft is morally wrong.
  3. 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.


  1. anat says

    People making those claims have all kinds of hidden assumptions regarding who owns what, how ownership is determined and so forth. Those need to be examined well before any discussion of whether and how much a government can interfere, one way or another, interfere with how much money citizens have.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Okay, now try to make sense of the anarchist claim that “property is theft”… 😉

  3. militantagnostic says

    Pierce R Butler @2
    The main value of that claim is a source of puns. Why do anarchists drink herbal tea?
    Because proper tea is theft. I have amused or perhaps tormented many a grocery store cashier with that one.

  4. secondtofirstworld says

    I’m amazed at how Ayn Rand managed to make libertarianism a popular thing, despite the fact, that just like far left and far right ideologies, it rests on elements that aren’t found in human nature.

    As far as I know, the oldest written record is from 6 thousand years ago, it’s an insurance contract for grain shipment on the Nile river. In other words, even early civilization were in the know that a pinky swear is not enough to achieve a common goal, incentives and penalties exist for a reason.

    As for the CEOs. The fact they make so much does not bother me as long they stick to what a CEO means. Thanks to Reaganomics and further deregulation, the boards of executives can give themselves bonuses even when a company is in the red, or how they can just resign before taking responsibility. The damn acronym stands exactly for “it’s on your shoulders, mate”.

  5. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To OP

    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.

    I can pretend to be a libertarian for you. I know the standard ideas pretty well.

    To understand the common American libertarian mindset, you need to understand the following two (contradicting) values.

    Value 1- The non-aggression principle: No one should fuck with me, except in response to cases where I unjustly fucked with someone else. It is never justified to take my stuff, nor make me work in any way, except as a punishment for a prior ill deed, i.e. a crime.

    This is why libertarians are ok with fines in response to criminal convictions, but they’re often not ok with progressive taxation.

    Value 2- Property rights shall be enforced. Taxation to support the government to enforce property rights, to enforce contracts, and to pay police, is ok, as an explicit exception to the non-aggression principle. (Persons who don’t have this exception to the non-aggression principle are basically anarchists, who talk about cooperative pay-in private police.)

    Generally, libertarianism also comes with an implicit version of the just world fallacy plus “invisible hand” capitalism. Generally, libertarians also take it as a factual claim that their sort of libertarian government scheme will reward those who work hard and play fair, and give less reward to those who are lazy, avoid work, commit crimes, etc. Generally, it’s extremely difficult to get a libertarian to give an answer to which came first: “Did you determine the proper form of government first, and analyze the consequences, or did you hold certain values about improving the lives of everyone in society and then empirically deduced that libertarian government is the best way to do so?” Libertarians often do not understand their own position well enough to distinguish between these two different moral justifications.

    I believe the proper response is rooted in Marxist critique of laissez-faire capitalism. I often call myself a card-carrying Marxist. (A Marxist is not a communist.) Conveniently, Pierce R. Butler quoted a crude version of that argument here:

    Okay, now try to make sense of the anarchist claim that “property is theft”…

    1- Property is not legal theft according to actual laws in all countries.
    2- Protecting property rights can be sometimes morally right and sometimes morally wrong for the same reasons that sometimes theft can be morally right and sometimes theft can be morally wrong.
    3- Protecting property rights can sometimes lead to increased material wealth in socety, and sometimes it leads to less material wealth in society.
    4- Practicing property ownership requires coerceive threats of violence, and physical violence, and theft often requires coerceive threats of violence, and physical violence.

    Imagine what property rights actually mean. Take land for example. Owning property means the advertisement that if someone else tries to use that land for their own purposes, whether walking on it, growing food on it, digging for resources, etc., then they will be met with violence to prevent such activities, plus the social framework to ensure that such violence is visited on offenders. Often, that violence amounts to a citation for trespassing, but like taxation, the level of violence will be escalated in response to escalating levels of violation.

    Property is a social construct. There is nothing magical or metaphysical that attaches you to your property. Your property is your property only because of a social consensus which depends on a (somewhat arbitrary) cultural tradition.

    More generally, consider the perspective from an alien species that comes to visit Earth, and they have no notion of property, at least nothing like we have. Maybe a eusocial species like our ants. Try to explain “property” to them, and especially the (moral) reasons why we should protect property rights. You could try the standard defense of John Locke, e.g. the labor value of property. However, for myself, I would partially defend property rights according to a utilitarian approach based on Rowls’s veil of ignorance. In short, I would argue that some use of some property rights generally makes life better for practically everyone.

    Thus, to answer the libertarian, I would argue that sometimes violating property rights (i.e. progressive income taxation, asset taxation, and inheritance taxation) can lead to a society where practically everyone is better off. The libertarian often argues that it’s impossible to have anything less than absolute private property rights, and any violation of property rights will cause the entire thing to implode (i.e. government, society, rule of law, etc.), but that’s obviously silly and wrong. Then, at this point, it becomes a debate about moral and factual claims, often both, because most libertarians are unable to distinguish between the two in this discussion (see above).

    In other words, I argue that an extremely rich person is wrong to use violence to prevent my use of some of “their” stuff according to legal property rights, in almost exactly the same way that it is wrong when a person steals my car. They’re both morally wrong for the same reason, and I might venture to describe it as the unjustified monopoly of use of a physical object through violence.

  6. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I thought the common phrasing was “property is violence”, not “property is theft”. Google tells me that both are common.

    When making a crude talking point in order to be provocative, I prefer “property is violence” instead of “property is theft”. “Property is theft” is a somewhat strained metaphor, that has incorrect applications and implications as discussed in-depth in the OP. Whereas, “property is violence” is not a strained metaphor. It’s actually quite correct. Violence is required in order to practice property rights. Just like the practice of boxing is violence, so too is the practice of property.

  7. says

    My main issue with the argument that property is theft is that a comparison to theft really communicates the idea that it’s morally wrong, even though theft is not always morally wrong. I agree with the other parts of the metaphor though.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    The whole concept of theft cannot exist without a prior notion of property.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *