Is taxation theft?

Libertarians claim taxation to be theft. How true is this statement?

My dictionary defines theft as:

the dishonest taking of property belonging to another person with the intention of depriving the owner permanently of its possession,(Collins English Dictionary)

So for taxation to be theft the taking of property must be dishonest.

My dictionary defines dishonest as

not honest or fair; deceiving or fraudulent  (Collins English Dictionary)

and honest as:

not given to lying, cheating, stealing etc

and stealing as:

to take something from someone etc without permission or unlawfully, especially in a secret manner

So to equate taxation with theft it is necessary to show that taxation requires

  1. Lying or cheating, or
  2. Stealing.

It is easy to see that taxation does not depend on lying or cheating. Each year Parliament passes legislation that specifies which taxes HMRC must collect and from whom. This is a transparent procedure and so, by definition, is not deceptive or fraudulent.

The second strand of dishonesty, stealing, describes the taking of someone’s property  without permission or unlawfully, as in a street robbery. As described above, Parliament gives permission to HMRC every year. This permission is granted lawfully.

So a basic tenet of Libertarian philosophy, that taxation is theft, is not accurate. So taxation is not theft.

Hardly a sound basis for a political philosophy, is it? Yet Libertarianism appears to be gaining popularity despite the inaccurate premise upon which it is built.

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11 comments

  1. I’ve just followed a link to this, so no idea who you are or if this is a spoof.
    I’m as opposed to libertarianism as the next man, woman, or right-thinking child. But this isn’t an argument against it.
    You can’t argue from definitions in this way, particularly not dictionary definitions which are intended to clarify words. You have to take the substantive points.
    Libertarianism is a package of beliefs about rights which seems to hang together reasonably coherently, at least enough to be acceptable to lots of people. Attacks on libertarianism therefore need to attack things like: 1) the foundational assumptions of the position (that certain rights are fundamental) 2) the coherence of the argument (such as whether the idea that no-one should own me implies that I should have ‘self-ownership’ over myself) 3) Whether the substantive assumptions are warranted (such as whether freedom is really only found through the unhindered exercise of property rights).
    I think rights-based libertarianism is flawed for all of the reasons I put in brackets.
    (Though note that there are other types of libertarians, such as consequentialist libertarians like Milton Friedman. These just claim that the less state there is the better off everyone will be. This is an empirical point though, and is therefore a bit different – they need to explain how and why people are better off with less taxation and less government spending.)

    • Hi Doug

      Thanks for your reply. No it is not a spoof blog.

      Taxation is theft seems to be a fundamental tenet of Libertarianism. Surely the analysis of this proposition to ascertain its truth is a legitimate method for evaluating a belief system? A belief system that rests on shaky premises, or produces inaccurate conclusions, is a fragile one. A strong belief system will be robust to this kind of analysis. I am not sure how a dictionary definition is likely to differ from the substantive meaning of words used in a philosophy’s propositions. Either a proposition is true or it is not. In the case of taxation is theft, an oft cited proposition by Libertarians, it is demonstrably untrue. If you are saying that Libertarians mean something else when they make this proposition then the onus is on them to reformulate it so that it accurately conveys what they mean. Or perhaps they should define their terms more precisely.

      Kindest

      The Uxbridge Graduate

      • You’re right that definitions are very important to the expression of a political philosophy and to arguments about it. I suppose the point is that dictionaries aren’t defining terms for use in particular arguments, and so its better to engage with the arguments of actual libertarians. Unfortunately with libertarians in particular they are very slippery (and in some cases no doubt underhand) – they use general terms like ‘freedom’ ‘self-ownership’ in slippery ways that sound plausible but aren’t consistent. They can be very time-consuming to pin down.
        I’m sure your method might lead you to some fruitful arguments, but they are fruitful to the extent that they highlight some problem with the philosophy in question.
        I’d say the basis of libertarianism is the belief that taxation violates self-ownership, and violations of self-ownership are theft. The dictionary would not make any reference to this step in their argument.
        The idea of theft is an issue of morality, which the dictionary definition will assume. Indeed it makes reference to the idea of what is ‘fair.’ It is a particular interpretation of the idea of justice or fairness on which the libertarian position rests, and you won’t get a decent answer to this from a dictionary.
        I highly recommend the book:
        MURPHY, LIAM and NAGEL, THOMAS, The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice, (Oxford: OUP, 2002)

        Other good criticisms of libertarianism can be found in:
        COHEN, G. A., Self-ownership, freedom, and equality (Cambridge; New York; [Paris, France]: Cambridge University Press ; Maison des sciences de l’homme, 1995).
        FREEMAN, SAMUEL, ‘Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 30/2 (2001), 105-51.
        HARRIS, J. W., Property and justice (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996).

      • Thanks again Doug. Thanks also for the references which I will try to access, time permitting.

        The Libertarians say explicitly that taxation is theft. This is a strong statement – much stronger than saying taxation is unfair. If they mean to say taxation is unfair then they should use that word, not the emotive “theft”.

        As for tax violating their property (or other) rights, this is demonstrably untrue. By living and working in this country they implicitly agree to pay taxes levied on residents. It’s like rent. A tenant agrees to pay rent in exchange for living in a landlord’s property. The tenant can choose to terminate the agreement by vacating the landlord’s property and finding somewhere else to live. The tenant will no longer be obliged to pay rent to that landlord.

        A similar analysis applies to claimants on workfare. They are not forced to work for their benefits – they are free to withdraw their benefit claim if they object to engaging in the workfare scheme.

        Similarly, a Libertarian who does not want to pay tax can choose to leave the country or can cease engaging in taxable transactions. It’s a matter of choice – the very thing that Libertarians say they want. In the UK they have this choice, they just don’t like the terms of the contract! To construct a political philosophy from the disadvantage they feel from being the weaker party to a contract between themselves and the government seems to me rather trivial, half-baked and selfish.

        Kindest

        The Uxbridge Graduate

  2. “Each year Parliament passes legislation that specifies which taxes HMRC must collect and from whom. This is a transparent procedure and so, by definition, is not deceptive or fraudulent.”

    So if the mugger who pulls me aside actually informs me that he’s going to take my wallet it isn’t theft? The fact that he has made his intentions transparent means it isn’t stealing by your theory.

    Of course, there are many – not just libertarians – who would question any claims of honesty with regard to politicians when it comes to their plans for spending our taxes. Also, anyone who has regular dealings with HMRC will be aware of times that that organisation has indulged in some less than honest methods in the course of their work.

    I would add that many (whether libertarian or not) regard tax as – to a point – a necessary evil as far as financing the core duties of a state are concerned – defence, foreign policy, etc. – notwithstanding that they do still regard it as theft. Please don’t confuse libertarians with anarchists.

    • Thanks for your comment, which contains the following:

      So if the mugger who pulls me aside actually informs me that he’s going to take my wallet it isn’t theft? The fact that he has made his intentions transparent means it isn’t stealing by your theory.

      My post specifically includes street robbery (stealing) as an instance of theft. I make it clear that deception is not necessary for theft to take place. Taking someone’s property unlawfully or without permission is theft, whether or not deception is involved. Your example is a case where property is being taken unlawfully and without permission and falls within the definition of theft.

      • OK, point taken. However, we can get sucked into what is ‘lawful’ – i.e. whatever parliament/the state says is the law.

        How much authority can a particular law (i.e. that of tax) have when it is made by the state for its own exclusive benefit? The mugger, if you will, having the power to make his acts lawful? The victim would probably still be entitled to regard it as theft.

      • Hi Man of Kent

        Thanks again for commenting.

        I don’t believe taxation law is made exclusively for the State’s benefit. We all benefit from government spending on law and order, on education, on health, on defence, on roads and infrastructure. Taxation is the rent we pay for living here. The more we earn the more luxurious our apartment is and so the more rent we must pay, if you will allow me a metaphor to justify progressive taxation.

        Don’t get me wrong, I am no apologist for the State – I believe there is room for improvement in many areas. But a society without public services would be a nightmare. Consider places like Somalia and similar countries. Obviously, public services must be paid for and this is what taxation does. Moreover, at least theoretically, there is democratic accountability over how public funds are spent.

        Kindest

        The Uxbridge Graduate

  3. “The Libertarians”?
    I’d agree with Vir Cantium when he says that Libertarians (as opposed to minarchists) generally agree that taxation is a necessary evil. I’d also be as cautious about the differences between US and anywhere-sensible definitions of “libertarian” as I am about the same for “liberal”.
    Taxation, legally, isn’t theft when correctly applied. When incorrectly applied but correctable, it also misses the necessary “permanently deprived” aspect. When incorrectly applied and incorrectable, it will often miss the “unlawfully” aspect – your due process point.
    Morally? Also, except in Christy’s defective state, probably not.
    I would postulate that most libertarians (UK – who knows what the US form knee-jerk) think that the state should be fully and efficiently funded. They just disagree with most people on how much that state should be doing and with nearly as many people about what the most efficient forms of funding are (and on what ‘efficiency’ means in terms of taxation – the norm might make a fairness, progressive tax case, the libertarian pov is more likely to be a flat tax or, for the more economically inclined, lowest deadweight. Or a rant about LVT.)

    • Hi Surreptitious Red

      Thanks for commenting.

      I know HMRC can be arrogant, bullying and heavy handed at times and this understandably may colour people’s perception of tax. HMRC can also at times be very helpful in my experience although less so now that queries are routed through a call centre.

      The UK based Libertarians I have spoken to seem to hold taxation as an absolute evil because (they say) it violates their property rights. They don’t say whether their opposition to tax includes VAT and other indirect taxes or whether it is just direct taxes to which they object. An absolute statement such as “taxation is theft” implies they reject all taxes. It is hard to see how a country without taxation can be governed

      When probed, they will eventually admit to rejecting all forms of government, even democratically elected ones. The corollary is that they reject laws passed by Parliament – they accept only common law as valid. This strand of Libertarianism seems to have some similarity, perhaps connection, to the Freeman on the Land movement. This latter movement deploys pseudo legal jargon which at first blush may be impressive and liberating, especially to people struggling with debt and financial hardship. Respected British barristers and solicitors describe Freemen beliefs as “woo” which I understand means mumbo-jumbo in informal legal lingo.

      Personally, I am open minded about whether taxes should be flat or progressive. My main concern is to defeat the notion that taxation is theft or akin to forced labour. It is a proposition whose absurdity needs exposing.

      Kindest

      The Uxbridge Graduate

      • When probed, they will eventually admit to rejecting all forms of government, even democratically elected ones.

        That’s anarchism. It might be wearing a polo shirt and chinos rather than “Black Blok” regalia, but it isn’t libertarianism. Mind you, even hard-core socialists find Eoin Clarke laughable so it isn’t surprising that there are some ‘radical’ idiots who call themselves “libertarian”. There are also, as Ms Raccoon found out, some real shits …

        The corollary is that they reject laws passed by Parliament – they accept only common law as valid. This strand of Libertarianism seems to have some similarity, perhaps connection, to the Freeman on the Land movement.

        This is moronic or, as you so accurately describe it “Fools on the Loose”. I have run across them before (1, 2 and this one also). I particularly love the Scots ones who don’t seem to get the irony of their insistance on Magna Carta as holy writ.

        I would go as far to say that whereas a Freeman might describe himself as libertarian, that’s only because his understanding of libertarianism is either taken from the USian loony bin (as is Freemoaning) or even weaker than his understanding of the law.

        From my point of view, libertarianism is a combination of JSM-type social liberalism and a market-system view of economics. It is a bit early to tell but http://www.independentlibertarians.com might turn out to be thinking (as your “libertarian” acquaintances clearly are not), and, unlike libertarianpartyuk.com, hopefully shit-free.


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