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Does Taxation equal Theft?

Written on 19 July 2003

On the Australian Libertarian Web site, a combative Clever Dick has taken to task 24601 for declaring that taxation equals theft. Mr Dick correctly relates a number of dictionary definitions, emphasising their requirement that theft be unlawful. Taxes are, of course, duly passed by Parliament and are therefore by definition lawful. Sideshow Bob says that that's all well and good, but taxes are morally equivalent to theft.

The ALS site crashed before I could follow the thread to the end, so I went surfing elsewhere. My very first stop was at BrothersJudd.Com where I stumbled across a lengthy quotation from Albert Jay Nock's 1928 Anarchist's Progress (incredibly, the Judds' Blogger links seem to work). What do I find? The essay deals with precisely this, plus related, questions. It is worth quoting some sections of this here (my emphases).

Once, I remember, I ran across the case of a boy who had been sentenced to prison, a poor, scared little brat, who had intended something no worse than mischief, and it turned out to be a crime. The judge said he disliked to sentence the lad; it seemed the wrong thing to do; but the law left him no option. I was struck by this. The judge, then, was doing something as an official that he would not dream of doing as a man; and he could do it without any sense of responsibility, or discomfort, simply because he was acting as an official and not as a man. On this principle of action, it seemed to me that one could commit almost any kind of crime without getting into trouble with one's conscience. Clearly, a great crime had been committed against this boy; yet nobody who had had a hand in it -- the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, the complaining witness, the policemen and jailers -- felt any responsibility about it, because they were not acting as men, but as officials. Clearly, too, the public did not regard them as criminals, but rather as upright and conscientious men.

The idea came to me then, vaguely but unmistakably, that if the primary intention of government was not to abolish crime but merely to monopolize crime, no better device could be found for doing it than the inculcation of precisely this frame of mind in the officials and in the public; for the effect of this was to exempt both from any allegiance to those sanctions of humanity or decency which anyone of either class, acting as an individual, would have felt himself bound to respect -- nay, would have wished to respect. This idea was vague at the moment, as I say, and I did not work it out for some years, but I think I never quite lost track of it from that time. [...]

As for the people around me, their attitudes seemed strangest of all. They all disparaged politics. Their common saying, "Oh, that's politics," always pointed to something that in any other sphere of action they would call shabby and disreputable. But they never asked themselves why it was that in this one sphere of action alone they took shabby and disreputable conduct as a matter of course. It was all the more strange because these same people still somehow assumed that politics existed for the promotion of the highest social purposes. They assumed that the State's primary purpose was to promote through appropriate institutions the general welfare of its members.

This assumption, whatever it amounted to, furnished the rationale of their patriotism, and they held to it with a tenacity that on slight provocation became vindictive and fanatical. Yet all of them were aware, and if pressed, could not help acknowledging, that more than 90 per cent of the State's energy was employed directly against the general welfare. Thus one might say that they seemed to have one set of credenda for week-days and another for Sundays, and never to ask themselves what actual reasons they had for holding either. [...]

Yet none of the anomalies that I had been observing ever raised any enquiry about the nature and original intention of the State. They were merely acquiesced in. At most, they were put down feebly to the imperfections of human nature which render mismanagement and perversion of every good institution to some extent inevitable; and this is absurd [...]

Everyone knows that the State claims and exercises the monopoly of crime that I spoke of a moment ago, and that it makes this monopoly as strict as it can. It forbids private murder, but itself organizes murder on a colossal scale. It punishes private theft, but itself lays unscrupulous hands on anything it wants, whether the property of citizen or of alien. There is, for example, no human right, natural or Constitutional, that we have not seen nullified by the United States Government. Of all the crimes that are committed for gain or revenge, there is not one that we have not seen it commit -- murder, mayhem, arson, robbery, fraud, criminal collusion and connivance. On the other hand, we have all remarked the enormous relative difficulty of getting the State to effect any measure for the general welfare. [...]

Nock says all this much better than I or, I daresay, 24601 could. But neither an elegance of phrase nor a vintage publication date proves the point. That point is, of course, that not only is taxation equivalent to theft, but that many other actions committed by the state would, if committed by individuals, be crimes.

The only point to which Mr Dick drew our attention which distinguishes taxation from theft is that it is lawful. But does this make it acceptable?

Mr Dick, if I have been reading him correctly, is an enthusiast for utility. I am not. I certainly adopt utility from time to time as a debating stance, but I am uncomfortable with grounding my libertarian philosophy wholly in utility for the simple reason that there is no reason in principle why utility must necessarily be just. When weighing my conception of justice against utility, I prefer the former.

Minarchists (reluctant, such as myself -- for reasons only of utility! -- and philosophical, such as Objectivists) support the existence of a government only to secure limited property and security rights for individuals. Not to maximise utility. If we see that government has taken it upon itself to take money that we would rather not give for other reasons, then the money is taken without our consent. A robber may threaten a beating or a shooting, a government threatens an incarceration or dispossession of property.

We do not give our consent for the value that we have personally created to be taken and given to, say, an artist on a government grant; or to a business venture as a subsidy; or to the many recipients of churning welfare systems.

To us, these actions are not legitimate. They are, perhaps, lawful, as it was lawful for the properly constituted National Socialist government in 1930s Germany to mark Jews; as it is for the properly constituted Communist government of today's China to incarcerate homosexuals and those who do no more than publish their doubts about the justice of that government. We are lucky enough to live under a properly constituted democratic government that for the most part limits itself to laws that are somewhat tolerable by the majority. But the mere fact that those laws exist does not make them just, does not make them moral.

So, to me at least, 24601 is quite right when he says that taxation is morally the same as theft.

© 2003 - Stephen Dawson