A Philosopher's Blog

Are Taxes Theft?

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 16, 2011
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One underlying theme I have noticed in America’s Tea Party movement (and among other folks as well) is the idea that taxes are a form of theft. Interestingly enough, this idea was also put forth by the anarchists. As the (in)famous anarchist Emma Goldman said “…the State is itself the greatest criminal, breaking every written and natural law, stealing in the form of taxes, killing in the form of war and capital punishment…” However, a negative view of taxes no doubt dates back to the first tax.

The first step of the discussion involves laying out an intuitive and adequate account of theft. Obviously, a merely legal account of theft will not do here. After all, if theft is defined as taking property via illegal means, then taxes would almost never be theft-after all, they tend to be instituted by law. As such, what is needed is a moral definition of theft.

Without getting into torturous semantical details, it seems safe to regard theft (at least in this context) as the the unjustified taking of legitimate property, typically via means such as deceit or force. This definition is, of course, easily subject to criticism as not being a sufficient and necessary definition. However, the discussion does not seem to require such a definition. If it does, however, I trust that someone will be forthcoming with a better one.

Obviously enough, states can engage in theft via taxes. For example, if the unelected dictator of a state sends his lads around to take money and valuables from people using the threat of violence, then that would seem to qualify as theft. My focus will not, however, be on such cases. Rather, I will focus on whether taxes in a democratic state can be justly considered theft or not.

One rather clear case in which taxes cannot be considered theft is the case when the citizens vote directly on a proposed tax. If I, for example, vote in favor of a tax, then that tax would not be theft. After all, part of what makes theft wrong is that it involves a lack of free consent on the part of the victim. If I freely agree to pay, then that is not theft. As another example, if I vote for a politician courageous or crazy enough to admit that she will create a new tax, then I have given my consent and cannot claim to have been robbed.

However, the people who voted against the tax or the politician would seem to have not given their consent. As such, the state would be taking their money without their consent and this would seem to be an act of theft.

The stock reply to this line of reasoning is that when people vote, they agree to abide by the outcome-even if it is not the outcome they want. To refuse to do so would be to break that agreement and it would essentially render voting pointless.

The stock counter to this is to point out that there are situations in which going along with a vote would be to go along with something whose evil would exceed the wrong of breaking the agreement to abide by the vote. For example, if a vote was taken to restore slavery, good people should vote against it and should refuse to accept the return of slavery even if it were voted back into legality. In the case of taxes, the question would be whether the evil of the taxes justifies breaking the agreement to abide by the results of a vote. This, of course, takes the discussion far beyond whether taxes are theft or not and into a discussion of the legitimacy of voting. However, if the evil of the taxes justified rejecting the vote, then it would seem that if the state imposed the taxes on the unwilling, then the state would be engaged in theft. The challenge is, of course, showing that the evil of the tax warrants what amounts to rebellion against the state.

Another type of case in which taxes cannot be considered theft is when the taxes are payments for goods and services. For example, if I pay a tax that pays for the roads I drive on, then I am hardly being robbed. To use an analogy, if I have a meal at a restaurant and the bill is brought, it would be absurd of me to cry out that I am a victim of theft because I am being forced to pay for my meal. If I did not pay, I would be the thief.

While this line of reasoning is appealing, people generally pay taxes that are used to pay for goods and services that they themselves do not use or oppose. As such, this justification would seem to fail in such cases. For example, a family that pays for its children to go to a private school would not be using the public schools that their tax dollars support. As such, it would seem that they are being robbed-provided that they do not want to pay these taxes. As another example, someone who is morally opposed to abortion could claim that they are being robbed if some of their taxes are used to pay for abortions. As a final example, someone who opposes war or corporate subsidies could argue that they are being robbed when their tax dollars are used in such ways.

To use an analogy, if I go to a restaurant and I am billed for food I did not order, want or eat, then I would be robbed if I were forced to pay. Likewise for  taxes.

One stock reply to this is that people might think that they do not benefit from what they are paying for, they actually are receiving benefits and hence are paying for goods and services rather than being robbed. For example, the family that does not want to pay for public schools does benefit from having these schools in existence. Of course, this only holds when the taxpayer is, in fact, receiving a benefit.

A second stock reply is that even if the taxpayer is not receiving a direct benefit, they are contributing to the general good or, at least, helping others who are in need. The standard reply to this is that people should be able to decide whether they want to contribute to the general good or help others. To use an analogy, if someone steals from me so as to donate the money to a charity, they are still robbing me. This, of course, takes the discussion from the specific matter of taxes to the more general question of what we owe to others. If people owe nothing to the general good or to others, then a case could be made that taxes that aim at these goals would be theft. This sort of argument would be based on the lack of consent as well as the lack of a moral obligation to provide support in such cases.

There is, of course, a great deal of appeal to the idea that people should only pay taxes that yield benefits to them or that they are morally obligated to pay. Going back to the analogy of the bill, I should pay for what I receive or use, but not beyond that-unless I wish to do so. As such, it could be inferred that taxes that go beyond this would thus be theft for they would involve taking from me without my consent and taking beyond what I owe. Avoiding this would seem to require a tax system that is modeled on a billing system and a volunteer charity system: we would pay for what we used and decide to donate (or not) to what we do not actually use. Working out what each person owes (financially and morally) would be a rather challenging matter, but does seem to be something that could be done. As far as the financial part, companies and businesses already seem to have worked out a system of billing and this could be applied to the state as well. As far as the moral aspects of what we owe, that seems to be something that must be worked out (as a practical matter) via politics. This process will likely result in people being required to pay for things they do not use or agree with, but this would seem to be part of the price of being a citizen of a democracy. This, naturally enough, leads to the questions about voting-but that is a tale for another time.

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26 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on March 16, 2011 at 8:53 am

    Let’s widen our perspective a bit. In the first place, Tea Partiers want a smaller and less expansive government–not no government–and are perfectly willing to pay for it. So to ascribe to them the view that they are against all taxes is a straw man. Secondly, as a slogan, “taxes are theft” could easily be interpreted to mean that high tax rates will rob our children of a prosperous future, which is another worry of the Tea Party (which by and large consists of middle class married folks with kids).

  2. anonfred said, on March 16, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Are taxes theft? This would seem on topic: I heard a local talk show host say “taxes are the opposite of freedom”.

    Someone should remind this fellow of one of the many weakness of the Articles of Confederation:

    “The U.S. Congress didn’t have the power of levying taxes on its citizens, and therefore it was dependent on state donations which were decided on the basis of the total value of land of these states. The power to levy taxes rested in the hands of individual state governments, and thus Congress was left with no concrete measure of bringing about the necessary order in the financial system.”
    http://www.buzzle.com/articles/weaknesses-of-the-articles-of-confederation.html

    “. . .in reality, however, the Articles gave the Congress no power to enforce its requests to the states for money or troops, and by the end of 1786 governmental effectiveness had broken down. ”
    “In addition, the new nation was unable to defend its borders from British and Spanish encroachment because it could not pay for an army when the states would not contribute the necessary funds.”
    http://www.barefootsworld.net/aoc1777.html

    It’s indeed hard to imagine how much freedom we’d have 220+ years later if our federal government were still unable to raise taxes, or “enforce its requests to the states for taxes”.

    “John Jay. . .said that taxes were ‘the price of liberty, the peace and safety of yourselves and posterity’ John Jay: Founding Father by Walter Stahr
    Obviously, at leastone FF didn’t agree with our local talk show “expert”.

    Are taxes theft? Heck, no. Just as the Articles were a necessary tool immediately after the revolution–a tool that needed to be reexamined and reworked (our Constitution) — so the colonies could survive in the new , free post-British world, taxes are simply a necessary tool that , from time to time, must be reexamined and reworked, and applied in new ways in a new world. Let’s do that reexamining and reworking instead of whining about our pockets being picked.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on March 16, 2011 at 10:16 am

    Facts are stubborn things:

    Typically, the well educated are less racist than the general public. Thus, the revelation that those who hold the quintessential Tea Party view (believing that the government in Washington is doing too much) are better educated on average than the general public should raise problems for the idea that they are racist as well. Indeed, the data show that small-government advocates are less racist on average than the general public.

    http://dailycaller.com/2011/03/15/ron-schiller-is-wrong-people-who-want-small-government-are-not-racist/

    • Asur said, on March 16, 2011 at 3:01 pm

      I may be living under a rock, but I haven’t heard anything about the Tea Party being racist.

      On another note, small-government advocates being better educated that the general public wouldn’t raise any problems for saying Tea Partiers are more racist that average, even if the well-educated tend to not be racist.

      Here’s the actual argument you’re giving:

      Some E are not R
      Some T are E
      Therefore, some T are not R

      Where “E” is people who are well-educated, “R” is people who tend to be racist, and “T” is small-government advocates.

      Since some T are not R does not necessarily follow, it can’t be used as a premise for a further claim.

  4. WTP said, on March 16, 2011 at 11:58 am

    One underlying theme I have noticed from the political left (and among other folks as well) is the idea that property is theft. Interestingly enough, this idea was also put forth by the communists.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/michael-moore-wisconsin-natural-resource-video-2011-3

    • anonfrk said, on March 16, 2011 at 2:13 pm

      It’s all a bit more complicated than this, isn’t it? Social Security rests on the foundation that our money must be collected for the benefit of the elderly poor, survivors, and disabled. That ‘property’ is,ostensibly, collected/taken for the common good (who among Average Americans can be certain that, at some point, he/she will not be among the elderly poor, survivors or disabled?). A very recent Roper poll (It’s commissioned by AARP—but not to worry. It’s unlikely that the findings are cooked like Moody’s and S&P’s bond ratings were leading up to the financial crisis :( ) finds strong support for SS among the young. And this article in WSJ

      http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704728004576176741120691736.html?mod=djemalertNEWS

      indicates broad support nationwide for taking property to fund SS.
      But, still,about 20% of the population see SS as an unfair taking of their property. “It’s my money.” was a common refrain among those who argued for Bush’s privatization of SS.

      Wonder how the guy who “works for the defense contractor” got the education/training to qualify for his job? Mr. Baseball-Cap-Worn-Backwards-Glasses-Beard admits he must be crap (“Fine, I am” )since he’s a product of our educational system. Perhaps he should contract out to someone else his attempt to defend his point of view.

  5. Asur said, on March 16, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    I think a necessary and sufficient definition of theft would be helpful: theft is the intentional acquisition of another’s property against their will.

    This definition reveals that taxation of the unwilling is, indeed, theft — everywhere, that is, except in a democracy, where, as you point out, elected representatives proxy the will of their constituents by definition.

    The counter you offer to this, that if breaking this agreement is the lesser of two evils then we should break it, is both absolutely true and not contradictory to the above position; one could unproblematically believe both that voting implies agreement to abide by the result of the vote and that some things are more important than that agreement.

  6. T. J. Babson said, on March 16, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    A proud Babson lineage:

    http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-03/gravitys-sworn-enemy-roger-babson-and-gravity-research-foundation

    Babson was the first financial forecaster to predict the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent economic depression.. He did so using an economic assessment technique called the Babsonchart, which he largely based on Newton’s Third Law – every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

    In 1940, Babson ran for President of the United States and came in fourth. He was a lifelong friend of Thomas Edison’s. Oh, and he also wrote 47 books.

    Yet there is a dark side:

    Despite his status as an extraordinarily successful businessman and Mr. American everyman, Babson was also—there’s no other word for it—a crackpot. Throughout his life, he had major beef with, of all things, the force of gravity. In a 1948 essay entitled “Gravity – Our Enemy Number One,” he explained that the grudge traced back to his childhood, when his sister drowned in a swimming accident. “Yes, they say she was “drowned”, but the fact is that … she was unable to fight Gravity which came up and seized her like a dragon and brought her to the bottom. There she smothered and died from lack of oxygen.”

  7. T. J. Babson said, on March 16, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Fiscal responsibility is, at bottom, moral responsibility.

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/03/16/its_time_to_face_the_budgetary_reality_109245.html

    This point would seem obvious, except that too often the fiscal policy debate seems to be divided between grinch-like deficit hawks and caring big spenders. The progressive case for worrying about the debt too often goes unmade, and the players forget: Fiscal responsibility is, at bottom, moral responsibility. Fiscal crises are ultimately human crises.

  8. Morgan Parker said, on March 16, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Nice read. Interestingly I was just talking about this with someone yesterday. On a little tangent, we got to talking about income tax specifically.
    As a little food for thought:
    On the topic of benefit (we were thinking)–if the state is going to make you pay a certain amount of money in taxes, what if each taxpayer were able to individually decide to what that money was allocated? It seems that it would, at least to some extent, solve the problem of people feeling like they are paying for services etc. that they either find reprehensible or useless to them.

    • Anonymous said, on March 16, 2011 at 4:45 pm

      Well, given the opportunity, it’s possible that someone like Leona Helmsley (“We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes…”) may have allocated a significant portion of her taxes to her dog. That would be no way to run a country. :(

      • Morgan Parker said, on March 16, 2011 at 5:49 pm

        Naturally, you would have set choices of allocation. Money would have to be given to public projects/works/institutions etc. I don’t think it would really be a tax if you could pay your dog or your spouse, for example.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 16, 2011 at 6:30 pm

          I think one’s dog should be a tax option. My husky agrees and is working on a comprehensive treat plan to be funded by the federal government.

          • Morgan Parker said, on March 17, 2011 at 3:13 am

            My sheltie asked me if I could put her in touch with your dog. She is quite interested in the details of such a treat plan.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 17, 2011 at 7:18 pm

              Of course. Dogs are the original PACs (Political Action Canines). “Let them eat…treats!”

        • frk said, on March 17, 2011 at 8:41 am

          I want to be on the committee crafting this tax change. Dogs are out; cats are in. Why? Cats are inscrutable. Ihey’re independent. They eat less. They’re easier to care for. It’s a more efficient use of our tax dollars in nearly every way. Not to mention the fact that our sidewalks would be cleaner.

          • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 17, 2011 at 7:15 pm

            But dogs are loyal and would share. Cats will just poop on their loot.

            • frk said, on March 17, 2011 at 7:42 pm

              At least my cats have the decency to cover their own poop :) (and there’s less of it ‘cuz they eat less). You have to pick up after your dog. . . You do pick up after him, don’t you?

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 17, 2011 at 8:01 pm

              Once they have their federal money, they will poop in your hat.

              Of course, I clean up after my dog. I have a little container of Publix produce bags on her leash (they are awesome for that). But, cleaning up after cats is pretty bad-scooping clumps is about as yucky as bagging. I need some sort of robot (iPoopscooper) to handle this sort of stuff.

            • frk said, on March 17, 2011 at 8:17 pm

              If you want to take the yuck out of scoopin’ da poo, you have to pony up a bit more dinero for the hard-clumping litter.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 18, 2011 at 12:35 pm

              I do have the name brand clumping litter. But, as with politicians, no matter how you you shovel it, it is still sh@t. :)

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 16, 2011 at 6:28 pm

      That is an interesting idea and would be rather consistent with the idea of democracy.

      One concern, however, is that rather important services might get underfunded because people chose not to allocate money to them. Of course, it could be replied that if people do not want to fund such things adequately, then that is how it should be. Democracy, after all, is about choice and not about the best decision.

      Another option might be to include on the tax forms the sort of thing they put on the vehicle registration forms here: you can pick various charities and programs to which to donate. Perhaps each citizen could have the option of allocating 10-20% of their taxes to various programs on the tax forms.

      • frk said, on March 17, 2011 at 9:04 am

        All’s well as long as decisions are made about which monies “must” be collected. Cash for defense. No doubt. Cash for highways. Probably. Cash for education? Perhaps. Money for social programs? A tougher call. And so on down the list of items the federal government currently collects taxes for.

        One of the problems with the Articles of Confederation : Some states “chose” not to pay their taxes and the federal government had no power to collect them. No way to get money to pay veterans of the Revolution. No way to maintain an army for national defense. As you say, “Democracy, after all, is about choice and not about the best decision.” Post-Revolution, pre-Constitution too many states were willing to make the choice and permitted by the Articles to do so. They made the wrong decision. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and the Articles were trashed in favor of a more sensible document.

  9. A J MacDonald Jr said, on March 16, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    I think of it like this . . . there are only two political perspectives rulers have of the ruled: 1) they treat their subjects as mature adults, or 2) they treat their subjects as children.

    These two perspectives were recognized years ago (well over 2,000) and have persisted throughout history unto this very day . . .

    “The question, of course, is whether subjects shall be assumed to be dependent upon rulers, as children must be dependent upon their parents, or whether they shall be assumed to be responsible and self-governing” [George H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory, Third Edition, by (Holt, Rinehart, Winston, Inc., 1937, 1950, 1961) pp. 72-73]

    Because of this, there are also only two ways that rulers think of their subject’s property: 1) they (the rulers) think of themselves as the stewards of their subject’s property, allowing them to have (keep) what they believe is best for them (and for the ruler); or 2) the ruler believes their subject’s property belongs to their subjects, and takes from them (taxes them) no more property than is necessary.

    • frk said, on March 18, 2011 at 8:44 am

      And the third way: The ruler and his advisers argue incessantly over what is meant by “no more property than is necessary.”


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