In an earlier post I addressed the matter of whether taxes are theft or not. In the course of the discussion, I considered that if the citizens consented to the taxes, then they 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 victims. As such, if those taxed voted for the taxes (or voted for representatives who voted for the taxes) then they would have given their consent and such taxes would not, on the face of it, be theft.
This, of course, could be seen as trying to settle one issue by making use of one that is at least as subject to debate. After all, to say that taxes are not theft when they have been properly voted into effect requires assuming that voting provides this consent in a meaningful way.
Obviously enough, if the voting is directly for a tax and everyone votes in favor, then this would be a clear case of consent. Likewise if everyone votes for someone who is clear that they will support a tax, then that would also seem to provide indisputable consent. As everyone knows, such unanimous voting is all but unheard of. This raises the matter of whether those who voted against the tax (or the tax supporter) have given their consent or not.
Intuitively, it would seem that by participating in the voting process, they have thus agreed to abide by the outcome-whether they win or lose. As such, those who vote against a tax (or tax supporter) would have given their consent to the outcome. Those who chose not to vote would also seem to consent as well-by electing not to vote, they have simply set aside their role in the process and not their consent to the process.
This does assume that there are not factors in play that would make the voting questionable, such as the use of fraud and force. It is easy enough to imagine circumstances in which a vote would clearly not count as a matter of consent. However, the discussion is focused on legitimate voting scenarios.
At this point, it might be objected that if voting is based on consent, whenever people vote against something they are showing their lack of consent. Hence, those who voted for a tax or anything (directly or indirectly) have given their consent while those who voted against it have not. As such, if I vote against a tax, when I am forced to pay I am being robbed. If I had voted for it, then I would not be a victim of theft. To use an analogy, suppose I am in a group and people start to decide what they want for dinner. After a vote, most people decide they want to go to Chez Expensive and have the Costly Quiche. I, however, decided I would rather just go home and make some spaghetti and salad. If these other folks decide to take my money to fund their Quiche, then it would certainly seem that they would be endeavoring to rob me.
Since this is an obvious problem, it is hardly surprising that past thinkers addressed this matter. Locke’s approach is to contend that the consent given when forming a community extends to voting. He argues for this by noting that the political body must move one way (we either have a tax or we do not) and it must move ”the way the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority.” If it did not, then the body would be split and the original agreement would be broken.
Naturally, some might contend that the body should split when people disagree. Going back to the quiche example, if some folks want the quiche and I do not, we can simply go our separate ways.
The obvious reply is that while this is sensible in matters involving such minor things as dinner, it would be destructive to society to have the political body break apart over matters of law and policy. This, Locke claims, would be irrational. So, as Locke sees it, the original consent extends to voting and there is also the practical matter of going along with the majority so as to avoid shattering society.
This does lead to a rather serious concern that was perhaps most ably discussed by Mill, namely the tyranny of the majority. The majority (or those who try to pass as the majority) might decide to oppress some of their fellows or do other wicked things. As such, there is clearly a need to place limits on the power of the majority. Mill, being a utilitarian, advocates a utilitarian approach to this matter. As he sees it, the greater good is served by limiting the extent to which the majority can impose on the minority. While Mill does not focus on taxes, he does accept that citizens can be held obligated for “bearing a fair share of common defense or work necessary to the interest of society.”
In regards to the specific matter of taxes, it would seem that if the tax is within the limits of a “fair share”, then it would not be theft to tax someone even if they voted against the tax. However, a tax that went beyond this or had some sort of moral defect could be regarded as theft.
The above discussion does, obviously enough, assume that voting is legitimate. However, this is an assumption that is easy enough to question. Thoreau, for example, claimed that (in his essay on civil disobedience) “voting for the right does nothing for it-it is a feeble expression of the desire that it should prevail. The wise will not leave right to chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.”
Thoreau also addresses the matter of taxes and argues that people should be allowed to decide to not pay their taxes if they decide to withdraw from the political system. He does, however, make a point of saying that people should pay for what they use, such as paying the highway tax if one uses the highway.
This does seem to be consistent approach in the context of the consent theory. After all, if someone completely removes themselves from the political system, they remove their consent. To claim that they consent to the results of the votes made by others would thus seem to be an error. To use an analogy, if I do not join a club, they have no right to expect me to pay their membership fees-no matter how they vote on the matter. Likewise, if I am not part of a state, then the state would have no right to assume my consent merely because other people voted on something they want to impose on me.
This is not to say that the state would have no legitimate power over me. After all, if I tried to commit murder or theft within its borders, then the police would seem to be quite right to stop me.
Thoreau’s approach would require actually leaving the political body and not merely bailing after a particular vote. To use an analogy, if I agree to go out to dinner and pay my share, I have no right to bail out when they check arrives. However, if I have left a group or never joined, they would have no right to expect me to pay if they decide to go out to dinner.
As such, if a person did withdraw from society and agreed not to avail themselves of any of its goods or services without paying for them, then imposed taxes beyond this would be theft on the part of the state. After all, the state would be taking without consent and would be taking what it was, in fact, not truly owed.
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.
In my ethics class, one of the cases the students can select for their papers is about the morality of copying software, movies, music and so on. As I point out in the hints section of that case, a rather important part if the debate hinges on whether such piracy is theft or not. After all, theft is fairly well established (with some notable exceptions) as morally incorrect-or at least morally questionable.
Normally one would expect that a commercial computer game developer would be opposed to the piracy of software. However, Minecraft creator Markus Persson’s stated that “piracy is not theft” at the Game Developers Conference.
Persson’s argument is exactly the sort that I have seen in student papers for years: “Piracy is not theft. If you steal a car, the original is lost. If you copy a game, there are simply more of them in the world.”
This does have a certain appeal. After all, the most obvious sort of harm from theft is that the rightful owner is being denied the use of their property and thus experiences an actual loss. If someone merely copies my software, then they have not deprived me of my copy and hence I am unharmed by this.
This same sort of reasoning would, of course, apply to copying books, theories, formulas, recipes, designs and so on. After all, if I copy the formula for a drug or a philosophical theory, the creator or “owner” still has their formula or theory. On this view, only the taking of physical objects would seem to count as theft-laying aside the science fiction scenarios in which someone could remove an idea from someone’s mind or other such things.
If this is pushed, it might be taken as applying to identity piracy and pirating credit card numbers. After all, if someone pirates your identity or your credit card number, you still possess both. The pirate is merely using what they have pirated, just as the pirate merely uses the pirated software. As such, copying your identity or your credit card number would be piracy rather than theft.
On the face of it, this does seem like an absurd result. If it does really follow from Persson’s principle, then it would show that his principle is flawed. Unless, of course, this result does not follow or it does an one bites the bullet and accepts the results.
The stock reply to the claim that piracy is not theft is that the pirate is stealing a sale and thus harming the person who “owns” what was pirated.
Persson does give a reasonable counter to this objection: “There is no such thing as a ‘lost sale’… Is a bad review a lost sale? What about a missed ship date?”
As he notes, a bad review of a product can play a role in a person not buying it. Also, a missed ship date can also play a role in diminished sales. There are many other things that could play a causal role in a person not buying product. For example, if my book is worse than another competing book, that author will almost certainly play a role in my not selling as many books. If I price my book cheaper than the competition, then that can play a role in their not selling as many books. However, it would be absurd to claim that I am engaged in theft (or being a victim of theft). In more general terms, it would be absurd to claim that I was being subject to unwarranted harm (or being subject to it). If pirating a copy is analogous to these other things, then it would seem to follow that piracy is no worse than they are.
Of course, it could be taken that Persson is arguing that since there is no such thing as a lost sale, then piracy cannot cause a lost sale. Obviously enough, if there are no lost sales, then this certainly follows.
However, there do seem to be some points worth considering. It could be argued that there is such a thing as a lost sale. This would seem to involve showing that but for the factor in question, a purchase would have been made. As noted above, such factors as competing product being better or cheaper could be in that “but for” category and it would be absurd to consider such scenarios theft in a moral or legal sense. As such, what would be needed is a factor that would unjustly result in the lack of a sale.
For example, suppose that you own a company that sells vegetarian food and someone maliciously spreads rumors that your food contains goat testicles. The harm that is done certainly seems to involve the reduction in your sales and this appears to be unjust because it was caused by a lie. As such, it would seem reasonable to regard this action as unethical and you would certainly appear to have reasonable grounds for legal action. Obviously enough, if your competitors lure away your customers with better products or better prices, then you would have no grounds to regard yourself as harmed unjustly. They have a right to compete. However, they have no right to lie.
Piracy certainly seems to be a situation in which revenue is lost via means that are unjust. After all, if I buy Starcraft II rather than a competitor because Strarcraft II is a better game, then that is hardly unjust. However, if I do not buy the competitor because I have pirated it, that seems to be a rather different sort of scenario. Blizzard has the right to compete, but I can hardly claim that I have a right to copy software.
That this is so can be seen in the following analogy involving a test. One way to do well on a test is to “pay” an honest price by going to class and studying. Another way is to simply copy the answers off the person who actually attended class and studies. Obviously, the person copying is not stealing answers in the sense of removing them from the original test, but they have no right to those answers and it would be quite right to prevent them from doing so and punishing them. It would also make sense to regard them as stealing-after all, they are taking what they have not earned. Likewise for pirates.
This distinction does seem to a rather important one, if only on moral grounds.
Samantha Tumpach was recently arrested and jailed. She faces the possibility of three years in prison. Did she assault someone? Rob a store? No, her crime was that while she was filming a birthday event she managed to capture a few minutes of New Moon-a crime for which the movie theater folks had zero tolerance.
Being an author, I am against the theft of intellectual property. After all, as I would regard stealing my work as wrong, I must regard the stealing of others’ work as equally wrong. Also, it is theft and hence most of the moral arguments against stealing apply to this sort of theft as well. As such, people who try to steal movies by copying them in this manner should be subject to punishment.
Being an ethical and rational person, I am against excessive punishment and believe that the purpose of law is to serve the general good. Unthinking obedience to the letter of the law and zero tolerance tends to transform the law from an instrument of the public good to a implement of harm. I am, of course, against that.
To justly punish a person for theft, the thief would seem to be an intentional thief rather than an accidental taker. In this case, Tumpach did not seem to have any intent to steal the film (if she did, then the matter changes considerably) and her “theft” seems to be purely incidental. To use an analogy, it would be like a woman setting her purse down on the counter of a pastry shop and having a pastry stick to it by accident. When she walks out, unaware of the pastry, she is “stealing” the pastry, but it would be unreasonable to call her a thief. Likewise for Tumpach. If her video simply captures the film incidentally and does not show an intent to copy the film, then she should not be considered a thief.
Just punishment also needs to be proportional. After all, punishing a person to a degree that exceeds the wrong she did (and what is needed justly for deterrence) would simply create a new wrong that would need to be rectified. What she did does not seem to have done any meaningful harm to the owners’ of the movie and hence her arrest seems to be an injustice.
Before anyone asks, no I haven’t seen New Moon. I have seen the ads, thus leading me to infer that the werewolves in that film world spend their time in the gym getting buff rather than killing people. No doubt the older werewolves are disappointed.
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Rick Cotton, NBC Universal general counsel, had the following to say: “Society wastes entirely too much money policing crimes like burglary, fraud and bank-robbing when it should be doing something about piracy instead.” He adds that “Our law enforcement resources are seriously misaligned. If you add up all the various kinds of property crimes in this country-everything from theft, to fraud, to burglary and bank robbing, all of it-it costs the country $16 billion a year. But intellectual property crime runs to hundreds of billions a year.” (quoted from “Page-view Syndrome” John C. Dvorak, PC Magazine January 2008 Page 62).
While I suspect that intellectual property crime does not do hundreds of billions of dollars of damage a year, Cotton does raise an interesting point. To be specific, this is the matter of how society should expend its resources in protecting what is of value.
Because of financial and political realities, societies will have limited resources to spend combating crime and protecting what is valuable. From a utilitarian standpoint, the way to determine how to spend resources is a matter of assessing costs and benefits. Put succinctly, society should spend its resources in ways that protect the greatest overall value. It is a matter of rational economics-you want to get the most for your expenditure. The question then arises as to the way the value is to be measured.
One way to do this is by monetary value. This has the advantage of being clearly quantifiable and it also makes intuitive sense to use money as a measure. After all, we will generally measure our expenditures in terms of money. For example, the salary cost of the police and the costs of security measures.
If Cotton’s numbers are right, then we are making a mistake. After all, if property crimes of the non intellectual sort cost a mere $16 billion and intellectual property theft inflicts hundreds of billions of dollars in damages, then we are making a serious mistake. We should be spending more resources on protecting intellectual properties and less on preventing burglary, fraud and bank robbing. However, his claims can be disputed.
One obvious concern is the accuracy of the numbers. Calculating the damage done by intellectual property theft is a tricky matter relative to calculating the theft of tangible goods. If, for example, someone had stolen my Xbox 360, games and accessories when I bought it, I would have lost $550 worth of property. This is because that is what I paid. If people are distributing electronic versions of my book, then I would be losing revenue from sales, but it would be difficult to calculate my loss. To do so, I would need to know how many people had the bootleg copies. I would also need to know how many people would have actually bought the book if they did not get a bootleg copy. Obviously, these numbers would be rather difficult to determine. I don’t claim that his numbers are wrong-just that I am amazed at his apparent certainty.
The most important concern is the matter of value. In terms of money, there is not just the matter of the overall value but also of the relative value and the nature of the harm. Even granting that the crimes Cotton mentions do less overall monetary damage, they almost certainly do more relative damage. To be specific, the injury someone suffers when they are the victim of fraud or have their house stripped of valuables is proportionally worse than the damage done in the case of intellectual theft. After all, the industries that claim to be hardest hit by intellectual property theft seem to still be making massive profits. If they are hurting, that is a pain I think the rest of us would be glad to suffer. Also, there is the nature of the harm done. If someone steals my possessions, I can no longer use them. If someone steals my book, I do lose income but the damage is less. Of course, if my livelihood depended entirely on my book, then the damage would be more serious. But, as noted above, the companies seem to still be making adequate profits.
While money provides a measure of worth, it is not the sole measure of worth. By policing thefts, fraud and robbery society maintains order and protects individuals from harm to both their property and their physical well being. After all, while people generally do not steal intellectual property at gun point or by breaking into a house that is often what happens in the sort of crimes that Cotton seems to regard as less important. Thus, Cotton is in error.