Friday, March 8, 2013

Theft and Taxes

I received this short and to the point comment on a post I made on Google+ recently regarding the difference between subsidies and tax breaks: 

Ah, it's the same old 'taxes are theft' horseshit. Your kind never gets tired of that malarkey.
This caused me to stop and think.  Is the idea that "taxes are theft" malarkey or is there some basis for it in reality?

First, what exactly is theft?  Unfortunately we cannot simply go to the dictionary and find out in one quick look because the main definition of theft doesn't tell us very much.  (All definitions come from  
The dictionary defines theft as "the act of stealing," which is not terribly helpful.  Referring back to the dictionary, we find that stealing is, "to take the property of another or others without permission or right, especially secretly or by force."  That helps, but what does it mean to do something by force?  Back to the dictionary where we find that force is “unlawful violence threatened or committed against persons or property”, “the power to influence or control”, and when used as a verb “to coerce.”

With that we have a pretty clear definition of theft:

To take the property of another or others without permission or right, either secretly or through the threat or commission of violence against their person or property.
Does our definition reflect the reality we observe when we see theft?  

“Your money or your life!”  says the mugger as he brandishes a gun or a knife.
“I have a gun, put all money in an envelope, no dye packs, no alarms, no one will get hurt,” says the bank robber’s note. These examples of what I think of as “confrontational” theft certainly fit our definition.  The thief is attempting to take the victim’s property without permission by the threat of injury.

Thefts such as burglary, pick pocketing, fraud and other crimes that I think of as “non-confrontational” also fit the definition as the property is being taken without the knowledge of the victim.  In the case of fraud, it is being taken by deceiving the victim as to the nature of the reality of the situation.

Now that we have a clear idea of what theft is, let’s take a look at taxes.  Taxes are defined as "a compulsory financial contribution imposed by a government to raise revenue."  We should clarify what is meant by compulsory, which is defined as "required by regulations or laws; obligatory."  We have two choices here to clarify things - required or obligatory.  They both get is to the same place, obliged.  The definition for oblige is "to bind or constrain (someone to do something) by legal, moral, or physical means."  Constrain in turn brings us to compel which is defined as "to secure or bring about by force."    With force we are back to ground already covered in the discussion about theft.

After this, our definition of tax has become: 

The transfer of money to the government under a declared, or implied, intention to inflict legal, moral or physical punishment for failure to comply.  

As with theft, we need to look at some real examples of taxes to see whether our definition matches reality.  While there are many types of taxes they are similar in many respects.  They all involve the transfer of money to the government and they all carry the threat of punishment for failure to do so.  For property taxes, the threat is the loss of your property even if you own it without mortgage or other claim against it.  With sales taxes, individuals have no choice whether or not to pay them, but if the merchant fails to collect them and remit them to the government they can face, in Vermont, up to $10,000 in fines and 3 years in jail, depending on the amount involved.  Similarly, failure to pay income taxes can lead to monetary penalties, forfeiture of property and jail time.  

So in both theft and tax, we have a transfer of property from one person or group to another under the threat, explicitly stated or implied, of punishment.  In neither case do we need to consider what the transferred property will be used for, the victim only cares that he no longer has his property.  Also, we do not need to consider whether the government has the right to take your property or whether their use of force is lawful.  If the government has a right to part of your property, they have a right to all of it and simply haven’t decided to take it.  Yet.  As to lawful, well, who writes the laws?

In order to flourish, individuals must have a right to their property, to use and dispose of it as they see fit.   This right is not something granted by the government, but arises from the basic necessity of life.  If you lived on a desert island, you have to work to stay alive.  You would need to gather the goods necessary for your survival, be it food, materials to create shelter, tools, clothing and etc.  Imagine if periodically a canoe arrived at your island and strangers came and took part of your food, raw materials, tools, clothing, and destroyed your shelter.  If this continued, you could not flourish on your island and, if they took enough, your very survival would be in jeopardy.

It is no different in modern society.  If you do not have the right to use and dispose of your property in the way that you see fit, you are in exactly the same position as on the deserted island.  When someone else is able to take some or all of your property to dispose of how they see fit, your chances for thriving and even surviving will certainly be in question.

The Founding Fathers recognized this fundamental right of the individual and secured it in our founding documents.   The Declaration of Independence states, "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."   Liberty and the pursuit of happiness require that man be free to work, to keep the fruits of his labor, and to dispose of them as he sees fit.  Further, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution says, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated."  While this is most often quoted in terms of criminal matters, it can also be read as affirming the right of an individual to keep his property.  The Fifth Amendment contains similar language - "shall not be deprived of life, liberty or property" and "nor shall private property be taken for public use."

As the Founders noted, these rights are unalienable, i.e. they cannot be separated from the individual by any means.  We recognize, for example, that we have the right to freedom of speech regardless of whether a majority of the people disagree with what we are saying, as long as the exercise of that right does not demonstrably injure another person (the classic example of crying fire in a crowded movie theater).  In the same way, we have the right to use and dispose of our property in any manner that we choose regardless of what others may think, as long as such use does not demonstrably injure another person or actually damage their property.  

It is obvious that theft is a violation of the victim's rights and immoral.  It should also be obvious that taxes are violations of individual rights and immoral, and for the same reasons.  The fact that the government, the majority, or some group currently in power has decided that taxes are legal and "necessary" does  not make them any less so.



  1. Good post. All valid points, and I agree with your premise of taxation as legalized theft, but how would you answer the question of how a government could gather the resources (money) necessary for the fulfillment of it's Constitutional obligations? National defense, courts, etc.

    Could the people be depended on to voluntarily submit the necessary amount of money? One of the greatest arguments I've ever heard for tax reform is the proposal to eliminate withholding and require each citizen to actually write the check once a month or quarter. That would certainly drive home the true cost of our over-large entitlement state.

  2. Yaron Brook has a great 4 minute video that talks about how government might be funded in the absence of coercive taxation.

    If the government was restricted to its Constitutional obligations of national defense, police force and the courts, the amount needed would be quite a bit smaller. Yaron says it would be 90-95% smaller, though I am not sure it would be quite that small, but even if it is double that, we'd be looking today at $700 billion to fund the government.

    In 2012, charitable giving in the United States was $300 billion, and that was in addition to $2.5 trillion in taxes paid, so I do not think it would be unreasonable to expect that the majority of people would be willing to freely contribute to the government when they knew that the only thing the money would be used for would be to protect their rights.

    Yaron also mentions things like using fees for service, pay a small % fee to ensure your contract can be enforced in court for example, and using social pressure to help ensure everyone contributes some minimal amount to support the government. In a free society, businesses and individuals would be free to choose not to deal with people who are free riding on the system. This would be a pretty powerful incentive.

    Just think about how Mom reacts to reading the delinquent tax list in the town report, saying she would work at McDonald's before she'd let herself appear on that list. I'm sure she isn't alone in feeling that way.

  3. I like the "fee for service" idea. As far as mom not wanting to be on the delinquent roles, for far too many today, shame is a null concept. As Don and Yaron point out in "Free Market Revolution", getting to a point of true capitalism is going to be a process of decades. People will have to be (I hate to use the term) re-educated on the virtues of hard work and personal responsibility and the avoidance of the potential shame of not meeting their responsibilities is/was a powerful incentive.

    1. True, but I think that would pretty quickly change once we ever got to anything approaching a true capitalist society. Especially if it wasn't just shame but actual consequences for it.

      As Yaron says in the video, imagine if a business refused to deal with you if you were on the "free rider list"? Or maybe charge you higher prices because of it?