Libertarianism: Is Taxation Theft?

At there is an article written by Michael Huemer, extensively arguing that taxation is theft.

I will ignore the part of the arguments which I think are just a waste of time. I am not going to defend the argument that taxation is okay, because it is useful. Even as someone who favors taxation, I don’t believe that is a sensible argument.

First Argument

This is about citizens being part of a social contract, which is an argument I support. Michael Huemer responds with:

There simply isn’t any such contract.3 The government has never actually written up and offered such a contract, nor has anyone signed it.

Which is a rather ridiculous argument, given the definition of a social contract (New Oxford Dictionary:

social contract : an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection. Theories of a social contract became popular in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries among theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as a means of explaining the origin of government and the obligations of subjects.

In other words, a social contract by its very definition is not something written up and signed.

It is in particular bizarre given Huemer’s reply two the second, where he seems to have no problem dealing with unwritten laws, but I will get into those detail later.

Instead lets elaborate a bit on why no society or human relation can exist without implicit unwritten laws. Children have to abide to numerous laws set by their parents despite never signing a contract agreeing to the terms.

It is sensible to point out that children are not capable of making rational choices on their own behalf but rely on parents making sensible choices for them.

This pertains to society at large. You enter a society as an infant with no ability to survive on your own, or make any rational choices about whether you want to be part of that society or not. However as you grow up in that society you benefit from the many services it provided by taxes: police, fire fighters, public transport, health care etc. You get these benefits because there is an assumption that you will repay through taxes as you grow older.

Perhaps an even simpler way of looking at this, is that you have essentially signed the social contract, when you become citizen. Society gives you something very valuable, called citizenship, in return it makes a number of demands on you. If you move to a country and go through the motions of becoming citizen, it is sensible that you accept the laws of the land including paying taxes.

Most citizens of course never moved to the country they are citizens of. They were born there and got citizenship because their parents are citizens and lived there as well. I struggle with imagining the libertarian protest to this. What is the alternative? That infants are treated as individuals making choices about citizenship upon birth?

Second Argument

The second argument turns on the claims (i) that there are no property rights independent of government laws, and (ii) that the government can create property rights simply by declaring that something belongs to someone. There is no obvious reason to believe either (i) or (ii), and both claims are counter-intuitive.

Despite claiming there are no such thing as unwritten contracts Huemer goes on to argue that:

imagine that you travel to a remote region outside any government’s jurisdiction, where you find a hermit living off the land. The hermit hunts with a spear of his own making, which you find interesting. You decide (without the hermit’s consent) to take the spear with you when you leave. It would seem correct to say that you “stole” the spear. This shows the implausibility of (i).

Which ironically counters his reply to the first argument. However there are numerous flaws with his analogy which we can point out.

Huemer here assumes some sort of universal truth about what is property and theft. However history if full of examples of Europeans meeting indigenous people, whether Inuits or Native Americans and getting in conflict due to radically different concepts of property rights. British Polar explorers e.g. would end up punishing Inuits with whipping for “stealing.”

However to Inuits it was not stealing as their view of property was closer to that of a socialism. Property was communally owned.

And even in societies where personal belongings have property rights attached to them, land is often not something that can be owned. A native American may own his clothes and bow, but he did not own the land he hunted on or consider it owned by any other individual. An era may be lonely defined as hunting grounds for a particular tribe, but that is quite far away from western style property rights.

You may claim to own some bow or clothes because you put in effort to make that yourself, or traded it for something else of value. However upon reflection it is somewhat absurd that an individual can claim ownership of a waterfall, the animals that grass on a plot of land and the trees and plants that happen to grow there. With what right, do we claim ownership of other living things such as animals?

When governments grant property rights, it is not absolute ownership of everything on that plot of land. You really just pay for the right to engage in certain activities such as planting and harvesting. It may not include exploiting minerals resources or waterfalls. You may not own the water that flows through your property.

You are not free to pollute the land you “own” or murder people at your discretion. The government has not given you absolute tyrannical rule over a plot of land. Your deed, only allows you to exploit the land in a limited fashion.

Imagine if land ownership was absolute: You would own all the air above your land and all the grown below it in infinite distance. That is just plain absurd. There is something almost religious about libertarians in their absolutism.

This would have meant flying over private lands, or building subways would be next to impossible.

The Bizarre Conclusion of Taxation is Theft

The implication of taxation as theft, for the libertarian mind is as bizarre as the reasoning for claiming it is theft in the first place:

Why, then, does it matter whether taxation is theft? Because although theft can be justified, it is usually unjustified. It is wrong to steal without having a very good reason. What count as good enough reasons is beyond the scope of this short article. But as an example, you are not justified in stealing money, say, so that you can buy a nice painting for your wall. Similarly, if taxation is theft, then it would probably be wrong to tax people, say, to pay for an art museum.

The problem with this reasoning is that, most cases where we justify a crime such as killing someone, we are dealing with an extreme and sudden situation.

However most of the necessary operations of government do not have an immediate emergency. If you shut down the whole military it would not immediately cause problems. In fact it could take decades before it becomes a problem. It may even never become a problem.

Can you really justify stealing bread, “just in case I get hungry in the future?”

Closing down government inspection of foods and drugs will likely not cause immediate problems. Over time however problems will start to mount.

Even if one could somehow justify a continued expense being paid for by a crime, that moral framework makes it impossible to reason about a sensible size of any government operation. You should only steal the bare minimum to survive. By that token an army beyond the bare minimum of defense is immoral. A police force beyond the bare minimum to avoid society from breaking down is a crime.

It leaves no room for citizens to say: I’d like to pay more taxes to get better government services. There is really no place for politics and democracy left, as merely suggesting a spending increase above the bare minimum on any service is considered immoral.

There is also something absurd about the whole approach. If citizens have to steal on a regular basis to survive, the response is not simply, we must tolerate it. Rather the response tends to be that society needs to come up with aid or encourage a more fair distribution of resources.

If people have to kill each other on a regular basis to survive, then the response is not to say: “Oh we must just tolerate this.” No, the response will be a push for more security. It is absurd to have a society built upon a daily execution of a crime against every citizen.

And finally it approaches metaphysical nonsense of cultish dimensions. From the perspective of the laws of nature, there are no such things as good, evil, beautiful, ugly to theft. These are human concepts and as such as not perfectly well defined. The concepts exist because they are useful in dealing with our every day life. Abstracting across many phenomenon and putting a label on it, makes it easier for humans to navigate the world and talk about the world.

Theft has been made into a concept, because it encompasses a variety of actions which are highly undesirable to a lot of people. Somebody is wronged. This ought to be a clue to how nutty the liberation concept of theft is. They are claiming that billions of people on this planet are wronged regularly by the government. Yet the great majority of these people do not feel wronged. In fact they are willingly and peacefully handing the money over. There is not any protest.

Would you not consider it very bizarre if people who got their house robbed did not complain about it? Would it not be evne more bizarre if those robbed deemed it a necessity to be robbed?

This analogy of taxes as theft clearly does not work, because it has none of the experience or implications of what theft is like in the real world.

In a lot of ways the concept reminds me a lot of the communist insistence that all workers are exploited wage slaves. It may make sense in a poor developed country, but when well paid workers in say a Nordic country, with 8 hour days, plenty of vacation and autonomy at work are called exploited wage slaves, it does not make sense.

It displays the problem when you theorize concepts such as exploitation and theft too much, and detach yourself from reality.



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Erik Engheim

Erik Engheim

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.