Tax Doesn’t Equal Theft, but if It Did, the Point Is Still Irrelevant

There are a lot of reasons tax isn’t theft. The quickest and least satisfying answer is that theft is by definition illegal, and taxes are by definition legal in most countries that I know of. In the US, Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gives the Federal government the legal right and ability to raise taxes, and it does not limit this right to sales taxes.

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States

Of course not everything legal is ethical and not everything ethical is legal. Most people, though, would agree that collecting taxes for the purpose of defense and promoting the common good is perfectly ethical. It is true that governments often misuse taxes for things that aren’t for the common good, but that is an argument against the government using tax revenue irresponsibly, not against the concept of taxes. I fully agree politicians and governments should be held accountable for misusing tax dollars. If only people were competent enough to vote for the politicians that would help them.

People subscribing to the tax-equals-theft philosophy define theft in several ways that are meaningfully equivalent to one-another: “taking money through coercion,” “taking money against someone’s will,” “taking of something of value without the consent of the owner.” They define theft this way so they can define tax into the theft category. The problem is that when property/money taken through coercion is your only requirement to define something as theft, many things which objectively aren’t theft can be defined that way.

Tax-equals-theft person’s definition of theft

For example, a tenant who no longer wants to pay rent. A person comes to a landlord looking for lodging. The landlord draws up a contract that they both agree to it at that point in time. The contract stipulates that if the tenant ceases payment to the landlord that landlord will take legal action, the threat of eviction, or other justified legal coercive means to force the tenant to pay their rent. What happens after this agreement is made when, at a future date, the tenant withdraws consent to pay rent and will no longer willfully give the landlord rent money? Based on the tax-equals-theft camp’s absurdly broad and unrestricted definition of theft, the landlord’s coercive legal responses to make the tenant pay their rent now against their will would be theft because at that later point in time, the landlord no longer has the tenant’s consent. Coercion doesn’t cease being coercion because you agreed to its potential use against you at some point in the past.

I’m not making the argument that paying rent is theft, I’m pointing out that if one is operating on the tax-equals-theft woefully inclusive definition of theft, making someone pay rent when they don’t want to is theft. Of course the tax-equals-theft definition is designed to be overly encompassing because they want to apply theft to taxes, which it cannot otherwise reasonably be applied to.

For another example, rape is not meaningfully equivalent to theft legally or morally. Rape is rape and theft is theft. They have specifically defined meanings. But based on the definition of tax-equals-theft people, rape should also just be defined as theft because it takes something of value (virginity, bodily autonomy, one’s sense of safety, etc.) from the victim without consent. Should we eliminate rape from the legal code and just prosecute rape as a variant of theft? Of course not. But if one accepted the premise of the tax-equals-theft definition of theft, that is the conclusion that logically follows.

As a last example, right-anarchist/libertarian definitions of theft, when applied consistently, are equally supportive of an ideology diametrically opposed to them; socialism/communism/left-anarchism. Socialists offer up a similar slogan, “profit equals theft.” For them, capitalists take the “excess value” of a laborer’s labor against the consent of the laborer. Ancaps would say laborers consented to this arrangement when they were hired, but socialists would counter that laborers don’t actually have any other realistic option other than unemployment, which isn’t really having an option at all of you want to live.

So to sum things up, the tax-equals-theft perspective is just an intellectually dishonest word game. They have an ideological position against taxes which they can make artificially easy to defend if they define the thing they don’t like as something almost universally understood to be bad, like theft. So they simply choose the necessary and sufficient essence of “theft” based on what would allow them to define tax as theft. The intellectual incoherence of their definition is revealed when you apply it consistently and follow it to its logical conclusions.

Is Tax Even Unconsensual?

There is another thing wrong with the tax-equals-theft position and definition of theft. People often pay taxes perfectly willingly, knowing that at minimum some good will come of it. So even if I accepted the tax-equals-theft definition (which I don’t), tax is only theft when someone is paying taxes against their will. Which means the most that the tax-equals-theft definition could justify is “tax sometimes equals theft.” And indeed, it seems that a majority of Americans consent to paying at least some taxes. Polls by Pew support this hypothesis. About 57% of Americans say they pay “about the right amount” or less in taxes, and 40% believe they pay more than their fair share. Importantly, both positions implicitly mean they feel there is a right amount of taxes they should pay, and they differ only on what they think is the proper amount.

Thus, even if you played the game by the rules of the tax-equals-theft people, they still lose.

The Social Contract

If you are born in the United States you obtain US citizenship at birth. This citizenship comes with many benefits and responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is paying taxes if you are employed at a US business. If you don’t want the responsibilities, give up the benefits. If you don’t give up the benefits, you’re accepting the responsibility. Simple as that. Non-citizens who legally work here also pay taxes because the general welfare that tax dollars promote benefits anybody who has a job in the United States; they’re protected by labor laws, they are allowed legal recourse against employer abuses, they are protected by the military while in our borders, and many other things. Legal residents benefit from the spent tax dollars of others, and  legal residents must contribute as well. Businesses that operate in the US consent to abiding by US laws and regulations, and if you want to be employed by a US business, you must consent to those terms too. If you don’t consent to those benefits or being taxed, simply work somewhere else and give up your citizenship.

The problem with tax-equals-theft people is that they pretend like they get no benefit from tax dollars. They act as though they spawned out of thin air as children (not benefiting from health regulations, requirements, government health subsidies, and WIC if their mom was low-income) and  and single-handedly created the civilization around them (not benefiting from technology other people built, the legal system that protected them, or anything else provided by society).

It’s Irrelevant Whether or Not Taxes Are Theft; They’re Still Required for Any Functional Nation

In any case, arguing against taxes is pointless and futile. Every one of us lives in a nation that is surrounded by a world of rival countries, many of which are more than willing to dominate us if we didn’t have our own militaries funded by taxes, consensual or unconsensual. Sure, in a utopia taxes wouldn’t be necessary because every citizen would willingly to donate the money necessary to fund a military. This is what anarchists are advocating. But we live in the real world. And in the real world, large groups of people don’t just band together for the common good of their own volition on a consistent enough basis to ever be sustainable. Anarchists are expecting the equivalent to everyone just driving at safe speeds and following best-practice driving safety etiquette without traffic laws and a police force to enforce them. It’s a pipe dream, and those of us acknowledging reality and working within it aren’t bad people for doing so. Indeed, we are the more ethical ones.

Final Two Cents

Right-wing anarchists and left-wing anarchists are two diametrically opposed ideologies that think the same policy, a world absent state coercion, will result in their (very different) utopias. It’s hard to take either very seriously. They’re like two denominations of Christianity or two sects of Islam that think every person in every other denomination is going to hell despite both sects advocating the same homophobia, theocratic government structure, and misogynist hierarchy. They should be friends in their regressive destructive beliefs, but they ironically think they’re polar opposites.

Every anarchist, when confronted with the silliness of their beliefs, responds that you just haven’t read the book of their preferred anarchist intellectual well enough. Well, no, I haven’t read the book of every anarchist prophet. But I haven’t read the book of every religious prophet either. And similarly, I don’t have to. I’ve read enough to be more than familiar with the common threads and tropes, more than enough to know they’re full of shit. Religion and political religion have more in common than they  admit.

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