Three times in the last two weeks, people have attempted to engage me in debates starting with their belief that all taxation is theft. These weren’t reasonable debates about whether tax rates should be higher or lower, or whether tax dollars should be spent on this or that. Those debates are legitimate, and every taxpayer should be concerned about the appropriate level of taxation and where our tax dollars are going. But these people were saying that ALL taxation is theft. Twice is I was duped into participating in these debates. It’s a mistake I don’t plan on making a third time. I’m writing this here so I can link to it whenever the need arises, and I encourage you to employ it when you come across one of these people. I was under the mistaken impression that this line of thinking was limited to teenage boys wearing bowties who believe Ayn Rand’s work is quality literature, and that most of them grow out of it before falling off of balconies at college frat parties or being elected to Congress. It turns out there are more of them than I thought, just as there are more people who believe the world is flat or 7000 years old than can be rationally justified. Lots of people have beliefs that I can’t agree with, but if they bring these people comfort and don’t cause them to hurt anyone else, I try to ignore them. Because I have been wrong about many things in my life but was unaware of it at the time, it logically follows that I am currently wrong about things and don’t know it, so I try not to pass judgement too harshly. But this particular belief that all taxation is theft is harmful to our polity; it’s manipulated by politicians who trick these dunderheads into supporting their tax cutting measures. Not all tax-cutting is bad, but when politicians can’t justify one based on its merits and turn to this ridiculous justification, you can be fairly certain they are trying to pull something shady. Consequently, this false premise has to be addressed so that policy makers will be forced to explain tax cuts in terms of their benefits to taxpayers versus their costs to services. They’ll have to treat us like grown ups. But first we have to address this childish idea so that’s not on the table anymore.
The root of this notion, according to the people I argued with, is that taxation is compelled by the power of the government, and since it’s compulsory, it’s theft or extortion. First of all, things that are compulsory are not necessarily theft. We are compelled to breathe, to drink, to eat, to evacuate our bowels by biological necessity. Is that Mother Nature extorting us? I imagine one of these bowtie wearing teens as a toddler when his mother tells him to use the potty. He stamps his foot and cries,“I don’t wanna!” then hands her Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law and declares that, as a libertarian, he refuses to be compelled to urinate anywhere ever again.
In exasperation, his mother shouts, “Todd Blake Masterson III, you will use that potty like a big boy!”
But Todd screams, “Extortion!” and takes off across manicured lawn, past the servants quarters, down to the boathouse, where he grumbles about his mother’s socialism.
Taxation, at least in a democracy, is even less like extortion than the biological need to urinate. While Mother Nature can demand certain functions without any input from the animal at which she directs her will, in a democracy, We The People are the government. Sure, the government is not as responsive as anyone would like, but at the end of the day its only ability to compel behavior comes from our collective consent. People who think that taxation is extortion prefer to blame some faceless abstraction, “the government,” but what they really resent is their fellow citizens.
And the degree of their resentment is pretty shocking. One of the people who tried to argue this point with me was eventually reduced to posting memes to try to make his point. One depicted a man who was being forced by a group of coworkers to share in the cost of a pizza they’d ordered in his absence even though he didn’t want pizza. Another was about how, since lack of consent in sexual behavior is what changes it from sex to rape, taxation without consent is the equivalent of rape. Stop and think about that dichotomy longer than he did. He is saying taxation is both unwanted pizza and rape. I told him he’s either had an unusually positive rape experience or a very traumatizing pizza.
The pizza example is not too far off, though. We are compelled by our own desire to reap the benefits of community to share in costs, some of which will be for things we wouldn’t individually choose. But when taken to the taxation-is-theft extreme, this isn’t quite like a single unwanted pizza and feeling a bit resentful that it has mushrooms, or that you aren’t particularly hungry at that moment. It’s more being offered pizza and declaring that your inalienable rights are being trampled and anyone sharing the cost of a pizza is breaking one of the Ten Commandments. The people offering the pizza would be right to tell you to get over yourself. They certainly shouldn’t elect you to Congress for such an over-the-top reaction.
I feel a little uncomfortable criticizing a school of thought for being unrealistic. By American standards, I’m an idealist, which means I’m pretty moderate by European standards: I believe the free market has its virtues. I believe that competition improves our standard of living. I also recognize that there are areas where competition is, at best, impractical and inefficient, and often quite harmful. Some things are better left to the commons, like firefighting, national defense, education, health care, roadbuilding, and electrical power. Some things are more appropriate for public/private partnerships, like scientific research and supporting the arts. We should engage in robust debates about each of these and find a healthy balance in a mixed economy. If someone could show me that having three different fire departments to choose from would cost less and reduce the chance that my house would burn down without endangering the house of someone who had less means, I would swallow my pride and admit I’d been wrong about that sphere. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that individual choice and competition make for better firefighting. Or schools. Or hospitals. And localized monopolies like my power company aren’t made more efficient by virtue of competition since I don’t have any choice in power companies. In these areas, it just makes more sense to pool resources and share costs, even though it necessarily means I will not get to choose how every dime is spent. My neighbors should have a say even if they would like more spent on the military than I do, or less spent on education than I would like. It’s not up to me alone. I live in a community, and I’m grateful for that. I have not been extorted.
Now, that doesn’t mean I enjoy paying taxes. But guess what: I don’t like paying my cell phone bill either. Or my car payment. Or my mortgage. But I like my phone, my car, and my house. I like most of the services purchased with my tax dollars, and even the ones that don’t benefit me personally allow me to live in a country that is healthier and wealthier than the alternative.
That’s where this taxation-is-theft idea is at its most infantile. It does not realistically grapple with the alternative. It’s grousing about paying taxes masquerading as intellectual political philosophy. I asked the people I argued with to describe the alternative to me. Would it be a failed state that could not compel them to pay taxes? One acknowledged that, without taxes to support a military, a single country that didn’t levy taxes would be overrun by its neighbors. Apparently this philosophy hinges on all countries adopting this anti-tax ideal simultaneously, or on creating an island of boat people without a country. So were either of the people I argued with trying to build a floating city or working to lobby all the countries of the world to adopt this anti-tax philosophy? Nope. Just whining online about socialism being too utopian, without any sense of irony. Luckily, I’m not one for eye rolling, or I would have pulled all the muscles in my ocular cavities.
Of course, these latest taxation-is-theft advocates are not the only ones I’ve come across. Without fail, they are entitled in one way or another and believe that they would personally benefit in a world without government, either because they are physically strong or are rich or have watched a lot of Walking Dead and are pretty sure they would come out on top after the zombie apocalypse. They assure me that it wouldn’t be an absolute hellscape because of “customary law.” Customary law is not only unscalable, but the kind of society it describes, where everyone must carry a firearm or, if they can afford it, buy a bulletproof car, to be downright dystopic. If the legal system is voluntary, we cannot collectively address the breaking of the customs upon which it depends. The social pressure that would need to be put in place to replace an explicit legal framework would be far more oppressive and far less flexible than one where people can vote to change laws. Think taxation takes away freedom? Try a culture of shaming to enforce social mores and see if that feels more free. The mechanism of majority rule is far from from perfect, but it's vastly superior to the mechanisms of shame or of might-makes-right. Worse, we would not enter into this atmosphere of absolute freedom on a level playing field. The people who most desperately want there not to be a government are the people who feel they would benefit most from the absence. But what about the very old, the disabled, children, the poor? Freedom to take care of yourself sounds great if you believe you're capable, but for most people that would be a vastly diminished existence. We come together and form a society where people are born into the social contract precisely because, at the point of birth, we're at our weakest and thus benefit most from that social contract. No infant, if it were capable, would say, "Leave me in the woods to fend for myself, Mommy! I want to be free of your tyranny!" The social contract ensures that the strong make sacrifices for the weak because they once were the weak and will be again.
So, if you tried to engage me in a discussion about taxation as theft and I posted a link to this, please don’t mistake that for an invitation to continue the debate. Instead, prove that you’ve read this far by doing us both a favor and choosing one of the following options:
Option A: Acknowledge that you have some power in our democracy and engage politically to have your tax dollars spent on things that you think are priorities for you and would also benefit your fellow citizens. Vote. Lobby your representatives. Try to persuade your fellow citizens. It will not always work out the way you want it to, but you’ll find that civic life is a lot better if you are an active participant.
Option B: Have the courage of your convictions, renounce your citizenship so this country will stop stealing from/extorting/raping/forcing unwanted pizza on you, and move to a country where you won’t have to pay taxes. Then, once you have actually been stolen from because there were not taxpayer funded police to protect you (or, more likely, they supported themselves by extorting you), or you were ripped off by a company that couldn’t be compelled to honor a contract by a functioning court system, or worse (probably not unwanted pizza), you may realize that there are a lot of things that are worse than paying taxes. But if you have a fine experience in that failed state and still believe that taxation is theft, wait a little bit. Like, decades. When you are in your nineties and living in your floating city without a government where people take care of you because of customary law, fire up that satellite internet connection and tell me about your great life without taxes, and how it works for everyone in your community and not just the selfish, entitled people who would have been okay regardless but didn’t want to share with those they found unworthy. I’ll probably have Alzheimer’s by then, but I’ll try to remember that you were way out ahead on the whole we-can-get-by-without-taxes idea and give you credit for being right. If you don’t mind, I’m not going to hold my breath, though.
Option C: Grow up.