One of the more well-known slogans of hard-core libertarians is “Taxation is Theft.” It’s an easy slogan for those who believe in it, and it’s message is pretty clear — to a true believer, there is no moral distinction to be made between an IRS tax collector and a mugger who demands your wallet at gunpoint.
Libertarian theorist Timothy Virkkala argues, however, things that the slogan, and the message behind it, are a mistake:
Libertarians are too fond of slogans such as
Taxation is Theft and
Taxation is Robbery. They get quite a charge out of it. And they do manage to get a good idea across to some people, people who see that taxation is, indeed, a form of expropriation, and that it is analogous to forms of theft such as robbery, and that maybe we can do better.
Perhaps we can pay for public goods without engaging in extortion and expropriation.
But to people who really want those public goods, and who are capable of elementary distinctions in language, they are not convinced by these slogans. They are put off by them.
And they have good reason to be. Taxation is not theft. Not really.
The distinction that Virkkala makes, while I don’t think that it’s one that radical libertarians will accept, is important:
Taxation is the expropriation of private property according to an established rate, as put into law by an established state.
Robbery and other forms of theft are illegal kinds of expropriation, and piecemeal at that. Taxation is a legal kind of expropriation.
To many libertarians, this distinction is not much of a distinction at all. They have pretty much thrown out the distinctions between legal and illegal, and are in a continual revolutionary mode of thinking, ready at a moment’s notice to throw out whole chunks of the rule of law and state practice.
So of course they equate all kinds of expropriation.
Virkkala is right, I think, to make the distinction between legal and illegal forms of expropriation, especially in a society where taxation is determined not by the fiat of a dictator but by the decision of democratically elected representatives. In such a society, rhetoric that compares the lady who collects property taxes down at city hall to a mafia thug just isn’t going to fly with most people:
The main reason radical libertarians will not get anywhere is their complete lack of understanding of the normal mindset, which is not constantly in revolutionary mode. Radical libertarians who trot out slogans such as
taxation is theft do not address the respect a non-revolutionary has for the rule of law.
Indeed, because of this revolutionary stance — and I’m not talking about physical, bloody revolution so much as a particular stance regarding ideas and consent — these libertarians cannot deal with normal folk.
They offend normal folk; libertarians often (and with good reason) strike normal citizens as lunatics, perhaps dangerous lunatics.
This, I think, is part of the reason that the Libertarian Party has never been able to succeed in any meaningful sense. With the exception of Ron Paul, most of the candidates that it has put forward for prominent public positions have tended to preach the rhetoric of radical libetarianism. More importantly, they have done nothing to address the question of “If not taxes, then what ?”
As Virkkala points out, one of the major issues in the American Revolution was taxation. But the Founders weren’t disputing the fact that a government had the power to levy taxes to fund its proper functions, they were fighting for the right of the colonies to tax themselves rather than pay taxes to a far-away King.
Those who believe in liberty today and who would like to see freedom advance in their lifetime would do well to heed Virkkala’s advice.
I believe we have to approach greater liberty with complete honesty. No rhetorical trickery.
And I regard slogans such as
taxation is theft as something close to rhetorical trickery.
It may be that we will someday be able to support all worthy public projects without any taxation.
But however we manage to do this (and I’ve lots of ideas, not limited to simple slogans like
the market will take care of it), it will have to be done within the framework of the rule of law.
And people in such a future society will have to regard the means used at that time in something other than constant revolutionary mode. Even if they can think of better ways, they will have to show some respect for the rule of law of the day.
H/T: Hit & Run