Is Taxation Really Theft ?

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.

Well said.

H/T: Hit & Run

  • John Newman

    I love that legal, illegal argument. So, if the legal tax rate as determined by the state was 95% and us slaves got to keep 5%, that would be just fine and dandy with him – because it’s legal.

  • Adam Selene

    John, why make an argument like that?

  • Kevin

    As for issue of taxation is theft, I treat it this way. Any taxation that is used to fund the necessary purpose of government; the protection of life, liberty, and property; and infrastructure needed to support that purpose is legitimate, though we can argue about how taxation is done. Any taxation for wealth redistribution and the other vote buying schemes our rules use is illegitimate, no matter how it’s done.

  • Adam Selene

    Either you believe that government is necessary, in which case it must be funded in some fashion, or you do not. The primary issue that I see is that most Libertarians are actually anarchists, but unwilling to openly say so. As anarchists, albeit anarcho-capitalists rather than anarcho-syndicalists, they will view taxation as illegitimate, as theft, no matter what. Arguing with them about it is simply a futile exercise.

  • Purple Avenger

    they have done nothing to address the question of “If not taxes, then what ?”

    How did the US government function prior to 1919?

  • Ryan

    I have to go with Kevin on this one, especially in his point about wealth redistribution. Obviously we need some sort of tax to fund legitimate government functions (eg the military). I don’t know if (at least to me), the issue when I debate with friends of mine who are more socialist by nature is taxation; rather the issue is what the role of government is. Should the government be providing social services? I say no, they say yes. Then, as a result of our stances on that, our views on taxation are formed. He needs more to fund his programs, I need less to fund less government action.

  • Adam Selene

    Purple Avenger, you appear to be under the impression that the Federal government did not have to the power to tax prior to the 16th amendment. It did, and it used it. Specifically, quoting the first paragraph of Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution, Powers of Congress:

    The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

    It just did not have the ability to impose non-uniform taxes. Even more specifically, the income tax was not allowed by the fourth paragraph of Article 1, Section 9, Limits on Congress:

    No capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.

    So, the 16th amendment did not give Congress a power that had never existed before, the power to tax. Rather, it broadened the power by removing a limit that had been placed on Congress originally.

    The Federal government was funded through all the ways and means listed above, including levying taxes.

  • John Newman

    Adam, now that you’ve explained how non-uniform taxing was introduced, perhaps you can explain how wealth redistribution was made legal and how it became the government’s obligation to use that wealth to provide welfare, education, and healthcare, etc., etc., etc.

  • Doug Mataconis


    Wealth distribution and taxation are not necessarily the same thing.

    Virkkala’s post, and mine, was meant to address the radical libertarian idea that all taxation is per se illegitimate.

    I don’t think it is, at least not when limited to funding the proper functions of (limited) government. It’s when government goes beyond that and starts doing things like wealth redistribution that I would have a problem with taxation.

  • John Newman

    Doug, I agree with Kevin that if tax money is used to finance the legitimate functions of the government and is not used to finance social programs fine.

    From Harry

    If we eliminate all the current powers and programs of the federal government that aren’t “delegated to the United States by the Constitution,” then the remaining constitutional functions, such as national defense and the federal courts, can be performed for about $100 billion dollars a year. This means the federal government will be so small, there will be no need for a federal income tax . The excise taxes and tariffs that are already being collected (bringing in over $100 billion a year) are more than sufficient to cover these costs.”

    A case can be made however that taxes not paid voluntarily but paid because of a threat of force or jail is involuntary and is theft.

  • Adam Selene


    A case can be made however that taxes not paid voluntarily but paid because of a threat of force or jail is involuntary and is theft.

    Yes, such a case can be made. However, as you pointed out in a different thread, most people in this country view the exercise of their franchise as a voluntary contract that gives government the power to levy taxes on them. The disagreement they have is not over whether the taxes are theft, or not, but whether the ends to be attained using that tax money is appropriate, or not.

    Libertarians should argue that the Federal government is not the appropriate place to vest central social planning (and provide cogent arguments why this is so a la Hayek) rather than arguing that taxes are theft. Why? Simple, they will gain huge mind share with a significant portion of the population that they will never gain through the “taxes are theft” argument.

  • VRB

    The libertarian wouldn’t argue with the average person on the street what government ought to do. You just pontificate and if they don’t see it your way, that’s Ok, because you are intellectually pure.

    Most arguments here are the same as describing a horse. One starts from the mane and the other from the b*tt.

  • Adam Selene

    VRB, perhaps I’m dense, but I think that the majority of the contributors here are trying to find ways to communicate with folks that are not libertarian. That’s why we engage in discussion and try different approaches to communicate ideas.

  • P.M.Lawrence

    To me, the issue isn’t whether tax funds go to “necessary” purposes, although granted there is debate over whether there ever are such things. We don’t need to argue that point at all; what counts – morally – is whether they are taken by consent – and I’m not talking any nonsense about deemed consent here, although of course repudiation of a previous commitment wouldn’t count. There is no consent when someone rightly or wrongly does not want to pay, from the get go. That isn’t cured by any provision of services, or by any lesser evil stuff either. (Fraud rather than force comes in when fiat money is issued, and a few other things.)

    By the way, when I first spotted this thread it had this quotation at the top: “If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace. We seek not your counsel, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen. Samuel Adams”

    That is sheerest hypocrisy. Those soi disant “patriots” did not confine themselves to mere verbal abuse, but physically injured, evicted, and eventually exiled the Loyalists – who, by the bye, were often motivated by more than servility, as tales like those of Laura Secord a generation later show. Had the likes of Sam Adams been willing to anticipate what the Mormons or Boer trekkers did later, they could have respected bot their own principles and their neighbours’ lives, liberties, and property. They did not, even though it was quite practical in that time and place, which makes them hypocrites of the first water.

  • Adam Selene

    PM, I think you have to live within a civil war and revolution to be able to understand the actions of those involved. It’s easy enough to make judgments after the fact, much harder to understand why they did what they did or how you would have actually acted in the situation. That said, the American Revolutionaries were some of the least hypocritical, cruel and harsh seen. Which is not to say they were perfect, by any means. But they certainly were not the French or the Jacobites or the Bolsheviks, to name a few. And the Loyalists were definitely not nice folks either, for every Laura Secord there was a Loyalist quite prepared to use scorched earth to win. Nor is it as if the Revolutionaries were without provocation (Boston Massacre, for example).

  • P.M.Lawrence

    I have lived in those situations, first as a child and then as an adolescent (Iraq 1958, the former Belgian Congo 1960 – from which our family had to be rescued by paratroops – and Nigeria during the Civil War there).

    I fully appreciate that all sides in the American War of Independence were provoked – although such things as the Boston Massacre have been heavily inflated by propagandists from Paul Revere on – but two wrongs still don’t make a right, even more so when the response is disproportionate, which it in fact was. You can find much of this detailed in history books like “Redcoats and Rebels” that don’t buy into the rebels’ propaganda (incidentally, it’s propaganda that anyone was willing to use scorched earth etc. against the rebels, apart from a few peripheral persons – compare and contrast what was done in North America with what had been willingly done in Ireland and Scotland within living memory).

    I was not, however, addressing the rebels’ actions but their hypocrisy. Even if every single one of the “patriots'” actions had been entirely justified, that would still give the lie to the quotation. Sam Adams was, as I pointed out, a hypocrite of the first water.

    The rebels could have used their genuine grievances and justifications, but instead they resorted to terror tactics, agitprop, selective editing and emphasis, and plain lies. The USA was born with a freight of original sin, and today’s developments are not a latter day corruption of the earlier ideals; those ideals were never given physical expression at all, but perverted into a spurious form from the beginning.