So, I recently succumbed to an old collegiate vice (no, not that one…) and allowed myself to get sucked into a libertarian comments section debate. This was, on the whole, about as edifying and productive an exercise as you might expect, but having already expended an hour or two in this questionable way, I figured I might as well reproduce a couple main points here in case anyone else finds this sort of thing interesting.
The slogan that “taxation is theft” used to be fairly popular among libertarians—particularly anarcho-capitalists, who reject the legitimacy of even taxation to support a minimal state—and apparently, in some circles, it continues to be. Matt Zwolinski recently brought up a thoughtful old Loren Lomasky essay arguing that this is an unhelpful way for libertarians to talk, and promptly drew all sorts of fire from people who are fiercely committed to their slogan and, if anything, wish it would be chanted louder and with greater frequency.
So, first, a point so trivial I’d hope it wouldn’t need to be made, but which apparently does: Taken in a strict or literal sense, the claim that “taxation is theft” is just false. Standard dictionary definitions pretty uniformly include the idea that “theft” is a form of non-consensual property transfer that is “unlawful” or “felonious” or “without legal right.” Obviously this is quite separate from the question of whether taxation (generally or in some specific instance) is morally justifiable: Just about everyone agrees that some types of taxation (poll taxes, say) are wrong without literally constituting “theft,” and most people will also recognize that there are at least occasionally instances of “theft” that are morally permissible, or even mandatory. I bother with this only because a depressing number of people seem to confusedly believe that, though the large majority of people use “theft” in a way that definitionally excludes taxation (or other lawfully authorized transfers) from its scope, all those people are wrong about words. Which is not really possible, of course: Over the long run, what words mean really just is a popularity contest. You can stipulate whatever sense of “theft” you like for the sake of a particular discussion—nothing substantive turns on how we decide to use English terms—but these arguments so predictably collapse into vacuous verbal disputes that it seems simpler to cut to the chase and talk about why one thinks taxation is wrong.
Happily (as with the vegan slogan “meat is murder”) people mostly understand well enough what the claim “taxation is theft” is meant to express: that we should all use “theft” in a way that encompasses “taxation” as just one more distinctive subcategory (like “embezzlement”), because coercive expropriation by states is illegitimate, and so taxation is morally on par with all those other transfers we currently describe as “theft.” Bracketing the substantive plausibility of the underlying claim, that’s in principle a perfectly valid rhetorical strategy: “Marital rape” was an oxymoron until enough people insisted it shouldn’t be, and now, happily, it isn’t. Lomasky thinks this one, however, is counterproductive—and I’m inclined to agree.
For one, it’s a claim that anyone with a theory of just holdings could make about political systems that fail to satisfy their criteria, but we typically find it irritating when people with other political commitments make equivalent moves. For someone who thinks justice requires equality of resources, or distribution according to the difference principle, or whatever, then failure to tax and redistribute could be characterized as “theft” by those with surplus holdings. But framing the view that way just adds a dash of empty melodrama. Every political viewpoint has some set of principles for determining what rights over resources people have—and, implicitly, is committed to the idea that the alternative ways of allocating resources are wrong. If you’re trying to seriously debate the alternatives, adding “Wrong!” in a louder voice after you’ve articulated yours isn’t really adding anything.
Which, I think, brings us back around to Lomasky’s sense that these kinds of slogans are symptomatic of a failure to take seriously the fact of political disagreement that is both thoughtful and sincere. One important component of “theft” as ordinary people use it (though I notice that not all of the dictionaries explicitly include it) is that it is intentional. “Theft” is not just taking what one has no right to, but what one knows or reasonably ought to know one has no right to. When someone grabs your coat from a pile at a party, having mistaken it for theirs, then insofar as you’re persuaded they really have made a good faith mistake, you try to convince them of the error without resorting to calling them “thief.” (Especially if there’s some possibility that it will turn out you’re the one who’s mistaken.)
Not all disagreements, of course, are so easily resolved. Even in anarcho-capitalist utopia, after all, there would be some kind of legal system providing for non-consensual transfers of property in the case of disputes. When one person’s actions directly or indirectly harm another, there will often be disagreement about whether compensation is owed, and if so, what amount is reasonable. There will be complex contractual disputes, or questions about whether a parcel of property has easements on it, or about whether the prima facie rightful owner’s claimed property boundaries are just right. Some of these disputes will actually be pretty complicated, and not easily resolved by recourse to simple moral first principles. Invariably, either because the facts or the legal (quasi-legal?) rules are complex or ambiguous, whatever system is in place to resolve these disputes will sometimes get it wrong.
We can stipulate language evolving however we like in an imaginary anarcho-capitalist utopia, but it seems most natural to imagine the denizens of AnCapistan distinguishing between these kinds of inevitable good-faith errors and plain old theft. And it seems natural because there is a morally salient difference between simply taking what you like without regard for whether you have a right to it, and adhering to some process designed to adjudicate and enforce rights claims, even when that process will necessarily yield an unjust outcome in some cases.
Saying “taxation is theft,” then, doesn’t just entail that the speaker thinks taxation is no more morally justifiable than theft. It implies that this ought to be so self-evident to any reasonable person that those who disagree are (at best) just engaged in some kind of transparent rationalization for disregarding the rights of others. That seems both clearly wrong and unfair, even if anarchists are ultimately right about the illegitimacy of taxation. Why bother arguing at all if you believe that justifications for taxation are merely pretextual, and the great majority who regard it as legitimate (whether voters or agents of the state) do not really care whether it violates people’s rights? One might, I suppose, try to awaken a mugger’s dormant conscience by reminding them “you have no right to do this to me!”—but that would be an attempt at shaming, not persuasion: The mugger’s problem is not that he doesn’t know, but that he doesn’t care.
Lomasky’s point—beyond the rhetorical utility of this particular slogan—is that libertarian rhetoric (and, to be sure, the rhetoric of some more intemperate progressives, but that’s their problem) sometimes treats good faith disagreement about what is right as equivalent to amoral indifference to what is right. Very occasionally, that may be an effective rhetorical posture even when it’s somewhat unfair. Usually, though, it seems to be neither fair nor effective—except, perhaps, at delivering whatever psychological satisfaction people obtain from imagining themselves among the righteous few in a sea of thugs and moral imbeciles. When one is politically impotent, I guess, one takes what consolation prizes one can.
One additional theoretical consideration that’s largely independent of Lomasky’s (and Zwolinsky’s) main point. The slogan that “taxation is theft” is ambiguous: We can read it to mean, as the anarchist typically does, that taxation per se is categorically illegitimate, but also as a more specific claim that actually-existing taxation involves depriving people of specific holdings to which they are entitled. The second claim, it seems to me, is indefensible even if we suppose the anarchists are right as a matter of ideal theory. If we take that theory to be some variant of neo-Lockean/Rothbardian/Nozickian/whatever account of initial appropriation and transfer, almost nobody residing in any actually-existing state can justify their present holdings by reference to an appropriately untainted provenance running back to the State of Nature.
Serious theorists tend to acknowledge this at least in passing, but it’s one of those elephants in the room that anarchist and minarchist libertarian thinkers alike have tended to give conspicuously short shrift. In Nozick it’s basically relegated to an unsatisfying footnote to the effect that, yes, maybe we need a one-time carnival of patterned redistribution. (This is the political philosophy equivalent of Richard Dawkins tweeting “j/k: God did it up to amoebas, but THEN evolution.”) In other writers, it rates a few (equally unsatisfying) pages of hand-waving about homesteading and adverse possession.
If there’s a libertarian theorist who’s grappled with this at the length it merits, I haven’t seen it. I would love to be able to point to a few serious book-length efforts, but the Year Zero approach that just takes current holdings as given and proposes Entitlement Theory Starting Tomorrow have always struck me as the sort of ad hoccery that makes caricatures of libertarianism as an elaborate rationalization for privilege more plausible than they ought to be. So an independent reason to shy away from “taxation is theft” as a slogan is that it can be interpreted as an unreflective endorsement of distributional patterns riddled with profound historical injustices. Libertarians, anarchist and minarchist alike, still lack a theory of remediation serious and robust enough to meet the demands of their own priors. When we have one and it’s implemented, then the anarchist camp will be in a better position to chant their slogan.
Update: Kevin Williamson, who I can only infer thinks I am very dim indeed, quotes my trivial semantic observation above as though it were meant to be some kind of substantive argument, and responds that I am “studiously ignoring the point.” As I had hoped would be clear from the rest of the post, though, I understand the point perfectly well. I had merely meant to note, as a preface to the actual argument, that someone who denies “taxation is theft” is not grammatically wrong or confused in any strictly literal sense, and it’s silly to get mired in purely verbal disputes about the ideal Platonic definition of “theft.” As I acknowledged right after the sentences Williamson quotes, this anthropological factoid about contemporary usage has no real bearing on the upshot of the slogan, which is that taxation is morally equivalent to theft. Substantive moral questions can’t be resolved by dictionaries. That said, it’s my own fault for spending too many words on a silly and trivial point, so I’ve made some edits in hopes of leaving it a little clearer what I’m trying to do here.
Just in case though: This is not a post about whether taxation is categorically wrong (though I don’t happen to think so). Rather, this is a post about why, even assuming arguendo that taxation is illegitimate, slogans like “taxation is theft” are not a helpful way to express that claim, because they equate a good faith disagreement about what rights people have with malicious disregard for those rights. I find it morally outrageous that we imprison people for selling drugs to willing adult buyers; such imprisonment is always unjust. But framing this as the claim that “drug prohibition is kidnapping” is not, in most cases, a useful thing to say to someone who disagrees about the underlying point, for basically the same reasons that equating opposition to single-payer with a desire to watch the poor suffer rarely leads to any kind of interesting conversation.