Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Calling BS on "Taxation as Theft"

On several occasions, I've noted to Evan that I think people who refer to abortion as a "holocaust" are being disingenuous. Nobody actually thinks that at all - they don't draw the moral equivalence, although they find it politically useful to claim they do (or psychologically settling to convince themselves they do). But ultimately they don't. If you actually thought a holocaust worse than the Nazi Holocaust was occurring (at least four times worse), not in isolated secret camps but in clinics in your neighborhood, you would not stand idly by for decades. If people actually believed what they said about it being a holocaust, they would rise up violently against the practice. So I'm convinced there are a few clinic bombers and doctor-murderers who do actually believe it's a holocaust, but most don't. Most implicitly admit that the abortion of fetuses - even if it does raise real moral problems - is by no means the moral equivalent of killing fully developed and born human beings. It would simply be unconscionable for the pro-life movement to actually believe that but act the way they've acted. When tens of millions are slaughtered in a holocaust, you don't just picket the Supreme Court once a year. So I like to call BS every once in a while on that one.

A similar instance I've been thinking of recently is the tendency of some libertarians to refer to taxation as theft. Modern citizens of just about any state pay a lot of money in taxes. Several thousand, if not tens of thousands for many Americans. If people honestly considered this "theft", it's more than enough cause to react violently. If a thief enters your home in an attempt to steal thousands of dollars, you would be well within your rights to respond violently to expel the thief, and given the means most Americans would. One response may be that the government itself is a criminal organization that makes resistance futile. Maybe, but this counter-point is riddled with problems. When well armed criminal organization like the mafia or drug cartels infest an area, victims demand some sort of response from other organizations. Sometimes rival gangs are formed, of course. But the law is also called in. Even if people did not openly revolt out of fear of the power of the state, there would be some action to put together a countervailing organization to fight the state. You would have relatively expansive rebel groups, even if they had little chance of success. The other problem with this explanation is that even if the state were a criminal organization, it would be a criminal organization where millions of taxpayers vote at regular intervals for the leadership. If people honestly believed that taxation was theft, you would see some sign of in the polls, or you would see plummeting voter turnout accompanied with plummeting legitimacy of the government. No gang or mafia where the victims had a say in the leadership and where the mafia don had to regularly pander to his victims and had to leave after eight years would commit theft on a mass scale. The idea is absurd.

The only conclusion I can draw is that libertarians (much less some broader community of Tea Partiers or conservatives) don't actually believe that taxation is theft, no matter how many times they may tell you they do. They may not realize they don't believe this - they may have convinced themselves that they believe this. But they don't. Just like pro-lifers who refer to the holocaust to make their points, if libertarians did believe it, they would behave very differently. Since they don't behave how you would expect them to behave if they actually believed taxation was theft, it's reasonable to infer they don't believe it.

So what do we conclude? Americans broadly agree that taxation of citizens is an entirely legitimate and appropriate action. There is nothing criminal or inherently illegitimate about it. We may disagree on what the right level of taxation is, but nobody (aside from a few nuts) actually believe it is theft. It is not a reasonable moral equivalence.

As an aside, I thought of this last night when I was thinking about Jefferson (after commenting on this post and this post) and specifically the points Jefferson raised to justify the revolution against England. I thought "what would justify, or specifically what would libertarians think of as a justification for armed revolt against the federal government today?". Because it seems that whatever may theoretically justify armed revolt in the minds of libertarians hasn't occurred in the United States yet, because they haven't revolted.

I think these previous posts of mine on libertarianism and state violence and on the idea of "the empire of liberty" (which was a very well received post) are probably relevant to this point as well.

63 comments:

  1. You conclude that libertarians actually don't believe taxtion is theft because they don't go mad and kill government officials? :D

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  2. Well I never said "go mad". In fact I noted it would be a reasonable response to be more forceful if that was really what you thought, not a crazy response.

    Let me put it this way - if libertarians who say "taxation is theft" actually believe it, it's the most passive response to hundreds of billions of dollars worth of theft that I've ever heard of. It strains credulity, Menschenfreund.

    If a thief stole thousands of dollars from you annually you wouldn't just sit around and blog about it. You would organize some sort of resistance. The obvious conclusion is that you don't think it's theft.

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  3. And note - I'm saying this is a good thing. I would agree with libertarians on this point, even if they can't bring themselves to verbally admit it.

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  4. "If a thief stole thousands of dollars from you annually you wouldn't just sit around and blog about it. You would organize some sort of resistance. The obvious conclusion is that you don't think it's theft."

    The highwayman demands "Your money, or your life". If you have no meaningful means of resistance the choice is obvious.

    That said, not all taxation is theft. If the government proclaimed that taxation was optional, and would no longer be enforced, do you think people would pay as much tax as they currently would? I don't think that they would. The difference could be considered "theft".

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  5. Right but nobody's life is threatened for not paying taxes. At worst they face some sort of lien on their property. Regardless, your highwayman point is right as far as it goes - but that's because he's cornered you alone with no means of defense. Come on - hundreds of millions of voters who are not just victims of this taxation but actually PUT THE TAXERS IN OFFICE don't organize ANY resistence other than a few rallies and political movements every couple of years.

    This is not the highway and the government is not a highwayman. We put them in power on a regular basis, we are one of the best armed citizenries in the world, and a rebel movement can easily be organized even if it's not successful. You don't address theft by yelling on CNBC or Fox, and you don't address theft by voting your thief out. People do not think this is theft - they just find it convenient to convince themselves they think it is theft.

    You're asking me to believe that the biggest, most widespread act of theft in human history - the taxation of the citizens of the United States - is met passively and indulged by continued collaboration with the political system (how many libertarians voted in this last election - probably a fair amount) while lesser crimes are met with force - or if force is futile, met with the countervailing power of a police force or rival gang? No. It's absurd.

    Libertarians don't think taxation is theft - they think it is bad policy and perhaps even unethical. But they don't think it's theft.

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  6. "You're asking me to believe that the biggest, most widespread act of theft in human history - the taxation of the citizens of the United States - is met passively and indulged by continued collaboration with the political system (how many libertarians voted in this last election - probably a fair amount) while lesser crimes are met with force - or if force is futile, met with the countervailing power of a police force or rival gang? No. It's absurd."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockholm_syndrome

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  7. While I agree with you about taxation not being theft, I'm hesitant about your argument here... perhaps because of my convictions related to your first paragraph.

    I wonder what this means for some of your views about the Iraq War as unjust, or waterboarding as torture, etc. Surely we hold that some things are pretty bad without "rising up violently". Surely there are other legitimate responses.

    On abortion (although I realize this wasn't your main point)... I don't know what you mean by "standing idly by for decades" or "picketing the Supreme Court once a year". Surely you don't think this is all that the pro-life movement does, do you? What about all of the clinics that they run, or they support that they give for mothers, or the legislation that they push, or the education that they support? To follow your holocaust example... lots of folks in the resistance didn't "rise up violently" against the Nazi regime. They housed Jews on the run, or supplied those in need. Were these not legitimate responses to the holocaust? Did these people not really think that the holocaust was a murderous event?

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  8. Or hell, was MLK really a closet Jim Crow proponent because he followed Gandhi's lead?

    Your argument sounds alright when we're talking about marginal elements of American politics that seem obviously untenable to you, but other analogies reveal how silly this way of thinking is.

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  9. ..."marginal" was the wrong word. But I think you get my point. "Marginal" in terms of the mainstream as determined by the usually peacefully enforced laws of the land... marginal in terms of what is currently the status quo or legislative normalcy, that is.

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  10. Nickn - stockholm syndrome is probably the single best argument out there. But the question still remains - if you are calling taxation "theft", clearly YOU aren't suffering from stockholm syndrome. So where is the action? Why aren't non-sufferers from stockholm syndrome acting on an annual, multi-thousand dollar theft.

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  11. The argument is weak. The fact is that most people don't consider taxation as theft, and so the handful (relatively speaking) of libertarians that do don't really have the means of combating it.

    Theft has a specific definition, and I think taxation fits within that definition.

    Is it morally wrong? That's another question entirely, and as a moral subjectivist I'm not sure I'm the best person to answer that. ;)

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  12. "Right but nobody's life is threatened for not paying taxes."

    It just isn't rational for anybody to stop paying taxes, because the costs are well above the benefits.

    Just like it isn't rational for many businessmen in the Basque Country to resist against extortion by ETA, or any business from extortion from a mafia. If the means of combating it are insufficient, insofar as they don't derive results which have higher benefits than costs, then there's no point in combating it.

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  13. Another point on abortion (sorry to drag it back to that, but abortion is simply a more pressing... and interesting... moral issue than taxation)-

    Would you argue on the same grounds that those who talk of reproductive rights of women don't really see access to abortion as some sort of fundamental right insofar as all they do is picket every once in a while or call pro-life people anti-choice? Granted, they're not claiming anyone is being killed, but the argument is still a rather fundamental one of human rights and so I think is a strict enough instance to fall under your critique here.

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  14. Jonathan - right, and I'm not blaming libertarians who say this for being unsuccessful. So few call it theft that it's no wonder there's no collective action strong enough to succeed. But it's not just that there is a lack of success - there is a complete lack of action, period, except for talk.

    You also have to look at things proportionally here. The difference between ETA and the federal government is enormous. If you legitimately think that what the government does is theft and murder, then you have to think they do it on a scale that absolutely dwarfs any other gang of punks or thugs in the world today. The ETA doesn't come close. Jefferson even said this - if we can bear abuses, we have a tendancy to bear them. But you would think that some real resistance would be put up the single greatest thief in recorded history (and one of the greatest murderers - trailing a few totalitarian regimes that have outdone the U.S. in that category). At the very least you would expect libertarians to leave en masse to the Bahamas, right? I don't expect you all to be successful - I expect to see more than blogging, writing, and speaking if you genuinely think hundreds of billions of dollars are stolen every year.

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  15. Evan -
    I wonder what this means for some of your views about the Iraq War as unjust, or waterboarding as torture, etc. Surely we hold that some things are pretty bad without "rising up violently". Surely there are other legitimate responses.

    But I don't think the Iraq war is anywhere near as bad or illegitimate as the holocaust. I'm saying the Iraq war is wrong and perhaps even illegal - but I'm not saying it's a holocaust. If someone says something is a holocaust I would expect them to react like they would react to a holocaust. If someone says something is theft, I would expect them to react like they would to a thief in their home. If someone thinks something is wrong there are a range of appropriate reactions. That range narrows considerably when you call things "holocausts". There are only a few appropriate reactions to a holocaust if you know one is going on.

    Your point on what else the pro-life movement does is right - I'll definitely concede that and I'd certainly count those things in as reasonable reactions. Let me just say, then, that there are an awful lot of people that use the "holocaust" label because it is politically effective, and not because they actually believe it.

    There is one point, though - people who housed Jews, etc. knew that an Allied army was waging war on the Nazis, so something was being done and it was just a matter of them figuring out where they were most useful. There's no Allied army fighting to save fetuses in the U.S.. The caregivers are the front-line. If no one declared war on Germany and Hitler's madness was allowed to continue, don't you think it might have been comparatively more incumbent on the German people to take actual action?

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  16. Evan - I wouldn't call the way of thinking "silly" - but I would call it "tenuous".

    If we say something, we should be able to determine whether we really believe it by infering from action. It's not perfect, and I don't want to claim it is - I just want to challenge people. If words and actions don't match up, there should be a good reason why. Many have been provided in the comment section here.

    But the incongruity is still worth noting and it oughta be explained.

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  17. There is one point, though - people who housed Jews, etc. knew that an Allied army was waging war on the Nazis, so something was being done and it was just a matter of them figuring out where they were most useful.

    This doesn't strike me as self-evident. What makes you think this is why they didn't do more in terms of violent reaction?

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  18. Daniel,

    "If you legitimately think that what the government does is theft and murder, then you have to think they do it on a scale that absolutely dwarfs any other gang of punks or thugs in the world today."

    And many libertarians do think this.

    But, I emphasize my point about rationality.

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  19. What makes you think this is why they didn't do more in terms of violent reaction?

    If there was no allied army, you don't think there would be a greater domestic resistance? The reason why people like the Stauffenberg group held back for a time was because the allies were coming.

    People have to respond in different ways. I'm not going to call an elderly pro-life couple disingenuous because they don't come out with guns blazing. But overall, you would think that if any reasonable portion of the pro-life movement actually thought it was the moral equivalent of the holocaust, we would see a greater resistance movement then we do. Not everyone would play a role in that resistance because not everyone is equipped to. But you would see it.

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  20. Why didn't the mass of the Soviet Union rise against the state? Because it wasn't rational to do so.

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  21. Jonathan -
    But the Soviets who did wake up from the stockholm syndrome that nick describes either resisted or tried to escape it. These are two things you really don't see libertarians doing in the U.S.. Libertarians mostly talk.

    I think the conclusion is they think taxation is bad policy and they think it's unethical. So they do what most people do when they think something is bad and unethical: they argue about it. But they don't think it is hundreds of billions of dollars of theft.

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  22. Another difference between the abortion situation and the Shoah* is that rather than government extermination, the case is in the US is one of government allowance of abortion. That is, Obama is not a "baby killer" the way that Hitler was a "Jew killer". Our situation with regard to abortion is more one of lawlessness than of fascism. I take it that this would effect the responses of pro-life folks, because crisis pregnancy clinics and pushes for changes of legislation are going to do more than violent reaction, and are more reasonable in the present situation. In a situation of lawlessness, one seeks to put edifying social structures in place. This isn't the Wild West of Hollywood where lawlessness always calls for vigilante justice.

    Another point worth making is the idea of "sanctity of life" as central to the pro-life movement. It stands to reason that violent reaction is not appropriate for such a movement. This would go back to my MLK example. (and yes, the situation is complicated by many right-wing pro-lifers that are also war-mongers and proponents of capital punishment. Not insurmountably complicated, though, I don't think)


    *I use this word to clarify the particular holocaust we're talking about, because one can certainly talk about the "abortion holocaust" without saying that it's the same as the Shoah in every respect. There are all sorts of ways that a holocaust can present itself.

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  23. I see - more along the lines of the Rwanda genocide than Nazi Germany.

    Decentralized holocaust.

    I can buy that distinction, I don't think it substantially changes the argument. If anything it increases the opportunity for success because you aren't fighting a unified perpetrator.

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  24. Daniel,

    "But the Soviets who did wake up from the stockholm syndrome that nick describes either resisted or tried to escape it. "

    Again, I go back to my stress of the concept of "rationality". If life is better in the United States, then it makes sense to escape from the Soviet Union. If life is worse in Jamaica, largely because the state is an even larger burden there, then it makes little sense to move.

    For example, it makes little sense (ceteris paribus) for me to move back to Spain, because the situation is even worse there.

    "But they don't think it is hundreds of billions of dollars of theft. "

    This contradicts the beginning of the paragraph. They think it's unethical because it's theft. They don't do anything about it, because doing something about it is likely to make it worse.

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  25. The example of the Soviet Union is particularly useful, because for the majority of Soviets escape was impossible. The benefits of the attempt did not outweigh the costs, and so most Soviets preferred to remain in the Soviet Union.

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  26. and yes, the situation is complicated by many right-wing pro-lifers that are also war-mongers and proponents of capital punishment. Not insurmountably complicated, though, I don't think

    Then humor me and surmount it. If abortion is murder then abortionists are murderers. If you think capital punishment is appropriate punishment for murderers and invasion is appropriate punishment for state sponsored mass murderers, what stands in the way of killing abortion doctors?

    Perhaps a reticence to be the long-arm of the law? I can appreciate that.

    Then should all pro-lifers who think it is a holocaust support capital punishment for abortion doctors? It seems like they should.

    Or perhaps you have another way of surmounting it other than the long-arm of the law point. Because if it's simply the unease at being the long-arm of the law, I would have thought there would be more agitation for capital punishment of abortion doctors. After all, millions of fetuses are killed by abortion doctors each year. Considerably fewer are killed by murderers. But as you say - many pro-lifers have no problem with capital punishment for murderers.

    What is the difference? Why not agitation for an "execute abortion doctors" policy?

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  27. That's why I said the Bahamas and not Jamaica. Aren't they lighter interventionists?

    I take the rationality point quite seriously - I don't want to sound dismissive of it.

    Why aren't there court cases being brought up then? If you think the claim is logical there are more than enough libertarian leaning lawyers or simply enough well educated libertarians to mount a legal challenge. That would be a low-cost way to address the issue rather than just talking about it. You wouldn't face death or coercive force from the federal government for doing that.

    And I'm starting to get out of my depths here. Are there any pending court challenges? Or is the idea that there's no chance of success because as a constitutional issue it's a clear point?

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  28. "This contradicts the beginning of the paragraph. They think it's unethical because it's theft."

    I was thinking more along the lines that something doesn't have to be theft to be unethical. An employer can unethically take advantage of workers and we might call that "unethical" even if no contract or property rights were violated. So it does not contradict, because while being unethical is a prerequisite for theft, not every unethical action has to be theft.

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  29. OK - I gotta get back to work.

    For the record, a lot of this is "put together an argument that not many people make, throw it out there, and see what sticks". It's to get people thinking.

    I honestly don't think a lot of libertarians are sincere when they say taxation is theft and I honestly don't think a lot of pro-lifers are sincere when they say abortion is a holocaust. They might not even be aware of the fact they don't REALLY believe these things they say. That doesn't mean this line of argument is air-tight - but I think it is a decent argument, and it's part of the reason why I don't take a lot of these claims seriously.

    Clearly, any single person's beliefs and reaction to those beliefs is a very complicated issue.

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  30. Daniel,

    "That's why I said the Bahamas and not Jamaica. Aren't they lighter interventionists?"

    You're missing the point. The question is whether life would be better in the Bahamas. For most people, the answer is obviously no.

    How this basic point is eluding you is beyond me.

    "Why aren't there court cases being brought up then? "

    Is this a serious question? What course case about taxation as theft would be taken seriously?

    Actually, there is a youtube video or something like that of someone accused of running a stop sign in turn accusing the judge of extortion. The judge basically agreed and said, "live with it".

    If the majority of the population doesn't agree with the cessation of taxes, and the legal system doesn't recognize taxes as theft, what use is a course case?

    "I was thinking more along the lines that something doesn't have to be theft to be unethical."

    Well, no kidding, but what does this have to do with taxes? We are talking about taxes specifically. Libertarians see taxes as unethical because they are involuntary, or otherwise known as theft.

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  31. You're always in a weak spot when you go guessing at other people's convictions based on your own assessment of how they ought to behave given a particular set of convictions.

    Instead of questioning anyone's sincerity, why not question the practical import (if any exists) of the statement that taxation is theft?

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  32. "Americans broadly agree that taxation of citizens is an entirely legitimate and appropriate action. There is nothing criminal or inherently illegitimate about it. We may disagree on what the right level of taxation is, but nobody (aside from a few nuts) actually believe it is theft. It is not a reasonable moral equivalence."


    At one point in history Americans broadly agreed that slavery of some human beings were entirely legitimate. They might have disagreed on the right level of respect, courtesy, & dignity to be exercised in their daily interactions with the slaves.

    Right or Wrong as a popularity contest?

    So how did you think about Taxation when you were a libertarian? Was it illegitimate back then? Did you revolt?

    "If you legitimately think that what the government does is theft and murder, then you have to think they do it on a scale that absolutely dwarfs any other gang of punks or thugs in the world today."


    And you tell us that you were a libertarian? Unbelievable?

    What Jon said!

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  33. Because this:

    Americans broadly agree that taxation of citizens is an entirely legitimate and appropriate action.

    totally determines this:

    There is nothing criminal or inherently illegitimate about it.

    Daniel, just because 99% of the population don't realize they are being stolen from at gunpoint doesn't mean they aren't.

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  34. Isn't this whole post just an argumentum ad populum?

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  35. In response to Mattheus's and Sandre's concerns about legitimacy, I take it that Daniel is speaking in terms of legitimacy of authority the way Weber would. Call the basis of the legitimacy an argumentum ad populum if you want, but this ain't logic class. Legitimacy in politics is simply the status of the scheme of governance that is received and allowed domination. I'm not sure that all of this moralizing is relevant in the case of taxes. We are talking about government minted capital, after all... it seems more completely within the realm of political give-and-take. This isn't like the abortion analogy where we're talking about unborn children, or the slavery analogy where we're talking about men, women, and children.

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  36. Then humor me and surmount it.

    You actually took this in a different direction than I meant to. I meant that something like the pro-life stance, which is tied closely with ideals of the dignity of human life, is probably in some essential sense a pacifist stance. The difficulty I was referring to was the fundamental contradiction of someone speaking for the sanctity of unborn life but taking enemy combatants or capital offenders as legitimate targets of lethal violence. I say that the difficulty isn't surmountable because these pro-lifers would probably just make some reference to the innocence of unborn life or something like that. Perhaps not a convincing response for everyone, but at least it's coherent in pretty important ways.


    What is the difference? Why not agitation for an "execute abortion doctors" policy?

    I think most pro-lifers are more concerned with reducing abortions than with dealing out justice to abortionists. In the same way that the priority in most peoples' minds with regard to murders is to prevent them rather than to execute murderers.

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  37. Evan,

    Legitimacy in politics is simply the status of the scheme of governance that is received and allowed domination.

    I take issue with this statement because it presumes that "government" is existentially something different than a collection of men wearing nametags.

    If I, and a hundred other people, were to run around extorting people for money to regulate financial markets, slow global warming, and give out food stamps - you would rightly conclude that I am a thief.

    I fail to see how this is any different for government.

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  38. sandre -
    I'm not making the claim that majority rules on ethics - I think you're reading the argument too broadly. I had never said "most Americans think taxation is ethical and so that means it is ethical". I did not say it because I don't think it. As for what I thought on taxation - I never remember considering it "theft", but I suppose I certainly thought it was too high.

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  39. Wow - now I see lots of people - sandre, Mattheus, Ryan T - think I'm promoting a majoritarian ethics here. I'm doing nothing of the sort, guys. I'm pointing out that most libertarians don't think it's theft and that most of the population agrees. Evan is right that this broad agreement provides political legitimacy and appropriateness insofar as a community has a right to self-governance. It says nothing about the ethical legitimacy of taxation (although I would say it is indicative of the ethical legitimacy, I wouldn't go farther than that).

    I say some pretty crazy things on here on occasion - but if you think I say "might makes right" you might want to re-read and re-evaluate.

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  40. "I think most pro-lifers are more concerned with reducing abortions than with dealing out justice to abortionists."

    I can see a portion of the pro-life movement being pacifists, but generally speaking they're clearly not. Pacificsts make up too small a portion of the American population and pro-lifers make up too large a portion for it to be an especially large share. So let's be honest, Evan - pro-lifers generally are NOT pacificists. Which is fine - I'm not a pacifist either.

    Now, given that they're not pacifists, don't you think it's a little odd that they would identify it as mass murder but not want any consequences for the mass murderers? That's strange, Evan. That's very strange. Forget "executing abortion doctors" - that may have been too much, given the large Catholic population of pro-lifers especially. But what about jailing abortion doctors for life. No pacifism problem there, Evan. Why is NO ONE except the extremes in the movement advocating this??? That's simply bizarre, Evan. A holocaust four times the size of the Nazi holocaust and no substantial agitation for even jailing abortion doctors. Can you imagine if the German people or the Allies just said they were fine with letting Hitler go back to painting after the war? If after invading Iraq the Iraqi people decided to let Saddam open up a falafel shop? It's ABSURD, Evan. Why don't they demand justice from abortion doctors for this so called "holocaust"? Because they don't really think of it as a holocaust. I can't read their minds - I've already admitted at several points that this is an inference only. But it's the only thing that makes any sense to me.

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  41. And I should note, Evan, when I say "they don't think it is a holocaust" - I'm not saying they don't think it's immoral. They clearly do. But very few pro-lifers draw a moral equivalence between killing a fetus and killing a developed human being. That's my point - not that it's not an immoral act to them, but that it's not really an act of murder to them.

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  42. I take issue with this statement because it presumes that "government" is existentially something different than a collection of men wearing nametags.

    If I, and a hundred other people, were to run around extorting people for money to regulate financial markets, slow global warming, and give out food stamps - you would rightly conclude that I am a thief.


    You bring the name tags, the policies... and the public recognition... you're a government. I'm not by any means presuming that government is existentially anything more than what you say here.

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  43. I'm siding with Jonathan on this one... The costs of opposing the current regime are too high to take a completely principled stand. (There are, of course, exceptions. I'm not very familiar with his case, but isn't this what Irwin Schiff - father to the more famous Peter - is serving time in jail for? A visible (principled?) refusal to pay taxes? Or is this being too kind...?)

    Still, Daniel, perhaps that speaks for your side of the argument as well. Libertarianism to me seems at its core to be a matter of defending inviolable principles. If Government theft IS such a big issue, then perhaps we might have expected more vehement opposition to it in spite of the large costs. Certainly, other defenders of, say, human rights in Apartheid South Africa were not so meek in their defiance.

    Alternatively, maybe this is also just indicative of how small the pool of dyed-in-wool libertarians really is.

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  44. http://econfaculty.gmu.edu/bcaplan/tax

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  45. I feel like I've agreed with Jonathan's point about rationality at several points now. When the costs are too high, you give the robber the money. But you don't just have to refuse to pay or go for armed revolt - maybe I came out too strong initially with that example. The costs Jonathan describes don't exist for legal challenges, or for voter mobilization. I'm told the "taxation is theft" argument is a fairly obvious and logical point. So why isn't it made more regularly in court? Why aren't libertarians doing a mass-voter education on this point and why aren't voters getting it (are they just too dumb? I thought this point was supposed to be obvious).

    Anyway - so I'm not seeing how Jonathan's argument (which I fully concede to - that people will react rationally) changes my point. The behavior of libertarians still doesn't seem to be sincere.

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  46. I guess I'm saying, when you give the robber the money, you still call the police after he leaves, set up a neighborhood watch, improve security at your store, and challenge the robber in court.

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  47. thanks strangeloop - I'll read that and when I get a chance, repost it.

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  48. Now that apartheid South Africa has been brought into this... I really wonder what libertarians think about my above comment:

    We are talking about government minted capital, after all... it seems more completely within the realm of political give-and-take. This isn't like the abortion analogy where we're talking about unborn children, or the slavery analogy where we're talking about men, women, and children.

    I mean, of course property rights are important and all- but this seems to be one pretty big step removed from other analogies that are being offered, at least in terms of moral immediacy. What the government taxes is a pretty abstract thing that floats on the legitimacy of government in the first place. I don't see how it isn't entirely imminent to the system or how its moral status isn't determined relative to what has been decided by the government and the governed. The case is much different when we're talking about persons, who are not so abstract and who don't exist only relative to the political order. In this case various acts of oppression or violation seem more clearly to run up against inviolable principles (or, in a more contested case like abortion, at least seem to be more submissable as such cases).

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  49. I feel like that Jesus guy said something like that.

    This argument, of course, would only apply to a fiat currency.

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  50. Well, that's the best example of it. But I'm not sure it only applies to fiat currency. If the government is stamping and distributing gold coins, wouldn't the situation be relatively similar? And of course more feudal sorts of settings where possessions are orchestrated from the top down would also apply.

    What sorts of relevant examples really wouldn't apply to my argument? (and I'm not saying there aren't any... I'm just more ignorant of economics than anyone else on this blog, so I'm interested in learning more)

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  51. Evan - others know currency history better than I do, but I don't think gold coins were considered a currency that was dependent on the full faith and credit of the Roman government. They did perform a service by minting coins of standard weight, but they did not support the value of the currency in the way that the U.S. government supports the value of the dollar. And they did earn seignorage for the minting process, so it's not like taxes are any kind of compensation for that.

    You are making arguments here that are very similar to those made by Modern Monetary Theorists (which I'm also not that familiar with) - basically that the whole purpose of taxation is to regulare the supply of fiat currency. Government buy things with money created out of thin air, they pay off debts out of thin air, and when they collect taxes the money doesn't go anywhere - it just disappears. The real purpose is a regulation of the medium of exchange.

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  52. Okay, but just so I have it straight... in any really remotely relevant situation, is this sort of critique something that needs to be overcome?

    And I think you credit me with too much by associating me with the modern monetary theorists... I'm not being nearly so specific about what happens to taxed dollars. My point is simply that they're dependent on the system that is being criticized rather than prior or exterior to it. For this reason, any decision on taxes is relative to the wider political structure, and not the sort of thing that lends itself to logical moral arguments of the sort that libertarians would make.

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  53. Stickman,

    "If Government theft IS such a big issue, then perhaps we might have expected more vehement opposition to it."

    Libertarianism is, at root, a movement that emphasizes human rationality, and tries to interpret the role of government as seen from the perspective of the individual. If it is irrational to oppose government, because the costs are higher than the benefits, then I don't see why people should expect that behavior anyways.

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  54. Daniel,

    "I'm told the "taxation is theft" argument is a fairly obvious and logical point. So why isn't it made more regularly in court? Why aren't libertarians doing a mass-voter education on this point and why aren't voters getting it (are they just too dumb? I thought this point was supposed to be obvious)."

    Um, where have you been in the past two years? Living under a rock?

    And, I've already addressed the legal argument.

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  55. Daniel, do you believe minimum wage is efficient?

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  56. strangeloop -
    Probably not. I find the idea of monopsonistic labor markets plausible, though, which is why I say "probably" not, and not "no". That would obviously give a little more scope for minimum wages.

    Supply elasticities for low-wage workers are generally thought to be higher than for other workers, right (and extensive elasticities - to work or not to work - are even higher than intensive elasticities)? That makes me less worried about workers bearing a lot of the deadweight loss of the minimum wage. On top of that, redistributing income towards low-wage workers is going to augment demand, which is going to move the demand for low-wage labor out.

    I don't know - I haven't tracked the minimum wage literature closely, but those are some reasons why it really doesn't keep me up at night.

    Compared to other problems, I think the minimum wage is probably among the least concerns for low wage workers - and it would make life better for a lot of them.

    But it is dicey, right? They will bear some of the dead weight from this measure. Better, I think, to have a wage subsidy that ensures that they don't bear that dead-weight and do get all the benefits of a minimum wage. That's my preference.

    We do have such a wage subsidy - the EITC. That's a supply-side subsidy. I'd like to see a demand side subsidy too.

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  57. So I guess my answer is "it's inefficient, but the inefficiencies probably don't fall that heavily on low wage workers and it can help low wage workers a lot".

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  58. I would argue more simply (and perhaps simple-mindedly) that such a price floor creates a shortage of labor (i.e., forced unemployment). Like you, I would perhaps consider this an empirical question considering other variables.

    My larger point was that if deadweight losses and other social costs are being imposed on the population, then why is there not rebellion?

    The truth of the matter is that monitoring government performance is a public good and, hence, it is underproduced (in a similar vein to the rational ignorance of voters).

    Is taxation a cost? Well, let's admit that tax evasion (or avoidance) is endemic. If it not moralized as "theft," then taxation is still not clearly desired.

    I would argue that:

    (1) Ideologically, "government is good" is taught to us at a very early age, and moral beliefs are cultural or at least idiosyncratic, not fact-based.
    (2) There are collective action problems in rebellion (cf. "The Rebel's Dilemma").
    (2) Interest trumps mere words; the benefits of statelessness might not yet exceed the transaction costs. If the benefits of anarcho-capitalism readily outweighed the costs of transition, then no one would need to propagandize Rothbard’s writings. Furthermore, I believe as Pareto did, that our ideologies are typically post-hoc rationalizations of our interests (and so, if government can be used for our preference-satisfaction or because we cannot overturn it, then our ideologies are shaped to justify that).

    As a moral nihilist, I would not claim that “taxation is theft” is objectively true; however, if consent is lacking, I’m not sure what else I would call it. Similarly, I am repulsed that my property or my autonomy can be restricted by the forces that demand my income, etc.; that aversion is surely due to a moral sentiment.

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  59. I like this point very much: "The truth of the matter is that monitoring government performance is a public good and, hence, it is underproduced (in a similar vein to the rational ignorance of voters)."

    I would imagine constitutional democracies serve us well in this regard - constitutions provide an easy benchmark against which to evaluate government performance, which standardizes monitoring and therefore makes it easier. Democratic institutions obviously make government more accessible and therefore easier to monitor. But regardless - it is a public good which we can fully expect to be underinvested in.

    "Is taxation a cost? Well, let's admit that tax evasion (or avoidance) is endemic. If it not moralized as "theft," then taxation is still not clearly desired."

    Certainly. Moral outrage at a violation of property rights and pecuniary aversion to the imposition of costs are two different things. Taxes are certainly a cost.

    (1) Ideologically, "government is good" is taught to us at a very early age, and moral beliefs are cultural or at least idiosyncratic, not fact-based.

    This is interesting... I would be a little more nuanced. I think generally speaking Americans at least are taught "government is bad", but there are a few specific things - military, Civil Rights, etc. etc. that we are taught are "good".

    There are collective action problems in rebellion (cf. "The Rebel's Dilemma").

    Certainly - but there are collective action problems in erecting a republic with the power of taxation as well. The fact that that was achieved suggests people think it's case is fairly legitimate whereas the "tax is theft" rebel's case is less legitimate. Dictatorship is one thing - that doesn't take that much collective action, but a democratic republic has a lot of collective action problems - at least as much as tax revolutionaries who allegedly have logic on their sides.

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  60. "Moral outrage at a violation of property rights and pecuniary aversion to the imposition of costs are two different things. Taxes are certainly a cost."

    But moral outrage isn't only legitimate when populism supports it.

    A Nazi solider quoted in the book Bloodlands stated, "During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants. I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse. The death that we gave them was a beautiful quick death, compared to the hellish torments of thousands and thousands in the jails of the GPU. Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them in pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water." His lack of moral outrage doesn't warrant his actions as being moral.

    The moral outrage of abolitionists was not wrong simply because actual abolition didn't occur instantaneously.

    Of course, as I see it, moral outrage is simply that: an aesthetico-emotional response to a situation, not a judgment generated by an objective standard.

    More simply, to reiterate an early point, libertarians are probably sincere, but they lack the means of achieving their ends. Patri Friedman, for insance, is working on alternative societies being engineered because that is a low-cost alternative to both (1) enlightening the masses and (2) overthrowing government by force.

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  61. But moral outrage isn't only legitimate when populism supports it.

    Clearly. Moral outrage is also not apparent simply because the words are spoken.

    His lack of moral outrage doesn't warrant his actions as being moral.

    I can't imagine anyone would claim it did.

    The moral outrage of abolitionists was not wrong simply because actual abolition didn't occur instantaneously.

    Also quite obvious.

    More simply, to reiterate an early point, libertarians are probably sincere, but they lack the means of achieving their ends.

    This would be nice, and perhaps true for a portion. I have a hard time believing it's true for a lot of them - I think a fair share are simply hyperbolic. But we've been through all that. The example of Schiff is a good one - he clearly believes it. Other cases are more ambiguous and you and I both can only speculate

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  62. "I'm told the "taxation is theft" argument is a fairly obvious and logical point. So why isn't it made more regularly in court?"

    Ask Irwin Schiff.

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  63. I'm sure by now this thread is tapped out, but I'd like to offer a point of clarification. I've never heard taxation described as theft by libertarians. What I have heard is taxation described as coercive redistribution. It is coercive in that if one fails to pay taxes, one can be subject to a multitude of restrictions including prison. Given the lack of an authority to flee to above that of the government in the country in which you reside, the ability to "call in the law" is invalid. Given the improbability of organizing a "rival gang" with the ability to combat the federal government, such a possibility is implausible. When you have no option within the law or outside the law, why would a rational actor join "expansive rebel groups" with no hope of success? The fact that the congress is not full of like minded individuals is not evidence of their absolute absence (although your point is that taxation is something stronger than coercive). Anyway, I argue that when you characterize the argument this way, rather than theft, it seems somewhat more reasonable.

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