For a very long time (far too long, frankly), I completely accepted the phrase “taxation is theft” as an axiom. Despite the fact that I had never really thought the whole process of taxation through, I trusted the reasoning given by many people I respected: if it’s your money, and it’s taken from you involuntarily via threat of force, it’s theft. I mean, what else could it be?
Anyone who realizes that the social contract postulation didn’t end with Hobbes, and that modern interpretations of the concept do in fact allow for classical liberalism to still make sense alongside it, already realize that this issue is up for interpretation. The world (as well as the processes within it that make societies sustainable, functioning places) is far more nuanced than libertarians give it credit for, and the liberty movement suffers as a result.
What interpretation is out there that takes this aforementioned nuance into account? Let’s work up to it by examining what the actual process of taxation entails:
You work your ass off, then the government forces you through laws enforced by government agents to cough up a certain percentage and give it to Uncle Sam. Now, here’s the interesting part: you do get a return on your investment. Granted, it’s a forced investment, and the returns you get back may not always be what you particularly endorsed or asked for, but you do get something back. Therefore, by definition, taxation is not theft. And when libertarians go around claiming that it is all the time, it harms the movement. Why? Because as a growing activist movement we want–need–intellectuals on our side. People who are smart, eloquent, savvy, and educated. People with influence. People with respected professions and public visibility (the good kind, of course). And the cold, hard truth of the matter is that smart people already know that taxation is not theft, and calling it theft (especially going so far as to compare it to outright armed robbery) will only continue to deter those who actually know how taxation works.
But that’s okay, because what taxation actually amounts to is something much worse when put under the microscope: extortion. “Extortion” as a buzzword has an enormous advantage over “theft,” not only because it is actually true, but because extortion is equally unpleasant to all political stripes, even the most tax-loving, free-college-seeking, entitled liberals. Who wants to be threatened into paying into something inefficient and wasteful that only benefits you some of the time? Who wants to be coerced into financially supporting what one might see as an unjust cause? Nobody. How many liberals would leap at the chance to shout “taxation is extortion!” right alongside a libertarian? Quite a few. Such a common cause could really help convert some to our side and help grow the movement.
Also, from a sheer rhetorical standpoint, misguided libertarians sticking to the “theft” claim is just not a very exciting rallying cry. Complaining about taxation for selfish-sounding reasons (it’s theft; the government stole my money!) vs. altruistic-sounding reasons (it’s extortion; we are all being forced to pay into a system that gives dismal returns and funds a lot of harmful policies!) is not a good strategy if what we are after is growth.
But instead, as usual, many libertarians choose to dig in their heels and stay stuck in their ways. Calling taxation “theft” probably seems a lot edgier, and saying anything less is surely considered a “statist” perspective by many in the liberty movement, but the reality is undeniable: the best potential allies to libertarianism are not going to be taken in by this vacuous phrase. The best potential allies to libertarianism are already wise enough to see right through it.
This post was written by Micah J. Fleck.
The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.
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