Taxation Isn’t Theft & That Hashtag Doesn’t Make You Edgy

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.

Image: Shutterstock

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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mjf2184@columbia.edu'/
Micah J. Fleck is a journalist and political writer who has spent the past several years developing his sincere-yet-indecypherable political outlook through independent research. While an enthusiast of both American history and economics, Mr. Fleck typically comes at his topics from a more anthropological perspective. His writings and interviews have been featured in various publications - including The National Review, The Libertarian Republic, The Wall Street Journal, and The College Fix - and he is currently earning a degree in anthropology at Columbia University. To support this author's work, visit his website.
  • A-Train

    Wrong: It’s theft.

    • dg54321

      Broken promises.

      • A-Train

        Amen bruh.

  • Weak.

    > 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.

    By what definition exactly? A mugger who throws some change back at you still committed theft.

    > because what taxation actually amounts to is something much worse when put under the microscope: extortion.

    Extortion is a subset of theft. Taxation is both.

    • Jake Leonard

      It’s also slavery, because you’re forced to pay it or else be thrown in prison several years later for tax evasion, which is an absolute bullshit charge. Hell, might as well consider Al Capone an anarchist, because he didn’t pay taxes for years until he got busted for “evading” $215,000 in back taxes (based on the dollar value in 1931, which was pretty much worthless in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash). That’s like “evading” nearly $3.5 million in taxes today.

      Taxation is a bunch of horseshit…

  • Newtronic

    If you want to argue the specific terminology instead of ideas and use it to make the claim that taxation is not theft, then OK, I’ll play: Taxation is extortion.

    Now we are done.

  • Jake Leonard

    Sorry, but I disagree.
    Taxation is theft in every sense of the word.
    Taxation is extortion in every sense of the word.
    Taxation is slavery in every sense of the word.

  • BYODB

    It seems to me that the author is speaking mostly in regards to political strategy rather than the deeper philosophical implications of if it’s this or that type of theft. The idea is optics rather than strict principle here.

  • KWB75

    Weak argument my friend. It’s still not a justification for the government pickpocketing​ it’s citizens every April! What if the things I get back in return are things I don’t want or are substandard in opinion what then? This country ran just fine before the advent of our current tax code and the IRS. #taxationisSTILLtheft

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  • Maxwell Thomas

    Kyle? Kyle Wagner?

  • Brett Powers

    What the eff? “Forced investment?????” The minute you force, dude, it’s theft. The Mafia said exactly the same thing, and we call that extortion.

    Your essay fails in the instant you invoke that phrase.

  • nevada_geon

    Hey stupid fuck, find the clause in the Constitution that grants the federal givernment the power to steal my labor and hand it to someone else to use to buy shit with. Moron.

  • Mike Campbell

    Was this article written for any other reason that to annoy libertarians?

    If I cam to your house and took your life savings at gunpoint, you would call it theft right? Let’s say that I used some of that money to invest in bees to help pollinate our neighborhood and I invested the rest in Iragi Dinar on your behalf. Would I get off the hook for the theft charge? Sure, I took the money from you, but I invested it in things that will benefit you in the future.

    There is no caveat attached to theft in relation with how the thief uses the stolen money. Theft is theft, it isn’t conditional.

    Your ‘undeniable reality’ is very easily denied. A few days ago I wrote a 5-digit check to the IRS. The whole process of tax prep is both painful and infuriating. Theft is much more reactionary.

    I guess you can say extortion, it is technically true. But in today’s climate of SJW’s and the Regressive Left, I don’t think this is enough to get their juices going. You may get them to rise up and stand with us if you call someone racist or you tell them The IRS doesn’t allow transitioning males in the Women’s bathroom. If it doesn’t have that slant you will hear crickets from the left. My assessment- we need to focus on winning converts from the right/alt-right and leave the Regressive Left to grow up. Once they have exhausted their fake racial witch hunts and ‘femenist’ issues, they will come around to real policies and concerns.

  • zighunter0

    Alliteration is king, taxation is theft.

  • Matthew Denniston

    Smart people don’t take memes as 100% Truth.

  • Grady

    “Now, here’s the interesting part: you do get a return on your investment.”
    Sorry – that is just plain mischaracterization of the word “investment”. An investment is an expenditure of money for a defined goal. While there may be risk involved, the goal is defined, and the expenditure is *intentional*: I *choose* to invest – or not.

    “Granted, it’s a forced investment, and the returns you get back may not always be what you particularly endorsed or asked for …”
    “Forced investment” is an oxymoron. The returns I get back were not only not what I endorsed or asked for, they are things I *actively opposed* – again, this *destroys* any notion of taxes being an investment: even the biggest fool on the planet doesn’t purposely invest in his own harm.

    “… but you do get something back.”
    How does that make it not theft? If an armed thug on the street pokes a gun in my face and takes my wallet with 10 grand in it, and hands me back an uncirculated 2013 penny in collector’s case – I got something back for my “forced investment” in the well-being of the robber. Is the robber then no longer a thief? Is my 10 grand any less stolen because of that penny?

    ” Therefore, by definition, taxation is not theft.”
    No, by definition, poor argumentation is still poor argumentation – and this article is poor argumentation. It uses flawed logic – repeatedly – in an abject failure to make any sense – and in the process ignores things like dictionaries.

  • Emmett

    People need to read and watch Irwin Schiff and Larken `Rose (both on Youtube) for a real wake up call.

  • Emmett

    The taxing of ones labour is not only theft and extortion is actually criminal. The founding fathers were never in favor of direct taxation (only in times of war), Taxes were all to be indirect. If we are to have taxes at all the only fair taxes are indirect.

  • Matthew Swaringen

    “Because as a growing activist movement we want–need–intellectuals on our side.” – We already have them. People like Tom Woods. People like Robert Murphy. People with principles far more consistent than yours that don’t change their position because they think it sounds “edgy” in the wrong way.

  • jmillsintacoma

    “The best potential allies to libertarianism are not going to be taken in”? Who are you talking about? The people who think taxation is extortion, but not theft? Who is in that group?

    Most all of those who do not see taxation as theft subscribe to the idea that “we vote to tax ourselves.” Obviously, if you want to tax yourself, you don’t need to vote; you just mail a check to the Department of Revenue. We vote to tax our neighbor – the one who won’t voluntarily send in his money, and then make our neighbor pay.

    Most people who are even vaguely supportive of the Liberty Movement recognize that as theft. I don’t think there are supporters out there ready to jump in who are held back because taxation is extortion rather than theft.

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