If you’ve spent any amount of time on social media or any amount of time studying government, chances are you’ve come across a mantra espoused among self-identified libertarians and hardcore conservatives: “Taxation is theft!”
I think it’s just about the lamest, most indefensible tag line I’ve ever heard. Taxation isn’t theft.
When attempting to defend the “taxation is theft” argument, proponents of the belief almost universally rely on two lines of reasoning. The first line employs a rather bland example that attempts to draw parallels between robbery at gunpoint and paying your taxes. Basically, the comparison boils down to something like this: since both situations involve the transfer of property under a “threat of force,” and since one is considered a crime, the other must be as well. The second line of reasoning is far less compelling, but seemingly no less prominent. It is, simply, that while various other forms of taxation are tolerable, income tax, specifically, is theft due to the fact that it is “unconstitutional.”
Let’s address these arguments one at a time.
The Gunpoint Comparison
The use of force isn’t the only thing that matters when comparing these two situations. Context matters. For instance, if someone starts physically assaulting you without provocation, and you throw a few punches in return, your actions wouldn’t be considered assault; they would be considered self-defense. Though the actions of you and your attacker would be similar in form, only one of you would be breaking the law, and only one of you would expect to spend any time in prison as a result of your altercation.
So what makes taxation and robbery contextually different? There are at least three overlapping answers to this question: (1) your consent, (2) government authority, (3) the justness of tax laws.
If you willingly consent to being taxed, the fact that you are taxed cannot qualify as theft. Where consent exists, the transfer of funds to the government becomes voluntary, and is done without coercion on the part of the government. As coercion is a necessary element to make the gunpoint comparison effectual, a lack of coercion makes the comparison a false one.
Assuming you are not an anarchist or free-rider, your consent to be taxed can be easily derived from your acknowledgement that some government services (e.g. police and military) are necessary, must be funded, and — as they ought to benefit all persons impartially — must be funded by all persons.
Your consent to be taxed can further be derived from your agreement to live as part of a society, and not in a state of nature, i.e. to live and behave according to a “social contract”.
In a nutshell, social contract theory posits that society consensually gives the government authority to make and enforce laws. In return, the government protects the rights of all persons and provides various public goods. As all members of society benefit from the establishment of government, they are obligated to contribute toward its continued existence. This theory is widely expounded upon by philosophers like John Locke in his Two Treatises on Government.
“But I didn’t sign a contract!” It’s an argument you’ll hear plenty if you suggest to a “taxation is theft” advocate that a social contract exists. Well that’s a pretty weak defense. Honestly, if you expect people to follow laws, expect police to enforce laws, and acknowledge that if you break a law you must face the consequence of that action, you’ve acknowledged the existence of a social contract.
The social contract further separates taxation from robbery due to the power it gives the government — what Max Weber would call a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Imagine you’re driving down a road, going well over the speed limit. Imagine a police officer flashes his lights at you, pulls you over, and writes you a ticket. You’re either going to pay it or contest it, but either way you have to take it seriously. Now imagine that instead of a police officer, a random person without a uniform or badge tries to pull you over. Let’s say they try to write you a ticket. Would you take them seriously? No. The reason being that they have no authority to write a ticket to you or anyone else.
Yes, the police use force, but they (unlike a robber) have been legitimately authorized to use that force to uphold the law. The legitimacy of their authority stems from the government, which, in turn, derives its power from the people in the society it governs.
It’s important to realize here that while government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, consent is offered by society as a whole, not individual persons. If each individual had the power to personally revoke the power of government, there could be no administration of justice. Any person charged with any crime could simply say, “I don’t recognize X-law,” and would then necessarily be set free without punishment. There would, in effect, be no government of any kind.
The Justness of Tax Laws
But what if tax laws are unjust? In Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he argues that every person “has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” This principle can be easily applied to any number of instances in history. Laws that enslaved and discriminated against African-Americans come to mind as one example, as do laws that made it illegal to hide Jews from Nazis in WWII, and laws that allowed British soldiers to abuse the rights of American colonists prior to the Revolutionary War. These laws, though enacted by a governments, were all unjust, and as such rightly opposed. But King also argues that people have a legal and moral responsibility “to obey just laws.” The question becomes, then, how we can know whether or not a law is just? Luckily, King provides a litmus test for doing just that. For a law to be just, he says, it must “[square] with moral law.”
So, is taxation moral? Yes, and for at least two reasons: (1) it makes people more free, and (2) it prevents people from free-riding.
How do taxes make people more free? The answer has already been alluded to. In a state of nature, there is no government; there are no rules by which society functions. With nothing to restrain them, the strong naturally prey upon the weak, taking what they want, when they want it, and denying all who cannot defend themselves the opportunity to exercise any right to life, liberty, property, or the pursuit of happiness. According to Thomas Hobbes, life for all persons in this environment is “nasty, brutish, and short,” for even the strong must live in constant fear of other strong people.
Governments are instituted for this reason: to ensure that the rights of all people are protected. According to Adam Smith in his seminal work, “The Wealth of Nations,” it is impossible to exercise a right to property without government; and according to Immanuel Kant, a society that lacks a government capable of protecting rights cannot be a free and just society.
Governments and laws are instituted to protect people’s rights. Police are given authority to enforce laws, and militaries employed to protect the governments and people who make them. Assuming the police and military fulfill their intended purposes, all persons are now more free to exercise their rights. Police work, then, and the establishment of militaries, benefit all people.
Police and military organizations are not free. They must be funded, and as they benefit all people in a society, it is absolutely moral to expect that all members of that society contribute to their existence, and absolutely moral to enact laws demanding people do so. If those laws did not exist, there would inevitably be those who would refuse to contribute towards the maintenance of the society from which they benefit. Tax laws prevent this dereliction of duty.
- If you consent to paying taxes or to living by the rules society has established, you have agreed to be taxed.
- If you don’t consent to paying taxes or living by the rules of the society where you live, local government authorities still have the authority to use legitimate force to make sure the rule of law is maintained within their jurisdictions, thereby compelling you to pay whatever taxes those laws demand you pay.
- As the benefits of taxation are shared by all, laws that require that everyone be taxed are just, and cannot be opposed simply on the basis that people don’t like giving up a portion of their income.
If you’re at all confused about why thinking taxation is theft makes you a anarchist or a free-rider, please see the following flow chart:
The Constitutionality of (Income) Taxation
“The income tax is unconstitutional!”
That those who employ this second line of reasoning still take up the “taxation is theft” banner confuses me because it’s a very different argument. Regardless of constitutionality, if one truly believes that some forms of taxation are acceptable, it seems ludicrous to stand so brazenly behind an unqualified mantra that demonizes all taxation. Think of it this way: someone could argue that “cars are blue,” but if they know that the majority of cars aren’t blue, it would be illogical for them to argue the point they’ve made without qualification. So it is with taxation. If someone knows or believes that the majority of taxes are constitutional, it is illogical for them to use language that demonizes all taxes.
But let’s look at the constitutionality of the income tax. The argument that it isn’t constitutional is more or less that the 16th amendment — the amendment that gives the federal government authority to tax income — wasn’t properly ratified. By this reasoning, the amendment literally isn’t part of the Constitution.
To be properly ratified, a proposed amendment to the Constitution must be ratified by three-fourths of the states, in their various legislatures. This was first accomplished in 1913, when 36 of the 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii had yet to become part of the union) ratified the amendment. At this point, tax protesters typically offer two arguments (though there are others): (1) that Ohio — one of the 36 states to ratify the amendment — was not a state at the time, and (2) that many of the various state legislatures that ratified the amendment actually ratified different versions of the amendment.
“Ohio Shouldn’t Count!”
As to Ohio’s statehood, the US congress approved the admission of Ohio as a state in 1803, but it is true that it did not technically complete the legislative steps to admit Ohio to the Union until 1953. That said, when the steps were completed, congress acknowledged its error and established 1803 as the year that Ohio joined the Union. That may make you feel uncomfortable, but the truth is that even if Ohio wasn’t technically a state when it ratified the 16th amendment, two additional states — Massachusetts and New Hampshire — ratified the amendment just over a month later, bringing the number of ratifying states up to 38. At that point, even if Ohio’s ratification of the amendment were discounted, more than enough states would still have approved its addition to the constitution.
“They Voted on Different Amendments!”
Did all the ratifying states ratify the same version of the amendment? No, but if the extent to which the different versions of the ratified amendment differ is enough to invalidate them, then I’m afraid the US doesn’t actually have a constitution of any kind. Let me explain: It is true that the text voted on in several state legislatures did not exactly mirror that passed by congress. In some versions, there were semicolons where there should have been commas, or capitalizations of words that should or should not have been capitalized. “The instrument from Illinois had ‘remuneration’ in place of ‘enumeration’; the instrument from Missouri substituted ‘levy’ for ‘lay’; the instrument from Washington had ‘income’ not ‘incomes.’”
At the end of the day, however, none of the legislatures that ratified the 16th amendment voted on text that was substantively different from that passed by congress, and each of the 38 states that voted in favor of the amendment reported to the US Attorney General that they had ratified the amendment as it was passed by Congress. Courts have repeatedly established that objections to the 16th amendment on the grounds of errors in punctuation are frivolous; and let’s be honest: do you really think that when the US Constitution was first written, that thirteen versions of the document all went out to the various states without any errors in spelling, capitalization, or punctuation? What about all the versions of the Bill of Rights? If you think the exact same text of these documents was ratified by each of the states and the federal government, you’d be wrong.
If, then, one believes that the Constitution and Bill of Rights are legitimate despite errors in spelling and punctuation, these errors cannot be logically employed to say that the 16th amendment is illegitimate. It’s as simple as that.
Taxation isn’t theft. It is the legitimate law of the land and the society in which you live. It is not unjust. It is moral, and as such you have an obligation to follow it. It differs from theft in that the threat of force is not always necessary to initiate the transfer of money, and when it is, that force is legitimately authorized by the people in society.
With all that said, I don’t want to give the impression that I think people ought to happy with whatever tax system the government implements simply because it is the government that institutes it. It is perfectly valid to think one ought to be taxed more or less, to think less tax revenue should be wasted, and to think that tax money shouldn’t be used to support various specific activities. Waste by the government, for instance, insofar as it can be avoided, is absolutely unjust, and ought to be opposed. Additionally, there are any number of things that groups of people don’t want their tax dollars to be spent on. Abortions come to mind as a frequently cited example among conservatives.
Protests like these can be legitimate. What cannot be legitimate are arguments claiming that taxation is, by default, wrong and comparable to theft. It simply isn’t true.