The Ethics Of… Taxes and other forms of Theft

Gonna be quick one this week dear readers. Between a surprising surge in work, general poor planning and the fact that I currently have a cat down my jumped (yes seriously) that seems content but is getting a bit enthusiastic with the claws, my time is limited so I’m going to try (and likely fail) to keep this concise.

His name is Jacob. He shows affection by hurting me.

Taxes. No one likes them. Citizens don’t like them, businesses don’t like them, government needs them but given the huge amount of backlash they get for creating new ones, I’m willing to bet they’re not big fans either.

Yet at the end of the day they pay for all the boring but necessary stuff in life like police and roads and stuff, so we do our very best to weasel out of them as far as possible then begrudgingly put up with the rest.

Well, most of us do anyway. Some folks on the other hand get quite the bee in their bonnet about it.

Given the Australian Federal Government just released its new budget this week and to the total surprise of nearly everyone it included a sizable new tax on banks. Given this is coming from a right wing government, such a move is pretty damn unexpected and it’s set both sides of politics off pretty heavily. Lefties are pleased but suspicious, waiting for the other shoe to drop as it almost always does. Right wingers on the other hand, particularly the libertarian elements that have been so vocal recently, are absolutely bloody furious.

Little ashamed at using clipart, but damn if this isn’t exactly what I was imagining.

Why? Because whereas most people dislike taxes but accept their purpose, libertarians and other devotees of neoliberal economics see tax as simple theft. They understand the essential idea of taxes-for-collective-services of course, and they’re not opposed to the idea of collective pooling of resources either – corporations are some of their favourite things after all.

No, what they object to is the idea that any individual can be compelled by the state (or anyone for that matter) to surrender part of their property against their will. That may sound melodramatic, but when you get down to it, it’s also completely accurate; fail to pay your taxes voluntarily and the state will take whatever measures it needs to in order to take your property, up to and including the use of force against your person if you fail to comply.

The whole idea of taxes and tax avoidance being illegal are so ingrained into society that you might not even see the problem with this so far – of course tax evasion will lead to prosecution, and if you’re stupid enough to physically fight to cops then obviously things are going to end badly for you. Duh. Don’t be an idiot, just pay your taxes and avoid all that pointless trouble, right?

Consider the same scenario away from context and it looks nothing short of sinister. Imagine if the neighbourhood watch in your area turned up on your door, told you they were raising funds for a new stop sign and the demanded that you contribute. Even if you were down with the idea of a new stop sign and might have been keen to contribute, being told that contribution was mandatory is liable to piss anyone off – I’ll bloody well decide if I give my hard-earned cash to your little project, thankyou very much, and you can piss right off in the meantime.

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But imagine they don’t piss off. Imagine they produce weapons and tell you that you will contribute to the project or they will take the money off you, and maybe lock you in the garden shed for a few days to teach you a lesson. Regardless of whether it’s for a good cause, or whether it’s for the benefit of the neighbourhood you happen to live in, that’s outright extortion pure and simple. And yet that exact process forms the economic foundation of every nation on earth.

What the hell.

The cat has now decided to perched on my shoulders, just FYI. This can only end badly.

No matter who you are, the first time you hear this analysis laid out it’s a bit of a holy crap moment. I remember first being taught this in a room full of first-year environmental management students, about as radically left-wing a group of people as you could imagine, and even the hardcore communists paused when the implications sunk in – holy crap, that is completely accurate. The very notion of taxation is based upon very blatant (if tacitly consensual) theft. That’s a pretty damning observation for the concept of government as a whole and goes a long way to supporting the libertarian/anarchist idea that government should piss off and let people live however they want to live.

Unfortunately for the libertarians and the anarchists, this argument has two pretty major flaws;

The first is the assumption that taxes are forced contribution to services you have yet to receive and therefore should have a choice about contributing to. I actually kind of like the idea that taxpayers have more of a say over how their contributions are spent – give me an option where I can pay for social security but not our involvement in the Iraq War and I’ll dive all over that, thankyou very much. But here’s the thing about taxation and the services the create and maintain – they do not spring out of nowhere. They are built over enormous periods of time through the common labour and wealth of a nation, with each generation inheriting a better civilisation than the previous. I was born into an industrialised nation with modern medicine, extremely low infant mortality, effective prevention of preventable disease, modern infrastructure and quality of life, a decent economy enabling good job prospects, and an excellent education system enabling me to make the most of my potential. Literally all of this was based on the tax contributions of a dozen generations before me, directly to my benefit, and towards which I was legally prohibited from contributing to until I became employable at 16 (and preferably later).

In this sense taxes are less a theft from individuals for services they may or may not want, and more debt collection for the services we already receive simply by virtue of being born in a civilised society. From an ethical point of view this is a nice solid deontological response to the ‘tax is theft’ deontological claim – a Duty to match a Right as it were. You may indeed choose not to pay any taxes, but to gain this right you must never have ever received any benefit from civilisation, including any benefits your parents may have gained and subsequently passed on to you. So unless we want to start dumping kids into the wilderness at birth, this Right becomes irrelevant pretty damn fast.

Your semi-regular reminder that the ‘heroes’ of the film 300 regularly murdered their own babies. That is all.

But of course this isn’t the end of the debate – there’s still plenty of room left for nuance here. Just because you were born the recipient of all the benefits, does not mean that you are automatically beholden to society; you can disagree with how things are currently done and the direction things are going. Indeed it could indeed be considered a Duty to fight to correct the direction society is going in if you do (assuming of course that you’re right). If refusing to pay your taxes is a part of that fight, then the argument could be made that your Duty to improve your nation supersedes your Duty to pay taxes for the benefits you do receive.

Of course this then begs the question of ‘which duty is more important and how is that determined?’, which in turn leads to the far larger question of ‘who says any of these duties mean anything anyway?’. And once again we’re back to the major flaw of any rule/duty-based deontological system of ethics – they may be useful, easy to communicate and great to enforce, but at the end of the day they are only real because we collectively decide that they are real. Remove that agreement and they immediately cease to exist. And when what we’re talking about is the financial mechanism that underpins every society on earth, that simply will not do.

Fortunately there is a second and larger criticism of the ‘taxes are theft’ argument that doesn’t rely on supposed duty; basically the point that it works, and every other alternative system proposed so far does not. This is a utilitarian argument and therefore doesn’t give a damn about either duties or rights. Oh you think forcible taxes are theft and infringe on your Right to property? Whoop-de-do mate, cause utilitarians don’t believe that ‘Right’ exists beyond your own head, and think that negative actions like theft can absolutely be justified in the right circumstances.

Move beyond the structure of Rights and Duties, do the maths and the picture becomes pretty clear – taxation for communal benefit just… works. It allows for organised long-term planning for a large and diverse community of people, has demonstrably led to continual improvement over time, and has lead to the aforementioned massive number of goods and service we all receive essentially as a birthright and without any contribution to their creation.

Now obviously part of the ‘taxes as theft’ argument and libertarian ideology in general is that there are better option out there to achieve these communal goods – generally that individuals should be given the freedom to decide what works best for themselves, and a free market will ultimately decide what we collectively agree is important and what is not. But as previously discussed at length on here, that simply will not work. Such ‘freedom’ models sound great on paper but leave absolutely no way of resolving conflict – conflicts that are absolutely guaranteed to occur when everyone is working towards what they personally think is right without any governing standards. We struggle to tackle global-scale issue such as climate change as it is – imagine how much worse we’d be at it when no group has the authority to represent each nation and such decisions are left to the market. In fact, don’t worry about imagining it, we know exactly what would happen thanks to the decades-long systematic effort by fossil fuel corporations to deny climate change even exists – not exactly an effective strategy for managing our shared futures.

So yeah, taxes are indeed theft. But since they’re also the only mechanism we have to ensure we continue to progress as a species, so be it.

4 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Taxes and other forms of Theft

  1. Great breakdown as always. I tend to go with the first criticism of the “tax is theft” argument more….just because it seems very obvious that we’ve benefited from this system. I guess I have also used the second one too…just more generally. “Well it works, and there is no society that doesn’t have taxes. If there were better systems out there, I am sure at least somebody would be using them and showing us how awesome it all works.” lol

    • Hi Swarn! Thanks for the comment and apologies about the delay replying as always. Uni work had me flat out for the end of the semester (how’s your work going by the way?). Yeah before I sat down and actually formalised the argument I had pretty much the same attitude. ‘Taxes are theft? Eh, they work.’ Not exactly a compelling rebuttal but, hey, it’s true.

  2. This only works if you believe in a state, and some political groups don’t believe in states and see taxation as completely ludicrous.

    • Hi GoldJadeSpiceCocoa, thanks for the comment.
      Very true, good point. The article was written mainly in reference to the current realities, so didn’t consider that. However the same essential analysis applies to and collective group – any community, regardless of structure or scope, will have common goals that are best served by sacrifice (to some degree or other) of the liberties of individuals within the group – eg. helping build a house together doesn’t purely benefit any individual directly, but benefits everyone to some degree. Such a collective might not have monetary taxes, but that individual contribution to the collective good could be argued to be the same thing via labour.

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