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Motherhood and Taxes

Josh writes in response to this article:

I think most people do recognize that theft is wrong when performed by large groups or majorities. This is clearly shown by the public's overwhelmingly negative reaction to the recent corporate scandals — theft of property — and by the (mostly recent) rejection of segregation — theft of liberty or civil rights. I don't think it's so much that people don't see government taxation as theft, but see it as beyond the consideration of theft because they see government as something wholly different than simply a large organization or majority. I think people see value in being taxed, and that's why they comply with taxation.

That's true; in some circumstances people have recognized large-scale theft. I think Josh has it exactly right that people "see government as something wholly different than simply a large organization."

… Government is fundamentally different than any other organization because it is the only entity allowed to use force. Government is defined by force.

This does make government special. But not unique. Individuals still retain the right of self-defense, and private security companies and guards are widespread. These examples of non-government force are also legitimate — and, unlike government, operate without theft.

Some forceful government action is legitimate. Some forceful private action is legitimate. Some forceful government action is illegitimate, and some forceful private action is illegitimate. Private theft is always illegitimate. Why isn't this also true for government theft?

I know that you don't buy into the 'social contract' theory, but I think it has some merit if you view society as competing but cooperative individuals. Individuals cannot cooperate unless there are rules defined under which they can conduct business and an authority defined to enforce the rules. I know that you agree that this authority is government's proper role, to define and defend rights. I'm sure that you must also agree that goverment needs funding to perform these functions.

Yes.

Though social contract adherents are wrong in seeing the social contract as a source of morality, I do believe that it is a useful abstraction for examining the relationship of government to individuals. That 'contract', in my mind, grants government the authority to tax as the 'ante' to participate in the society defined by the government. Government should rightfully have the authority to tax you because it must have money to be effective in performing the tasks assigned to it by its nature. If you have no taxes, then you can't possibly have effective government for there will be no ability to fund enforcement.

I am very sympathetic to this argument. It is, fundamentally, why I accept subpoena power. And it's also why a total end to forced taxation is among the last, not first, changes I would like to see in the government.

I've seen arguments in support for voluntary taxation, but (in my laymen's understanding of economics) I don't think it could possibly yield enough income to support the budget that even a Rand-approved government would require. The simplest example I can think of is the extraordinary amount of money required for foreign defense against first the communist bloc and now terrorism.

I don't know how much revenue would be raised by voluntary means, either. I wouldn't get rid of forced taxation until it was clear that voluntary sources would be sufficient. And, of course, the transition from forced to voluntary sources would be gradual.

The military certainly is expensive. There's a useful summary table (S-10) in the 2006 federal budget that shows 2004 military spending as $436 billion of total federal outlays of $2,292 billion, or 19%. (As a percentage of total government spending, including state and local spending, it is less.) But national defense is a purpose I'm happy to contribute to, even as I might quibble about the sums involved.

It's things like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — together more than twice as expensive as the military! — that I complain about and regard as pure theft. These programs do not serve the purpose of protecting individual rights, so they are illegitimate government action. Government should not do these things even if funded voluntarily; those who favor these things should set up private organizations to pursue them. (More about this in a forthcoming post.)


I am willing to temporarily endure a system of forcible taxation in order to fund the essential activities of government. I will not consider it proper or desirable, and I condemn government involvement in non-essential (non-rights-protecting) activities.

I still see no principled way to defend forcible taxation. My question about what distinguishes government from a gang cornering me in an alley still stands. What is incorrect in the analogy: Social Security is the product of a gang of the elderly, and as illegitimate as such a literal gang's demands would be?

  • Joanna: So you're going to make a lot of money, right?
  • Peter: Yeah.
  • Joanna: It's not yours?
  • Peter: Uh, well, it becomes ours.
  • Joanna: How is that not stealing?

Social Security doesn't protect individual rights, so I don't think of it like subpoena power or national defense. It's stealing. And that's wrong, just like Mom said.

Tiny Island