Is taxation theft?

Written on March 4, 2014. Written by .

Preamble: When discussing the question “is taxation theft?” people often commit the logical fallacy known as a “red herring” by diverting the discussion to the possible justifications for taxation rather than discussing the original question, which is whether taxation satisfies the formal definition of the word “theft”. Try to be cognizant of this.

To determine whether taxation is theft, we first need a complete definition of theft. If the definition refers to other vaguely defined terms, then it is not compete until the other terms are defined.

Merriam Webster defines “steal” (the verb form of theft):

“to take (something that does not belong to you) in a way that is wrong or illegal.”

The term “wrong” is vague and the term “illegal” is essentially a reference to the law book of the jurisdiction in which the act took place. To convert this into a complete definition, we would need to insert a definition of “wrong” and insert the relevant legal snippets from every jurisdiction in the world with conditionals for each and conditionals for each time period during which the laws differed. The complete definition would be thousands of pages long! I don’t think that is what we mean when we think of the word “theft”.

More fundamentally, the Merriam Webster definition is not a philosophical definition because a philosophical definition does not depend on the decisions of a group of individuals as is the case with law. Questions of morality are not decided by government decree. When we ask a question like “Is taxation theft?” we can’t just say “Well, a group of a individuals got together and said the answer is ‘no’.” That misses the whole point of the question. We are trying to find an objective definition that is not contingent upon personal biases or opinions.

Wikipedia has a complete philosophical definition:

“theft is the taking of another person’s property without that person’s permission or consent with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of it.” – Wikipedia

This definition does a much better job of capturing our intuitive notions of theft. However, it still has some problems. For example, it doesn’t specify how the consent is obtained, so a thief could obtain consent by pointing a gun to the owner’s head.

To construct a better definition, we will collect a set of uncontroversial examples that represent our common notion of “theft” and then find a definition that satisfies all the examples.

Positive Cases (Definition of “theft” should be satisfied)
1. Larceny – Someone points a gun at you and demands your wallet
2. Embezzlement – You are getting your car repaired and the shop sells your car and keeps the money
3. False Pretenses – A vendor sells you a gold-plated coin, but tells you that it is solid gold

Negative Cases (Definition of “theft” should not be satisfied)
4. Foreclosure – A bank takes possession of your house against your will based on the terms of a lien that they hold on the house
5. Accidental taking – You accidentally pick up the wrong jacket while leaving the party
6. Finding lost property – You pick up a dollar bill that was dropped in the middle of the park
7. Taking own property – You eat the meat in your refrigerator
8. Borrowing without consent – You borrow your housemate’s car who is on vacation to drive your friend to the hospital

An adaptation of Wikipedia’s definition that satisfies all of these constraints is:

theft is the taking or withholding of property without the owner’s prior voluntary informed consent and with the intent to deprive the owner of it

“Voluntary informed consent” is a legally defined term. New York State defines “Voluntary informed consent” (NY Public Health Law, Article 24-A; Section 2442; March 1998) as the legally effective knowing consent of an individual or his legally authorized representative, so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice without undue inducement or any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress or other form of constraint or coercion. [Source]

The following notes show how each example above is satisfied by the given definition.

Example 1: taking without voluntary consent
Example 2: withholding (the proceeds from the sale) without consent
Example 3: taking without informed consent
Example 4: Contract with bank gives prior consent
Example 5: No intent
Example 6: Lost property is no longer property
Example 7: Not depriving the owner
Example 8: Not depriving the owner

If you accept this definition, then taxation is theft (by definition). Also, when a doctor bills a client without mutually agreeing on a price before rendering services, that is theft because the client did not give informed consent because they were not informed of the price.

If you don’t accept this definition and think that taxation is not theft, then I encourage you to construct a complete philosophical definition of “theft” that taxation does not satisfy while still satisfying all of the example constraints. If you succeed, please post your definition in the comments.

Epilogue: It is interesting to note that there are some forms of theft that can be justified and there are some forms of government revenue that are not theft.

Theft that can be justified:

Government revenue that is not theft:

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2 Comments so far
  1. dan March 4, 2014 5:08 am

    Your definition of theft fits pretty well with common law and common sense conventions. Working with your defnition, I think the mostly likely point of contention is the extent to which one has consented to being taxed by being a citizen. For naturalized citizens I think you can make a very strong case that they consented to the income tax by moving here. However, the case is weaker for natural born citizens and there is no where one can go where land is not owned and work is not taxed. Yet, the idea that we are in a social contract, that our personal earnings stem from the society we are a part of resonates with a lot of people.

  2. cspice March 4, 2014 9:21 pm

    Dan, that’s a good point. I think a solid counter-argument for the case of naturalized citizens is that their consent could be considered under duress if they came from a country that also taxed citizens, which is basically every country except perhaps the UAE as far as I know. But the “social contract” concept doesn’t affect the status of taxation as theft for natural-born citizens unless the definition of theft is reformulated to accommodate it.

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