If taxation is theft, are we recipients of stolen goods?

3 minute read

I’m still enjoying reading and commenting on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog. Today while reading a post on the deserving vs. the undeserving poor a commenter brought up that perennial topic, is taxation theft? More specifically, many (but not necessarily all) libertarians believe that the state has no valid claim to extract taxes from people (backed up by the implied threat of physical force), and in that sense even a democratically-elected government is nevertheless the moral equivalent of Tony Soprano and his crew.

I don’t want to rehash the arguments for or against this position; the relevant Wikipedia article has a good summary. I personally believe the proposition is not really provable one way or the other, as it ultimately depends on assumptions that are more in the nature of subjective judgments than testable propositions. What I’m interested in for purposes of this post is a different question, namely whether people act in a way that’s consistent with the proposition that taxation is theft.

For example, suppose a thief or one of his confederates gifts you with a valuable piece of property, property that you strongly suspect is stolen, as in the episode of the Sopranos where Paulie delivers a big-screen TV unasked to the home of Meadow’s soccer coach. If you’re like most people you’ll probably proceed as follows: First, you might refuse the gift. If that’s not possible (as in the Sopranos episode, where refusing to go along with Paulie would be a bad idea) then you might accept the gift and then either take it to the authorities or try to return it to its rightful owner. If neither of those is possible (Paulie would be mad if the coach went to the police, and the coach has no idea from whom the TV was stolen) then you might give the gift to charity, so that you yourself would not be a willing recipient of stolen goods kept for your own use, and thus morally complicit in the original theft.

Now let’s consider taxation, and assume that taxation is morally equivalent to theft. The typical person both pays taxes and also enjoys certain benefits which are paid for through taxes: pure public goods such as national defense and scientific research, other goods such as access to public roads, and in some cases goods provided directly to individuals, such as Social Security or Medicare benefits.

It’s quite conceivable that for many people the total value of those goods received over their lives is in excess, and sometimes in considerable excess, of the total taxes they paid over their lives. (For example, for many people the amount they receive in Social Security benefits exceeds the amount they would have received had they not paid Social Security taxes and instead invested the money themselves.)

If you are (or could be) one of these people, and if you believe that taxation is theft, what should you do? In effect you may well have received stolen property, or at least the equivalent of stolen property, since the excess benefits you received were possible only because other people were compelled to pay their taxes under threat of force. Should you attempt to make restitution in some way? Certainly you don’t know exactly from whom those taxes were extracted, but perhaps morality demands that you at least make a good faith estimate of what you have received illegitimately, and donate an equivalent amount to a deserving private charity.

Clearly most people don’t do this, but then most people aren’t libertarians. Do any libertarians attempt this exercise? This is not a rhetorical question; I’m genuinely interested in how a principled libertarian might approach this problem. I can think of some possible responses. For example, it may be that there is no practical way of determining whether you have received benefits from government over and above taxes paid, and thus you have no way of being certain whether you have in fact received stolen property in the sense discussed here.

But I’m just an amateur political philosopher, and no libertarian to boot, and I haven’t thought that deeply about the problem. I’m sure there are people out there who have, perhaps even among this blog’s readers, and I’m interested in seeing what sort of responses they might make.