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Are Taxes "Theft"?

What philosophers say

'Tis true that governments cannot be supported without great charge, and it is fit everyone who enjoys a share of protection should pay out of his estate his proportion of the maintenance of it.

John Locke

The subjects of every state ought to contribute toward the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state ....[As Henry Home (Lord Kames) has written, a goal of taxation should be to] "remedy inequality of riches as much as possible, by relieving the poor and burdening the rich."

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776

Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Compania de Tabacos v. Collector, 1904

What conservatives say

Only the little people pay taxes.

Leona Helmsley, US hotelier and real estate magnate, quoted in Newsweek, 7/24/89, p. 11


The morality of taxes
The following is a debate with someone named Legare, who claimed to be an objectivist. He cautioned me against prejudging his views, then offered the tired libertarian argument that taxes are "immoral" and "theft." As he elaborated:

>> Robert: If I came to your house and demanded that you pay me a sum of money, and told you that if you did not I would forcibly take you to a place where you would be locked in a small room, what would you call that, and what would you do about it? How about if I brought a gang of thugs with me to back up my claim, would it be any different? What about if I put the thugs in uniforms? What if I and those thugs were your neighbors, and we all voted to make this legal, would that change what it was? <<

My response:

Unfortunately, this is exactly what I thought your argument would be. My response is exactly what it's been to everyone else who's offered it: The Founding Fathers conceived of citizenship in the United States as a duty and responsibility. They created the power of taxation to "promote" and "provide for the general welfare" of this country of ours. If you disagree with the fundamental philosophical precepts of this country, then you have every right to leave (and, logically speaking, that's your only rational alternative). You have no right to impose your philosophy on the rest of us, who support our government's right to exist, to promote, and to provide.

I conclude your views are stupid because the outcome of your views would be anarchy, with mass death, destruction, enslavement, and oppression the inevitable consequences. It's my moral belief that those who argue for a system that would lead to these results are stupid jerks.

>> Robert: The founding fathers also included slavery in the constitution. Does that make slavery moral? Are you saying the founding fathers are infallible? They didn't seem to think so, otherwise why would they have included Article 5 in the Constitution? <<

Nope, but I'm hardly the one arguing for the Founding Fathers' infallibility. It's you and your ilk who constantly assert that the Constitution makes no specific mention of certain taxes; therefore, that these taxes are illegal and immoral. I firmly believe in the Constitution's evolving to keep in step with the people's wishes.

>> If I "have NO right to impose" my philosophy on the rest of you, then by what right do you impose your philosophy on me? Because you have the biggest gang at the moment? <<

The majority's will always rules except when it violates the Constitution. Since you can't show a violation in this case, you must accept the people' will. Or you can leave the country. Now.

Majority defines what's "moral"
Here's a simple test:

1) Are you in this country voluntarily?

2) Do the majority of this country's people support the right of the government to tax them?

Then your analogy about being held up in a robbery is false. The correct analogy is, you're a guest in someone's house. Your hosts shelter and feed you, but when they ask you to clean the dishes or make your bed, you refuse—yet you also refuse to leave. In other words, you demand the benefits of citizenship without being willing to pay its costs, a hypocritical position.

Some political science may be instructive at this point. From an op-ed column by Neil Gabler in the LA Times, 2/11/01:

Every society has had to wrestle with the issue of individual rights versus community good, but America, born during the Enlightenment when individual rights were being espoused and forged on the frontier where individualism was a premium, has always been a special case. In virtually every previous society, state power took precedence. The individual served the system, be it civil or religious. But Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke changed that. New theories posited that individuals have rights, not just obligations, and they form compacts with their fellow citizens to protect those rights, even while sacrificing other rights to achieve that end. Once one acknowledges that individual rights form the basis for society, life becomes a negotiation between the individual and his community—an attempt to balance individual freedom with communal needs. America was the experiment that put such theories into practice.

Here we can plainly see the flaws in your libertarian "philosophy." You recognize individual rights in spades, but not the other aspects of America's social structure. You don't recognize the community's needs...your obligations to others...or the required sacrifice of some rights to achieve other rights. You don't understand the Enlightenment thinking of people like Locke and Jefferson—their fundamental concept of the social contract or compact. In short, you don't understand what America is really about.

Read what Adam Smith had to say (below) about your obligation to pay taxes. Since he's the patron saint of capitalists and other anti-tax fanatics, you may find his views instructive.

Then read what Alexander Hamilton, the leading proponent of the Constitution among the Founding Fathers, had to say about taxation. It's clear the framers meant America's citizens to pay as many taxes as necessary to run the government. Which is the present situation.

Even average citizens understand your obligation to pay. From the letters to the LA Times, 7/7/01:

Re "Separating Self-Interest From National Purpose," letter, June 30: The writer says that the money he pays in taxes is his money. This is nonsense. That money belongs to him in the same way that the money I pay for electricity belongs to me. Taxes are fees for services rendered, even if we disagree with the way the services are rendered.

The wealthiest Americans whose money is invested in business are more dependent than others on the services, infrastructure and resulting stability that government provides. There is a reason why they are not doing business in Somalia.

Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.


Freedom without responsibility...
>> BTW, my position is freedom <<

Freedom to do what? To cheat, bully, or enslave your fellow Americans? As the Gabler quote implies, there's no such thing as absolute freedom—in the real world, anyway. You get some kinds of freedom by sacrificing others for the common good.

>> how do you conclude that it leads to any of the things you claim. <<

I thought it was obvious, but: no taxes, no government. Then you get a situation like today's Rwanda or Russia. In fact, I wonder why all you free-market libertarians aren't rushing over there to make a—ahem—killing. I mean, few or no government controls is your idea of paradise, right? Of course, there's cheating and stealing...hunger and deprivation...hit men and death squads...to go with the lack of infrastructure and services, but those are the inevitable results of not having a government, right? Get a move-on before it's too late, buddy!

Your position is freedom...to take from your fellow citizens without giving back. Most people would call that selfish immorality, not freedom. If you want real freedom from the US government, stop using the water and energy supplied by the government...the food inspected by the government...the highways and airways provided by the government...etc. Let us know how you make out without government help, okay?

>> I and my ilk would never make that claim [that taxes are illegal], because we can read, and have read the Constitution. <<

Let me connect the dots for you, since you apparently haven't mastered that skill yet. You said taxes are theft. Theft is illegal. Therefore, taxes are illegal, according to you.

Look up the definition of "theft" in the legal code if you're unclear on the concept. Regardless of whether you've made the connection or not, you're saying taxes are illegal as well as immoral. If you don't mean to say taxes are illegal, use a different word than "theft."

If you agree taxes are legal, what are you fussing and fighting about? What's your problem? Obey the law and pay your taxes, go to jail, or get the hell out of the country.

The Supreme Court's whims
>> Neither of those methods include the whim of 5 members of the supreme court. If you believe that it can be changed that way, then you believe in the rule of men, not of law. <<

The "rule of law" is a fiction, as conservative "libertarians" like you prove countless times each year. Which side were you on when we tried to return Elian Gonzalez to his rightful parent according to the rule of law? If you were like most "libertarians," you suddenly found a principle higher than "the rule of law"—namely, your right-wing political agenda.

FYI, the method of "evolving" the Constitution is codified in the Constitution also. The power of the judiciary is crystal clear. "The judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity, arising under the law...." You either haven't read the Constitution or you're too ignorant to understand plain English.

>> There seems to be one option that "you and your ilk" always leave out, I can stay here and work to change what is immoral and unjust. <<

Sure, you can try. But the changes you advocate would mean the end of the United States as we know it. Since they're, so unlikely to happen in your lifetime that the odds are incalculable, I conclude you're acting stupidly. Yes, angels could magically appear and change all taxes to fish, but both possibilities are equally irrational.

>> I am not a guest in anyone's house. I demand nothing from anyone. I have not asked for anything. I will gladly pay for my shelter and food when I freely agree with the provider for the purchase or exchange of any thing we mutually agree it is worth. <<

Is the military and police protecting you from harm? Are regulatory agencies protecting the air, water, and food you consume? Unless you live in Biosphere II (and not even then) you're receiving the benefits of citizenship.

This country isn't "your home"—i.e., an isolated house where you're responsible only to yourself. It's everybody's home. It's a nation of laws with rights and responsibilities.

>> I do not "demand the benefits of citizenship." I demand that the government not provide anything other than what I voluntarily contract with them to provide. <<

Citizenship is your contract, chum. It's called the social contract. If you feel someone has coerced you to become a citizen, feel free to renounce your piece of the social contract and get the hell out.

Otherwise, you're taking advantage of the benefits of citizenship. These start with the clean air you breathe, the clean water you drink, and the safety you enjoy every second. You haven't "volunteered" or "contracted" for these benefits, you've taken them by existing.

Whether you "demand" them out loud or in writing is irrelevant. Your very presence demands that the rest of us expend time and energy providing these benefits to you. Therefore, we demand that you pay the taxes we deem appropriate for the benefits you're taking.

Libertarian = authoritarian?
Among the things you're demanding is that everyone agree with your interpretation of the Constitution, even though no legal scholar does. Can you find this idea of "voluntary contracting" anywhere in the Constitution you've allegedly read? If so, tell me where.

In fact, "voluntary contracting" isn't the premise of this country, so I suggest you go live somewhere where it is. This country's premise is that you obey the will of the majority. It isn't that the majority must obey your will—your will to feed off the public trough, that is.

>> I am not a libertarian, I am an objectivist, and I do not believe in anarchy. Since I do not believe in no government, the inevitable result is not relevant. <<

Another Randian nutcase? Hm-mm, sure. You don't have a clue what "objectivism" means if you believe "taxes are immoral," a subjective and unverifiable statement if there ever was one.

Overcoming slavery took a civil war that devastated the country, and the changes you wish would be far worse. What you believe or don't believe is immaterial because anarchy would be the result. No libertarian, objectivist, or Randian state has ever succeeded and that's why.

Adam Smith says pay your fair share
No need to take my word for what Adam Smith said. Here's the evidence. From the LA Times, 1/22/01:

Adam Smith vs. George Bush on Taxes


"It's your money" has been a rallying cry of many political leaders, including President Bush, to justify large tax cuts. Taxes, say Bush and many libertarians, should always be regarded with suspicion—they take people's hard-earned private property away—and should be kept as low as possible.

Although people who hold views like this often appeal to Adam Smith as a patron saint of private property and the free market, Smith himself did not share their view of taxation. It is instructive to see why.

The alternative to the "it's your money" view begins by pointing out that the money I pay in taxes is not really just "my" money. When I take a job or start a business, I will make money only if I get significant help from my society and my government. My efforts will fail if I am not protected against theft and attack, if there are no decent roads to and from my firm, if environmental blight or urban decay keeps people away from my retail outlet or if the general population is so poorly educated, ill or despairing that my firm can find no customers or good workers. In this sense, my earnings are not purely "my" money. They are the product, rather, of a collaborative effort between me and my neighbors and political officials. And I owe some of the earnings back to the society and government agencies that have helped me.

It is this view, not Bush's view, that Smith endorsed. He wrote, in his "Wealth of Nations": "The subjects of every state ought to contribute toward the support of the government in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. The expense of government to the individuals of a great nation is like the expense of management to the joint tenants of a great estate, who are all obliged to contribute in proportion to their respective interests in the state." Society creates the conditions under which financial success is possible, Smith believed, and has therefore a rightful claim to a share of that success.

Smith thought, more generally, that it was foolish to talk as if there were something suspicious about the fact that governments tax us. Taxation comes with government. All governments must impose taxes on their subjects, and since governments perform important services for all of us, we should be just as willing to pay taxes as we are to pay for any other service. In fact, Smith says, people are willing, even proud, to pay taxes: "Every tax is to the person who pays it a badge, not of slavery, but of liberty. It denotes that he is subject to government, indeed, but that, as he has some property, he cannot himself be the property of a master." Governments expand everyone's liberty, and the fact that we pay taxes to support the government is but a sign and a consequence of our freedom.

Finally, one part of protecting liberty involves making sure that there is as little poverty as possible. Great poverty breeds crime, which interferes with everyone's liberty and of course prevents the poor themselves from having the mental or material resources to act with full freedom. Protecting freedom directly requires an investment at least in public education and public health, especially for pregnant mothers and young children. Smith supported using tax money for these kinds of measures. Indeed, he gives express approval to progressive taxation, recommending a higher road toll for luxury carriages than for freight vehicles so that "the indolence and vanity of the rich" can be made to contribute to "the relief of the poor."

Adam Smith has been misread for generations, and it is not news to scholars that he was a strong advocate for the poor. But it is disturbing that the silly notion that taxes are some sort of infringement on private property should be widespread two centuries after Smith died. It is yet more disturbing that a person who is now president should have based his campaign on this silly notion.

- -- -

Sam Fleischacker, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois in Chicago, Is Author of "A Third Concept of Liberty: Judgment and Freedom in Kant and Adam Smith" (Princeton University Press, 1999)

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

The hypocrisy of opposing government
A posting making the rounds of the Internet (author unknown) exposes the hypocrisy of "libertarians" like Legare. These people claim they just want to be left alone—while they benefit from government programs every second of the day:

A Day in the Life of Joe Republican

Joe gets up at 6 a.m. and fills his coffeepot with water for his morning coffee. The water is clean and good because some tree-hugging commie liberal fought for minimum water-quality standards.

With his first swallow of coffee, Joe takes his daily medications His medications are safe to take because some evil lefty bomb-throwers fought to insure their safety and that they work as advertised.

All but $10 of Joe's medications are paid for by his employer's medical plan because some fire-breathing lazy ass union workers fought their employers for paid medical insurance -- now Joe gets it too. Never would he turn it down.

He prepares his morning breakfast, bacon and eggs. Joe's bacon is safe to eat because some girly-man liberal fought for laws to regulate the meat packing industry.

In his morning shower, Joe reaches for his shampoo. His bottle is properly labeled with each ingredient and its amount in the total contents because some crybaby liberal fought for his right to know what he was putting on his body and how much it contained. Joe dresses, walks outside and takes a deep breath. The air he breathes is healthy because some environmentalist wacko troublemaking militant fought for laws to stop industries from polluting our air.

Then Joe walks to the subway station for his government-subsidized ride to work. It saves him considerable money in parking and transportation fees because some fancy-pants limp-wristed freethinkng asshole fought for affordable public transportation, which gives everyone the opportunity to be a contributor.

Joe begins his work day. He has a good job with excellent pay, medical benefits, retirement, paid holidays and vacation because some fire-breathing Viet Cong-loving union members fought and died for these working standards. Joe's employer pays these high standards because Joe's employer doesn't want his employees to call the union in. So Joe benefits from what others have gained.

If Joe is hurt on the job or becomes unemployed, he'll get a workers compensation or unemployment check because some stupid pinko troublemakers didn't think Joe should lose his home because of a temporary misfortune.

At noontime Joe needs to make a bank deposit so he can pay some bills. Joe's deposit is federally insured by the FSLIC because some godless liberal red wanted to protect Joe's money from unscrupulous bankers who ruined the banking system before the Great Depression. He can thank that Stalinist Franklin D. Roosevelt for that.

Joe has to pay his Fannie Mae-underwritten mortgage and his below-market federal student loan because some elitist pointy-headed liberal decided that Joe and the whole society would be better off if he was educated and earned more money over his lifetime. That's okay, but the bastards tricked him because he has to pay taxes. Bush will fix that, he tells himself.

Joe gets home from work. He plans to visit his father this evening at his farm home in the country. He gets in his car for the drive. His car is among the safest in the world because some America-hating liberal fought for car safety standards. He arrives at his boyhood home. His was the third generation to live in the house financed by Farmers' Home Administration because bankers didn't want to make rural loans. The house didn't have electricity until some big-government New Deal Stalinist liberal stuck his nose where it didn't belong and demanded rural electrification.

Joe is happy to see his father, who is now retired. His father lives on Social Security and a union pension because some wine-drinking, cheese-eating Marxist made sure he could take care of himself so Joe wouldn't have to.

Joe gets back in his car for the ride home, and turns on a radio talk show. The radio host keeps saying that liberals are bad and conservatives are good. He doesn't mention that over the decades the beloved Republicans have fought to defeat every protection and benefit Joe enjoys throughout his day.

Joe agrees with the talk-radio loudmouth: "We don't need those big-government liberals ruining our lives! After all, I'm a self-made man and a good Republican and I believe all Americans should take care of themselves, just like I have!"

Related links
Libertarianism = anarchy
Democrats are better money managers
America's culture wars (economic)
Right-wing extremists:  the enemy within

Readers respond
"The tax cuts have given no money to anyone: it is not a *gift* when someone robs you a little less."

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