Taxes Are Theft?

By Robert P. MurphyLibertyChat.com contributor

In the opening essay of my pamphlet Chaos Theory I write: robbery

Just as right-wing hawks embrace the Orwellian notion that War is Peace, left-wing egalitarians believe that Slavery is Freedom. The hawks wage endless war to end war, while the social democrats engage in massive theft—or “taxation” as they call it—to eliminate crime.

It is high time to abandon such monstrous paradoxes.

Indeed, it is quite popular in libertarian circles to point out that wearing a badge, or winning a popularity contest, doesn’t give a person special moral prerogatives that others lack. “Conscription” is a fancy name for kidnapping and slavery, while “war” is a euphemism for mass murder. It is very useful to bring up these points periodically, in order to remind people that agents of the State…well, get away with murder.

Naturally, if something is a wonderfully effective rhetorical device, the people who want the institutional theft and systematic mass murder to continue, will object to these debating techniques. For example, Scott Sumner recently explained to the readers of EconLog that contrary to what they might have thought, not all forms of terrorism are bad. You see, there’s good terrorism and bad terrorism. In his words:

Many people like to attack ideas by linking them up with words that have ambiguous meaning, but either very positive or very negative connotations. Then they use the word as a sort of crude cudgel, to bash their opponent. This is a particularly reprehensible way of arguing, and shows a poverty of imagination…

I sometimes hear people say that the bombing of Hiroshima was an act of terrorism, which killed many more people than 9/11. Of course the term ‘terrorism’ is not well-defined, recall the old joke that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. But I do find the claim to be plausible. After all, we killed many thousands of innocent Japanese civilians with the goal of terrorizing the Japanese into meeting our political demands. But here’s what I object to. The people that make this claim often believe they have thereby advanced the argument that bombing Hiroshima was a bad idea. But they have not done so. Was it good terrorism or bad terrorism? Did ending the war quickly save many more Japanese civilian lives on the mainland (recall the horrific civilian casualty total in the attack on the relative small island of Okinawa.) I don’t wish to debate the issue, and indeed I don’t know the correct answer. All I know is that taking a word with an ambiguous meaning and negative connotation and attaching it to a policy you don’t like doesn’t advance the argument one iota.

Contrary to Sumner’s take, I actually think labeling the atomic bombing of Hiroshima as an act of terrorism does advance the argument many iotas–in fact it should be pretty decisive for most people.

Let me try it like this: Suppose Harry Truman somehow captured all of the children, under 10 years old, of the Japanese Emperor and every general in the Japanese military. Truman then sent a message to this group of Japanese fathers, saying, “We will shoot one of your kids every hour, until you unconditionally surrender.” Would Americans be OK with that policy? I’m pretty sure most of them wouldn’t. And yet, what Truman ordered the American forces to do in practice was the quite deliberate killing of tens of thousands of Japanese children (as well as tens of thousands of adults). Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not military targets; the point of obliterating them was to cause, well, terror in the hearts of the surviving Japanese so that they would capitulate to the political demands of the American government. There’s a word for killing children in order to achieve political objectives. It starts with a “t.”

Now it’s interesting that I imagine some readers will object to the above, and say that the two scenarios are different. The US officials weren’t singling out children per se when they dropped the a-bombs. But that’s kind of weird. Suppose somehow the authorities could have given a warning, such that the adults in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were able to flee to safety, leaving only tens of thousands of children to die. Would that have suddenly turned the acceptable military choice into an unacceptable act of terrorism–by killing fewer civilians?

It’s also interesting that we can use Sumner’s rhetorical device against him. Notice in the beginning of his passage, he says that people who label the a-bombing of Hiroshima as terrorism “use the word as a sort of crude cudgel, to bash their opponent.” Well gee whiz, Sumner says that as if it advances the debate on rhetoric by one iota. But why should we think that? If a-bombing kids is acceptable, why can’t we bash people with a crude cudgel if they’re advancing a really monstrous argument? There’s good cudgel-bashing and bad cudgel-bashing, right?

Later in his post, Sumner singles out the libertarian claim that “taxation is theft.” Here too he complains that this is pointless, because the real question is whether taxation is “good theft” or “bad theft.” (I’m not making this up; go read his post.) This prompted people in the comments to link to this LessWrong post, in which the author also complains about such standard libertarian rhetorical moves.

Now if you click that new link, you’ll probably agree that the particular versions of the argument he showcases, do indeed sound dumb. But that’s because he makes the person wielding the argument into a shouting fool. In fact, every single example has an exclamation point at the end; I think really what the LessWrong author has shown us is that shouting is a poor way to argue.

This is why I was a smart aleck and put a question mark in the title of the present post. I agree with Sumner and the LessWrong author that just shouting “taxation is theft!” or “a-bombing Hiroshima was terrorism!” do not end the debates. However, it is very instructive to ask people, “What are the defining attributes of theft (or murder or terrorism or slavery)? Why do we abhor it in most circumstances, but not when agents of the State do it?”

Last thing: I am not being here an absolutist in a pejorative sense. For example, we can imagine a starving guy in the woods who stumbles on an abandoned cabin, breaks in, and eats some food. Yes this is technically theft, but I think most of us would be OK with it.

But if you start tweaking the scenario, you’re not as sure. What if the guy makes it a habit of getting hammered at his own cabin, then wanders out in a drunken stupor, such that he “has no choice” but to break into his neighbor’s cabin every weekend? At some point you start to think, “That’s theft, and it’s immoral.”

I have a hard time seeing how anybody can explain away the systematic taking of large percentages of income–against the owners’ wills–performed year in and year out by the US government. If any reader still thinks, “Oh c’mon, it’s just different when the government does it,” I invite you to watch this John Oliver bit on “asset forfeiture” (what an antiseptic term). You’re telling me those cops aren’t just robbing people at gunpoint?

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3 thoughts on “Taxes Are Theft?

  • October 13, 2014 at 10:27 pm
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    Very good points. As for the starving man who breaks into a cabin: of course we’re ok with what he did, but he still owes the owner of the cabin replacement food and repair of any damage. Seen from this perspective, there’s no difficulty in assessing the drunken irresponsible neighbor’s repeated break-ins: he owes for each instance. It’s not necessary to define a theft/not_theft line and furrow our brows, angel-on-head-of-pin style, to decide when its threshold has been crossed.

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