Loren Lomasky: Taxation is Not Theft

I recently had occasion to re-read Loren Lomasky’s wonderful article, “Libertarianism as if (the other 99 Percent of) People Mattered.” I wish I could find an un-gated version of it online, because it’s really something that deserves a much wider readership than its gotten.

Lomasky’s main question in the article is how libertarians should respond to the conjunction of two beliefs:

(L) Libertarianism is the correct framework for political morality.

(M) The vast majority of our fellow citizens disbelieve (L).

One possible response, of course, is to conclude that our fellow citizens are evil. Some libertarians, in a more charitable spirit, might conclude instead that they are merely stupid.

Lomasky rejects both of these responses, and proposes instead that we embrace what he refers to as a “Cooperative Libertarianism” – a stance based largely on John Rawls’ idea of the burdens of judgment and the claim that reasonable people can disagree about matters of political morality.

Like all of Lomasky’s work, it’s a provocative and highly entertaining read. In particular, I thought his discussion of the libertarian mantra, “Taxation is theft!”, might be of interest to BHL readers. And perhaps also relevant to some of the questions that Jason has recently been asking about the ethics of killing agents of the state?

Read the whole (rather long) discussion below the fold. I’ve highlighted what I regard as the most important bit.


Libertarians are wont to intone, “Taxation is theft!” It is a clever variation on Proudhon’s “Property is theft!” Cleverness is to be applauded, but not when it leads to outsmarting oneself. It is one thing to say that taxation is theft, another to believe it. Causal relations run between assertion and belief in both directions, and many libertarians who say it also believe it. They are mistaken. Moreover, they are mistaken in a way very difficult to achieve unless one is in the grip of an ideology. Taxation is not theft. It may resemble theft in important respects; it may be the case that some of the reasons that lead us to condemn theft will, if properly considered, lead us to condemn taxation; it may even be the case that taxation is as morally reprehensible as theft; nonetheless, and with apologies for the repetition, it is not theft.

The point is not semantic but rather phenomenological. The perceived reality of theft is notably distinct from that of taxation. When I return home from a libertarian scholars’ conference to find the lock on my door broken and my television set gone I am outraged. That which I expected to be secure from encroachment has been violated. The perpetrator of the theft has transgressed rules that both he and I recognize to be the de facto as well as de jure principles of cooperation that undergird a framework of civility from which all citizens can be expected to derive benefit. The moral ire I feel is, then, not some amorphous feeling that things are other than they ought to be. Rather, that animus is precisely localized: it is focused on this act by this individual. Moreover, I possess a justifiable confidence that my animus will be seconded by those among whom I live. What is primarily a violation of my rights is understood by them to be more than a private conflict of interest between me and the individual who coveted my television. Accordingly, I am able to avail myself of the formal apparatus of the legal system and the informal vindication afforded by a consensus among the members of the moral community that I have been violated and ought to be made whole. And if I am exceptionally lucky, this solidarity may even help me to recover the TV set.

In nearly all relevant respects the perceived context of taxation is significantly different. I look at my pay stub and observe that a large slab of my salary has been excised before I ever had the opportunity to fondle it. This is an annoyance, perhaps an intense one. But it is not focused on the particular extraction. Rather, its object is some or all of the tens of thousands of pages of the tax code, the political order within which the power to tax is lodged, and the constitutional foundations on which that political order is erected. I wish some or all of it were otherwise; that, though is the inverse of a highly specific grievance. Moreover, I cannot count on the solidarity of my fellow citizens. That is both a descriptive and a normative statement. If I have adopted the cooperationist rather than the rejectionist attitude toward the society in which I live, then I am thereby committed to acknowledging that although my fellow citizens’ views concerning the ethics of taxation are, as I see it, mistaken, the perspective from which they adopt those views is not so unreasonable or uncivil as to disqualify them from moral respect. I am entitled, perhaps even obligated, to attempt to persuade them to think otherwise. However, prior to the dawning of that bright dar in which the veils are lifted and freedom reigns, I shall, if I am not a fanatic, concede the legitimacy (not, of course, the optimality) of the overall moral framework within which taxation takes place. It is, therefore, not only misleading but also an exercise in borderline incivility to equate taxation with theft, for if it is then taken in its straightforward sense, that pronouncement denies the legitimacy of the social order and announces that I regard myself as authorized unilaterally to override its dictates as I would the depredations of a thief. It says to my neighbors that I regard them as, if not themselves thieves, then confederates or willing accomplices to thievery. Is it pusillanimous to suggest that declaring war, even cold war, against the other 99 percent of the population is imprudent? I would therefore caution libertarians to shelve the “Taxation is theft!” slogan despite its sonorous ring, and if they cannot bring themselves to do that, then at least to cultivate a twinkle in the eye when they haul it forth.

UPDATE: More on what Lomasky is, and isn’t, saying here.

  • The arguments on this website would be a lot stronger if they did not always rely on Rawls. It becomes a closed system: first, accept Rawls, second, all else follows. It is exactly like what the so-called “cartoon libertarians” do with Rothbard. Is BHLism even possible without Rawls? This seems like a significant weakness.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Alas, few of my co-bloggers are as big a fan of Rawls as I am.

    • jtlevy

      There’s actually wide variation in how committed the various writers here are to Rawls. Roderick Long and I, in different ways, are pretty removed from the Rawlsian consensus; and I don’t think Jason Brennan often makes arguments relying on Rawls, though he sometimes grants Rawlsian premisses arguendo.

    • Jason Brennan

      I think Rawls was pretty much wrong about everything, except maybe his argument about how consequences matter in the question of the justification of basic institutions.

      • To all: it might be that I clue into the Rawlsian arguments more because I dislike them so much. I’ll great that ad a possibility, but the still seems to be a lot of Rawls here.

        • Kevin Vallier

          It’s mostly my doing, I expect.

          • Sean II

            Perhaps Ryan was going by word-count, in which case you would appear to be 12 bloggers instead of just 1.

          • Kevin Vallier

            Finally, after thousands and thousands of comments, you have put a smile on my face.

          • Sean II

            The funny thing is, you’d hate me so much more in meatspace. We’d be those two dudes who make life miserable for our friends-in-common, by imposing an “If K => Not S” condition on every invite list.

      • Víctor M. Muñiz-Fraticelli

        What about the third half?

    • I don’t think there’s much reliance on Rawls here at all. The only point at which Lomasky cites Rawls in his article is with reference to the “burdens of judgment.” And I don’t see why Rawls’ point on that issue should be especially objectionable to or controversial among libertarians.

  • Chris MacDonald

    Fodder for discussion: much of the above would apply, mutatis mutandis, to the slogan “meat is murder.” No, it’s not, and the animal-rights advocate who goes around saying it is making more than one kind of mistake.

    • adrianratnapala

      Claims like “taxation is theft” or “meat is murder” can be read as: (a) factual claims about the law (in which case neither claim is right), (b) as factual claims about existing norms (ditto), or (c) as moral claims about what is in fact right and wrong. As moral claims, both of them are open, hotly contended questions; and the debate about (c) doesn’t suddenly end if one side pretends it really about either (a) or (b), ’cause nobody is arguing about the facts on the ground.

      Now it is true that it is impolite to use strong words like “theft” and “murder”, when the other side would not accept the terms. But that’s just the cut and thrust of debate. I usually cringe when I hear “taxation is theft”, because its usually a bad rhetorical tactic, not because I really disbelieve it.

      • Sean II

        “I usually cringe when I hear “taxation is theft”, because its usually a bad rhetorical tactic, not because I really disbelieve it.”

        Thank you for that. So much silliness comes from conflating rhetorical strategy with scholarship. Since when could truth ever be reconciled with tact?

        Taxation IS theft, in the usual sense of the term. People who start by denying that beclown themselves…unless they go the whole way and deny the legitimacy of property rights.

        A socialist can say “taxation is not theft”, no problem. But when a libertarian says that shit, you know he’s working some angle.

        The odd thing about most 1st world double-thinkers is they choose the one position that’s totally not kosher: they choose to accept the underlying legitimacy of property rights, and then they choose to ignore the coercive nature of taxation.

        Just like most people are against involuntary servitude, without noticing the military draft is an example of it.

        • AP²

          Mr. X earned the income that he gets to keep. Sounds simple to me.

          • adrianratnapala

            If I ever decide taxation isn’t theft, I would tell myself something like that. But I’m not sure it works. Suppose employer (Y) is starting a buisiness out of her own savings and decides to spend $60,000 on employing X to help her. Now the government comes along and takes $20,000.

            The state is taking that $20k from either X or Y, and again you need to meet Sean’s challenge about why that is not theft. The closest I can come up with is some version of “Y has no natural right to employ X and must pay a fee do so”; but that doesn’t feel much like the usual justification for an income tax.

          • TracyW

            On the contrary. Say Mr X was hired at $10 an hour to tend Ms Y’s lawn. Mr X provides at least $10 of value per hour worked to Ms Y. Assuming the whole incidence of the tax falls on X, a changing tax rate doesn’t change the value X provided to Y and thus earned.

          • AP²

            Oh, but I dispute the idea that one earns all the value provided; you’re essentially saying that consumer surplus is illegitimate, since that would be unpaid earned value of the producer.

            I’d say Mr. X has earned whaever he accepted in exchange for the service provided, and since he knew a tax would be levied on that income, that doesn’t count towards the earned amount, anymore than a payment processing fee would. I can see an argument against increasing the tax rate on that income after the service had been provided, but not against the more general issue of accepting both income tax and property rights.

          • adrianratnapala

            Most mugging victims also accept that when they get out of the situation alive, they will have less money than before. Does that mean their original possession was not legitimate? I am not saying (yet) that the state is a mugger. I am saying that whatever justifies tax, it is not some accounting fiddle between the money leaving Y and arriving at X.

          • Libertymike

            How else would you characterize caging those who refuse to hand over the fruits of their labor to the state?

          • AP²

            Keep in mind that I was only defending the common person from the assumption that they must be double-thinking to accept both that Mr. X has earned his income and that taxation is acceptable.

            Obviously, the difference between taxation and a mugging is that people accept the former has legitimate. Both even if they’re wrong, that doesn’t make their position incoherent.

          • TracyW

            This value didn’t come from thin air. If neither Mr X nor no one else did the work, no tax could be collected on the lawn mowing. That Mr X knew a tax would be levied if he did the work doesn’t change that he created at least $10 in value.

            As for payment processing fees, I’ve always regarded them as coming out of my earnings and consider myself morally free to seek to minimise the amount I pay in them relative to the value I receive without giving a damn about the potential impacts on the bank’s earnings. Not the attitude that people in favour of taxes tend to evoke.

            Nothing in this argument challenges the legitimacy of consumer surplus. If there was no consumer surplus there would be no trade. X earned the amount he agreed with Y (assuming he did his job well).

          • Andrew Patton

            No, you are certainly free to alter your affairs to pay less tax legally. Whether you would want to depends on what it would cost you to engage in such a change verses the benefit you would receive from it. If you want to go so far as to move to a different state or even a different country to pay less in taxes, you have a right to do so provided that you do not in the process transgress the laws of your new home.

        • Jason Brennan

          I agree with Sean. “Taxation is theft” is a bad starting point for an argument because it presupposes the thing in debate. But if certain forms of libertarianism are correct, then it is indeed theft. If people disagree, even reasonably, then they’re just mistaken.

          • Sean II

            I don’t mind telling you, Jason, you’ve always been my favorite.

            All those vicious attacks I’ve launched against you…they meant nothing to me.

          • Libertymike

            So, am I to assume that you actually took a liking to HelloFeds a couple of weeks ago, as I suspected?

          • Rachel

            WHY HAVE I BEEN AGREEING WITH SEAN II SO MUCH LATELY? Brennan deserves to be the fave!

        • Chris MacDonald

          Without caring to defend Lomasky to any great extent, I think her point is about far more than rhetorical force. It’s about the range of important social conventions (in addition to ones about property rights) that structure moral and political discourse. She doesn’t need to deny the legitimacy of property rights; just to deny that THAT set of social conventions is the only one that matters.

          • adrianratnapala

            I find that argument a little too postmodern to really understand. But if I did understand it, it sounds like Lomasky is inviting us to think double.

          • Chris MacDonald

            Rather more Humean than postmodern.

          • I think that Lomasky is a man.

          • adrianratnapala

            I think he is a large bearded, man with a loud voice. I might be mistaken though.

        • Jerome Bigge

          In effect there is no “right to property” in that the government taxes you a certain amount upon the value of the property, which effectively means you are renting or leasing the property from the government. In some societies this has been actually admitted. Such as the monarch granting property to people as reward for services, etc.

          Property taxes go back a long ways, well before anyone thought of taxing actual income. Colonial America had property taxes. Later on after we became an independent country, we had property taxes along with taxes upon imported goods. This was the common way that government taxed people, although some earlier societies effectively required “labor” or a portion of your farm produce as a “tax”.

          Hunter-gatherer societies required “sharing” as a requirement of membership in the tribe, so this too can be considered a “tax”.

        • JW

          You’re assuming that not only are property rights *legitimate* but that they don’t DEPEND on the state’s definition and defense of property.

          • Sean II

            No, I’m not. I’ve said all along that the FEW people out there – i.e. actual socialists – who deny the legitimacy of property rights are entitled to say “taxation is not theft”.

            They can explain what they mean when they say it. They can use the word theft in a coherent, consistent way.

        • Andrew Patton

          If taxation were theft, John the Baptist would have told the tax collectors to quit their jobs, rather than saying, “Collect no more than you are authorized.” Clearly, taxation as such does not violate, “Thou shalt not steal,” or else it would be impossible to obey God and be a tax collector. Therefore, the Catholic Church holds the position that property rights exist but are not absolute. Some taxes can be imposed by just authority, and not only does the authority not sin by collecting such taxes, we sin by resisting such taxes (I am speaking of illegal tax evasion, not merely avoiding incurring tax liability). We are permitted to complain about them and petition for relief, but we must not refuse to pay taxes that are justly imposed. Now, I will accept the position that property taxes and even income taxes do violence to property rights, but I cannot accept that excise taxes are a violation of property rights, no matter how onerous they may be.

  • Marcus_V

    This is the least persuasive argument that taxation is not theft that I have ever read.

    • adrianratnapala

      Yes. It sounds a bit like a ancient Greek intellectual philosopher saying “Apollo, Zeus and co must exist, because everyone says they do!”

      • Sean II

        Indeed. I’m always telling people that “war is NOT violence” because a mugger who accosts me on the street transgresses a rule we both recognize, and because his is merely an individual action, and besides, I am confident everyone will second my motion to have him punished.

        But if the man was a solider, and the street where he accosted me happened to be in Kabul, and the property he took was the cash I got for my opium crop…well, OBVIOUSLY, that’s not an act of violence on his part.

        God, I just wish people would stop hurting the anti-war movement by constantly pointing out the violence in war. Why must they keep setting us back?

        • Raymond Raad

          This is a great comment. Well said.

        • Farstrider

          War is violence. It is not murder.
          Taxation is taking. It is not theft.
          I don’t understand why this is so difficult to understand.

          • Sean II

            I can’t believe you got up-voted for a comment that contained this:

            “War…is not murder.”

          • Farstrider

            One sympathizes. Words have meaning, even when that is inconvenient.

  • End Child Unemployment
    • AP²

      It doesn’t have the whole article. Lookout for the “Page X is not part of this book preview” bars.

  • Sean II

    Can I be the only one who finds that prose style insufferable?

    Imagine a continuum from 1 -10, where 1 represents perfect clarity of thought and expression and 10 represents Jaques Lacan. To use some familiar examples, let’s say Michael Huemer earns a 1, while people like Bryan Caplan or Roderick Long usually hover around the 2-3 range.

    I’d give the above passage a 7. Oh, but doesn’t it just have to be?

    To say that the “theft” in “taxation is theft” simple means “the taking of rightfully-owned property without consent”, is something one can say clearly. That, after all, is what people mean when they say “taxation is theft”.

    But to say that “theft” ceases to be “the taking of rightfully-owned property without consent” when it’s rude or tactless to say so, to say the definition of theft changes when it threatens to alienate other people…that requires a lot more words.

    • AP²

      On the other hand, copyright infringement doesn’t involve any “taking,” but many still call it theft.

      • Sean II

        You’re onto something.

        Anyone who wants to challenge “taxation is theft” must challenge at least one of these terms:

        1) Taking Without Consent
        2) Rightfully Owned Property

        You’re being honest about it. My quarrel is with people who accept both terms and then deny the conclusion.

        • Chris MacDonald

          You may need a third condition, namely the absence of some extenuating circumstance with justificatory force. If I grab a bucket of water off your lawn to put out a fire in the street, that’s presumably not theft in any meaningful sense (just as, to use an example from Jason’s book, stepping onto your lawn to avoid an oncoming car isn’t a violation of your property rights — or is at least a justifiable violation). I’m not saying that taxation fits the bill, here, just that 1 and 2 may not be sufficient to cleanly outline the category “theft.”

          • Libertymike

            How about if the property owner refuses to give you the bucket of water? Should he be caged?

          • Sean II

            Yes, I should have said people must either challenge those terms OR present some argument about justifiable theft.

            But it’s still theft, just as switching the trolley to kill 1 person instead of 5 is still homicide.

            Another way of putting that is: the definition of theft does not include the idea that everyone should always be punished for every act of theft. Nor does it include the idea that no other value can ever overcome the rights which make theft wrong in the general case.

          • Farstrider

            Every definition of theft includes a notion of wrongful taking – if it is not wrongful as defined by the law then it is not theft. (Borrowing your friend’s car or a library book is not theft. Eating a free sample at Costco is not theft.) And this is why “taxation IS theft” is simply incorrect – because taxation is legal. It is perfectly accurate to say “taxation is LIKE theft” in certain ways. Which is all the OP is saying.

            Note the same thing with your trolley example. Yes, the trolley killing is a homicide. But it would not be murder, at least in those jurisdictions where murder is defined as the unjustified and unlawful killing of a person.

        • Farstrider

          Your post would be correct if point 2 includes the notion of exclusive dominion and control. If you can envision a non-exclusive property right (i.e., where the right is merely a recognition of the holder’s priority over some others but that others also have priority over the holder) then there is no conflict. It is just a recognition that the state stands higher on the hierarchy than the rights holder. I understand you disagree with that priority scheme, but it is not dishonest to hold this view.

          Of course, this is how almost all property rights and indeed rights of all kinds actually operate – they establish a hierarchy or priority of interests, not usually absolutes. To prove property rights to be a special case is a tough burden, and one which I have not ever seen successfully carried.

          • Andrew Patton

            Natural law theory holds that the right to property is subordinate to the right to life. Therefore, a man is justified in taking things he requires for his immediate survival if he has no other means of obtaining them. Thus, the owner of a grocery store has no right to retrieve a loaf of bread taken by a starving man, but he does have the right to hand the starving man a mop and require him to work enough to earn the loaf of bread. Likewise, you have no right to use deadly force merely in defense of property. You can shoot a home invader because there is a presumption of hostility to the persons occupying the house or an armed robber because he is threatening his victims with a deadly weapon, but you cannot shoot a pickpocket, because he is not guilty of any crime worthy of death, since he has not violated another man’s right to life or liberty.

            To this end, taxes are justified at least insofar as they are required to provide for the common defense and punish those who are guilty of violating others’ rights while acquitting those who are innocent of the same. A right implies enforceablity. Now the quantity and manner of taxation that is justified is subject to debate, but if taxes are necessary to secure the rights of life and liberty, they are justified.

        • Jerome Bigge

          It is necessary to distinguish between personal property (items owned and used by the individual) and public property such as a claim over an area of land as primitive tribes saw it. As a member of a native American tribe, you owned such things as your bow and arrows, tent, cooking pot, etc. But the tribe was the “owner” as far as it mattered of the area it considered its own. Conflict happened when two tribes fought over an area, since hunter gatherer societies require an area measure in square miles to support even a relatively small group of people.

      • Andrew Patton

        There is a taking: the robbery of the artist of his just wages. He has the right to exclusive control and enjoyment of his work within certain limitations, and thus anyone else who wants to use it must either cite a fair use principle that allows him to or receive permission from the artist in exchange for whatever consideration the artist asks for.

    • good_in_theory

      A bit overwrought, I’d say.

      • Libertymike

        Ah, proof that we can all get along!

    • As I was writing this post, I thought to myself, “Sean is not going to like this.”

      So, if nothing else, you’ve at least succeed at inserting yourself as a permanent feature of my blogging conscience. A little Sean, with a bow-tie and fedora, standing on my shoulder.

      • Sean II

        Yes! The sweet sauce of recognition!

        And to think, all it took was 2 years and 2,700 comments.

  • Fernando Teson

    A marvelous essay indeed. I agree with the gist of it, except for a minor terminological issue: I would not call the legal order legitimate; rather, I would say, with Simmons, that although the state has no authority to tax, I have an all-things-considered reason (and perhaps obligation) to pay the tax. (By the way, I agree with Ryan’s comment below: we don’t need Rawls for this.)

    • AP²

      But if the legal order is not legitimate, how can the State have the legitimacy to punish you for non-compliance? Or doesn’t it? Because taxation implies that it’s compulsory, not merely a moral obligation.

      • Jerome Bigge

        Much of what governments do today tends to benefit some people at the expense of everyone else. Then there are laws that imply that we are now incapable of making decisions for ourselves. Drug laws, prescription laws, laws that benefit licensed professionals while forcing the rest of us to pay more than we would under a true free market. Like the small businesses here who are fighting against a Wal Mart because it will cut into their incomes while the rest of the people effectively have to pay higher prices in “Main Street” stores than what Wal Mart would charge for the same item. In effect the power of government is used a great deal of the time to benefit one group at the expense of everyone else.

        Those who are students of history (as I am) will understand the consequences of the role of government being one of benefiting the best organized at the cost of making everyone else less well off. If the federal government was restricted to national defense and relations with the rest of the world most of us would be better off. The same applies to state governments when they benefit one group over the rest of us. Yes, we have the right to vote, but when the choice is between two candidates, both of whom now support “bigger government”, what good does it do?

  • Kevin Vallier

    I think Lomasky makes a critically important point about being libertarian in the real world: there are ways of embracing or asserting libertarianism (the rejectionist view) that lead us to alienate ourselves from others, because our commitments lead us to conclude that they are evil or stupid, and so not worthy of good relationships. I see libertarianism as rooted in the great value of voluntary human relations, and so I see “rejectionist” libertarianism as violating the spirit of the libertarian idea for the sake of the letter. Regardless of whether taxation is theft, the broader point stands that you can advocate for libertarian principles in a distinctly authoritarian and anti-social fashion.

    • Jason Kuznicki

      It was famously hard to support political rights for women, back when they had none. It took a great deal of incivility. It meant openly doubting and casting aspersions on your neighbors, to say nothing of the whole political order they had created. It was, in short, imprudent. And it was exactly the right thing to do.

      • Kevin Vallier

        This criticism appears in the public reason literature, and it’s a serious one, I think. But I also think it misfires. Respecting reasonable pluralism and being passive in the fact of injustice are really very different things. Sometimes pluralism is unreasonable, and you fight that stuff directly and forcefully. But in cases of reasonable pluralism, you must rely more on voluntary persuasion. So you can be uncivil with respect to unreasonable pluralism and civil with respect to reasonable pluralism, which I think it compatible with Lomasky and Rawls.

        • Jason Kuznicki

          “Sometimes pluralism is unreasonable.”

          When exactly is that? I submit that the criteria for a pluralism being reasonable are subject to radical change, sometimes in the space of only a few years. Consider the dwindling reasonability of opposing same-sex marriage, or the massive and growing reasonability now granted to marijuana legalization, which really was a lunatic fringe position as little as a couple of decades ago.

          Being a political radical – which I think all libertarians necessarily are – means very often calling into doubt the reasonability of one’s fellow citizens. I don’t see this as a forbidden move, because the mass of humanity so often and so clearly has been totally unreasonable in the past. What remains is to say frankly that the consensus view is unreasonable, but to be kind about it. Unreasonability is such a very common occurrence.

          • Kevin Vallier

            I have a lot to say about when pluralism is or isn’t reasonable. But the general view, which I’m sure you know, is that reasonableness is thought to have two components: one epistemic and one moral. The epistemic component requires the person in question to accept that others can be rationally entitled to views very different from her own. The moral component requires that the person offer reciprocal terms of cooperation, not, say, insisting on getting one’s own way all the time, proposing rules that all could find acceptable, etc. So pluralism is unreasonable when someone either insists on promoting a view that even from their own perspective lacks the requisite level of epistemic credence (and I have a detailed view about what that level is) or if the views advanced depend on a failure of reciprocity.

  • CalderonX

    “The point is not semantic but rather phenomenological.” But couldn’t — or perhaps even shouldn’t — libertarians attempt to change the way others experience the phenomenon? To take an obvious example, back in the early 1770’s America’s founders stopped experiencing taxation from England as part of the cost of living in civil society and instead started seeing it as an imposition on their rights (despite the fact that the taxation was relatively modest). Or take mob protection rackets. In certain places and times, these would be seen just as a cost of doing business (similar to taxation and regulations), but in many places i the US today they would be seen as unjust, akin to robbery.

    Given that people’s reactions to extractions by the government or others can change over time, why not try to change them? Part of that effort could in fact be pointing out ways that taxation is similar to theft, or questioning whether the government has some special legitimacy beyond any other group of people that establish a quasi-monopoly on force in a given geographic area.

    • good_in_theory

      Yes, the “semantic, not phenomenological” line doesn’t really do much.

    • Sean

      Good point Calderon.

  • Jason Brennan

    I like how Matt Z subtly calls me an ideologue in this post.

    I’m not arguing for the moral parity of state and civilian agents on the basis of libertarian ideology. Rather, I’m starting with commonsense moral intuitions about the ethics of killing, and then asking why people grant exemptions to government agents. I’m doing what Huemer or McMahan do.

    • Jason, if you think I called you an ideologue, then you seriously misread my post. All I said – and all I meant to convey – was that Lomasky’s discussion might be relevant for some of the questions you were asking. How you got “ideologue” out of that is beyond me.

  • carlmilsted

    Taxation is theft. However, for a reasonably well behaved government taxation is theft with adequate compensation, a point I made back in 2006. http://freeliberal.com/archives/001823.php

  • Jason Brennan

    I really don’t like arguments like this, whether they come from Rawls, Vallier, Gaus, or Lomasky.

    Imagine trotting out public reason liberal-type arguments in the context of physics. “Oh, you’re saying the universe is relativistic. So you must think that no one else deserves respect and must see yourself as some kind of authority!” That would be a bogus move.

    The only reason that PRL could make this kind if move is it holds that coercion requires special justification–you can’t coerce people on the basis of X, even if X is true, unless they in some sort of epistemic position where X could be justified to them. That’s the basic idea behind PRL. But this doesn’t help Lomasky, because “taxation is theft” is an objection to coercion, not a justification for it.

    It’s funny. PRL is supposed to make it harder to coerce people, but in almost everyone’s hands, it’s used instead to make it easier to coerce people and harder to object to coercion.

    • Kevin Vallier

      So it is definitely true that public justification is not required when one claims any expertise at all. It’s only required when someone is making moral demands of others, or on the older, more restricted view, when someone is proposing to coerce another. And in those cases one can still appeal to expertise, but this will be limited in some ways by the conception of idealization one adopts. So we can avoid the physics objection, and I don’t think we disagree, but perhaps others want to see the reasoning laid out.

      As for Lomasky’s claim, you’re right that objecting to coercion is not subject to the same constraints as proposing coercion. It’s easier to defeat coercion than justify it. But accepting the view that taxation is theft does seem to involve proposing coercion. If you hold that taxation is theft, then you’re probably also likely to assert that libertarian property rights’ views should have moral and political authority over others. This is to say that the legitimate legal order should coerce others into not taking what, on libertarianism, you take to be your property.

      • Jason Brennan

        You’re right that to assert a property right is to assert the right to coerce others, but that holds of all rights.

        Suppose a woman asserts a right not to be raped or a man asserts a right to worship Zeus. These are also assertions of the permissibility of using coercion against others.

        So, at the very least, all rights talk gets into the same boat.

        I guess that’s not a criticism but an elaboration on PRL.

        • Kevin Vallier

          I think for some people it seems odd to require public justification to use coercion to defend yourself. The old response was to say that it’s easy to justify defending yourself, so easy that it appears no justification is needed. I gave that response for a few years.

          But there’s a new response that Andrew Lister and Chad Van Schoelandt have been working out, which is that you only need to publicly justified coercion when you’re attempting to exercise authority over others, not, say, when you’re just defending yourself against a random attack. In almost all cases, when we propose coercion politically, we’re committed (for a variety of reasons) to caring about whether our demands and coercion can be justified to others, because we do and should care about treating others as free and equal. But if I’m preventing myself from being raped, that’s not the case. I’m just trying to stop myself from getting raped. Chad’s forthcoming article in Phil Studies explores this. And I’m finding it an increasingly more plausible account of public justification. While it circumscribes the relevance of public justification to coercion somewhat, it allows publicly unjustified coercion in some limited cases where it seems right and helps to make better sense about why we should care about public justification.

          • Has Andrew addressed this anywhere in print yet?

          • Kevin Vallier

            Indeed, in his new book Public Reason and Political Community, which I’ll be reviewing for NDPR.

          • Andrew Patton

            The assertion of the right to property is the assertion that those who violate your property ought to be punished for doing so. The assertion of the right to self-defense is the assertion that you ought not to be punished for defending yourself. Every right is a moral claim that those who violate said right are deserving of punishment for doing so.

  • AK

    A fancy way of saying: “taxation is theft” is a bad argument because it’s not popular and it’s rude

  • Jason Kuznicki

    Suppose that I, a thief and not a tax collector, announced my theft beforehand. Suppose I asked that you kindly leave your door unlocked so that I won’t find myself obliged to break the lock. Suppose I even told you in advance how much I was planning to take, so that you could be well-prepared for it financially. Suppose, finally, that all your neighbors piously repeat that theft is the price we pay for civilization.

    Would that make my theft okay? Or would that only make my theft taxation – and still not okay?

    • Farstrider

      No, for the reasons stated in the bolded language above.

      • Jason Kuznicki

        And you see, that’s where I have a problem, because I’m relatively okay with denying the legitimacy of the current social order in some important respects.

        Social orders have been crashingly wrong all throughout recorded history. It’s hubris to say we just happen to live in a privileged, basically correct society. Why not begin with the premise that ours is also crashingly wrong – somewhere – and try to find where that is? In that sense, libertarianism is *at least* a pretty solid, testable theory about how our current society gets things wrong.

        • Farstrider

          Individuals have also been crashingly wrong all throughout recorded history. It is just as hubristic to assume that Jason Kuznicki just happens to know better than everyone else in society what is right for that society as it is to assume that society knows better than Jason Kuznicki. Probably more so.

          • Jason Kuznicki

            Sure it’s hubris to assume I’m right. Of course it is! But you know what? The worst I can do about it is talk you to death with some wrong boring libertarian theory. The state can do a lot worse than that, and it manifestly has.

    • Loren’s not arguing that taxation is morally unobjectionable. He’s arguing that it’s not theft. See my newer post for an elaboration.

      • Jason Kuznicki

        It seems to me we are perilously close to simply arguing about words and not about things.

        • Farstrider

          I think that was the point all along. Once you argue by analogy (i.e., taxation is so similar to theft that we should regard it the same way for all purposes) you necessarily invite a deeper look into the nature of the two things compared.

    • Andrew Patton

      You are missing one element that distinguishes taxation from theft: authority. The tax collector acts on behalf of legitimate authority, and he becomes a thief if he acts outside that authority.

  • Irfan Khawaja

    Lomasky: “In nearly all relevant respects the perceived context of taxation is significantly different. I look at my pay stub and observe that a large slab of my salary has been excised before I ever had the opportunity to fondle it. This is an annoyance, perhaps an intense one.”

    Is Lomasky talking about “taxation” or “the system of taxation in 20-21st century America”? Not the same thing,and the excerpt above doesn’t distinguish between them.

    When a Palestinian in Beit Sahur gets taxed, he or she doesn’t experience it as an “intense annoyance.” He experiences it as outright theft enforced by a military regime, which is why there’s been a tax revolt there since the 1980s. She may want to persuade the Israeli authorities to think and do otherwise (in “cooperationist” mode), but she may also want to tell them to fuck themselves (disqualifying them from moral respect). Pace Lomasky, there’s no real contradiction between those two tasks. Try showing “civility” for some 20-something year old soldier with a machine gun when he comes to break down your door and smash your domicile to pieces because you haven’t paid your taxes. You might even read him soothing passages from “Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community,” but don’t assume you’ll get through on the first reading.



    Methodological observation: the concept “taxation” refers to all taxation everywhere throughout human history, not just its most benign forms. If you want to generalize about “taxation” (whether as theft or not-as-theft), you need to talk about the varieties of taxation across historical epochs and political regimes. You can’t just take up the first person singular and assume that inspectio mentis will reveal the nature of taxation to you. Contrary to Lomasky, the point is BOTH semantic AND phenomenological: it’s just that the relevant phenomenology has to cover the semantic range of the concept, and the range is broader than his discussion implies. Call it “conceptual analysis as if the other 99% of people mattered.”

    In any case, Lomasky’s phenomenological argument doesn’t prove anything, and doesn’t even get the phenomenology right in everyday American cases. I live in New Jersey. My newspaper has been stolen every day this year that I woke up later than 9 am–about 30 times since August. I don’t feel outrage. I feel annoyance, sometimes intense annoyance. Petty theft is par for the course in my neighborhood. But it’s still theft. Almost everyone in our parking lot has had their windows smashed in and had something stolen out of their car. Do we feel outrage? No. We feel resignation. C’est la vie. This is Jersey.

    Identity theft is now taken for granted in the US. People don’t feel outrage at it because it’s just an annoyance. You don’t even report it to the police (and if you do, as I have, they laugh at you). You report it to your bank (yawn) and you (probably) get your money back. The Secret Service will not investigate any case of identity theft where the amount stolen is less than $75,000. Does the phenomenology of complacency prove that identity theft is not theft when the amount stolen is $70,000? I guess if we’re complacent enough about it, it becomes taxation.

    How many storeowners feel “outrage” at shoplifting? Few. Does that mean that shoplifting isn’t theft?

    How many physicians in private practice (or other similar service providers) feel outrage at non-payment for services rendered? No, they just write them off. Is that not theft?

    How many managers feel outrage when their employees steal office supplies? Probably none. Not theft?

    In the 1980s, car theft was so ubiquitous in northern NJ that people lost their sense of outrage over it. Were those cars not stolen, then?

    I’m not a libertarian, much less a libertarian sloganizer, so I have no particular commitment to the “taxation is theft” slogan. But Lomasky’s arguments are hopeless. There’s nothing about the nature of theft that requires any particular attitude on the part of the victim, and nothing about it that implies that it can’t be systematized, regularized, legalized, and acquiesced in by a large population. There’s nothing about taxation, in turn, that implies that we can’t predicate “theft” of it, especially when the amounts taken are gratuitous and not being put to any justifiable use (as they often are, and often have been). Contrary to the claims made here, there isn’t a single argument in the quoted passage that tells us what’s wrong with the slogan.

    • Andrew Patton

      Not really. One can distinguish between the two the same way one can distinguish between shooting a home invader and emptying a clip into him after he’s already incapacitated. The former is justified by the right to self-defense, but the latter is condemned as manslaughter or even murder because it is clearly excessive and unnecessary.

  • Matthew Tanous

    “Taxation is not theft.”

    Well, that’s a totally legitimate argument. Argument by assertion is wonderful. See, one person says “taxation is theft” because it is the taking of a person’s property by force (see: definition of theft). The other says “nuh-uh”. Oh, and we shouldn’t call it that either, because “that pronouncement denies the legitimacy of the social order and announces that I regard myself as authorized unilaterally to override its dictates” (i.e. it might offend someone!).

    Give me a break.

    • adrianratnapala

      I’m going to switch sides here. Words, like “taxation” and “theft” take on meaning by their real usage in society. The dominant current in society make taxation is legal but and theft illegal. To square this circle we must definition of “theft” must be something like “Taking stuff by force, except when it is taxation”. Why? Because we say so, or at least we live as if it were so.

    • Farstrider

      The point of the article is rather simple, and I’m surprised it meets with such scorn. That point being, of course, that taxation has similarities to theft, and that those similarities may justify criticism or opposition to taxation, but that they also have differences, and pretending away those differences is neither correct nor wise rhetorical strategy.

      • Matthew Tanous

        Taxation doesn’t just “have similarities to theft”. Theft is taking another person’s property without permission. Taxation is taking another person’s money without permission for the purposes of government.

        Taxation is just, then, theft of money in particular by a government. It is a specific instance of theft (as is a mugging), but it is certainly theft, BY DEFINITION.

        • Farstrider

          They are obviously not identical, as your post concedes. They have differences, like who is doing the taking. Whether those differences matter is a different question, over which people disagree. Saying “nuh-uh” doesn’t change that.

          • Matthew Tanous

            I didn’t say “nuh-uh”. I actually pointed out there IS no difference. By definition, taxation is a subset of a broader category of theft. In fact, the definition for taxation in my post could be exactly rewritten as “theft of money by government” without changing anything regarding meaning.

            “They have differences, like who is doing the taking.”

            Nowhere in the definition of the category of theft does the identity of the thief matter. By this logic, a mugging is not theft, because it specifies that it be an attacker on the street that does the taking. Stealing a TV is not theft because “theft” doesn’t specify what is taken?

            I suppose the doing the breaststroke isn’t swimming because the definition adds specifics about how one moves while doing it (“the arms are pushed forward and then swept back in a circular movement, while the legs are tucked in toward the body and then kicked out in a corresponding movement”). Ridiculous.

          • Libertymike

            That someone else is doing the taking, of course, does not change the nature of what is being discussed, i.e., theft. The assertion that who is doing the taking is an important difference and therefore may change the nature of theft is laughable.

          • Farstrider

            This is not argument but assertion. Please explain why context never matters in your world view?

          • Libertymike

            Do you really think that “context never matters in [my] world view”?
            However, sometimes, an appeal to context, is pretext.

          • Farstrider

            Only inconvenient context.

          • Farstrider

            You think it is ridiculous because you don’t think the identity of the taker matters. Not mattering is not the same as not different. Most people disagree. I guess they are all ridiculous.
            Nor is this a semantic objection. Circumstances, including the identity of the actors, matters. A parent who takes a candy away from a child is not committing theft. A policeman who takes away a weapon from a suspect is not committing theft. A bystander who sees someone about to eat poisoned food or drink and knocks it away is not committing theft. And so forth.

          • Matthew Tanous

            “You think it is ridiculous because you don’t think the identity of the taker matters.”

            It does not. Pick up a dictionary sometime. Look up theft or steal.

            “But that is an admission that there are differences, just not important ones.”

            It’s not a difference. It’s a degree of specificity. Theft is a broad term, taxation, mugging, robbery, etc. are specific terms.

            For your next trick, will you argue that dogs are not mammals? Or that we “have the subset wrong” and that dogs and mammals are both exclusive subsets of animals?

            “A parent who takes a candy away from a child is not committing theft”

            Candy is not the child’s property.

            “A policeman who takes away a weapon from a suspect is not committing theft”

            Yes, he is. Taking property from someone without their permission is theft. Now, there are cases in which such a violent act is justified – but not that one.

            “A bystander who sees someone about to eat poisoned food or drink and knocks it away is not committing theft.”

            Yes, they are. And it is perfectly reasonable for a person to sue for the theft of that food. Certainly, they probably won’t once it is demonstrated it was poisoned, but they have the right to. Because theft.

            “Taxation is not a subset of theft. Both taxation and theft are a subset of taking, as are all the examples above.”

            Nope. Check the definitions. Theft is a form of taking, yes. But taxation is a form of theft. Nested subsets.

            “It’s like saying gorillas are a subset of humans.”

            No, it’s like saying humans are primates. And then primates are all mammals. Different layers.

            It’s clear you misunderstand the basic definitions of these terms.

          • Farstrider

            You seem really sure about your definition of the word “theft”, but you don’t provide any basis for it. I wonder why that is?

            1 a : the act of stealing; specifically : the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it
            b : an unlawful taking (as by embezzlement or burglary) of property
            2 obsolete : something stolen
            3 : a stolen base in baseball

            1. the act of stealing; the wrongful taking and carrying away of the personal goods or property ofanother; larceny.
            2. an instance of this.
            3. Archaic. something stolen.

            A criminal act in which property belonging to another is taken without that person’s consent.

            Your move, bowels.

          • Andrew Patton

            Yes it does. Taking back your rightful property is not theft, even if the person currently in possession of it believes he is the rightful owner. Theft is the UNJUST taking of property.

  • Guest

    If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck but we call it a gorilla, is it really a gorilla?

  • Max

    Is murder not murder if the gov’t does it and calls it ethnic cleansing?

    • Andrew Patton

      No, but it’s not murder for the government to execute someone who has been duly convicted of a grave crime, provided that the death penalty was publicly declared to be a consequence of said crime, even if the criminals convicted and sentenced to death are entirely of a certain subset of the population.

  • Jerome Bigge

    It appears that some form of “taxation” has existed in all societies beyond the hunter-gatherer level. And even in these societies, there was a system of “sharing” that required the more “fortunate” (successful hunting and to a lesser extend gathering depends to a certain degree on luck) to “share” with the less fortunate. More “advanced” pre-monetary societies required a certain amount of labor and/or sharing of goods/services which was given to the ruler. There was also a requirement of military service when needed for the able bodied. It is of course possible to create “concealed” taxes that wouldn’t be noticed by most people. Such as a financial transaction tax of say 1%. The prices of goods and services would simply be slightly higher than otherwise. Most likely not enough for most people to notice. Of course the producers of goods and services would be aware of the tax as a requirement to send the 1% of the value produced to the government. However for those who are not employers or actual producers of something wouldn’t notice the extra 1%. Just as most people when asked what they earn will refer to their “take home” pay, not the total amount they were paid before deductions. No more than those with employer paid benefits think of these benefits as being a part of their actual earnings.

  • Jameson Graber

    OK, so I have a question. Does being a bleeding heart libertarian mean being a radical, or not? And does being a radical really mean indulging the majority by making a kind moral judgment about them?

    I mean, the quote you place here positively basically says, hey, thieves are bad and it’s okay if you get really mad at them. But the *average* person is basically good, and since average people respect government, you probably should have the decency not to call them accessories to a crime.

    Really? So at the end of the day, we shouldn’t be willing to challenge the status quo in stark terms?

    That’s my initial reaction to the quote in this post. Maybe the rest of the article is pretty good, but I’m not impressed by that part.

    For my part, I don’t think all tax is theft. Just most of it.

    • Libertymike

      Do not concede that the income tax, for example, enjoys widespread popularity. The true test is the praxeological one – look at how people treat their own income tax returns.

  • Roderick T. long

    I was at the conference where Loren first presented that paper. People asked him whether the libertarian position on drug laws was as uncivil as the libertarian position on taxes. Absolutely not, apparently; Loren thundered on about how evil the drug war was and how there could be no excuse for anyone supporting it. I got a chuckle out of that.

  • LR

    So, basically, a philosophy professor successfully publishes an article based on argumentum ad populum. Of course BHL thinks this is wonderful.

    • Libertymike

      The argumentum ad populum should not be conceded.
      What about measuring the popularity of the income tax upon praxeological grounds? What do people actually do with regard to their own tax returns is, in my view, a far better barometer of ascertaining their real views of the subject.

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  • Rachel

    Lomasky wants to look like Lysander Spooner.

  • Hi Matt, in the following dropbox link you can download the Pdf. of Lomansky’s piece (SP&P, 1998,15, 2): https://www.dropbox.com/sh/2rj8hhc47z0apoo/AADsQXQz55RDoQMeL9GyWiVWa

  • Raymond Raad

    it seems to me there’s two central issues here, in Lomasky’s article and in the comments:

    1. Whether the rule of law (including predictability, etc) makes taxation sufficiently different from theft that the same word does not apply.

    2. Whether an act of government should be judged on the same moral standard as a similar act by a private individual.

    Libertarianism is probably alone among political perspectives in answering “yes” to number 2. (Actually Ayn Rand considered this the central distinction between capitalists and socialists). But even libertarians can disagree about #1.

    • Sean II

      I think if you dig deeper, you’ll find that 1) actually is 2).

      Don Fanucci was predictable. He came by every week and stole the same amount. Yet we would not shy away from calling him a thief.

      So really, “rule of law” turns out to be just political authority, which is what you’re getting at in 2).

  • People’s stupidity, of which anyone who writes “Libertarians are wont to intone, “Taxation is theft!” It is a clever variation on Proudhon’s “Property is theft!” ” is a prime example, is indeed one big reason behind the M postulate. The others being mere ignorance of the existence of a consistent philosophy amongst the dominant nihilism, a situation which this very website, by trying to bring confusion to the sound philosophy of libertarianism, doesn’t help alleviate, to say the least.

    Why is that sentence so stupid? Because “property is theft” is a stolen concept and an absurdity: you can’t define theft without defining property. On the other hand, you can’t define theft consistently and universally without it applying to taxation. Lomasky can’t even tell the difference between a contradiction and a tautology.

    “When I return home from a libertarian scholars’ conference to find the lock on my door broken and my television set gone I am outraged. ” That is exactly what happens when you don’t pay your taxes. If you’re lucky.

  • jtkennedy

    Lomasky: “It is, therefore, not only misleading but also an exercise in borderline incivility to equate taxation with theft,”

    Whereas locking Irwin Schiff in prison where he will probably die, for peacefully dissenting, is by definition civil….

  • jtkennedy

    Lomasky, “The perceived reality of theft is notably distinct from that of taxation.”

    Here I think of the Milgram experiment. Upon hearing the experiment described to them nearly everyone agrees that it would be wrong to shock the “student” to the limit, and everyone is confident that they would not do so. But when individuals were actually placed in the situation at least two thirds of them quite apparently perceived a different reality. In the experiment subjects experienced an illusion of authority located in a man in a labcoat, an illusion which degraded their moral judgment. I think this kind of effect goes a long way to explaining why most experience public theft (taxation) as different from private theft.

  • jtkennedy

    Matt writes: “One possible response, of course, is to conclude that our fellow citizens are evil. Some libertarians, in a more charitable spirit, might conclude instead that they are merely stupid.”

    I think people strongly tend to be Rationally Irrational in matters of collective politics where there is negligible return to the individual for apprehending the correct answer. I think Caplan’s case for this is extremely strong.

  • Adenhart

    Forcing someone to use your services is theft.

  • Anthony

    The downward spiral of the libertarian party continues as people who do not see the government as a moral wrong continue to identify themselves as libertarians. My argument is simple. The government is just an idea. It doesn’t actually exist. It is people. So when the government taxes me, its actually people taking my money. With a threat to throw me in a cage if I don’t pay them and possibly kill me if i don’t want to go in the cage. But please. Tell me that it isn’t theft because the majority believes it is right. The majority of Germans believed putting the Jews in camps was right so why were they scared?

    • Andrew Patton

      If it is wrong for government to exist, then who shall judge if someone has done wrong to you? Are you claiming a right to revenge, including the right to determine the degree and kind of punishment? If so, where does this right come from? If not, who shall judge? And is not the judge entitled to compensation for his time?

  • Phil

    Definition of theft according to Merriam Webster:
    “to take the property of another wrongfully and especially as a habitual or regular practice”

    Taxation falls under this definition.
    The money is taken by threat of force, not because I voluntarily agreed to the system or the monetary transaction.
    Taxation is theft, and I never agreed to this Social Contract.

  • 豐 Piotrek Nowacki 豐

    Let me get this straight… so taxation is not theft because majority of the people don’t see it as such and neither does the legal system (whose infrastructure, employees etc are paid by taxes to begin with)… Furthermore it is not theft because we get something back and have a limited input into what it is spent on? Naturally then if I steal your cash but buy some sweets with it and offer you a choice of either Snickers or a Mars bar I would no longer be committing a theft (provided majority of people don’t see it as such). Am I the only one who sees a problem with this type of logic?

    Taxation is legitimized theft, pure and simple.

  • Alvaro Ithurralde

    So what matters most is democracy? If the consensus says that all people named Matt or Loren or jason are slaves and only have right to slaves of people named Alvaro. You would still think the same because of consensus ?

    • Andrew Patton

      No, but on the flipside, by what authority do you assert a right to property, and how is this right enforced? Indeed, by what authority do you assert a right to life, and how is this right enforced?

  • Roderick T. long

    Imagine what an essay on “Antislavery as if (the other 99 Percent of) People Mattered” published in 1750, or “Feminism as if (the other 99 Percent of) People Mattered” published in 1850, might look like.

  • Shawn Cowden

    Too bad morality is not determined by a majority vote. And don’t present the false dichotomy that libertarians/voluntarists/anarchists think the people who believe in the legitimacy of the state’s authority to be either evil or stupid. Sometimes it’s differing approaches to ethics (deontology vs conquentialism). Sometimes it’s how one was raised, educated, etc.

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  • Michael Huemer

    I think the 99% are wrong about taxation and many other things (though I’m not sure they’re 99%; I think they might be only 95% or 97%). I don’t think they’re all stupid or evil or crazy, though. What I think is that human beings have a variety of natural psychological mechanisms that systematically bias us in favor of socially recognized authority figures. I discuss this in _The Problem of Political Authority_, ch. 6.