More on Lomasky, Taxation, and Reasonable Disagreement

Judging from some of the comments here and on Facebook, some people have misunderstood the point that Loren’s argument (excerpted in my last post) was meant to establish.

Loren is not trying to argue that taxation is morally unobjectionable. Saying that “taxation is not theft” is not the same as saying that “taxation is not wrong.” For purposes of this essay, at least, Loren is granting the truth of standard libertarian claims – including the claim that at least the great bulk of taxation that exists in our world today is morally wrong.

What Loren is trying to challenge is the wrongness of taxation, but rather what libertarians should do about the wrongness of taxation given that the vast majority of our fellow citizens appear to sincerely and reasonably disagree with us about that issue. Most of those people are not denying that taxation is theft merely in order to line their own pockets with the plunder. Most of them do not deny it merely because they are wicked, or culpably ignorant. They disagree because they believe (perhaps wrongly) that it is the job of government to provide various public goods, or a social safety net, or to protect the environment, etc. These beliefs may be wrong, but they are not obviously wrong, and it is quite easy for honest, intelligent, well-meaning people to hold them sincerely.

So there are two levels of questions we might ask about the morality of taxation. The first-level moral question is whether taxation is morally right or morally wrong. The second-level question is what we should do when most reasonable people disagree with our answer to the first-level question. It is the second-level question, not the first, with which Lomasky is primarily concerned.

As libertarians, we take a rather idiosyncratic position on the first-level question of the morality of taxation. Other groups take equally idiosyncratic positions on other issues. Certain pro-lifers believe that abortion is murder. Some vegetarians believe that eating meat is murder. Like the libertarian belief that taxation is theft, these claims might be true. But like the libertarian belief, the vast majority of reasonable people believe that they are not.

How should people act on sincere but idiosyncratic beliefs such as these? What would it be like if vegetarians actually acted like they believed that meat is murder? What would a society be like in which every group or individual with an extreme view like this acted on it, without regard to the reasonable views of others? Of course, even if meat is murder, prudence might still dictate that extreme vegetarians refrain from gunning down their local butcher. But is prudence the only consideration that should prevent the pro-lifer from gunning down abortionists? Is it the only consideration that should prevent libertarians from using physical violence against the tax-man? Or would there be something immoral about it, even if taxation really is theft, and even if we could escape punishment for our resistance?

In other words, given that lots of people have idiosyncratic first-level moral beliefs, and given that society would go very, very badly if everybody felt themselves to be at moral liberty to act upon these beliefs no matter what, might it not make sense to adopt a kind of second-level principle that limits our (and everyone else’s) freedom to act upon those first-level beliefs? I won’t impose my radically kooky ideology on you, if you don’t impose your radically kooky one on me. Instead, we’ll agree to abide by the merely moderately kooky rules that we can more-or-less agree to settle on in some roughly democratic way.

A number of commentators have brought up the issue of slavery as a purported counterexample to Lomasky’s argument. That argument, they claim, would imply that 19th century Americans would be wrong to condemn slavery, since that practice too was accepted by most people. But this objection only works if we assume that disagreements about the morality of slavery are as reasonable as disagreements about the morality of taxation. And I see no reason to believe that this is true. Yes, some people did endorse the morality of slavery. But most of those arguments were transparently bad, in a way that arguments for the morality of taxation are not. Many of them were clear rationalizations of economic and social power. The more general point is this: it does not follow from the fact that some moral disagreements are reasonable that all of them are. Lomasky’s argument is about the reasonable disagreements, not the unreasonable ones.

UPDATE: Julian Sanchez reminds me that Robert Nozick’s essay, “The Zig-Zag of Politics,” makes many points quite similar to Lomasky’s. See Julian’s thoughtful discussion here.

  • CalderonX

    Two points:

    1. There’s a difference between speaking about beliefs and acting on beliefs. Vegetarians would not want to act on saying meat is murder by gunning down butchers, but very well may want to repeatedly explain why the believe animals have moral value. Peter Singer probably should not try to force people to donate their retirement savings to starving children in Africa, but he can explain why he believes there’s a moral compulsion to do so. And libertarians probably would not want to try not paying taxes, but nothing prevents us from arguing that taxation is theft. So comparing saying “taxation is theft” to a vegetarian gunning down butchers is unpersuasive because you’re comparing speech to acts rather than speech to speech or acts to acts. More to the point, we’re generally free to express our idiosyncratic beliefs regardless of whether we act on them.

    2. “But most of those arguments [for slavery] were transparently bad, in a way that arguments for the morality of taxation are not.” To sound like the nihilist I am, those arguments for slavery sound transparently bad to us NOW, but they were convincing to people throughout most of history. That those who lost in battle, or were less technologically advanced, or had a different religion or culture, or simply that there was no right to personal autonomy seem like bad reasons to us now but were not centuries ago. Likewise, centuries in the future people might wonder how those in the past could ever have tolerated taxation given that the future people will perceive the arguments for it as being so bad. (Obviously, people in the future could easily have some different view, given that predicting such views is impossible.)

  • Bryan C. Winter

    I’ve never seen much value in hyperbole, and taxation as theft is hyperbolic at the least. There is a difference between reasonable arguments that may be incorrect, and completely insane ones, and the idea of taxation to support a state is not insane. That doesn’t mean taxes are good. It just means it isn’t unreasonable and treating people who disagree with that as unreasonable is a great way to make yourself an extremist group instead of having something constructive to add to society. In general I think it’s a good practice to divide out the completely insane arguments from other kinds of arguments, and treat differences of opinion with respect. Many incredibly smart, morally upright people consider taxation to be moral and just. Spreading stupid internet meme’s or joking about shooting taxmen is a great way to prove their worst fears about certain libertarian elements correct. I much prefer a deep, logical and introspective approach, that compares things as they are without the use of hyperbole to ratchet up the emotion. If your grand statement about your philosophy can fit on a bumper sticker, your not thinking hard enough about it to be even remotely intellectually honest.

    There is also the practical matter that a tax-less society is probably functionally impossible. I’m supportive of the commodization of as much stuff as humanly possible, but not all goods are amendable to commodization. I think as technology advances, we may be able to commoditize more things. But in the meantime their are services governments perform simply because we can’t create a market for them.

    At the very least, you need a neutral non-commodity court system to adjudicate contracts and protect the sovereignty of property , and a shared police force and military to maintain the necessary goverment monopoly on legitimate violence to raise the cost of violence so high that trade becomes the only profitable option.

    I also don’t have much issue goverment use of Space Programs, DARPA and other research labs, despite the high cost, because of the economic benefits of doing research that you can’t attach a rational capital valuation upon, so long as the patents that come out of it are open sourced or sold at market value to companies looking to commercialize them, or your doing basic research that has intrinsic value to civilization.

    Taxation is really theft where you take money from one group of people, and give it to another group of people, without requiring that group of people to provide an in-kind service. It’s not theft if your taxing someone to pay the police officers salary, or to build a GPS Satellite.

    • I wish I could take you seriously, Bryan, but I cannot. Taxation as theft is a moral observation which is possibly hyperbolic. Taxation as theft is also a description of how people behave when *they* are taxed. All the characteristics of theft apply to taxation when you look at it from the victim’s point of view. This is not at all hyperbolic, but is instead simply descriptive.

  • adrianratnapala

    Matt, I’m not sure whether you actually read your last post, or the comments on it. I am fairly sure the discussion there was about whether the proposition “Taxation is theft” is true. Every paragraph of your Lomasky quote tries to contradict this proposition, and fails. Now Lomasky makes the excellent point that taxation is vital part of our social order, and most people accept it, and it is not good to go to war with society because of that. But he somehow conflates all that with the proposition “Taxation is not theft.”

    What nearly everyone in the comment thread has been trying to tell you is that those are two separate propositions. And now you are admonishing us to not conflate the questions of “Is taxation evil?” and “What should we do about nice people who think taxation is not evil?” Well, we didn’t conflate, deflate, inflate or even just flate those questions, because the discussion was about something else.

    And when people who think taxation is theft do about the society that disagrees with them? My observation tells me that they tend to argue against police brutality, executive-branch legislation, war, corporate welfare, other kinds of welfare and, yes, they also argue for lower taxes. None of them seem to want to gun down tax inspectors.

    • A little philosophy secret: Broad propositions like “taxation is theft” are almost never worth debating, because they have no determinate truth value. Squabbles over them are almost invariably trivial spats about linguistic conventions dressed up to look like something profound. And the fact that we can even indulge in the spat shows that we don’t all use “theft” in a sufficiently precisely defined way to make the answer determinate. The “two separate propositions” ARE NOT two separate propositions. If most competent speakers of English don’t use the term “theft” in a way that encompasses taxation, then the word doesn’t mean that. You might as well debate whether croquet and chess are “really” sports.

      You can, of course, just stipulate a definition of “theft” on which it comes out either true or false, but the claim won’t have any normative significance that isn’t built into the stipulation. If you presuppose a theory of rights and obligations on which it follows we have strong fixed claims over external resources but no prima facie obligation to support institutions supplying various kinds of public goods, it will follow on most conceptions of “theft” as a “wrongful” taking of property that taxation “is” “theft.” But if you’d actually DEMONSTRATED all that beyond reasonable dispute, it would be the conclusion of a complex and rigorous political theory, not a premise in it.

      Alternatively we can stipulate a purely descriptive sense of “theft” on which (never mind how people in your linguistic community normally use the word), it follows deductively that “taxation is theft,” but leave open whether this counts normatively against it in any way. And that’s fine if you want to announce your intention to use a term in a certain idiosyncratic way, but the relevance of one’s distinctive linguistic habits to substantive disputes in political philosophy become murky.

      In practice, people usually want to fudge the alternatives and imagine we can solve hard theoretical problems with Websters. Which would be nice. But since that’s not the case, insisting that the majority of English speakers are just using a non-technical term incorrectly seems like an unpromising way to spend one’s time.

      • adrianratnapala

        Hmm, you can read my reply to you above for my contribution the trivial linguistic spat. It’s thrust is that taxation is basically an arbitrary carve-out that we make for no other reason than that the government needs our wealth.

        The advantage of calling taxation theft is that it calls to attention the arbitrariness of this, and reminds us of the bad, theft-like aspects of taxation (i.e. all of them, except its regularity, and for who gets the money). The weird thing is Lomasky seems more anti-tax than I am, and he (and MZ) are the ones who picked the linguistic fight with the categorical statement “taxation is not theft”. Personally I don’t like “taxation is theft” as a rhetorical ploy, but I can’t say its a false statement.

        • Sean II

          Julian’s really embarrassing himself here. He’s confused the consensual origin of language with a Humpty Dumpty rule that says anything can mean anything (or not-anything) at anytime…or not, as the situation requires.

          Do me a favor: help me not let him get away with that.

      • Irfan Khawaja

        If you interpret any proposition of the form “F is G” as “Some F’s are G’s,” then “F is G” certainly has a truth-value. And if you read “taxation is theft” that way, its truth value is most likely “true.” Some taxation is almost certainly theft. Even if you read “F is G” as “All F’s are G’s,” “F is G” still has a truth value, though it’s less clear what it is.

        Incidentally, your second paragraph flatly contradicts your first one. The first paragraph tells us that the proposition under consideration doesn’t have a truth value, and the second one gives an interpretation of it such that it does. On your own interpretation, if we operate with a stipulative definition of theft, the proposition is trivially true. But “trivially true” entails true, and “true” is a truth value. A little philosophy secret.

        If the “relevance of one’s distinctive linguistic habits to substantive disputes in political philosophy is murky,” I’d think that the relevance of Loren Lomasky’s idiosyncratic phenomenology to the same thing is murkier still. But so far, no one has picked up on that fact despite its centrality to Lomasky’s argument.

        Finally, disputes about “theft” and “taxation” are not in-house disputes among English speakers. Non-English speakers are on the receiving end of both phenomena. If so, what competent English speakers think is not necessarily relevant to the dispute, much less conclusive of it. We need to do conceptual analysis as though the other x% of language speakers count for something.

        • The claim “taxation is theft” as used in this context is pretty clearly the claim that “all taxation is theft,” so whatever we think about the plausibility of the much weaker claim, I don’t think it’s to the point.

          And really, Frege, you can’t cash this out for yourself? Fine: The claim that “taxation is theft” involves the contestable partly-normative term “theft,” and colloquial usage is sufficiently flexible and ambiguous that the concept needs to be precisified before it yields a determinate proposition that we can assign a clear truth value. Nothing of profound importance turns on how we choose to slice the conceptual salami here, since what ultimately matters is whether taxation is *morally justifiable,* not the specific way we clarify our words. We can stipulate a purely descriptive sense of “theft” on which the now-precisified claim comes out trivially true (though probably fits colloquial usage poorly) but carries no normative weight. Or we can stipulate a normatively loaded sense on which its truth value depends on already accepting a fairly elaborate and controversial theory of rights. Either way, what substantively matters is the theory of rights, not what we think is the best way to use the word “theft”.

          • Sean II

            “Nothing of profound importance turns on…the specific way we clarify our words.”

            Wrong. This whole discussion has been about which words the libertarian movement should use, and which it should refrain from using.

            It’s ridiculous, when someone starts an argument about word choice, to pop in later and say “Gosh, this all seems semantic, trivial to me”.

            The thing under discussion in these threads is words.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Sanchez: “The claim “taxation is theft” as used in this context is pretty clearly the claim that “all taxation is theft,” so whatever we think about the plausibility of the much weaker claim, I don’t think it’s to the point.”

            Sorry, that wasn’t clear, and invoking “pretty clear” doesn’t really do much for you except invoke an ad hoc, ex post facto stipulation intended to save your argument. Obviously, if someone consents to taxation (and some people do), that instance of taxation wouldn’t be theft. So “all taxation is theft” wasn’t all that plausible a claim to begin with. “Some taxation is theft” leaves open how much taxation is theft. It’s a substantive claim. It obviously has a truth value and nothing in Lomasky’s argument rebuts it.

            Your second paragraph concedes my assertion that the claims in question can (easily) be interpreted to have truth values, and that you yourself were admitting that they did. That’s all I intended to say. Your further claims about normative weight are the ones that are not to the point. The point I was making was one about truth values, not normative weight.

            Not much is gained for you by calling me “Frege” in high sarcastic dudgeon. I don’t need to be Frege or a Fregean (believe it or not, I’m neither) to figure out what propositions have truth values. Neither, I might add, do you–and you were the one to bring the topic of truth values up. You were also the one who claimed, in the same superior mode, to be divulging some “philosophy secret” that no one else had figured out. You’re right: I haven’t figured it out. But that’s because you didn’t have one.

            You haven’t dealt with the latter half of my comment.

          • ” The claim “taxation is theft” as used in this context is pretty clearly the claim that “all taxation is theft,” ”

            Even so, that universal claim may have an implicit ceteris-paribus clause. Arguably, all universal moral claims have such a clause (which allows exceptions), otherwise they are false. See my ‘Pro-tanto Obligations and Ceteris-paribus Rules’, available here:


            ” And really, Frege, you can’t cash this out for yourself? Fine: The claim that “taxation is theft” involves the contestable partly-normative term “theft,” and colloquial usage is sufficiently flexible and ambiguous that the concept needs to be precisified before it yields a determinate proposition that we can assign a clear truth value. ”

            Ironically, that is a rather Fregean claim. In fact, no claim can be made fully determinate: as Popper puts it, ‘we never know what we are talking about’ (‘Unended Quest’, pp. 25-28). But that does not prevent us from assigning truth values to the claims. For example, the term ‘bald’ is a standard example of a vague term (there is no answer to the question of just how many hairs a man must have on his head to cease counting as bald). Despite that, we can all agree that it is true that Kojak is bald.

          • catfish

            all these arguments are rediculous and please excuse my spelling.

            taxation is theft. that is a true statements and we dot have to get into the weeds to prove it. . it is the taking of someones property and labor without their consent . What are the consequences if you dont pay your taxes and you refuse to the extreme not to pay them DEATH so they come and collect taxes then you refuse then threaten to take you to jail and you refuse an you constantly resist , well then they kill you . End of story And nobody say that this cant happen or hasnt happened because it has.

            if you resit the threat of force by a GMan the end result if you resist is you get shot

            lets compare this to the absurd claim that mat is murder.. we are meant to eat meet and throughout time and history we have eaten meat . Why should we act “above ” our nature. that is idiotic. does any intelligent person say that a wild cat, tiger, eating a deer in wildlife say that is murder . of course not because it is a natural thing to do

            if you say taxation s not theft then you must redefine what property means .

            Otherwise taxation is clearly theft and a nice bumper sticker.

            the reason why we have so many problem in the world is people dont use their intuitive senses and instead are brainwashed by corperations the government or the media. If It feels wrong it probably is

      • Sean II

        “If most competent speakers of English don’t use the term “theft” in a way that encompasses taxation, then the word doesn’t mean that.”

        Again, most competent English speakers don’t use “the draft” in a way that encompasses involuntary servitude. Indeed, that’s why we have a separate word for it!

        But tell us Julian…does that mean the draft does not encompass involuntary servitude?

        • Well, “involuntary servitude” would encompass “the draft,” but I know what you mean. Your empirical assertion seems extremely doubtful, though. At least on reflection, I would expect most competent English speakers to agree, if you asked them, that the draft is, in the colloquial sense, a form of involuntary servitude. Of course, the Supreme Court has held that *legally*, the draft is not within the scope of “involuntary servitude” in the sense in which that phrase is used in the 13th Amendment. Understood as a legal term of art, then, no: “Involuntary Servitude” does not encompass the draft (among many other things) even though, obviously, it is both a form of servitude and not voluntary. Which is not exactly surprising. “Affirmative Action” no longer means “any action taken affirmatively,” and “The Freedom of Speech” encompasses all sorts of conduct that is not, in any ordinary colloquial sense, “speech.” If you’re clear enough that you’re not asking about the phrase as a legal term of art, but only whether the draft is, in the ordinary independent senses of those words, both a form of servitude and involuntary, I assume almost everyone would acknowledge that it is.

          • Sean II

            Okay, great. Before anything else, I owe you a tip of the hat. Most people would duck out rather than face the analogy. That you don’t is impressive and deserving of respect.

            Back to business. So the wikipedia page of theft begins thus: “In common usage, theft is the taking of another person’s property without that person’s permission or consent with the intent to deprive the rightful owner of it.”

            I’ve said all along that I have no problem with people asserting that taxation is not theft provided they are willing to challenge either a) the “consent” term (as a contractarian might), or b) the “rightful owner” term (as a socialist would).

            Most people – the people who make common usage common, and indeed the people who edit wikipedia – don’t challenge either. And yet most people don’t recognize that taxation is, by their own definition, theft.

            Most people are incoherent. They accept that people have a property right in their income, and they accept that taxes are not voluntary…and yet somehow they deny that taxes are a taking of rightfully owned property without consent.

            It’s not that they have a different definition. It’s that they are cheating, even against their own definition of theft. Just as people cheat when it comes to escaping the logic of slavery = involuntary servitude = the draft.

          • Beyond a very general level, this is not actually a good account of either common usage or even how libertarians who say that “taxation is theft” use the word “theft,” at least if it’s supposed establish sufficient conditions for theft in all cases. As I noted in response to another commenter, there are lots of situations in which libertarians believe that a person’s (prima facie “rightful”) property can justly be transferred to another person without the owner’s consent, most obviously as compensation for some harm (or as a penalty for conduct with egregious risk of causing harm), breach of contract, enforcement of debt, etc. Nobody, including libertarians, calls this theft. You can, of course, say something to the effect that someone ceases to be the “rightful owner” of the funds needed to comply with a justly-rendered adverse judgment in such cases, but this is not formally different from what someone who believes in just taxation would say.

            Also, in those cases, I suspect that most people would find it extremely odd to describe a mistaken verdict, or an excessive or disproportionate monetary judgment, as “theft” even where they would readily agree to describe it as “unjust” or “wrongful deprivation of property.” Which, again, is just to say that one-line Wikipedia summaries may not fully capture all the nuance of ACTUAL common usage. In which case the problem is with Wikipedia, not with the vast majority of people whose usage Wikipedia inadequately attempts to summarize.

          • Sean II

            See above.

            This is a better argument than you’ve made thus far, and it deserves an answer. So…if taxes are theft within the common meaning, why not civil damage awards?

            The answer is that torts explicitly concern the transfer of ownership. If you walk into court owning a lemonade stand and I sue you successfully so that it becomes my lemonade stand, it is because I have contested one of the key terms: rightful ownership.

            But Julian, imagine I walk into court and, after hearing my suit, the jury finds for you and agrees that you did nothing wrong…but still takes your lemonade stand and gives it to me. That is, imagine the jury transfer the lemonade stand without contesting your rightful ownership. That would be theft.

            Taxes are like that. Apart from a handful of intellectuals, almost no one contests the ownership right people have in their income. Most people can’t even speak in such terms. And yet almost everyone tolerates a situation where obviously arbitrary amounts of that income are taken, and this for some reason they don not call theft.

          • Oh, and I’ll note that one salient factor the Wikipedia summary DOES capture is intent—which I think probably accounts for the very many cases of nonconsenual property transfers, including unjust or morally wrong transfers, that neither ordinary speakers nor libertarians would normally describe as “theft.” Suppose you mistakenly believe that you are legally or contractually entitled to extract a payment from me and (perhaps because of the complexity of both the factual and legal issues involved) a court mistakenly agrees and compels me to pay up. Most people would reject a description of this as “theft” even if they agree the verdict is unjust, because typically “theft” is reserved for cases where someone knows or reasonably ought to know they have no right to the property in question. Hence even libertarians don’t say “my jacket was stolen!” when we realize another guest at a party has mistakenly grabbed ours from a pile of identical-looking black coats, even though there’s no question that we have the right to the jacket and the person who took it does not.

            Which, I think, brings us back around nicely to Lomasky’s point: Non-libertarians, obviously, do not think taxation is theft because they don’t agree with our view about “rightful ownership.” They think the government (or at least certain types of government) can become the “rightful owner” of whatever percentage of people’s income a law enacted by some appropriate sort of democratic process says they may extract. So no surprise they don’t agree “taxation is theft” given this view.

            Given that this IS their view, however, even libertarians who reject this as a legitimate mechanism for acquiring “rightful ownership,” should hesitate to say “taxation is theft” if the people who enact and enforce the system of taxation act on a sincere and not-unreasonable belief that the government is morally entitled to the funds it extracts, for the same reason we don’t yell “thief” at the jacket-grabber or the litigant who erroneously believes himself justly entitled to some property. They lack, so to speak, the mens rea required to make an act of wrongful appropriation “theft” as that term is normally used, not just by the great majority of ordinary speakers, but by libertarians as well.

          • Sean II

            “Non-libertarians, obviously, do not think taxation is theft because they don’t agree with our view about “rightful ownership.”

            This shows you’ve completely missed the point. What you keep failing to see is that people – non-libertarians – equivocate on the definition of theft. They don’t deny the existence of a property right in income, but they do deny that income taxes are theft.

            Let me try a different tack. Let’s say you’re talking to someone and you bring up the subject of legalizing recreational drugs.

            Let’s say they give you this definition of recreational drugs: “mood-altering chemicals with addictive properties and above average health risks”.

            Let’s say you argue with them about whether recreational drugs should be legalized, and in the course of this argument, they turn out to want pot, coke, heroin, acid, schrooms, and exctasy banned. So you ask them about alcohol, and they say “Oh, no. Of course not. I don’t consider that a recreational drug. Alcohol’s just a beverage.”

            Julian – straight up, no bullshit answer this question: If the person you’re arguing with can get 300 million English speakers to treat alcohol differently from all other drugs, does that make alcohol not a drug?

            Finally, if you’ve discovered that equivocation is not in fact a formal fallacy, why haven’t you published what would be a groundbreaking philosophy paper on that subject?

      • You are concentrating on the moral observation of “taxation is theft”, and completely ignoring the claim made by “taxation is theft” that people behave toward taxation in the same way they do theft. Nobody who accept taxation as moral accepts a higher level of taxation than they can possibly oppose. If you think I’m wrong, then you can show me that a large percentage of the population pays even one dollar more in taxes than they are required to pay. (Please don’t forget that discovery of how much they are required to pay has a cost which may be higher than the extra they pay in the absence of that discovery). The IRS allows you to donate money to the U.S. government. How many of all of these people who feel that taxation is necessary, just, right, and proper donate extra money? I claim that less than 1% of Americans donate any money. Feel free to refute my claim.

        • Libertymike

          In Massachusetts, for years, there has been a spot on the state income tax return to indicate the amount of money one would like to “donate” in addition to the “voluntary” payment one is required to make.
          Very few check the extra donation box, including, surprise, surprise, the likes of Mike Dukakis and John Kerry.

  • Irfan Khawaja

    In form, Lomasky’s argument is: if you take two similar things O and O*, and then find someone who phenomenologically finds his reaction to O very different from his reaction to O*, it somehow follows that O is fundamentally different from O*.

    The problem with the argument is that if someone S admits that O and O* are similar on n-dimensions, but then asserts that he finds O and O* fundamentally different on phenomenological grounds, there are at least two relevant but incompatible possibilities in play:

    1. O and O* are similar on n-dimensions, but different on other dimensions, and S’s (universally shared) phenomenology is tracking the most important differences between them, correctly ignoring the less important similarities that obtain.

    2. O and O* are similar on n-dimensions, and S’s (idiosyncratic) phenomenology is tracking some irrelevant differences between them while ignoring the more fundamental n-dimensional similarities that obtain (and whose existence he himself has conceded).

    Plug in “taxation” for O, “theft” for O* and “Lomasky” for S and the problem should be apparent. Lomasky assumes that once he describes his phenomenology, he can infer that (1) must be the case. That ignores the possibility that his phenomenological report is compatible with (2), and that (2) is incompatible with (1). As stated, his argument does nothing either to distinguish (1) from (2) or a fortiori to argue for (1) against (2). So the argument fails.

    The basic problem here is his assumption that you can decouple semantics and phenomenology, focus on phenomenology, and then substitute the phenomenology of your reactions to taxation and theft for conceptual analyses of taxation and theft. It simply is not clear–and is not made clear–why Loren Lomasky’s idiosyncratic phenomenological response to a case of theft and to his paystub is relevant to the question of whether taxation is or isn’t theft. I’d say his response is not relevant in part because it’s so idiosyncratic, and in part because the inference from “my (or our) phenomenological reaction to X” to “the nature of X” gets things backwards. The nature of taxation and/or theft doesn’t turn on anyone’s idiosyncratic phenomenological responses to it.

    You don’t have to buy the “taxation is theft” slogan (I don’t) or be a libertarian (I’m not) to reject his argument. You just have to reject the way he goes about making it.

    • Farstrider

      Taxation and theft obviously have differences. Whether they matter in the abstract may be impossible to answer. But they undoubtedly matter to some people. Otherwise we would all agree.

      • Yes, the victims of taxation understand that a violent defense against taxation would be ineffective. Whereas most people are pretty sure that shooting a thief will stop the theft.

  • Jameson Graber

    Holy crap you’re just digging yourself a bigger hole with this one. Seriously? You can just claim arguments for slavery were “transparently bad,” but arguments for anything–from taxes to abortion, apparently–can’t possibly be transparently bad, because there are people who accept these arguments even today! What a bunch of status quo protecting garbage.

    • Sean II

      The pay dirt here is this:

      “I won’t impose my radically kooky ideology on you, if you don’t impose your radically kooky one on me.”

      NO, NO, NO! That doesn’t work.

      What makes our ideology radical and kooky is that we reject imposing things on other people.

      Meanwhile, our opponents whole ideology is about imposing things on other people.

      The bargain Matt suggests is not possible between two such parties.

      • Farstrider

        “What makes our ideology radical and kooky is that we reject imposing things on other people.”

        This is not really true, if I understand your position. Suppose 99% of people want government fire, police, schools, army, courts etc, and want a tax system to pay for it, but Graber and Sean don’t want those things. If Graber and Sean get their way and can veto those things, then the 99% have no choice but to throw up their hands and complain that this is why we cannot have nice things. In that context, Sean and Graber are imposing their radical ideology on the 99% just as much as the 99% would be imposing on Graber and Sean if the situation were reversed. So there may not be a bargain to be had between these ideologically charged groups, but neither side can take the coercion moral high ground here.

        • Seth MacLeod

          From what Sean II has written, it looks like he’s taking the position that he doesn’t want the state imposing on anyone. I do not know whether Sean II would push Rothbard’s Red Button, but somehow I suspect he would not be satisfied with roleplaying as either Bush or Obama vetoing the other party’s bill.

          • Farstrider

            “From what Sean II has written, it looks like he’s taking the position that he doesn’t want the state imposing on anyone.”

            Right. But what about the people who do want that? Do they get no vote? Are their desires subject to his veto?

            Look, people are going to disagree about fundamental things. They will have irreconcilable differences. Those differences will often need to be adjudicated – not reconciled – and there will be winners and losers. Which ever side wins, the losers are always going to say “we are unfairly coerced.” That’s just an inescapable result of the adjudication. It’s not an argument for one side or the other winning.

          • jtkennedy

            “Right. But what about the people who do want that? Do they get no vote? Are their desires subject to his veto?”

            And waht abot the people who do want slavery? Don’t they get a vote? Uh, no they are not justified in imposing slavery by vote. or government.

        • Ethan Pooley

          If the 99% weren’t trying to impose on the 1%, there would be no occasion for a veto. Sean and Graber are fine with the 99% controlling the 99%; just not with it controlling anything aside from itself. That’s the shift from voluntarism to coercion.

          Of course, one of the reasons most political power-grabs are so unnecessary is that a simple majority can generally well afford to fund whatever programs they want to see—without imposing on anyone else. Certainly the 99% can. The free rider problem is usually employed in hand-waving form, without taking advantage of any of the obvious ways to combat it and without considering whether it is simply endurable.

        • Sean II

          Wrong again. The other guys in the 99% are free to do whatever they want as long as they leave me and Graber alone.

          As Ethan says below, its their refusal to do that which brings me and Graber into the conversation to begin with.

          They’re imposing, we’re not.

          • Farstrider

            So, 99% of people want a rule, let’s say, prohibiting air pollution. You don’t. If the rule is enacted, you are coerced – you can no longer pollute. If you get to veto the rule, the 99% are coerced – they have to tolerate your pollution.

            Maybe this is an example that only applies to public goods, but you have to concede that both sides have a pretty good argument regarding coercion.

          • Everyone is welcome to pollute their own air. The difficulty is not in allowing or prohibiting people to/from polluting their own air, but in tracking who owns what air. It’s fairly well settled that it’s impossible to pollute just your own air, so that if you pollute your air, you’re going to pollute your neighbor’s air as well. So your neighbor is just defending himself … and not coercing you in any way. If you are able to show that your pollution cannot get into his air, then THEN if he tried to stop you from polluting your own air, THEN he would be coercing you.

          • Farstrider

            “So your neighbor is just defending himself … and not coercing you in any way.’

            If you can provide an example of self defense that is not also coercion, I will give you a dollar.

          • jtkennedy

            “they have to tolerate your pollution” Unless they can show actual damages. And that’s as it should be. Why would this be a pollution problem if 99% obeyed the rules they agreed upon and there were no observable damages from the one dissenter?

          • Sean II

            If 99% of people want a rule, and 1% don’t, why can’t those 99% just start following the rule and call it close enough.

            You know any rules that get 100% compliance anyway?

        • jtkennedy

          ” Suppose 99% of people want government fire, police, schools, army, courts etc, and want a tax system to pay for it, but Graber and Sean don’t want those things.”

          Then the 99% can obviously have what they want (government fire, police, schools, army, courts etc,) without taxing Greaber and Sean, which can’t be justified. How does the fact that they can’t justify billing two dissenters mean they can’t have the “nice things” they want?

          • Moosebreath

            And can they exclude Graber and Sean from using the roads, fire fighters, police, etc., since they refuse to pay for them? If not, then there will be a large free rider problem.
            Or to put it more glibly, people who believe taxation is theft but use services paid for by taxes are guilty of receiving stolen property.

          • jtkennedy

            “If not, then there will be a large free rider problem.” With two dissenters? No, there’s only a large free rider problem if you don’t have the 99% buy in that was posited.

          • Moosebreath

            And if those two are able to use services for free that everyone else pays for, you think there won’t be more? Please.

          • jtkennedy

            If they’re not willing to pay for it then obviously they don’t favor it, which contradicts the initial premise that they do favor it.

          • Moosebreath

            Umm no, it shows that they would rather get something without paying for it than by paying for it, a trait which they share with approximately 99.99999999% of humanity.

    • Sean II

      The pay dirt here is this:

      “I won’t impose my radically kooky ideology on you, if you don’t impose your radically kooky one on me.”

      NO, NO, NO! That doesn’t work.

      What makes our ideology radical and kooky is that we reject imposing things on other people.

      Meanwhile, our opponents whole ideology is about imposing things on other people.

      The bargain Matt suggests is not possible between two such parties.

    • Do you think there’s any distinction to be drawn between reasonable and unreasonable disagreement? Or is all disagreement – whether it’s a slaveowner defending slavery or a voter arguing that maybe having a government with the power to tax isn’t so awful – necessarily reasonable?

      I’m sensitive to the fact that people, including me, have a bias toward protecting their own cherished beliefs. But we shouldn’t conclude from the fact that individuals judge reality in a biased way to the conclusion that there’s no reality there at all.

      • You seem to make an invalid move there. Let us suppose that every disagreement is reasonable. It does not follow that there is no reality there at all. Reality is such that its existence does not depend on whether we can reasonably disagree about it.

      • Jameson Graber

        I’m not sure how anything I said could be construed to hint that there’s no reality there at all. On the contrary, it’s reality, and not our good or bad arguments, that ultimately matters.

        I actually think people pay too much attention to the bias we have in favor of *personal* beliefs. My bias toward my own beliefs will get pretty quickly shut down by social pressure. There is a far more dangerous bias that most people have, which is in favor of the majority public opinion.

      • Libertarianism differs from slaveholders defending slavery or voters defending taxation, because libertarianism is a system for allowing people who disagree to live together peacefully. Nobody argues that taxation is peaceful — that you can tax people without using violence. Nobody argues that slavery is peaceful — that you can enslave people without using violence. Nobody argues that defending fetuses against their mother or feed animals against farmers is peaceful.

        All these other people argue that because X is morally wrong, that it is acceptable to use violence to stop X. Libertarians, on the other hand, argue that violence is morally wrong, therefore it is only acceptable to use violence to stop violence.

  • Sean II

    “The second-level question is what we should do when most reasonable people disagree with our answer to the first-level question. It is the second-level question, not the first, with which Lomasky is primarily concerned.”

    Right…but his answer is “we should change the definition of the word theft”.

    That’s not a good answer. As I said in the previous thread, most people seem to think “taxes are not theft because…magic”. Some think “taxes are not theft because political authority”. Some think “taxes are not theft because status quo bias”. Some think “taxes are not theft because social contract nonsense”.

    A few think “taxes are theft but justifiable”, and those guys are okay. A few think “taxes are not theft because no to property rights”, and they’re okay. They each have a coherent position, even if it’s wrong.

    But the vast majority are equivocators. They have one definition of theft for all non tax related matters, and another totally incoherent definition for taxes. Why should we bow before such mental cheating?

    • Ethan Pooley

      Yes yes yes. This whole topic is just a rehash of the “Taxation is (not) Slavery” discussion from a while back, and the same insurmountable problems apply. The minute you start analyzing these terms to uncover *the nature of the wrong*, their colors melt away and you see that they are the same. That’s because it works like this:

      • Sean II

        As a guy who just recently learned to use italics in these boxes, I stand in awe of your graphics.

        • Wow, you can use italics! Now I am in awe!

        • Ethan Pooley

          Hah, and I didn’t know you could do italics. Disqus didn’t used to allow that. Awesome.

      • jacksmind

        So if you could take single penny from someone and it would lives of 100 million this would be ‘moral wrong’? News to me.

        • Ethan Pooley

          I’m not sure how this diagram raises that question. When people want to categorize some takings as justified, they generally don’t (willingly) continue referring to them as “theft”. They could simply put your hypothetical taking outside of this diagram entirely. They may be wrong about that, but I don’t see this diagram locking them down in any new way.

          In answer to your question, though, it depends on whether you repay the person, or at least acknowledge the debt. If when they say “hey, you took my penny!” you respond “oh, it was for a really good cause” and walk away, then sure, you’ve committed a moral wrong. Not in the emergency appropriation, perhaps—I can accept that the incorporation of labor into a physical good opens it up to new risks, of which justifiable emergency appropriation may be one—but in the use of them as a means merely, without even the acknowledgement of a debt owed to an end-in-itself and a good-faith attempt to repay that debt.

          If you want to be seen as the uncomplicated savior of millions…. use your own penny.

          • jacksmind

            I think we both know I can change the situation to make it so that only the richest in the world have the money and there was no penny for me to give. The problem, of course, is that this no-coercion absolutism gives these situations that are so counterintuittive that no one in their right mind would agree with them (well no one in their right mind and some libertarians). But insofar as the diagram doesn’t account for these circumstances, the diagram is just wrong if it is trying to describe the moral situation. Of course it’s not wrong to take something so inconsequential to prevent massive suffering. (i.e. Touching someone’s arm to save the entire universe and the eternal suffering of 6 billion people and 1 million puppies). The lesson is that coercion and aggression are not absolute, and that’s where the diagram is wrong. (And maybe we should acknowledge to the affluent savors ‘I’m sorry, but we need to do this.’ I’m sure any egalitarian would be fine with that.)

          • Ethan Pooley

            “No one in their right mind … and some libertarians.” There’s a great bumper sticker in there somewhere, I can just smell it. 🙂

            I don’t think we need to put quite so many puppies in hypothetical danger to sort out these issues. But to take that example, would I be wrong to attempt a defense against my arm being touched? If I would not be wrong to do so then there is still something else going on here. It has not simply become sweet and meet that my arm be touched in order to save the Universe. There is created, at best, a mutually-justifiable contest. (I am assuming that, for some reason, the touch of my arm can even be classified as a harm. Ordinarily I don’t see how that would be the case. But we could alter it to a scratch on my finger as was suggested in a previous thread here at BHL.)

            Or we could take the thought experiment about water wells, where I last commented on this issue. It was something about whether those whose wells had gone bad could lay any claim to the one remaining good well, which, under normal circumstances, would have admittedly been subject to iron-clad, legitimate, individual ownership. I felt that most of the comments there beat about the bush. There may certainly be a defensible doctrine under which the good well can be appropriated for use by all. I personally believe this to be the case. But I pointed out that, while the good well may be confiscable, the owner’s labor which is mixed with it is not—in fact it is compensable. If we take his well but compensate him fully, then we cannot be said to have treated him as we might a rock, as a means merely. This may be true even if we cannot compensate him fully but we do the best that we are able (interesting topic, there). But to simply take it and act as if, by a shift in the practical facts of the universe, we are suddenly entitled to so quarter ourselves upon his good labors and appropriate their ongoing fruits without compensation… well, no, that would be as wrong as if we had no dire need of the well to begin with.

          • jacksmind

            “would I be wrong to attempt a defense against my arm being touched?”

            I think you would be. The consequences are so obviously one-sided, only a crazy person would defend against a touch in spite of the Universe.

            “If I would not be wrong to do so then there is still something else going on here. It has not simply become sweet and meet that my arm be touched in order to save the Universe. There is created, at best, a mutually-justifiable contest.”

            If there is a contest, it is, of course, one that you would (and should) easily lose.

            “(I am assuming that, for some reason, the touch of my arm can even be classified as a harm. Ordinarily I don’t see how that would be the case. But we could alter it to a scratch on my finger as was suggested in a previous thread here at BHL.)”

            Exactly. But some people consider violation of one’s ‘space’ to be coercion.

            “Or we could take the thought experiment about water wells, where I last commented on this issue. It was something about whether those whose wells had gone bad could lay any claim to the one remaining good well, which, under normal circumstances, would have admittedly been subject to iron-clad, legitimate, individual ownership. I felt that most of the comments there beat about the bush. There may certainly be a defensible doctrine under which the good well can be appropriated for use by all. I personally believe this to be the case. But I pointed out that, while the good well may be confiscable, the owner’s labor which is mixed with it is not—in fact it is compensable. ”

            Yeah, I never bought this whole Lokean idea of ‘mixing’ one’s labor constituting just original acquisition. But even Locke would say that that the case of the well fails under his proviso that “enough and as good” be left for others. So I don’t even think Locke would support his own ‘mixing’ argument in the ‘last well’ case. Moreover, as Nozick says, “why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own ruather than a way of gaining what I don’t. Also Nozick says if I add some homemade tomato juice to the ocean, how much of the ocean do I know own? If I put a fence around a plot of land, do I own the land inside the fence, or just the land under the fence, since it is only the latter I ahve actually mixed my labor with. Or, why isn’t the case that the world is collectively owned? Locke has a lot to explain. It’s a nice starting point for libertarians who agree with each other, but certainly not for egalitarians, communitarians or Marxists.

            “If we take his well but compensate him fully, then we cannot be said to have treated him as we might a rock, as a means merely.”

            Well this, of course, is a libertarian (Nozickian) interpretation of the Kantian principle that individuals are ends and not merely means. Of course Rawls and other egalitarians also believe in this same principle, but for egalitarians the best way to treat people as ends in themselves is to ensure a right to a certain share of society’s resources. After all, without this minimum, one cannot actualize one’s life plans, one lacks self-determination (a far more important political value than self-ownership, I will say). If this is the case, then one doesn’t treat the well owner as a ‘means’ because he/she will have at least a minimum access to the well and an associated equality of opportunity.

            More here:

            Moreover, those who do get access to the well (previously those whose wells have dried up) are also being treated with dignity (as ends), but allowing them access to the an acceptable minimum. Indeed, it is the libertarian well-owner who neglects all those dying of thirst who treats them as ends (under the egalitarian idea of the Kantian principle). Moreover, if the well owner is some how benefiting directly (by the upkeep of the well, say), or indirectly (the existence of a market system which allows him to have a monopoly on the well) then he certainly is treating others as mere means by the very fact that their existence adds to his fortune and yet he (and the market system) deprives others of any access to the well.

            “This may be true even if we cannot compensate him fully but we do the best that we are able (interesting topic, there). ”

            I don’t really think we need to compensate in this particular case, assuming that we have thousands of people dying of thirst. It fails the Locean priviso, and certainly deprives many people of self-determination of their own lives. The only reason we would compensate him is because we all hold some idea of Nozikian entitlement theory (self-ownership), but maybe the village people don’t buy that, as they shouldn’t. Maybe the village wants to hold a vote of which sort of political and economic system they want to live under now that there is only one well. They all realize that they would all benefit in almost any other system (socialist, marxist, collectivist, egalitarian, utilitarian), and yet the one well owner gets to reap tremendous benefits in the current property regime that are almost entirely due to circumstance, undeserved, and at the peril of all the villagers. Seems to me, like the property regime has stacked the deck against the rest of the village, and by the principles of justice, they are owed something from the well owner, given that he is unfairly benefiting from the current system by the very fact that he was the one lucky enough to have the only remaining well, and that they have to all live under the current property regime/market system (that the villagers universally are against, and think is unfair).

            “But to simply take it and act as if, by a shift in the practical facts of the universe, we are suddenly entitled to so quarter ourselves upon his good labors and appropriate their ongoing fruits without compensation… well, no, that would be as wrong as if we had no dire need of the well to begin with”

            Well all of this assumes that the villagers actually need the well to actualize their life plans. Certainly if they are dying of thirst. But maybe just because the alternative is to walk 12 hours a day to get water. In either of these cases, by the principles of justice, the villagers are in their rights to correct an horribly unjust system by taking the only working well, since the sole owner, after all, doesn’t deserve his well, isn’t entitled to his well, has no absolute claim on the well given that others are suffering so dramatically and the fact that he is benefiting so enormously from such an unfair system–coercion or aggression be dammed. Now, if, on the other hand, they just needed the well because it had 1 part per million less calcium atoms and they preferred the taste, then, no, that is no reason to infringe on the man’s liberty.

          • Ethan Pooley

            Thank you for the careful exposition. I see just a few things to comment on:

            1. You refer several times to the well owner benefiting greatly from his well at the expense of others. I didn’t suggest that he be allowed to monopolize it under the circumstances. Instead I allowed its appropriation. I merely stipulated that this is a taking, and is compensable. This is in fact the common law view; this is how our society operates today.

            2. This is important because it shows that exigent circumstances allow a departure from our ordinary property-respecting behaviors, but that such circumstances are not understood in common law as destroying or bypassing the ordinary foundations of property; compensation occurs precisely because nothing has changed with respect to the foundations of property.

            3. Nozick’s question (why gain ownership rather than lose it?) is a fine one. But I don’t know why either has to occur. When I mix labor with materials it becomes harder for others to utilize those materials without depriving me of the enjoyment of my labor. They should continue to avoid doing so, if feasible. If not feasible, they should compensate me for the deprivation. If I stack rocks up to make a wall for my house, others must not behave as if the wind piled them there. I don’t need to posit some kind of magical moral transformation by which the rocks become utterly my property, but only maintain that I am abused if I am intentionally deprived of the fruits of my labor. We say that I “own the wall”, but this is shorthand. I own an inextricable aspect of it and, indeed, by so mixing I accept some risk of reasonable interference. There’s just nothing reasonable about appropriating the wall and then denying that this interference represents a taking.

            4. I am baffled how to respond to the conflation of freedom of action with the existence of desirable circumstances. It’s not just you, by any means! I run into this often and I am not making much headway on a constructive response. It is as obvious to me as Ought Implies Can; but clearly the onus is on me to find a way to approach this in conversation. It will have to suffice, for the moment, to simply state that I don’t believe people are naturally entitled even to means of survival, let alone means of self-actualization. Or rather, if this entitlement extends into other persons then I deny it, and if it does not then I don’t know what “entitlement” means. I will have to spend some time with this before I can discuss it further. My inability to use the concept in conversation suggests that it is underdefined in my own mind.

        • Ethan Pooley

          I should also add that I don’t mean this diagram to be an argument. Only an explanation of how I (and several other people here) view the moral situation. Some people seem confused, as if we were employing hyperbole or some other rhetorical device when we make this connection. We are not.

    • The “definition of theft,” like the definition of most non-technical terms, is a kind of statistical artifact capturing how members of a particular linguistic community use the term. If the majority of competent English speakers would not use it to describe taxation, then as a descriptive matter you’re the one trying to “change the definition” by urging them to adopt a different usage. If we’re talking about dictionary definitions, most include “unlawful” or some synonym, so this isn’t even a case where lexicographers have failed to capture some subtle nuance of practical usage—Webster’s is not on our side here.

      What you really mean is that you have a theoretical view on which just property holdings can be determined independently of and antecedent to the political and legal system within which they exist, political institutions confer no particular legitimacy, and so “political authority” is not a morally important reason to distinguish “taxation” from the subset of nonconsensual property transfers normal English speakers call “theft.” You think people ought to use language in a way that embeds your theory about what features of property transfers are normatively significant. And, of course, you’re welcome to do so. You may even urge that change in usage by means of a slogan like “taxation is theft” and hope common practice, in time, conforms to your slogan—just as left anarchists might use the slogan “property is theft” or progressives might say “inequality is theft” as a way of summarizing their own very different theories about just resource allocations. But it’s a little much to insist that the majority of your linguistic community is somehow *wrong about what words mean* if they (perhaps mistakenly) do not embrace your theory.

      • adrianratnapala

        There’s more to it than that. When we try to define theft to exclude taxation, taxation basically becomes a special exception sticking out like a sore thumb. People try to get around this using various polite circumlocutions to say that either we don’t really own anything or else may not create anything ourselves except on government sufferance.

        Those might philosophically sound positions to take, as even Sean II has said. But they are more terrifying than legalised banditry. Now you can say that there are libertarian-proof government interests in restricting our property and work (no setting off of home-made nukes kids). But what government interest is involved in taxation?

        Well the government is interested in getting the money, as is your average bandit. So I think the least sneaky definition of theft either makes the taxman a thief or else gives him an explicit exemption in recognition of the potentially legitimate interest.

        • Farstrider

          Every right has built into its definition or scheme limitations and priorities that can overcome the right. For example, the bodily integrity right can be overcome by self defense. Whether you call this an “exception” to bodily integrity or whether you define bodily integrity as a right to be free from “unjustified intrusion” is not really all that important or interesting. The point is that the right is not absolute.

          Why would we expect anything different for property rights? Why should we? You can call taxation an “exception” to your property rights or you can define property as a right to be free from “unjustified intrusion.” In either scenario, it hardly sticks out like a sore thumb. It is instead like every other right.

        • Taxation seems like an arbitrary exception if you assume a normatively freighted and specifically libertarian concept of property rights. If you use, say, the dictionary definition (“unlawful” deprivation of property) then it’s not an exception at all; it follows obviously from the definition itself that of course taxation is not theft.

          Of course, all sorts of involuntary property transfers do not count as “theft” on the libertarian’s theoretically freighted concept of “theft” either. It is not theft when you take my property as compensation for an injury I’ve inflicted (whether negligently or maliciously), or because I’ve defaulted on a contract, or or if you reclaim what I obtained from you fraudulently. What counts as an “injury” against you or your property for which compensation can be exacted without constituting “theft” is itself hugely complicated, and people have wildly different views about the conditions under which compensation is due, and how much can be justly (non-thevingly) extracted. Can you recover for slander? Copyright (or patent) infringement? Noise pollution or other conduct that interferes with your enjoyment of your property without physical incursion? Technological invasions of privacy? Harms caused by my pet dog? Child support? How MUCH can you recover, and what formula determines the boundary between compensation and theft? Is there a strict liability or a negligence rule? Are there specific or common law easements that might allow you to make some limited use of my property (like traditional rights of way) without compensation because in fact my “property right” does not include the right to exclude certain kinds of conduct (flying over my land, breathing on it)?

          There are a huge and highly complex array of conditions under which I can take your property or make some limited use of it that will not count as “theft” on any libertarian theory. And they’re diverse enough that attempts to claim they’re really all somehow “one” exception (all “compensation,” or all seizures you “implicitly consented to”) are going to be pretty strained. Any plausible view will be embedded in a theory that lays out some fairly complicated conditions for when property transfers do or do not count as “theft.”

          • adrianratnapala

            Now you are well into polite circumlocution territory. We are trying grapple with a system where the politicians decide what is and is not yours based on how much of it they need vs. how much of it they dare take.

            To be honest, I am not really sure what your second and third paragraphs are about. But I do agree that there is more than one exception.

          • I declare Julian winner of this debate.

          • liberaltarian as jello

            confirmation bias

          • Sean II

            Losing sides often do that. It’s a good way to cover one’s departure from the field.

          • Zing!

      • Grant Babcock

        This is a good point about the nature of definitions. If Wittgenstein is right (and I think he at least mostly is right) that words get their meaning from how they are used, that means that there’s no one checking that words be defined in logically consistent ways–definitions are emergent. But shouldn’t there still be room for pointing out the kind of odd carve-outs that adrianratnapala has been talking about?

        This is sort of “are tomatoes vegetables?” territory. In common parlance, sure, they’re vegetables, and you’d be a pedant to insist otherwise, but in a kind of discussion where the rigorousness of the classification actually matters (biology), they’re unequivocally fruits. Likewise, it might be slightly ridiculous of me to file my tax return and then call my neighbor to say I’ve been robbed, but that doesn’t mean that if we’re talking about political philosophy and ethics, we shouldn’t call taxation theft.

      • Sean II

        No, Julian, not how it works. I already covered this with my example about the draft.

        The fact that most people don’t describe the draft as involuntary servitude does not change the definition of “involuntary servitude”.

        The thing you’re missing is that definitions, though consensual, must be self-consistent.

        One cannot have a definition of involuntary servitude that includes some things or excludes others arbitrarily.

        So it goes also for theft.

      • Sean II

        I can’t believe I’m spending so much time on this point, but…

        Consider the definition of murder. Let’s say you kill someone, and I call it murder. You come back and say “No, murder is the WRONGFUL killing of another person”.

        I say fine, how do you know when a killing is wrongful?

        You reply “If I kill someone, it’s not wrong.”

        Surely you can see that doesn’t produce a usable definition of murder.

        Taxes are just like that. 46% one year, 42% another. X in one state, Y in another. The only way taxes are not theft is if we take a definition that says “however much the state takes, that wasn’t yours anyway.” Not a usable definition. Understand?

        • adrianratnapala

          Yes. But that is indeed my definition of not-theft-because-it’s-tax. You might say it is not usable, but we use it all the time.

          • Sean II

            Problem: that obliges you to refute Michael Huemer’s so far unanswered argument.

            Why? Because if the state is allowed to do what no one else can do – i.e. if taxes are not theft because they are collected by the state – then you must solve the problem of political authority.

            Can you?

          • adrianratnapala

            Hmm, I was less interested in the moral-logic part of Huemers book than in the speculative part where he argues that anarchy is practical. That’s because even if his moral challenge can’t be answered then gov’t (and its consequences like tax) might have to be accepted as either the least of evils or else as an inevitable evil.

            And you can answer his moral logic by building in an exception for government into every moral rule as the need arises. That might seem unsatisfactory, which is why even smart, reasonable people like JS come up with complicated ways to sneak the exceptions in.

            The intuition behind it is that, right from the logical beginning, society (as sometimes represented by gov’t) has a special moral status above and beyond our rights. Most people seem to believe that, and a few will admit it. I’m uncomfortable with it, but I don’t know that its wrong.

          • Sean II

            On the contrary, JS didn’t come up with a complicated way to sneak exceptions in. He used this crude recipe:

            1 part status quo bias
            1 part equivocation

            If the state does X and hardly anyone complains, then X is not X anymore.

            Nothing complicated about that.

        • I understand what you’re trying to say, but your central claims here are all very obviously false. There is no coherent sense in which definitions “must” be “self-consistent”—or, more to the point, no non-vacuous extrinsic general criterion for which are the relevant dimensions of consistency. The word “taboo” and the phrase “breach of etiquette” consistently pick out local norm violations, but there’s no general linguistic rule requiring some kind of further consistency in the particular types of conduct that satisfy that general condition. It’s in virtue of NOT being consistent in that way that the terms mean just what they do.

          What you’re actually trying to do here is shoehorn a substantive moral commitment into the word “usable” and pretend it’s some kind of grammatical requirement. “Wrongful killing” is a usable enough rough definition of “murder,” though obviously not in itself a particularly illuminating one if we’re trying to distinguish cases. The problem with the further claim that “wrongful killings” includes just those killings I commit isn’t that it yields an “unusable definition” (“unusuable” for what purpose?)—it’s just that it’s a substantively implausible normative claim.

          Your problem with the actual definition of “theft” as found in most dictionaries and common usage is not really that it’s not “usable”—people obviously use it perfectly competently for a variety of purposes—but that the boundaries of the actual definition don’t correspond to distinctions you think are normatively important, since you don’t think it matters morally whether a deprivation of property is authorized by some formal state process. Well, fair enough. And if most people agreed, maybe the word would come to mean what you want it to mean. But they don’t, so it doesn’t. Fortunately, you still have the word “wrong” with which to express yourself in the interim.

          The last paragraph, by the by, seems awfully unimaginative. First, again, there’s nothing “unusable” about the definition of theft you posit. If what people mean by “theft” is “unlawful deprivation”—as the dictionary suggests—then the amount the government takes is indeed totally irrelevant to whether “theft” has occurred, provided it’s determined by some appropriate procedure. That is not interestingly formally different from other sorts of property transfer. Any amount of my property you deliberately leave my house with is a “gift” just in case I’ve consented to let you take it, and “theft” just in case I haven’t. Like you, I think my consent is a morally significant legitimation procedure, whereas the political process, not so much. I just don’t delude myself that people are using words incorrectly because the way they individuate concepts doesn’t track my minority view of what’s morally significant.

          That said, if we were to drop all this semantic nonsense and just talk about when taxation is *morally legitimate* as opposed to *morally tantamount to theft*, there’s no reason at all to think there would be some kind of constant percentage—and, indeed, any proposed standard that yielded a constant hard number would be pretty wildly implausible on its face. Rather, I’d expect moral constraints on taxation beyond “whatever the state approves by the right kind of formal process” to be derived from considerations like the practical burden on the population of the scheme, the nature of the purposes to which the funds are put, and the historically and locally specific cost of providing whatever state functions are regarded as legitimate at a particular level. It would be rather bizarre if these yielded a static answer across times and places.

          • Sean II

            The word “taboo” is indeed consistent. It means “a cultural prohibition against something” wherever it’s used.

            But Julian, let’s say you visited a country where pierced ears were considered disgusting, and you said “Oh, I see. You guys have a taboo against ear piercing.” How would you feel if someone there said “What??? No!!! That’s not a taboo. Ear piercing is just wrong, that’s all.”

            Would you say the word taboo was being used correctly, in the spirit of fair play? Of course not.

            BTW – the reason why different tax rates in different time/places pose a problem for you is simple. If theft is merely the “wrongful” taking of property, then how can it be that people in New Hampshire are entitled to keep X% while people in New York are entitled to keep only Y%.

            Hint: the only way for that to work is…you must say, “whatever we take, we have right to”. That is an anti-definition. That is Humpty Dumpty. That is newspeak.

          • Sean II

            “The last paragraph, by the by, seems awfully unimaginative.”

            With respect, it seems that way only because you failed to think it through and understand it. Give it another try.

      • ‘The “definition of theft,” like the definition of most non-technical
        terms, is a kind of statistical artifact capturing how members of a
        particular linguistic community use the term.’

        That is false. Meaning is not use. First, in linguistic theory, the use of expressions belongs to pragmatics, not semantics. Second, people can use the word to mean one thing but mistakenly apply it to another. In centuries gone by the word ‘witch’ had a more or less agreed meaning to do with supernatural powers, evil, consorting with the devil and suchlike; but the word was always applied to people who were not witches.

        You have adopted a theory of language which is at least fifty years out of date.

  • Jameson Graber

    Anyone who says there is an answer to the conundrum of fundamental disagreement on matters of justice is just kidding themselves. For instance, I am one of these kooky pro-lifers Matt is talking about. I seriously think there is something wrong with you if you can look at a picture of abortion without wondering where our civilization went horribly wrong. And that’s just where we are–at an impasse. I am not going to pretend I find support for abortion “reasonable,” in any other sense than that intelligent people can support it. But intelligent people can support and have supported lots of things that are terrifyingly bad.

    There simply is no meta-answer to this problem. On a given issue, you just have to think about it as hard as you can, and then you either follow your conscience, or you don’t. And may God or humanity (whichever is more real or more powerful) be the judge.

    In the meantime, yes, there may be other reasons than “mere prudence” not to go gunning down people who disagree with you. For example, lots of people are against the death penalty even though they are also against murder. Why is this? Perhaps it is because killing is not necessarily the best response to killing (or other things).

    Such questions are profound, and messy. What pisses me off is people trying to make the process of asking them into a safe, quiet affair, as if it were of no more consequence than a problem of arithmetic.

  • What is your intended meaning of the world “idiosyncratic” here?

  • Paul Crider

    I agree with Graber below. The paragraph about slavery is question begging. It seems to me that we can have no comfortable certainty about what arguments will eventually come to be seen as “transparently bad.” I think eating meat is unethical and second trimester abortion is perfectly ethical. But I can easily imagine a posterity in which arguments for eating meat and aborting fetuses in the second trimester are seen as “transparently bad”.

    This post describes very well what makes moral reform so perilous. By staking out these radical positions, we strive to push society to a more perfectly moral understanding, and yet we are–at least implicitly–accusing our mainstream fellows of immorality. And yet reform we must, miles to go before we sleep and all that.

  • Troy Camplin

    I think there is in fact a situation where taxation would not be considered theft. But I don’t think libertarians ought to support it.

  • Conan776

    Property is theft.

  • Roderick T. long

    Pointing out that taxation is theft is part of the argument against taxation. I don’t see why we’re allowed to assert our conclusion “taxation is wrong” but not allowed to mention one of the steps, “taxation is theft,” by which we reached that conclusion.

    • Farstrider

      It’s not really though. It’s just hyperbole, a rhetorical trick. Your argument is an analogy – we all agree that theft is wrong, and look how similar theft is to taxation, and therefore taxation must be wrong too.

      • Roderick T. long

        No, it’s not meant as an analogy, it’s meant literally and exactly. Maybe we’re right and maybe we’re wrong, but that’s what we mean.

        • Raymond Raad

          There is actually one significant difference between taxation in a modern democracy and private theft. Taxation is subject to the rule of law.

          I do think taxation is theft. But it’s not “literally and exactly” the same thing. We do need to explain why the rule of law does not change the fundamental nature of theft.

          • Farstrider

            This, of course, is Lomasky’s whole point. Everyone who says “taxation is theft” does not understand this point.

          • Raymond Raad

            It is Lomasky’s whole point, but that doesn’t make it valid. The question is whether the rule of law turns theft into non-theft. I don’t see how it would. Theft is about taking something from someone against his/her will. Rule of law is about predictability.

          • Farstrider

            No, theft is actually about “unlawful taking.” The concept of rule of law is built right into the definition. As people would know if they ever looked up the definition instead of making one up.

          • Raymond Raad

            That may be the definition given in some dictionaries, although not all. But that doesn’t address the question. Theft has to have a valid, consistent definition. Why should it be defined with the rule of law built into it? If the rule of law creates a fundamental change, then fine. But if not, then defining it that way is invalid.

            In other words, people cannot just define “theft” in a way that closes off the argument.

          • Farstrider

            I anxiously await your citation to a definition that does not include the concept of illegality in the definition of theft. Unless and until you provide one, your argument fails. Instead, you are the one that is defining the word (idiosyncratically) in order to win the argument.

          • Raymond Raad

            Wikipedia: “taking of another person’s property without that person’s permission or consent”

            Webster offers as one definition of stealing: to take without asking for permission

            But my argument doesn’t require a definition from a dictionary. Even if every dictionary builds the rule of law into the definition of theft, it remains problematic. What if the law allows white people to steal from black people. Would it no longer be theft? From a legal perspective, yes. But from a conceptual perspective, no.

          • Farstrider

            That’s a nice bit of selective quotation. Maybe read the rest of the Wikipedia entry (not a dictionary, FYI) to see that the word also requires unauthorized or unlawful taking, not just taking?

            Websters uses “felonious” or “unlawful” in its definitions, unless you are talking about baseball.

            I’m not sure want a “conceptual perspective” is. Maybe it means, “theft has similarities to taxation which we should recognize,” in which case, you have a valid point (and one which the OP acknowledge). But I’m afraid it means “idiosyncratic definition I made up so I could prove my point,” in which case you are just talking nonsense.

          • adrianratnapala

            FS. Any kleptocrat can cloak himself in the laws of his land, and yet we call those guys kleptocrats anyway. Legitimate taxation has live on some thicker gruel than that.

          • Farstrider

            Sure. You can pretend words don’t have meaning, or that you somehow found the “true” meaning of the word – even though no dictionary will support you. As you long as you put an asterisk (explaining your idiosyncratic definition of the word that cannot be found in any dictionary) in the statement “taxation is theft” you should be fine.

          • Raymond Raad

            You’re right that I don’t have the bulk of dictionaries on my side. My argument is that dictionaries are not the ultimate word. A word has to have a consistent definition based on reality.

            You didn’t address that point. If we take the “unlawful taking” definition, then if it were legal for whites to take black people’s stuff, it would not be theft. Right?

          • Farstrider

            Words are abstractions. They are not trees or rocks or air molecules. You cannot touch them or measure them. You cannot find them in nature. They have no effect on physical processes (apart from the effect they have on brains). They do not have “reality” in any meaningful sense. Instead, words have “definitions.” We find those definitions in dictionaries. We do not find them in reality.

            As for whites stealing from blacks, yes, it would be “legal” and therefore not “theft.” It is still wrong.

          • Moosebreath

            “You’re right that I don’t have the bulk of dictionaries on my side. My argument is that dictionaries are not the ultimate word. A word has to have a consistent definition based on reality.”

            And similarly, you are arguing that political philosophy as practiced by the vast majority of people (i.e., that taxes are a legitimate method of paying for government services and not theft) is not the ultimate word. Is there anything short of imposing your definitions over the objections of the 99+% of your fellow citizens who disagree with you which ends the discussion?

          • Raymond Raad

            Moosebreath and Farstrider, I’m really not saying anything crazy here, and not trying to impose my definitions. Do you really believe that the vast majority creates the ultimate word? If you do, fine. If not, then you have to look elsewhere for that ultimate word. I’m trying to look elsewhere by looking for consistency. That’s not the same thing as imposing my views.

          • Moosebreath

            Raymond Road,
            When you find consistency, it will help define _your_ political philosophy. However, political philosophy is not something where there is a single correct answer. As noted in the post below, reasonable people can come to different and consistent answers.
            And so this post is concerned with whether you can refuse to accept as legitimate a society where the vast majority of people have come to a different answer than you have. Stating repeatedly that your answer is the only correct one is not responsive.

          • Grant Babcock

            So there’s no such thing as theft in the state of nature?

          • Farstrider


          • Ethan Pooley

            A phrase like “literal and exact”, or even “identical” still has a scope. It can treat only one aspect of a thing; in this case the morally-relevant aspects and the resulting moral status.

            All car thefts take place at unique locations, but this does not (without special circumstances and argument to that effect) mean that we cannot sensically call them “literally and exactly” the same. Otherwise we could simply point out that, if theft and taxation were identical, then the set of all thefts would include the set of all taxation but the set of all taxation still would not include the set of all thefts, therefore they would NOT be identical, and having thereby reduced the premise to an absurdity we could reject it.

            What we mean is that we hold all the relevant moral facts and relations to be the same in both cases. Only a successful attack on those will make us reconsider our language. (Though we may adopt other language for the purpose of being constructive in conversation with those who believe differently.)

      • Sean II

        No, it’s the other way around. Lomasky is the one proposing a rhetorical trick here. Twists and turns of verbiage aside, he’s claiming we should not say “taxation is theft ” because it puts people off. That’s a statement about rhetorical strategy.

        Long is claiming we should say “taxation is theft”, because it is. That’s just a statement about what taxation is.

        • Farstrider

          Lomasky is not very clear here, but he is saying both that it is not a good rhetorical strategy (see the point re the twinkle in the eye) and also suffers from not being true (see the bold italics in the original post). I think he is right on both points.

          • Sean II

            Read his two points carefully. They turn out to be one point.

            His claim is “don’t say taxes are theft” because:

            a) That’s not very popular
            b) It’s bad rhetorical strategy

            Well, the thing that makes it bad rhetorical strategy just IS the fact that it’s unpopular.

            That’s one claim, not two.

          • Farstrider

            I don’t think the bold italics are about popularity, but about legitimacy. Perhaps in some sense those can boil down to the same thing – is that your argument?

  • j r

    What Loren is trying to challenge is the wrongness of taxation, but rather what libertarians should do about the wrongness of taxation given that the vast majority of our fellow citizens appear to sincerely and reasonably disagree with us about that issue.

    You are the academic philosopher and I am not, but I read Lomansky as saying something much more radical, at least radical in this context.

    The point is not semantic but rather phenomenological. The perceived reality of theft is notably distinct from that of taxation.

    He seems quite plainly to be saying that taxation is not theft. Taxation may be something that a libertarian does and ought to find immoral, but it is still something other than theft. And he is right. If you want to make an argument against taxation, then make that argument. Asserting that it is theft is unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t already accept your priors and your world view. In other words, it is not a very good argument.

    Also, I guess that I just don’t believe that we do not consent to be taxed. I certainly do. I wish that it were much less and I wish that government expenditures were fewer and not directed at so many things that I find repugnant. At the end of the day, however, I choose to remain a citizen of the United States and I willfully submit to the laws that status imposes upon me (well, some of them at least), because I realize that I enjoy a level of freedom and personal fulfillment that is essentially unparalleled in the history of man. I make a rational assessment of my alternatives and I choose (ie consent) to the one that I find most appealing. And that raises the obvious question: if you are someone who experiences being a citizen of a democratic society as living in a constant state of theft and coercion by your fellow citizens, why do you remain? Stockholm Syndrome?

    I, and I believe most people, simply do not view taxation as theft anymore than I view property as theft. And both of those utterances “taxation/property is theft!” strike me as propositions masquerading as definitions. It is an attempt to replace philosophy with grammar.

  • Arthur Rosenwald

    I think the debate about taxation being theft is misdirected. The debate should be about who, or what, do we want to take care of our needy, our rubbish and foreign affairs, to name a few. Can these services be privatised? And, if they are, who or what ensures that we are not getting ripped off? Can we make sure that there is competition in all these areas? Can we be sure that the people, taking on the task for money, will act morally? If, in any way, we are not happy that this would be the case in a totally privatised society, don’t we automatically come back to doing things together as a community? In other words, installing some kind of mechanism to perform these tasks for the benefit of everybody? Government in other words? And if we agree with that, tax will have to be levied. Not theft, necessity. I believe that we can privatise much more than we do, but not everything. And I certainly don’t believe that, with big corporations ripping us off everywhere, we can ensure that there will be enough competition to stop this. Unfortunately one of the less pleasant properties of capitalism.

  • ThaomasH

    If all the practical implications of claiming that “taxation is theft” are the same as NOT making the claim, then what is the argument about?

  • Yrro Simyarin

    Slavery doesn’t break the argument. It simply says that, given slavery, abolitionists should work through the courts and congress to change the system, not through violence or the aiding of stolen slaves.

    I think that our gut reaction to this conclusion speaks to a greater point – most people believe that this second-order lawfulness should be cast aside when a belief is strong enough.

  • It is not clear that there is a difference between ‘taxation is morally wrong’ and ‘taxation is theft.’ If taxation is morally wrong, then, when the government taxes a person, the government wrongfully takes that person’s possessions. But what is theft if not wrongfully taking someone’s possessions? It may be that (wrongful) taxation is theft of a particular kind; but it would still be theft.

    There are still the two levels of question which you distinguish:

    1. whether taxation is theft;
    2. what we should do when most reasonable people do not agree that taxation is theft.

    You say: “I won’t impose my radically kooky ideology on you, if you don’t impose
    your radically kooky one on me. Instead, we’ll agree to abide by the
    merely moderately kooky rules that we can more-or-less agree to settle
    on in some roughly democratic way.”

    There are at least two problems there. First, I doubt that there is a single moral rule (that is not completely vague) to which everyone in society would agree. That makes your proposal unworkable. What happens in real life is that the rules are there before we are: we all belong to a society (not necessarily the same one) which operates according to a set of rules that no one has agreed to. For more on this, see my critique of the contract approach to ethics and politics here:

    Second, what if the inherited set of rules permit the rape of women in some social classes (as in some parts of India), or the brutal enslavement of some racial groups (as in the old US), or the genital mutilation of female children and young women (as in some parts of Africa), or other similarly horrendous rules? Do we agree to abide by them until we can get democratic agreement to change them (which may take generations, depending on circumstances)?

    I don’t think it is very good to reply (as you do, above) that people who defend slavery are just unreasonable. That seems arbitrary. Aristotle, who defined humans as rational animals, and thought that rational reflection was the fulfilment of human life, and who was in many respects a very reasonable philosopher, argued that enforced slavery on racial grounds was legitimate. Aquinas followed Aristotle in that opinion, as in so many others. Of course, Aristotle’s argument for slavery seems pretty poor to us now; but we have been brought up in a different cultural environment. Some things that seem eminently reasonable to us might be dismissed by future generations as “clear rationalizations of economic and social power.”

    I am writing this without having read the comments already made, so please excuse me if I am repeating what others have said.

  • Can’t we just say that some forms of theft are okay?

    • K.P.

      No! What’s next, some forms of slavery are okay?

      Being straight forward with language is out of the question.

    • Sean II

      Yes, we can…as long as we don’t act like chicken-shits by insisting that those forms are magically “not theft” just because their okay.

      Think about it, Will. Would anyone ever say “Jean Valjean not-stole a loaf of bread” on the grounds that, you know, his act of un-theft was pretty much legitimate in context.

      No! We don’t say that. We say that he stole, and we say that it’s okay he stole…or at any rate, we say his punishment failed utterly to fit the crime.

      If people said “taxes are theft…but theft I deem necessary”, that would be fine.

    • jtkennedy

      Some instances of theft are justifiable, but that doesn’t mean state theft qualifies as justifiable. It’s not enough to point out that theft might conceivably be justified when advocating theft.

    • adrianratnapala

      Yes theft, regulated and justified (or at least sanctified) seems to be the least disingenuous definition for tax I can see. Unless of course the anarcho-capitalists turn out to be correct and their system is practicable after all. I would like to find out. But I don’t want a revolution.

  • jtkennedy

    ” Saying that “taxation is not theft” is not the same as saying that “taxation is not wrong.””

    But taxation is still theft. When a private party takes the same actions to serve the same goals as the state, taking a person’s property against their will under threat of force, the action is universally recognized as theft. And there is no special moral status of the state that clears it of the same charge.

    • Farstrider

      Not a special “moral” status, no. States (and others under the right circumstances) have a special legal status to take your stuff. Again, you need to read the definition of theft, which requires unlawful taking. If the taking is lawful, it is not theft, even if you find it objectionable.

  • jtkennedy

    A Huemerean argument that taxation is theft:

    1. That someone’s property is take from them against their will is prima facie evidence of theft. An explanation is required to overcome the presumption that such an action is theft.

    2, There is no explanation which justifies any significant portion of the taxation necessary to fund a state.

    In some cases the taking of someone’s property against their will may not be theft, for instance when they legitimately owe a debt they refuse to pay. In some cases theft may be justified, such as when a small theft results in lives, and there is no other alternative which does so. But these justifications will not suffice to justify more than the tiniest portion of what actual states do, and it will not suffice to justify what they must do if they are to continue as states.

    This is not an attempt to make a point by definition, it merely puts the burden of evidence on those seeking to justify taking the property of others against their will.

    • Farstrider

      Your point 1 holds only if you define theft as “taking property against its owner’s will.” This, of course, is not the definition of theft. So, your argument is entirely circular. A=A, and therefore, A=A by definition!

  • Stefan Sciaraffa

    I definitely don’t want to endorse the claim that taxation is theft. However, I do want to push back on some of the comments here that the claim is meaningless or that whatever meaning it has is stipulative. Rather, I think one of the cool things about Matt’s post and the reactions to it is that it illuminates the meaning of this phrase as well as what looks to be an important division within libertarian thought. Here’s the graph that struck me from Lomasky:

    “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 day 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.”

    I take the framework that Lomasky’s references here to be a
    version of Rawls’s idea of a basic structure that allocates rights, responsibilities,
    burdens, and benefits. There are myriad permutations of this basic structure,
    and it is very important that there be some settled basic structure. Many
    possible permutations are good enough. They are, in Lomasky’s terms,
    legitimate, reasonable, and merit an attitude of cooperation, though most of
    them are not optimally just. Of course, some frameworks are so pernicious that they do not merit a cooperative attitude. Perhaps, they should be complied with, but only grudgingly, or perhaps with a guilty conscious.

    The thought then is that the taxation-is-theft-folks are expressing the latter view of taxation-inclusive frameworks. By contrast, Lomasky seems to hold the view that the taxation-inclusive framework is not optimally just, but it is reasonable and, as such, it is worthy of moral respect and a cooperative stance. That is, it is not merely something to accept grudgingly and with gritted teeth, but rather as something that could be better but is good enough, worthy of endorsement, allegiance, fair play and all that.

    This seems a real divide that turns on an important question. I take it that most libertarians agree that current taxation levels are unjust. The question then is, how
    unjust are they? Are they so unjust that they merit a non-cooperative attitude as the taxation-is-theft crowd seems to hold, or is this injustice one of many little injustices that is the price of social cooperation? What then distinguishes the little injustices from the deal-breakers? These seem important questions about which libertarians might disagree.

    And, how these questions are answered seems relevant to Brennan’s posts about immunity. Why should we treat the tax man any differently than we would a gunman? One answer would be, because the tax man’s actions accord with a reasonably, though imperfectly, just framework. The other would be, there is no reason to treat them differently, for the framework that permits the tax man’s actions is deeply unjust.

  • William Thomas

    Saying the arguments for slavery were “transparently bad” does, I think, reveal a failure to get into the context of thought circa 1840 or 1850.

    I don’t support slavery or those arguments as such. But many otherwise reasonable people found racism to be sufficiently true that slavery seemed justifiable.

    Or what about Aristotle’s tolerance of slavery?

    I think today the most transparently bad arguments are those favoring religion. But many intelligent people don’t see that at all.

    But Lomasky is quite right that saying “taxation is theft” isn’t going to convince non-libertarians that the liberatarian view is right. Thanks for sharing that.

  • Pingback: The Non-Non Libertarian FAQ | Nintil()

  • jtkennedy

    “Coercion is not acceptable when justification is debatable.” – Bryan Caplan

    Reasonable disagreement should be considered a slam-dunk argument *against* imposing coercion on peaceful dissenters, certainly not an excuse for it.

  • Michael Huemer

    I can see both sides of the “Is taxation theft?” issue:

    Maybe you think “theft” means “taking someone’s property without consent”, or something close to that. Then taxation is theft. Or maybe you think “theft” means one of the following:

    a. “wrongfully taking someone’s property without consent”
    b. “taking someone’s property without consent while not being the government”
    c. “taking someone’s property without consent in a way that violates the social norms accepted in your society”
    d. “illegally taking someone’s property without consent”

    In that case, I can see how someone might deny that taxation is theft.

    But then, I think it unproductive to engage in a semantic debate. We should just agree that taxation has a salient, morally significant property in common with paradigm cases of theft, and then we should debate whether taxation has some redeeming features that make is justified despite that.