Is Taxation Theft?


Libertarian thinker Timothy Wirkman Virkkala parses out the common radical libertarian slogan "taxation is theft!" and finds it represents an unfortunate lack of understanding of the way most non-libertarians think. The heart of a long and very interesting disquisition:

Taxation is the expropriation of private property according to an established rate, as put into law by an established state.

Robbery and other forms of theft are illegal kinds of expropriation, and piecemeal at that. Taxation is a legal kind of expropriation.

To many libertarians, this distinction is not much of a distinction at all. They have pretty much thrown out the distinctions between legal and illegal, and are in a continual revolutionary mode of thinking, ready at a moment's notice to throw out whole chunks of the rule of law and state practice.

So of course they equate all kinds of expropriation.

Well, not all, since libertarians do support some forms of expropriation. They have no trouble expropriating the loot of thieves from thieves, after court adjudication. And they have no trouble expropriating from a person found liable, in court, to a tort claim.

They just don't support taxation.

My Contention: The main reason radical libertarians will not get anywhere is their complete lack of understanding of the normal mindset, which is not constantly in revolutionary mode. Radical libertarians who trot out slogans such as taxation is theft do not address the respect a non-revolutionary has for the rule of law.

Indeed, because of this revolutionary stance — and I'm not talking about physical, bloody revolution so much as a particular stance regarding ideas and consent — these libertarians cannot deal with normal folk.

They offend normal folk; libertarians often (and with good reason) strike normal citizens as lunatics, perhaps dangerous lunatics.


It may be that we will someday be able to support all worthy public projects without any taxation.

But however we manage to do this….it will have to be done within the framework of the rule of law.

And people in such a future society will have to regard the means used at that time in something other than constant revolutionary mode. Even if they can think of better ways, they will have to show some respect for the rule of law of the day.

While I found Virkkala's thoughts intelligent and interesting, as he never fails to be, I still think the "taxation is theft" slogan is a useful way to get people thinking about the ways in which how the state operates can be seen as violating standard western notions of justice that most people accept and believe in as much as they believe in the state themselves; the cognitive dissonance that might result can lead to an understanding of some truths about the nature of the state that are otherwise difficult to get at. But for those who enjoy thinking about how the "revolutionary mode" of some libertarian ideas rub against the grain of standard American thinking, his whole essay is well worth reading.