Taxation and its Discontents: are taxes theft?

A lot of placarrds at the Tea Party protests expressed a sense of ownership, a feeling that something was being taken away from people, with the key form of this taking being taxation. This is hardly a fringe position – claims that (over-) taxation is theft are relatively common fare. Perhaps relatedly, there is a broader sense of robbery – that the country itself is being stolen?

To what extent might leftist observers agree with or sympathise with this sort of thing?

To start with I think it’s important to distinguish ‘simple claims’ and ‘exclusive claims’. To have a simple ownership claim on something is to have a right to control and enjoyment of it, but a right which must be balanced against the like rights of others. An exclusive claim overrules all others (or permits them only as very secondary qualifications), and so if I have an exclusive claim on something, that excludes anyone else doing so.

Property as it exists in our society is, with some qualifications, an exclusive claim – moreover, an exclusive claim that persists unchanged over time, and encompasses rights of use, exclusion of others, enjoyment of further products, and crucially tradeability to any other person. Its justifications, however, are usually valid if under stood as arguing for simple claims.

For instance, the fact of having expended effort and time to create something certainly gives you a claim to it, in that to be entirely deprived of it would not just be unpleasant but unfair. But that need not imply that other simple claims on it, such as from those who contributed to allowing you to make it, or from those who need it, are necessarily ruled out; nor need it imply that your claim on it fully possesses all the components of a property right, or that it bears any strong relation to the particular property-rights respected by our legal system.

By distinguishing the two, we can grant what is intuitive in various property-justifying arguments, while still denying their conclusion, and supporting communism. This, in essence, is what is wrong with rights-based capitalist arguments.

With that in mind, let us look back at opposition to taxes.

The average person in a capitalist-and-statist society is greatly impoverished relative to what they would have if either a) society’s wealth were divided into equal-sized chunks and each person given exclusive claim to one chunk, or b) society’s wealth were partly thus chunked but, wherever convenient, made collective property in such a way as to maximise people’s ability to use and enjoy it. So overall, most people are alienated from social wealth.

Now we might think that people have roughly equal simple-claims on the accumulated social wealth – although over particular things one person might have stronger claims than another, overall the differences even out. But do they?

The short answer is ‘yes’; the long answer makes reference to the interdependence of different branches of both waged and unwaged labour, the role of socialisation in making labour possible, the amount which was produced by past generations, whose members are now all dead, natural human equality, and of course the falseness of all arguments for the existing distribution. But I won’t go into that. The point is that there is a systematic dispossession of most people.

And one component of that alienation is through the state and through taxation. The way that taxes are collected is largely outside of even such democratic control as elections can exert, which is besides puny. And the spending of taxes is similarly outside people’s control.

Note that this is true both for things we might think are worth spending taxes on, and for things we don’t. The building of roads and provision of social security are very worthwhile things; but insofar as the process by which they are funded is taken out of public hands and put into state hands, it remains merely a comparatively benevolent piece of dictatorship.

(Of course sometimes democratic control is exerted – people of whatever assemblage apply sufficient pressure to some part of the state that they are able to dictate the funding of a particular project. But this is never more than a drop in the ocean)

So to that extent, we can agree with anti-tax protests: they show us people correctly identifying and objecting to their own mass dispossession. And we can only applaud many of the items chosen to symbolise this general point: bank bail-outs, political corruption, etc.

On the other hand, we might also disagree strongly, and perceive in the expression that this feeling receives, not only the distortions of capitalist ideology, but also, I think, statist ideology.

Because taxation and state property is only one side of people’s dispossession. The other side is private dispossession by property-owners. This is not just dispossession from one’s inheritance, namely access to an equal share of the wealth accumulated by past generations; it is not just dispossession of one’s creation, through the extraction of profits from labour; it is also through the everyday ‘dispossession’ of one’s time and creativity by alienated work under a boss. And because ownership is largely a matter of control, even self-employed people – even capitalists – even society as a whole is dispossessed of itself by the autonomy of the market and the drive for profit.

If all of this is correct, then the actual level of taxation is not a significant political question – the burden of taxation is (who pays, who doesn’t), but the essential idea of private property becoming state property is, fundamentally, a matter of indifference: one robber robbing another (indeed, another who is in the same gang, for there are more shared interests than opposed).

The perception that taxation is uniquely theft, relies on taking the initial fact of everyone having a simple ownership-claim on the social wealth, and turning those simple claims into exclusive claims (i.e., property rights), which in turn requires splitting that social wealth into a great aggregate of commodities, each of which belongs to someone specific.

It then also requires supposing that the property each person deserves is roughly equal to what they receive in the ‘normal’ functioning of the economy – if you earn very little, you deserve very little. If you earn millions, you deserve millions. This supposition isn’t entirely divorced from reality: there are plenty of particular cases where someone’s income does show a correlation to their efforts or productivity. But one must suppress all of the conflicting cases in order to make this generalisation.

Taxation then takes on the entire weight of whatever sense of dispossession people may feel. In a way this the state’s rhetorical own fault: having presented itself as a neutral and impartial force standing apart from society that treats the rich and the poor equally, it sets itself up to be perceived as an alien and parasitic force that oppresses the rich and the poor equally. Simplistic statism turns into simplistic anti-statism.

What might motivate the acceptance of this pro-capitalist view of who has claims to what? Certainly, it is widely and constantly available, endorsed by society, and thus very easy to ‘slip into’. But if it were slipped into, it would be slipped out of again just as easily, and not clung to. What’s the pay-off?

That’s a big question to which I will only suggest a short answer, which is that by accepting a socially-approved mythology, one can take on an identity situated at a privileged, accepted, focal point. A prime example of such an identity in the Tea Party protests is ‘American’: people claim for themselves the position of ‘American’ (and associated ideas, such as independence, the founding fathers, hard-working, victory in WWII, etc.) and thereby can situate themselves in a socially-endorsed worldview in a pretty good place (a good place as in – in this worldview being American is fantastic, you’re at the centre of the story of America inventing freedom and spreading it around, etc.)

I talked a lot about this, of course, in my last post, so I won’t go over it much more now, except to link this to the idea of ‘theft’: “I want my America back”. If that symbolic identity is taken away, whatever succour it gave against a more general sense of dispossession is also taken away, and that dispossession is added to.

Which brings us back to the initial distinction between exclusive claims and simple claims. A ‘simple claim’ on, not accumulated social wealth, but ‘the truth’ (not factual truth, but truth about importance, meanings, and narratives), is simply to demand that the mythology show you yourself, and the socially-accepted narratives situate you as a sort of protagonist. And everyone has a legitimate such claim – that’s what a culture is for, after all, allowing people to be recognised by other people as meaningful and important.

An exclusive claim, on the other hand, demands that not only should a story with you as the protagonist be socially accepted, but that it should be the one true story, and anyone not reflected in that story not be able to assert their own.

This has led us a little away from the issue of taxation itself, but I think it’s vital to factor it into feelings around taxation, because there’s more to ‘anti-tax’ views than money – indeed, there’s more to money than money. Money is at least as much about that sense of self-affirmation and being at the centre of a narrative as it is about satisfying direct needs.

In its guts, the psyche doesn’t care much for distinctions between one form of self-affirmation and another; and it’s very very clear that what’s coming out in a lot of anti-tax protests is coming from the guts of the psyche, not from scholarly economic opinions.

Ultimately taxes do represent ‘theft’, in the sense of an unjust denial of people’s legitimate claims on wealth; but they’re not uniquely theft, and reducing taxes in general would simply mean shifting one form of dispossession to another. Really undoing that dispossession means advancing democracy in the economy and in politics simultaneously, and a skew to one or the other just gives that section of theives a way to shift their booty to a storeroom run by another branch of their gang.

One Response to “Taxation and its Discontents: are taxes theft?”

  1. Francois Tremblay Says:

    That is the problem that the ancaps seem to be utterly and totally unable to understand: property is property, whether held by the State or by an individual.

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