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.

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