Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Normalization of Taxation

Or, Why It's NOT Obvious That Taxation Is Theft

Stuart K. Hayashi

Uncle Sam poster; courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In libertarian and Objectivist circles, I have seen memes circulating on Facebook announcing "Taxation is theft" and providing no elaboration on how such a conclusion was reached, as if such a conclusion is obvious to anyone with common sense. Even when delivered in a facetious tone, such memes fail to persuade anyone not already under the apprehension that taxation is theft -- that is, the memes are unpersuasive to most of the population. Worse, as far as most people are concerned, your choice to share such memes on Facebook are interpreted as being indicative that you are just some kook; to your friends, it would make just as much sense if you went walking around with your pants on backward.

Compulsory taxation has no shortage of apologists.  David Sherratt, the Gamergate vlogger formerly known as SpinosaurusKin, tweets your "[d]aily reminder that taxes are not violence and a necessary part of human civilisation[.]" And U.S. military whistleblower Chelsea Manning -- not known for being a committed apologist for everything the U.S. government does -- proclaims, "Taxation is a sharing of responsibility" and that "only the wealthy believe that taxation is theft."

But what shall become of you if you do not fork over your taxes? Armed men will come after you and toss you in their dungeon -- and if you physically struggle against them, the level of violence will escalate.  When any party other than our own government issues that ultimatum, we identify it as extortion. What justification do the armed men provide for this action? If these armed men do not take your money at gunpoint, the result would be that society would plunge into chaos, and then some other party might threaten . . . to take your money at gunpoint.

You need these armed men to take your money at gunpoint, so that they can stop armed men from taking your money at gunpoint!

Therefore, if I go around telling everyone taxation is theft, everyone will understand immediately, right? Of course not. The truth is that most people are more afraid of gangs and random thugs than they are of the IRS -- and I can empathize with their reasons.

I Feared That Mugger More Than I Did the IRS
A few years ago, a relative of mine suffered a mugging right in front of her house (yes, that even happens in Hawaii). A man took her purse and, though she struggled not a bit against him, he punched her in the stomach, putting her in the hospital. As you can imagine, this gave my whole family a scare. Since, around this time, I was going around telling everyone "Taxation is theft," I had to face that this incident had me much more afraid than any of my encounters with tax collection agencies and more afraid than I was when police had pulled me over. I had to ask myself why.

The reason why most people are less afraid of the IRS than they are of regular extortionists is that the IRS is supposed to be more predictable and behave with greater regularity.

If a random mugger comes upon you, you do not know what will happen next. Should you hand over the loot, the mugger might still punch you, as one such thug did to my relative. The mugger might rape you.

By contrast, every year, you know what time is tax time. When you deal with the IRS -- even if it audits you -- you can expect the IRS to follow certain rules. While the IRS also threatens violence against you should you refrain from complying with its demands the very facts that the IRS is somewhat predictable, and that it gives you some idea of what to expect, likewise give you more of a feeling of control than a random mugger does. Hence, the IRS incites less fear.

Definitely, this cannot morally excuse the threats of extortion that the IRS sends out. Here is an example I use: suppose that tribute was being extracted from you regularly by the mafia, and yet the mafia, for the most part, told you what to expect from it. And then the mafia followed through on everything it promised. The mafia told you it would expect you to hand over ten percent of your income on the first of every month. And if you got into a dispute where some loot-collecting agent said you had not paid him, whereas you insist you did cough up the cash, you could actually take this up with a higher-up in the mafia. You would still fear what the mafia could do to you as punishment, but the very fact that the mafia had deliberately made itself so predictable would lessen your fear a bit over time. On a perverse level, you could become accustomed to this. I call this the Rationalization Through Normalization.

Yes, I know there are horror stories where the IRS has behaved unpredictably. There are cases where some IRS employee simply got annoyed by someone and therefore behaved vindictively. There are a whole string of U.S. presidents -- Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton -- who used the IRS as as political tool, siccing it on critics. But, for the most part, the IRS still behaves with regularity and predictability -- sometimes IRS agents who behave in a vindictive, unprofessional manner are caught and disciplined.

Moreover, most Americans were "taught" in civics class, just as I was, the Hobbesian Social Contract Theory. It is, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, that the price of civilization is that you fork over a portion of cash, on a regular basis, to a man threatening to put a gun to your head. People genuinely believe that if not for this extortion, there will be no roads, no schools, and no police to protect you from extortionists.  That is the assumption of David "SpinosaurusKin" Sherratt.

And when people say that we need compulsory taxation so that we are protected from extortionists, they are not being fully hypocritical. The difference is that if there is absolute chaos, the private extortionists who threaten you are not bound by any Due Process rules; they are much more unpredictable and can do what they want: after getting your money, they could still punch you or rape you. Most people would rather deal with an extortionist agency that is expected by the Constitution to behave with regularity, predictability, and transparent rules, than deal with violent thugs.

Helping People Understand They Don’t Need This Extortion
Therefore, when I talk with most people -- people who believe compulsory taxation is the price we pay for civilization -- it is not helpful for me to reproach them for their apologia for theft and extortion. For them, that makes just as much sense as my telling them that mushrooms have wings and fly. No, in lieu of issuing moral condemnations against compulsory taxation at this point, it helps to inform these people that the one difference between the governmental sector and nongovernmental sector is that the governmental sector is supposed to derive its enforcement powers through the threat of violence, whereas the nongovernmental sector is expected by law not to be violent. Anything that can be done with threats from armed men, can be done without governmental intervention.

You can point out how, throughout the nineteenth century, private citizens and entrepreneurs were the ones who financed and built the roads: such privately financed roads connected entire cities, such as from Lancaster to Philadelphia. You can point out to them that it was private volunteer fire departments that got the job done (I blogged about that here), and that private associations made public libraries. You can also point out the case study in seventeenth-century England of a consensually funded entrepreneur outperforming the government monopoly in delivering the mail (my blog post on that here).

Once people are made more aware that they don't need everything to be financed by governmental extortion, they become less afraid that everything will fall apart without it. Then they are more amenable to the ethical arguments, and the explanation of why, if the IRS behaves with more regularity and predictability than do random muggers, that does not morally justify the extortion involved. This is important context that is not provided in humorous memes that simply say "Taxation is theft." If it were obvious to people that taxation is theft, we would not have to make the case that we make.

On July 11, 2017, I added the quotation from David "SpinosaurusKin" Sherratt and the quotation from Chelsea Manning. On this same day I added the links to my blog post -- written months after this one -- about private firefighting and private postal services.  That same day, I added the meme about how the government is a weapon and not a charity.