It is a common contention among libertarians, particularly anarcho-capitalists, that tax is theft. Strangely almost no one else identifies it this way, it is a perspective virtually unique to libertarians. People may consider a given tax to be too onerous or may complain of it in other ways. No one likes paying tax and many will avoid as much of it as they dare but no one else seems to think of it as theft. Indeed many would think it morally wrong to evade paying some tax. If the anarcho-capitalists are right about this then the wisdom of the crowd must surely be faulty. If the crowd is right then the anarcho-capitalists have made a logical error and should revise their propositions.
Every civilised person agrees theft is wrong, in this the anarcho-capitalist and the wisdom of the crowd is in complete agreement, the difference is only in the recognition of tax as theft.
Let us settle which position is correct. To do this we must be clear on the meaning of the word theft. Theft is the unauthorised taking of property which belongs to another with the intention of permanently depriving that person of it. The key distinction between theft and simple taking is consent and the intention to deprive. On the latter point, if I find your wallet on the ground and pick it up, then I have taken your property without your consent but if my intention is to return it to you then we can clearly see that is not theft, indeed it is a generous act of charity since I am expending my own time and energy for your benefit with no sure expectation of compensation.
So theft must both be unauthorised and with the intention to deprive. I perceive tax to be at least ambiguous on both criteria and we need it to be clearly both for it to be clearly theft. These are my reasons why tax does not fit this:
On authorisation, we can readily recognise that much tax is levied on the basis of citizenship. To have citizenship can be considered to be akin to having membership of a club. If the club charges a membership fee and a member does not decline to continue membership it is fair to take that as implied consent to pay the fee. So it must be with tax which is raised on this basis. Certainly anyone who chooses to remain a citizen has no plausible claim that the tax asked of him is theft since his consent is plain by the continued acceptance of the status of citizen. This is true even for tax authorities which do not have democratic processes or fail to accept a renunciation of citizenship. The fact of one’s citizenship is always contingent on one’s acceptance of it, regardless of technical processes or institutional recognition. The principle of freedom of association requires this.
On intention to deprive, we can readily see that most respectable governments make plain that the tax taken is for the common good including that of the taxpayer. Indeed respectable governments make it plain that the funds they control, raised from taxation, remains the property of the taxpayer by refering to it as “public money” or “tax payer’s” money. In this common case there is no clear intention to deprive.
This is not to prove that tax is never theft. A given taking of property by a government under the label tax may indeed be theft for being made against a non-citizen with the intention to deprive that person of their property. Sometimes a “tax” may be fraudulent or an extortion or plain robbery but that is not the general or universal or necessary nature of tax as we have proven here. In general it must be understood as rightful where citizenship with the tax authority is claimed and the intention to deprive is not present.
I do not say all this because I am hostile or unsympathetic to the cause of libertarians or anarcho-capitalists but only to give us all a solid grounding in reality so we may make our choices on the basis of good knowledge rather than wonky propaganda.
This I believe should settle the matter of whether or not tax is theft.