Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Semantic Interlude

I think that the really interesting question, however is is "how the hell could anyone have possibly thought that saying 'taxation is the same as theft' was a useful contribution to a discussion about the abolition of the 50p tax band, or indeed, anything else?"
If "stealing" means "taking something from someone else without their permission and not intending to give it back" then it is a no-brainer that there are lots and lots of times when "stealing" is very naughty; a few occasions when stealing is very good; and a number of difficult cases about which we can agree to differ. Coming into my house and taking my laptop would be in am example of the first kind of stealing (bad); taking a knife away from a homicidal maniac who was about to stab someone with it, or confiscating heroin from someone who was planning to sell it to small children at the school gate would be in the second kind of stealing (good); stealing bread in order to feed your sister's children would be an example of the third kind (debatable).

Or perhaps you would say: "Ah! But confiscating weapons or drugs, and liberating food to feed characters in long French musicals isn't stealing at all." In which case stealing doesn't mean "taking something from someone else..." It means "taking something you shouldn't have taken". If you go with that definition, then it would be completely untrue to say "Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor". If the rich were really that rich and the poor were really that poor then what Robin Hood did wasn't stealing at all. I believe that this really was the line taken by the medieval English church, in theory if not in practice: it was the rich man's Christian duty to feed the poor; therefore the food didn't really belong to the rich man; therefore it wasn't stealing for the poor man to take it, if he really was starving.

So: "Taxation is theft" comes out as either:

"Taxation is taking something from someone else without his permission. Taking something from someone without his permission might be right or wrong depending on circumstances; so I'll now have to explain what it is about the circumstances of taxation which makes it wrong, which is very much where we started."


"Taxation is taking something which you shouldn't take; which is as much as to say, I personally don't approve of or agree with taxation: so I will now have to explain to you why I don't approve of it or agree with it, which also takes us back to where we started."

I suppose it is possible that there could be a rational man who thinks that our society, pretty much uniquely in the history of the world, could get by without a system of taxation. (Is the idea that the police will send you a bill after they catch, or more likely don't catch, the guy who stole your laptop and gave the proceeds to the poor? Or that once we all have guns, we'll be able to defend our own houses and won't need policemen? Will there be people who can't leave there own homes because they can't afford the toll to walk on the pavement? Or what?) But "I don't believe in taxes because taxes are a form of theft" is a meaningless sentence, boiling down to "I don't believe in taxes because I don't believe in taxes."

See also "I don't believe in hanging / war / smacking foxes / hunting children because hanging / war / smacking foxes / hunting children is a form of murder / violence / not the sort of thing which is acceptable in a civilised society."

I find this kind of thing keeps happening to me. I think that it is quite possible that I am in fact the wisest man in Athens, or a corrupter of the nation's youth or something.


Dr Plokta said...

Taxation (in democracies) is not taking something without permission; it's just that the permission is expressed collectively at the ballot box and not individually.

NickPheas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NickPheas said...

The arguement actually seems to boil down to 'Taxing me is theft, taxing the lumpen proletariat is valuable because it cements their position in society.'

culfy said...

I once had a friend who insisted that taxation was theft except for a notional 10% to be used only for defense

AndrewSshi said...

Culfy, I've seen it argued in all earnestness that since in Romans 13, the only function of the state that St. Paul mentions is the exercise of violence, then that is the only legitimate function of the state. So taxation to support police, prisons, the military, etc. is legitimate, but taxation to support social welfare, roads, levies, etc. is theft. It is a most peculiar reading of The Apostle, but it is, I guess, consistent. (American evangelicals these days are increasingly articulating the opinion that social welfare should come from the Church, from the generosity of the individual, or failing that, from no one at all.)

culfy said...


I did try arguing that if you say that you should have the freedom to chose your own form of health care, why should you not have the freedom to chose your own form of defence. My friend replied that this is because mercanaries are untrustworthy. But he still couldn't tell me why I wasn't entitled to make this choice for myself.

Paul Brown said...

I suppose that they might have had a point; if I pay your mercenaries double to kill you instead then there's a pretty reasonable chance that they might do it, but if I pay your doctor double to remove your ears and then reattach them to your hips then he will almost certainly say no.

Richard Worth said...

There is a case that democracy is dictatorship by the majority, and therefore taxation is reducing your freedom as an individual to act outside the power of the state. If for example your taxes pay for state schools which leave you so poor that no one could afford a private school , you cede your children's education to what the state chooses to teach them. There is a case for reducing the state to a bare function of defence and justice on the basis that Dickensian Britain was a powerful, prosperous, civilised nation where health, education etc was largely charitable and society didn't fall apart: however, the Irish potato famine is arguably this philosophy taken to a logical conclusion.

Richard Worth said...

The best analogy I can think of is with the commandments 'thou shalt not steal' and 'thou shall do no murder'. A soldier in battle, a public hangman carrying a court sentence into execution and a police officer sor bank guard hooting an armed robber are not 'murderers', but this does not mean that aggressive wars, capital punishment or trigger happiness are a good thing.

culfy said...

"I suppose that they might have had a point; if I pay your mercenaries double to kill you instead then there's a pretty reasonable chance that they might do it, but if I pay your doctor double to remove your ears and then reattach them to your hips then he will almost certainly say no."

On the other hand...if I pay my doctor everytime I have a consult or an operation (either directly or through an insurance company) it could be that he will find increasing numbers of things wrong with me. If my Doctor receives a set salary from the state, he probably won't. So is that an argument for both public health AND public defense.

Phil Masters said...

As I understand it, a 19th century Prussian argument in favour of universal conscription was that it made the army a genuine citizen army. A state like Britain (then and now) with a purely volunteer army was in fact hiring mercenaries. Okay, it was arbitrarily limiting its choice of mercenaries to its own citizens (let's ignore the Gurkhas, shall we?), but it's still paying people who see fighting as a career to do its killing for it.

(Hence we probably read Housman's "Epitaph for an Army of Mercenaries" all wrong.)

It's kind of logical. You just have to regard a militarised state as an acceptable price to pay.

And by the way, no, I don't see taxation as theft. But you do have to accept that living in a country implies broad assent to its systems and institutions. Which obliges me to see free international movement of peoples as morally quite important. It gives people at least some option to withdraw their assent.