The following article is not a general proof of the Objectivist principle that the initiation of physical force is destructive to human life; but it will show that taxation is equivalent to robbery and, when carried out for wealth redistribution, is actually more harmful to more people than the robberies committed by criminals in First-World countries. (A general proof of the destructiveness of initiated force does exist, and I may go through it at some point in the future.)
The Hypothetical Showing the Connection
If I have earned, say, $1,000 this week through my own labor, and another man comes up to me, points a gun at me, and tells me to give him the money, so he can pay his rent, is this robbery? Is it legal for him to do it? What if he tells me it’s for his friend’s rent? Is that robbery/legal? What if he gets 9 of his friends and they all tell me I need to give him my money? Is that robbery/legal? What if the 10 men write up a document that says I have to give him my money, and they include me in a vote to affirm or reject the “law” that says I should give him my money? They all vote “yes” on the “law” and I vote ”no.” “Now,” they tell me, “we as a society of 11 have drafted a law that says that you have an obligation to give us the money. We have taken a vote and you have been outvoted. As a part of our society, you now owe us this money. If you don’t give it to us, we will imprison you at gunpoint. If you don’t like what we are doing, you can leave our territory.” Is THIS robbery? Yes, the same forcible imposition of the wills of others upon me has been made. Is it legal? Yes, actually; it is now “legal,” because a law has been voted on and passed. It is legal robbery. So, the question is: How many people does it take before this practice ceases to be robbery? A hundred? A thousand? Ten million?
Let’s change the hypothetical a little. Let’s say that I have grown up on my parents’ farm. I take over the farm and carry on with my life. Let’s say that, this time, the ten men come to me and tell me “We’re going to take a vote on whether to build a bridge across that river a mile behind your property.” I say, “But I don’t need or want a bridge there. I never cross that river. I do all my business on this side of it.”
“Well,” they say, “we are all going to collectively decide whether to build that bridge.” They all vote to build the bridge, and I vote not to. “It’s settled,” they say, “we’ll build the bridge. We’ll all be free to use it, and all eleven of us will share the cost.”
“But I have no business over there; I won’t use it and I don’t want to pay for it.” I say. “If I wanted a bridge there, I would either build it myself, or pay someone else to build it, and I would own it. If I eventually decide to use your bridge, I’ll pay you for access at that time.”
“You’re going to pay your share,” they say, “or we’re going to imprison you at gunpoint. By living among us, you have implicitly signed a Social Contract that says that you will help pay for anything we decide to do. You have been outvoted, so we, collectively, have decided to build the bridge. If you don’t like this arrangement, you can move far away.”
“But all I have been doing is living here. I didn’t ask to be a part of your collective ‘we’ and I signed no ‘Social Contract.’ My mere existence is not ‘consent’ to anything. Why should I have to move out of my home if I don’t want to have money extorted from me to pay for things I don’t want you to do?”
“Well if you don’t like it, that’s too bad,” they say, “the ten of us have more guns than you do. So you’re going to do what we say and pay us, or we’re going to put our guns to use.”
Hopefully, this section should be stating what is obvious by now. That you don’t have a gun being waved in your face on tax day does not make paying taxes voluntary; the guns will appear eventually if you fail to pay. The number of people who helped to point the gun at someone is not a part of the definition of robbery. The number of people having the gun pointed at them is not part of the definition of robbery. Any number of people can be robbed by any number of people. Thus, there is no numerical basis for saying the above scenarios are robbery, while taxation imposed by majority vote/representatives in a country is not. Nor is there any relevance if the taxes are imposed on everyone, including the voting majority; robbers can use their own money for a cause, yet still be guilty of robbing others to pay for that cause. Nor is the amount of money the victim(s) or perpetrator(s) have part of the definition of robbery. The robbery of a wealthy victim is still robbery. Nor does it matter that, in modern societies, those who carry out the robbery are part of an organization with the function of protecting the citizenry from other force initiators (robbers, murderers, foreign invaders, etc.) It does not follow that, because the government protects us, it has the right to rob us, any more than it follows that, because it protects us, it has the right to carry out contract killings for the mob.
Someone might object that dictionaries typically define “robbery” as “taking something from someone by unlawful force or threat of violence,” while taxes are “lawful.” But, as I hope the reader saw in the hypothetical, to say that something is lawful simply means that some individuals, who take themselves to be a governmental body (i.e. empowered to use force beyond immediate self-defense), have written down a directive on a piece of paper and intend to enforce it. That something is “lawful” says nothing about the moral propriety of it. (Would anyone today say that, because anti-Jewish laws were passed by a duly elected Adolf Hitler, they were thereby morally justified?) Therefore, “unlawful” should be stricken from the definition of “robbery” as a nonessential. (1)
But robbery must still be distinguished from recompense and fines imposed as retaliation for coercion initiated by individuals/groups, (i.e. the punishment of those who have already robbed or otherwise victimized others by coercion.) Hence, the proper definition of robbery is: “taking something from someone by initiatory force or threat of violence.”
Taxation does fall under this proper definition of robbery.
Redistributive Taxation vs. Fines for Wrongdoing
Some people will try to justify redistributive taxation of the wealthy by invoking the idea that the wealthy got that way by graft, fraud, government favors, or otherwise doing things that violate the rights of others. In some cases, especially in today’s mixed economy, this may be true. However, the mere fact that someone is wealthy does not show that this is how he became wealthy. The government should not be in the business of granting special favors to anyone, and fines, recompense and/or jail time imposed by the courts are the appropriate means of dealing with extortion or fraud, when it can be proven in a specific case.
Taxation, on the other hand, is the forcible taking of money that was, by the government’s own determination, obtained by legal means. No force or fraud has been shown to be involved; no one’s rights have been shown to have been violated. So, in taking redistributive taxes, the government is stealing money from those who earned it and giving it to those who did not.
A Few Fallacious Arguments for Government Robbery (Taxation) Refuted
Argument 1: “But isn’t government taxation for its basic, legitimate functions (police, military, courts) just the government collecting what citizens owe it for protecting them? How is this any different from the government enforcing private contracts?”
Refutation 1: In living under a government, I am delegating my personal right to retaliation and recompense against those who injure or rob me. This delegation is necessary in order to ensure objectivity in the implementation of such retaliation and recompense. But I have not been given any choice but to submit to this delegation. Since I have not voluntarily entered this arrangement, I cannot properly owe anyone (by force of law) for any element of it that I have not voluntarily chosen to take part in. I cannot legally owe anyone for what they have done without my consent, whether implicit or explicit. (Though, if I have violated someone else’s rights, then I have implicitly chosen to be subject to their retaliation, through government.) This is unlike private contracts, in which both parties voluntarily agree beforehand to be bound by them.
Argument 2: “All known governments rob citizens for funding. Therefore robbery is necessary for the existence of government.”
Refutation 2: This is a form of argumentum ad populum. That the vast majority (or all) of the people one knows of have chosen to do something, does not make it necessary, or good, or optimally practical. That none of the governments in the world prior to 1776 had been constitutional democratic republics did not warrant a pronouncement that such government is impossible or impractical. (See the last section of this essay for more on the practicality of a tax-free society.)
Argument 3: “Without coercive redistribution from the rich to the poor, the poor would riot and/or commit more crime and make life worse for the rich. Therefore it is in the self-interest of the rich to let the government rob them for this purpose.”
Refutation 3: This argument takes egalitarian opinions of the poor as an unchallengeable, metaphysically-given absolute. It is a confusion between the metaphysical and the man-made. Human philosophical beliefs are open to evaluation and change. That any number of those who are poor believe in coercive redistribution does not make them justified in that belief. It doesn’t make them any more justified than a single robber who believes he should be able to bash your head in if you don’t give him your money. The laws of the society should be set up and enforced against those who would threaten violence, absent government redistribution. Any egalitarians–poor, middle class, or rich–should be convinced that redistribution is wrong, and that societal justice means getting what we have earned in a free market. This is the path to the most productive and peaceful society. (Should abolitionists in the US have said “Abolishing slavery will cause problems. It’s in the interests of a peaceful society to maintain the status quo, so let’s not fight for abolition”?)
Argument 4: “Without government robbery to build roads and infrastructure, there would be no roads and infrastructure, or at least, very poor infrastructure and roads without rules.”
Refutation 4: Infrastructure (utilities, roads, etc.) can be built and operated through private/nongovernmental means. Private contracts can govern the operation of such services. The rules of private roads would be contractually enforced as conditions of their use by customers, because no responsible person wants to drive on unsafe roads. No one wants to put himself at the mercy of the whims of a private company for access to the road in front of his house, thus long-term contracts would likely be standard at move-in to specify conditions of access to, and pricing of, the road.
The Destructive Consequences of Government Robbery, Briefly
Most people can easily identify the destructive consequences of robbery by individuals or by gangs. They see the harm it does to the victims, physically and psychologically. They see that if such robbery became pervasive in their society, it would create a fearful climate, antithetical to enjoyable living. They can see that it would paralyze people with uncertainty and sap their ability (and motivation) to plan, to save, to become wealthy and successful by honest means. (What use is it to invest in a factory if it can easily be raided at any moment by a gang of thugs?)
What most people seem unable to identify are the destructive consequences of government robbing the successful and productive to give to the unsuccessful or unproductive. People either don’t identify these as destructive consequences, because they are considered “normal,” and “an inevitable part of life in society” today, or they file them under “caused by unfettered capitalism.” Most people unthinkingly accept that government robbery is necessary–that our society would be worse off if the government didn’t rob people on behalf of the poor, the elderly, the sick, scientific researchers, schools, infrastructure construction, etc.
But the destructive consequences of government robbery are all around us; they are not inevitable, and they are not the result of unfettered capitalism. Government bailouts of businesses maintain inefficient business practices, and incentivize risky, irresponsible and corrupt behavior by corporate officers. In the same way, government welfare incentivizes wasteful and irresponsible behavior by the poor at the expense of taxpayers. The virtual government monopoly on roads has created a stagnant and chronically underfunded system. Long commutes through roads and freeways clogged with traffic have become accepted as an inevitable part of life by tens of millions of people in the US alone. Almost no one today sees the efficiency, dynamism and radical improvement possible to a system of private roads, highways and mass transportation. (2)
How Would Government Be Financed Without Taxes?
In order to be funded without taxation, the state and federal governments of the US would have to be substantially smaller in size and lower in budget. Such a government would be restricted to its proper functions: police, military and courts.
Ways to fund a proper government without taxation could include fees for government enforcement of contracts, voluntary donations, fines for lawbreakers, small fees for “losers” in civil trials, and lotteries. (I recommend this article for more on this issue: How Would Government be Funded in a Free Society? along with Ayn Rand’s discussion of voluntary government funding in The Virtue of Selfishness.)
[Edited: 11-8-12 to add first argument for taxation.]
(1) Dictionaries reflect common usage that may be confused and/or improper. Thus, they should not be taken uncritically as authoritative, especially in regard to philosophically relevant concepts. For more on the issues of essentials, objective concepts and definitions, see Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd Ed. by Ayn Rand.
(2) I make a certain distinction between the level of harm caused by compulsory taxation for government in its proper functions and compulsory taxation for improper government programs, such as welfare/bailout functions. The former is still wrong, but is destructive in a minor way. The latter is far and away more destructive to the well-being of people in the society that practices it.
Recommended books: Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand
Capitalist Solutions: A Philosophy of American Moral Dilemmas by Andrew Bernstein