Peace Requires Anarchy

The Definition Of Theft


In this article I will not be attempting to offer a full definition of theft. Rather, I will assume a background of libertarian property rights and will examine just one disputed aspect of the definition of theft. This aspect is raised by YouTube user Orygyn in his YouTube video Taxation Is Not Theft embedded below:

Note that my view is that taxation is theft.

Allow me to begin by explaining what I believe that Orygyn’s argument is by considering two scenarios:

Scenario A: I could go up to you and say, “give me your money or else I will use violence against you to try to seize your money.”

Regardless of whether you submitted to my threat and handed over your money, or whether you attempted to resist and failed, I think we would all agree that this would constitute theft.

If you managed to fend me off, we might call it attempted theft, but this is irrelevant to the discussion of the definition of theft. Therefore, assume for the sake of this article that the aggressor (me in this scenario) is always successful at seizing peoples’ money (or other property) whenever (s)he attempts to seize the money with physical force.

Scenario B: You want to buy a product from Bob. I tell Bob that if he does not give a certain percentage of the money he receives from you when you buy his product (a sales tax) to me, then I will use violence against him to seize the money from him.

In this scenario, you are not the victim of an act of theft as Orygyn rightly points out in his video (from 2:20 to 2:40). You are not the victim because nobody is threatening you with force. I am threatening Bob with force, however, and so he is a candidate theft victim.

Suppose Bob does end up selling the product to you for some money. Regardless of whether Bob submits to my threat of violence and hands over the money to me or whether he attempts to resist me and fails, I would say that this scenario would constitute theft. It would be theft for the same reason that Scenario A is theft.

Suppose Bob chooses not to sell you the product, however. If he chose not to sell the product then I would not take any money from him. Would he be the victim of an act of theft then? No, I do not believe he would. Instead he would be the victim of a bully threatening to steal from him if he acted in a specific way. But, as I would not have any of his money in the end, this situation clearly would not be theft. (Note, however, that because Bob has the freedom to sell his property to you my threat of force against him would still be immoral even though it is not “theft.”)

But, suppose that Bob does choose to sell the product to you, even though he knows that I threatened to take a certain percentage of the money he made from you if he sold it. Would it be theft then? As I said above, I would consider it theft, yes. But, Orygyn, apparently would not. “It’s not stealing if you agree to it,” says Orygyn in his video (3:28) referring to the fact that Bob (well not “Bob” in the video) choose to sell the product to you despite being able to choose not to sell it to you.

I think the presence of this choice in the matter is irrelevant as I will explain shortly with some examples. Before doing that, though, let me make sure that this picture of the difference between Scenario A and scenarios like Scenario B is completely clear to all of us.

Let me restate Scenario A:

Scenario A: Aggressor to victim: “Here are your two choices: 1) Give me your money and I will let you be or 2) Don’t give me your money and I will use violence against you to seize your money.” We agree this is theft, even when the victim chooses option one rather than option two, the option of attempted resistance.

For example, you’re walking in the street and someone points a gun at you and tells you to give them your wallet or else they will shoot you. If you then hand them your wallet and they run off, you are still the victim of an act of theft, despite how you choose to given them your wallet rather than attempt to resist. The presence of the threat of force makes it theft rather than a gift to the person with the gun.

Now let me introduce a new scenario:

Scenario C: Aggressor to victim: “Here are your three choices: 1) Give me your money and I will let you be or 2) Don’t give me your money and do actions X, Y, Z and I will use violence against you to try to seize your money or 3) Don’t give me your money and do NOT do actions X, Y, Z and I’ll let you be.”

If actions X, Y, and Z, include all possible actions then we can see that Scenario C is the same as scenario A and is thus theft for the same reason that Scenario A is theft.

If, however, actions X, Y, Z, do NOT include all possible actions, then the third option for the victim is now a possibility. Scenario B described earlier is really just a special case of Scenario C as well. In Scenario B (the scenario in which the government imposes a sales tax on a person selling a product) “actions X, Y, and Z” represent the act of Bob selling the product to you.

Scenario B can thus be more clearly phrased as follows:

Scenario B: Aggressor to victim: “Here are your three choices: 1) Give me your money and I will let you be or 2) Don’t give me your money and sell that product to your customer and I will use violence against you to try to seize your money or 3) Don’t give me your money and do NOT sell that product to your customer and I’ll let you be.”

I believe that Scenario B is theft, but Orygyn does not think it is theft. Scenario B is equivalent to a government imposing a sales tax on a business selling products to customers. There are many other taxes that can be described by changing what you insert as the “actions X, Y, Z” of Scenario C. My view is that all of these resulting scenarios of people being taxed also constitute theft. I will stay focused only on the special case of the sales tax (Scenario B) for this article, however, as I try to persuade everyone that Scenario B, the sales tax, is indeed theft.

So why is Scenario B theft?

First of all, consider that Bob in Scenario B has not received word of the government’s threat against him when he meets someone who wishes to buy his product from him. Bob then sells his product to his customer and only later learns about the existence of the government’s sales tax. This scenario is now equivalent to Scenario A because Bob no longer has the option to choose not to sell his product to his customer. He cannot go back in time.

The government then says, “Oh well Bob, rules are rules. Would you like to give us the money to comply with our tax laws or would you prefer that we ‘vigorously apply both civil and criminal sanctions, including prosecution and prison sentences, against [you for violating the tax laws]?’”

The sales tax would clearly be theft in this version of Scenario B in which Bob is ignorant of his local mafia’s rules (because it would be equivalent to Scenario A, which is theft). Why then would you suddenly say that the original version of Scenario B is not theft just because Bob had knowledge that someone was going to steal from him upon finishing his peaceful consensual economic exchange with his customer?

You might reply that it is no longer theft because he has the choice to make the action that he originally was going to make and be stolen from or to avoid making that action and retain his money. This is just restating the difference between Scenario C and Scenario A. Therefore, as I said before, the disagreement between the views of someone who accepts this reasoning and someone who rejects it is really just a semantic disagreement. If you say taxation is not theft because of the presence of this choice, then you really just disagree with me on the definition of theft. Do not fool yourself into believing that the presence of this choice justifies taxation, however. It of course does not justify it.

But, anyways, I think I can persuade you why accepting the above reasoning for limiting the definition of theft is quite absurd.

I will attempt this persuasion by providing specific cases of Scenario C that intuitively we would all likely agree are theft. This thus might persuade everyone that my broader definition of theft (that includes Scenario B and other particular cases of Scenario C) is better than Orygyn’s limited definition of theft (that is limited to Scenario A).

Scenario D: I tell you now: “If you choose to walk in North America I will require that you give me $100 every time I ask you for some money. If you refuse I will use violence against you to seize it from you against your will.” Now imagine that at some time in the future I meet you walking along in North America. I say to you, “Hi there, may I have some money?” You reply, “Sorry, I don’t have any money that I want to give you right now.” I reply, “Well that’s too bad. Either give me your money or else I will use violence against you to seize it from you against your will like I said I would before.” You reply, “What are you, insane? I thought you were only joking in that article that time.” (Or maybe if you were smart you would claim that you did not remember the article in order to persuade me that what I was doing to you was theft =P ). “Maybe I am insane, but I want your money,” I reply. I pull out a loaded gun and aim it at you. “Give me your money,” I say. Scared to death, you take out your wallet and hand me the $100 that I demanded. “Here, take it, you meanie!” you exclaim. “Don’t you mean, ‘you thief’?” I reply.

This Scenario D is another special case of Scenario C (like how Scenario B, the sales tax, is also a special case of Scenario C).

The “actions X, Y, Z” of Scenario C is “walk in North America.”

Scenario D: Aggressor to victim: “Here are your three choices: 1) Give me your money and I will let you be or 2) Don’t give me your money and walk in North America and I will use violence against you to try to seize your money or 3) Don’t give me your money and do NOT walk in North America and I’ll let you be.”

Scenario D, like Scenario B, and any other special cases of Scenario C for which “actions X, Y, Z” is an act or acts that the person has a right to do, is theft. Our disagreement may be a semantic one, but I believe that my broader definition of theft is clearly the better one. If you want to call me a thief in Scenario D, I would completely back you up on your use of the term. In the same way, go ahead and call the government people who threaten you with violence to force you to pay them taxes thieves. They may have deluded people that they are nice thieves, or that what they are doing is not theft at all, but it this does not make them any different from me in Scenario D. So call them out for what they are.

Taxation is theft. Do you still disagree? Well okay, I have nothing more to say about this semantic disagreement. If you want to assert that taxes are justified or that taxes are moral, however, I will have more to say, as I disagree with both of these claims.


Author: PeaceRequiresAnarchy

“A consistent peace activist must be an anarchist.” – Roderick T. Long

6 thoughts on “The Definition Of Theft

  1. Thank you for the response. Your conclusion that our disagreement is a semantic one is one that I’d agree with. In the video I took great care not to talk about the greater issue (the merits of taxation) and instead focus on the “taxation is theft” argument. I’m all too aware of how straying off topic can lead to endless debates.

    I’ll try to be specific as to where I agree and disagree. I would call scenario A theft. The thief is there unexpectedly, there is no forewarning to be given and so there is no out for the victim.
    I take issue with scenario D because it only works as an analogy if it is applied to everyone. The “you” in question is being singled out. Bob in scenario B is in the same situation as every other business owner in every applicable country. I would argue that paying sales tax on your business, just as buying an item from a shop and paying VAT or accepting a job offer and paying income tax, is part of the terms and conditions of setting up a business in that country. Now if you transformed scenario D into one where somehow this person was in charge of the country, the only way he could apply his demands to everyone, it becomes synonymous with scenario B and we then have to ask the legitimacy question.

    With regard to our competing definitions of theft, if we’re going to use the names of crimes to refer to acts of taxation I’d like to suggest that extortion and blackmail are more accurate. Beyond that we’d have to get into the bigger issue which as I’ve said, I’ve tried to avoid doing.

  2. If you believe that government taxation is a “legitimate” activity and is therefore not theft, then you really should not have avoided mentioning that in your video. It is a completely different argument than the argument you made in your video.

    The argument that you presented in your video claims that taxation is not theft because of the presence of the choice that allows you to retain your money avoiding doing certain acts (e.g. selling a product in B or walking in North America in D). This choice is illustrated with Scenario C (and B and D). This choice is what makes Scenario C (and B and D) different than Scenario A.

    Because Scenario A is distinct from the other three scenarios, you can indeed call A theft while not calling the other scenarios theft without contradicting yourself. What you cannot do, however, is call D theft, but not B. If Scenario D is theft then Scenario B is also theft. And if Scenario B is not theft, then you cannot call Scenario D theft without being inconsistent.

    Therefore, in my article I did not necessarily refute your claim (as it is possible that you could just use a strange definition of theft that allows for only Scenario A to be theft). But, what I did do is force you to either say that Scenario D (and countless other special cases of Scenario C) is not theft, or else admit that it is theft (as I am sure the vast majority of people would agree that it is) and then either concede the point that taxation is not theft to me, or else provide a new argument explaining what you believe the difference is between Scenario B and D.

    You did not provide any argument that there is a difference between Scenario B and D in your video. In your last comment, however, you mention “the legitimacy question,” suggesting that you think that a person representing a government that is somehow “legitimate” can make acts that are theft when made by “private” individuals, but not theft when made by “public” people representing “legitimate” governments.

    You are yet to provide any argument that this absurd difference exists. You have said that you want to avoid going into this legitimacy question. If this is true, then you either have to back down on your claim that taxation is theft, or else admit that you do not think that Scenario D is theft either.

    Peace, man.

  3. The reason I didn’t get into the legitimacy argument is because it’s a non-starter. Nonetheless I will address it now.

    In order to have a solid concept of legitimacy, there would have to be some objective basis for how a government is determined to be legitimate. Democracy wouldn’t work because then all property rights become subject to arbitrary voting that could be conducted at any time by anyone. The constitution? Same problem, what makes the founding fathers legitimate? But even these are just opinions, they all avoid the bigger problem that an objective basis hasn’t been established. If one can’t be established, no-one could have any legitimate claim to any property and so property wouldn’t even exist, and neither would theft. In such a situation, the only way to resolve the problem is through axioms: baseless statements but which are necessary for any discussion of value to take place. My axiom is that all governments have the claim over their country and so they get to make the rules. If I don’t like what the government does, I vote for a party that’s more to my liking. If the character in scenario D was the ruler, I wouldn’t consider what he was doing theft, as he as ruler has the claim over the country and gets to set the terms and conditions by which his citizens live, but if I lived there, I’d vote against him. I can’t say why without getting into the greater issue but there you go.

  4. I began my reply to you (this article) saying that I was not going to try to offer a full definition of theft, but instead was going to assume a background of libertarian property rights. I didn’t offer any information about this background,but I probably should have. I thus just now added a link to the beginning of the article of the following essay that summarizes libertarianism–I recommend you check it out if you are interested:

    “My axiom is that all governments have the claim over their country and so they get to make the rules.”

    This seems quite arbitrary to me and is completely opposed to my intuitive morals. For example, wouldn’t an acceptance of that axiom mean that various dictators around the world who have committed heinous crimes would be justified in their actions? If you accepted that axiom, wouldn’t you have to say that Hitler was justified in killing millions of Jews?

    If not, then what are you saying your “axiom” is? It definitely sounds like you’re saying that the governments (or groups of individuals that succeed in claiming a monopoly on violence in a geographic region) are justified in their actions and uses of force against the population living in the regions that they rule over. When you say, “they get to make the rules,” it sounds like you’re saying that the rules that they make and enforce are “legitimate” or justified. But, how could you say this to tyrants who commit evils? I understand how you can say it to tyrants like Barrack Obama who commit evils of a much lesser degree, such as threatening peaceful people with violence to tax them to fund nice things for people, but how could you say it to Hitler and others? How could you say that they are justified in their actions? It seems completely absurd to me, frankly.

    Further, your “axiom” is not universalizable. Your axiom gives some individuals (the ones who happen to be a part of an organization that achieves a monopoly on violence in a geographic region at any given time) the right to do whatever they want to other people. These rulers could enslave the people living in the regions that they control if they wanted to (it would be slavery from a libertarian perspective, but I suppose you would just call it “legitimate” as if one person was simply exercising ownership over another, rather than violating their rights).

    So really I guess I just cannot take your axiom seriously. It is completely opposed to my notion of morality and probably your notion of morality as well (even if you don’t recognize that here).

    I agree with you that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to have a meaningful or productive discussion on an issue like this unless we can agree on some basic values initially to form a framework to discuss things. Since learning about libertarianism I have found it very interesting that I share the exact same political views with many other people. I of course disagree with these people on many boundary cases and things like that, but we agree in principle on everything as we all share the same background of libertarian property rights. It actually makes debate possible, unlike a debate between a conservative and a liberal, for example, in which the arguments made are really just endless arbitrary assertions and counter assertions. Seriously, how would someone like you argue that using violence against taxpayers to fund universal healthcare is justified (or not justified)? How do you have such a debate? Or do you not have a debate at all and just say that whatever people ending up voting on is the just law (or whatever the monarch or other dictator ends up making the law is the just law)? I don’t know about you, but I would not be content with calling a system of laws generated in such an arbitrary and ever-changing way just.

  5. I need to distinguish between legitimate and good. I am using legitimate here simply to mean they have earned the right to govern, whether through democratic means or overthrowing the old government violently. What my usage of legitimate never intends to do is pass judgement on any of those rulers. Even if I can’t call some of their actions by a certain name I can still pass a moral judgement on them when they commit them. While they may have what I see as a legitimate claim to govern, I can still decide whether they deserve to govern. If I don’t, I’ll try to vote them out, if I have the option. If not, as JFK said, “those who make peaceful demonstration impossible make violent revolution inevitable”. I wouldn’t personally join in the violence but I would do what I could to show my disdain for that regime.

    I don’t have any opportunities to film any videos anytime soon but I just got myself a blogspot and I’ll address your question about justifying universal healthcare there sometime within the next few days. I’ll probably end up being quite detailed and is late enough here as it is when I’m typing this.

    Regardless of our disagreements I will say I’ve really enjoyed this discussion so far.

  6. Thanks, I’ve enjoyed the discussion so far too.

    Note that the example of health care was just the first example to come to my head. You could use literally almost any political position though if you wanted. For example, those who oppose legalizing various drugs such as marijuana, and those who don’t. Also, there are countless regulations that amount to using violence against peaceful people that some people oppose and others don’t. Libertarians are always against these, however. Taxation for any other issue, such as a war or just a bunch of foreign military bases. Taxation for schools, or even things like roads, police, and fire stations. The libertarian position on all of these things is always the position that rejects the initiation of force against people. I am not sure on what basis non-libertarians determine which acts of aggression they believe are justified and which are not justified. Libertarians say that the aggression is never justified, but every non-libertarian seems to arbitrarily support acts of aggression in the form of some taxes for some things or some regulations, etc.

    “I am using legitimate here simply to mean they have earned the right to govern…. What my usage of legitimate never intends to do is pass judgement on any of those rulers.”

    I find this statement confusing because to me saying that someone has a “right” is passing a judgment. If you say that someone has the right to govern then you are passing a judgement saying that their acts of governing are justified. You may not necessarily really like a thing by saying that someone has a “right” to do it (such as the fact that I don’t think that prostitution is great or that abusing drugs is good, but I think that it should be legal) but you are still passing some judgement by saying that someone has a right to do it. You are saying that it would be wrong of others to use physical force against that person for doing that thing. So for example, saying that some government person has a right to tax me to fund a war that I believe is immoral is saying that they are free to forcibly collect money from me for that purpose against my will and that it would consequently be wrong of me to resist them with force to try to keep my money.

    And I agree that “peaceful demonstration” is a far more effective method of social change than “violent revolution” even in cases in which such violent revolution may be justified.

    Lastly, I will be quite busy in the next few days and so I won’t be able to reply to anything further that you write until at least this weekend. I will get to it eventually, but take your time replying if you wish.


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