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.