Is Taxation Theft? (and why the answer matters..)

comments 10

I have written a lot of short pieces addressing this question (the answer is always no). But this piece for Aeon magazine is the most extensive thing I’ve written so far, and goes into much more detail about the nature of ownership. I’m always amazed at how much this stuff angers people. I’ve been enjoying battling with with terrible arguments on the comment thread (which you have to register for) and the Aeon FB pages…I invite you to join the fun!

I think this is a place where abstract, academic philosophy can really make a practical difference. The way almost everyone (voters and policy makers) think about taxation is demonstrably confused. And (as I say in the article) this matters: this confused sense that my gross income is “my money” is a major stumbling block to economic reform, causes low and middle earners to vote against their economic interests, and renders it practically impossible to correct the economic injustices that pervade the modern world.

Back to writing useless stuff on consciousness…

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.


  1. Pingback: Is Taxation Theft? – Philosophics

  2. You seem to be “writing useless stuff” on pretty much anything you write about, not just “consciousness” and then you turn around and claim that “the market is unfair” on how it rewards writers of “useless stuff”, like you, compared to those that make or bring about “useful stuff” like a CEO for example, or a small business owner or a movie producer and so on…

    Therefore, in your opinion, the government needs to go around and take as much as possible from those that earned “too much” by making “useful stuff” and redistribute it towards those like you that make “useless stuff” because that, in your opinion, is fairness.

    You go even further in your stupid argument and bring up examples like the legality of slavery as well as that of confiscation of jew’s property by the Nazis to prove that immorality doesn’t always equal illegality and as long as it’s legal at one point or another, an immoral act it’s justified during its time.

    You sir, are an educated idiot, the most dangerous type of idiot and, by acting as a professor on top of it, you are even more dangerous then the rest of the educated idiots out there.

    • Thanks for reporting some random reactions to reading my article. It was an interesting insight into your psychology. Do you have any response to my argument that one has no moral claim to one’s pre-tax income?

      • So you want to go into Libertarian homes and steal their paycheck? Good luck with that.

        Plus I notice you don’t engage actual libertarians or the creator of the taxation is theft idea (which is simple lack of research), and your picture in the article shows workers from whom you wish to steal.

        Isn’t Hungary’s far-left trying to do that–nationalize worker savings and steal from the commons? People may see you as an apologist?

        Philosophers can reverse the argument: You have no right to anything to which Libertarians and fans contributed. get off the web.

      • Thanks for your thoughts Robert! Don’t worry, I don’t want to go into your home and steal your paycheck. That would be against the law. I believe in following the laws the people voted for, including the tax laws. Libertarians are the ones who don’t respect the (tax) laws the people freely vote for. Nozick and Rothbard are real world libertarians and I have offered an argument against their view. Do you have a response to it? I’m curious actually who you have in mind as ‘the person’ whose idea it was that taxation is theft. Your ad hominem comment is irrelevant, but for what it’s worth Hungary has a right wing government who have introduced a flat tax. If you have a response to my argument, let me know!

    • Tavi, I’m pretty sure there are no government programs designed to redistribute wealth. Government provides public services, usually services that are not profitable enough for private enterprise. To pay for these services they raise money through taxation. To be fair about this, and to avoid placing too much burden on those who have very little, their main source is an income tax. Those who have benefited more financially from their citizenship will pay a higher share than those struggling to get by.

      Your theory that this is designed to redistribute income is disproved by the fact that those with higher incomes still have much higher incomes than others even after taxes. So, if the aim was to redistribute income, it’s doing a pretty bad job of it.

  3. Dr. Goff,

    I’ve been coming across this idea on the internet more and more, and I have to admit I was pretty confused as to where this idea of taxation as theft came from.

    Society is pretty great. I often disagree with tax policies and the tax tools that are used, but I’m also not a tax expert. I often disagree with how that tax money is then spent, but that’s a tough question, too. When people are claiming that taxation of theft though, any of the nuance around tax policies and expenditure is thrown out the window for this myopic, self-centered worldview, and I find it difficult to look at the world in those black and white terms.

    It seems to me that taxes represent an ongoing negotiation between the state and people, an exchange of services and the infrastructure needed to support those services by taking a portion of the value generated by the people — value that arguably would not have been generated had the state not provide critical services, infrastructure, and protections. Good luck protecting anything without military, police, and judicial infrastructure. I thought we had this stuff figured out with firefighters, so it’s bizarre that this idea is becoming seemingly more popular on the internet.

    To claim that taxation is theft seems to blatantly disregard the foundation of contracts and society, and to me represents a dangerously immoral worldview that advocates theft from society by participating in the society and partaking in the numerous benefits it provides while not abiding by the agreement that we fund those services with taxes. Ironically, this sounds like a form of welfare, a handout being demanded from government.

    But I’m worried about reacting that strongly to this concept that so many seem to believe in, and that I’m participating in the same tribalism and side-picking that seems to plague discourse these days. Would love to hear some perspectives from on this, as I’m having difficulty normalizing what seems to be craziness to me. I would also take reading material recommendations if you have any as well.


  4. Brett says

    Philip: I’ve been interested in the kind of argument you make ever since I read Michael J Sandel’s book “Justice”. When I was younger I enjoyed reading right-Libertarian authors, but have since come to think their premises are faulty. Your article does a great job of highlighting some of the reasons why.

    I can’t ignore the role that chance plays in my life (where & when I was born, my parent’s income level, genes etc) or how much benefit I get from there being a ‘society’ in the first place (educated people, roads, rule of law, etc) . Combine that with the realization that we’re talking about actual human beings suffering in this world and the Libertarian idea is a non-starter to me.

    There are practical arguments to be had how to best organize our economy or political system. Does Capitalism give us more of the things we want (productivity, basic necessities, fairness, etc) while minimizing the bad things (pollution, unemployment, etc)? Or does Socialism? Or something else?

    None of us wants to be taken advantage of in life or be a sucker. But i think the taxation is theft argument is really just a mask for self-interest (i want to maximize my personal wealth, who cares about anyone else) or some obsession of “freedom” that I’ll never understand.

    Looking forward to more from you on these topics.

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