A typical line among a particular type of conservatives and libertarians, especially in memes, is that “taxation is theft.” It’s not uncommon to see it pop up when people discuss paying taxes.
That line popped up again when people talked about whether or not Congress would send out $600 or $2,000 stimulus checks to individuals and families. People would post and say, “It was my money, not a stimulus! Taxation is theft!”
In widespread usage, the phrase comes from the notion that governments are nothing more than an acceptable mafia organization. The only difference is that we’ve accepted one mafia to rule over all the others.
This concept is wrong-headed, and as we’ve dealt with the pandemic of 2020, the idea that taxation is theft should get buried in the sands of time.
To begin with, the American Founders understood the arguments against taxation. In Federalist 30, Alexander Hamilton opens up his idea for empowering the national government with the power of taxation by pointing to the essential functions demanded of it.
The first and perhaps most important function of the federal government is defense. “IT HAS been already observed that the federal government ought to possess the power of providing for the support of the national forces; in which proposition was intended to be included the expense of raising troops, of building and equipping fleets, and all other expenses in any wise connected with military arrangements and operations,” Hamilton wrote.
It takes money and a central organization to raise a military and then pay the men and women who form an army’s backbone. It takes money and organization to seek out all the necessary supplies, technology, and more to have a successful military. Getting the funds for this requires a central authority where everyone sends their share of the funding.
As Hamilton argues, if we accept the notion of funding a military, by necessity, we’re also admitting the need for a centralized authority of some kind, providing some services. As he puts it, “support of the national civil list; for the payment of the national debts contracted, or that may be contracted; and, in general, for all those matters which will call for disbursements out of the national treasury. The conclusion is, that there must be interwoven, in the frame of the government, a general power of taxation, in one shape or another.”
Hamilton argues that money is a central issue for any government: “Money is, with propriety, considered as the vital principle of the body politic; as that which sustains its life and motion, and enables it to perform its most essential functions. A complete power, therefore, to procure a regular and adequate supply of it, as far as the resources of the community will permit, may be regarded as an indispensable ingredient in every constitution.”
Suppose a government cannot tax and raise revenue for any tasks. In that case, only two possibilities are available: “[E]ither the people must be subjected to continual plunder, as a substitute for a more eligible mode of supplying the public wants, or the government must sink into a fatal atrophy, and, in a short course of time, perish.”
If you don’t have revenues, you can’t raise a military, which means any neighboring nation can plunder a people. And barring that, without income, a government would atrophy and die off.
All of Hamilton’s arguments apply with equal force in 2020. We started the year with an airstrike of Qassem Soleimani, an event Iran is still sending threats over. That strike made America safer, however. The response to the pandemic has required the massive organization and funding of the federal government, both to fund research into cures, treatments, and prevention, but also to buy the vaccines meant to end the pandemic.
Pandemics, which threaten every single person, are things we specifically organize governments to combat in times of peace. Defense during a war is another. These essential functions, along with others like police, fire departments, and more, are crucial functions of civil society. Messages like “Defund the Police” are seen as self-defeating and dumb because, for a basic rule of law system to work, you have first to fund it.
The U.S. Constitution begins with the words “We the people,” and sets out the course for building a government. That’s not a mafia setting up shop. It’s not some underground criminal enterprise. It’s a group of people creating a company where everyone can agree to basic terms and set out a charter to follow.
For those necessary functions to work, we have to fund them by choice. That’s not theft; it’s a conscious decision to support and build out the civil society one is a part of.
Is it perfect? Of course not. That’s why we have elections, checks and balances, and more. But the basic concept of taxation is built into the idea of having a government. You can’t have that government if everyone believes the government is a thief.