Tax Day 2018: Taxation Is or Isn’t Theft?

Tax Day 2018 always brings out the cries of “Taxation is Theft!” from many, especially some of our friends in the libertarian/conservative contingent. But is it, and where on the spectrum of “taxes are too low for the social contract to be effective” to “taxation is theft and oppressive forced funding of tyrannical government” should we be aspiring to with tax policy? As in all things, opinions vary.

Representative of some on social media on Tax Day 2018 is Charlie Kirk with his deep thoughts on the matter:

 

MJFleck, from last years Tax Day, goes against the libertarian grain with a nay:
https://beinglibertarian.com/taxation-isnt-theft-hashtag-doesnt-make-edgy/

You work your ass off, then the government forces you through laws enforced by government agents to cough up a certain percentage and give it to Uncle Sam. Now, here’s the interesting part: you do get a return on your investment. Granted, it’s a forced investment, and the returns you get back may not always be what you particularly endorsed or asked for, but you do get something back. Therefore, by definition, taxation is not theft. And when libertarians go around claiming that it is all the time, it harms the movement. Why? Because as a growing activist movement we want–need–intellectuals on our side. People who are smart, eloquent, savvy, and educated. People with influence. People with respected professions and public visibility (the good kind, of course). And the cold, hard truth of the matter is that smart people already know that taxation is not theft, and calling it theft (especially going so far as to compare it to outright armed robbery) will only continue to deter those who actually know how taxation works.

And of course, some think that taxation is not only proper, but underutilized, as argued by Paul Waldron:
http://theweek.com/articles/767786/americans-dont-pay-enough-taxes

In your average social democratic European country, you pay more taxes, but you also get a lot in return: universal health coverage, free child care, generous paid family leave, and free college, for example. If you’re Danish or French or German, there are certain things you just don’t have to worry about, things that keep us Americans up nights.
All of that is a choice. We choose to make health care a privilege, not a right. We choose to pay teachers so little they’ve been forced to walk off the job. We choose to have high rates of child poverty, and some of the highest levels of inequality in the industrialized world. Those are choices we make, and they start with how much we’re willing to raise in taxes.

So as Tax Day 2018 winds down, where do your thoughts fall on this 229th year of American taxation with representation?


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Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire.

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129 thoughts on “Tax Day 2018: Taxation Is or Isn’t Theft?

  1. “Taxation is theft” – that’s dumb. Quoting Twitter is dumb. Twitter is theft.

    “You work your ass off, then the government forces…libertarians blah blah blah…” That quote was wasteful in terms of its wordiness. Hemmingway is rolling over in his grave. I’m not surprised that writer is pro-tax and pro-government.

    “In your average social democratic European country, you pay more taxes, but you also get a lot in return…Progressive screed blah blah blah…”

    I think people are just using taxes not even to argue for their preconceived, already-decided positions, but just to pivot to their preconceived, already-decided positions. There is not an ounce of logic in any of those quotes.

    The problem with taxes is that they’re wasted. For instance, the Mass DOR sent me a notice that they’re changing my filing status to single per IRS along with a check, even though I’m married in Massachusetts. Why did they send me this notice? Because they’re completely incompentent. If the IRS wants to win hearts and minds it should stop being so completely incompetent. Before we start talking about various government programs, there should be some kind of assessment of how competent the program is. It shouldn’t be based on preconceived principles. That is not how the world works or should work. This is why people hate the IRS.

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  2. I’d argue the real theft is the time people have to spend (in the US) filling out the darned forms if they have anything more complex than a single salary and maybe a savings account that pays interest. And the agony. I have a fishing Ph.D. and I can’t figure out some of the more arcane tax directions.

    I took to going to a preparer some years back (I have investments, partially inherited from a grandparent) and one year I had to do the self-employed tax thing because of some editing work I did as a “private contractor” or whatever you call it. It gripes me to pay someone to do my taxes (I am a cheap wench) but the reduction of wear and tear on me (I used to take a couple days of my spring break to blast through my taxes) and the fact that the preparer will back me up if the IRS has a question makes it worth it to me.

    I would be in favor of a simplification of taxes even if it cut out some of the deductions I benefit from.

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    • Myself, I had to go to a preparer some years ago since my job entailed multistate filing, and of course I picked two states that were not reciprocal on state taxes. Same team does mine every year and its still a minimum of half day doing it even well prepared and them being familiar with my situation. So your point on the physical aggravation of filing is well taken.

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    • That is the tax-preparer lobby. Obama wanted the IRS to do tax returns for the people. The IRS knows exactly how much you make and this will save people time and/or money.

      Intuit and H and R Block revolted because such a change would essentially shut them out of business.

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    • Your tax return from one year to the next is pretty similar, unless your life underwent a significant change since last year’s. I have a moderately complicated return, using the long form and itemizing my deductions. The thing is, it is moderately complicated, but in exactly the same way each year. I only had to figure it out once. I bought a house and had a kid the same year. The effect on my tax return was startling, and I paid a professional to review it. Since then the same lines on the form get numbers each year or are left blank each year. Doing my taxes is just a matter of pulling out last year’s return for comparison and inserting this year’s numbers.

      Complaining about doing your taxes is, of course, a fine old American custom, but it is like complaining about the lines at the DMV. Many states’ DMVs are actually admirably efficient, but people still complain. It is a cultural imperative. I wonder also if tax preparation software doesn’t exacerbate the problem. I don’t use it, but my understanding is it involves an endless series of mind-numbing questions. Going through that every year would get old. Better to suck it up the one time and actually figure out your return by doing it the old fashioned way.

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    • A few weeks ago, my mom renounced her US citizenship. It was because of US tax forms.

      Not the money she paid in taxes – her situation is such that her total owing was always zero. The issue was just how godawful bothersome it was to get through the forms to arrive at that zero.

      Canadian tax forms aren’t exactly a joy to work through, but I can’t imagine getting so frustrated by them to renounce my citizenship…

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      • I’m not sure when the US started demanding tax returns from Americans without American residency, income, or property. It Wendy always so – I remember years ago my mom avoided inheriting any of her grandparents’ farm because the minimal rent she might get wouldn’t be worth the tax complications.

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  3. Merriam Webster defines theft as:
    “a : the act of stealing; specifically : the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it
    b : an unlawful taking (as by embezzlement or burglary) of property”

    Government taxation, therefore, by definition can’t be theft.

    Maybe that is pedantic, maybe not. But if you are trying to convince the mainstream of a rather radical idea, that can really matter.

    The better question seems to be whether — or how much — taxation is morally or ethically justifiable.

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    • It fits the “feels like its true” thought process of populism so I doubt we will ever be rid of it. I suspect many that are using that line don’t know or care it limits their audience, and the ones that do (like Kirk which is why I used him) are mostly doing so for engagement it brings from those same folks.

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    • Wrong.

      Other than than the “felonious” that’s exactly correct. Weather or not the creator of laws exempts itself is irrelevant. If you don’t pay, eventually someone will show up, who has a gun, and put you in jail.

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  4. The argument that I’ve seen some libertarians use well is the one of “consent”. I did not consent to this social contract. I do not agree with what you are spending my taxes on. You are taking this money without my consent and you are taking it AT THE POINT OF A GUN.

    This usually gets someone to the left of this libertarian to say something to the effect of “If you don’t like the social contract, why don’t you move to Somalia?”

    This usually devolves into discussions of how the US is one of two countries that taxes its citizens no matter where in the world they reside (yes, even if they reside in Somalia) or discussions of whether it’s appropriate to complain about things without being told to Love It Or Leave It.

    But the question of consent is usually the fun one to wrestle with when it comes to the taxation being theft thing.

    (“Hey, if you haven’t moved, that means you consent!” is a fun argument to watch someone else make.)

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    • Consent is at least a valid point of discussion, whereas “taxation is theft” is just sloganeering. Not sure if that’s a word or not but if it isn’t it should be. At any rate, I too have heard, and on occasion used, the consent line. One place it leads that is even sticker though is participation-with low voter rates and even lower number that participate in some level of government there is an element of consent that applies actually try to influence beyond a keyboard. I’m guilt as well, of course, but it is something to consider.

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      • This harking back to consent might sound like a grand epousing of Locke and Montisqieu but it seems to be more like taking my ball and going home.

        Democracy requires everyone learning to be a graceful loser to a certain extent. Very few parties stay in power forever though some manage rather long stays in the majority. SF hasn’t had a Republican congress person since 1948 or a Republican Mayor since 1965. NYC has a long Democratic history too but more recent GOP mayors.

        But maybe things are too fractured and far apart for people to concede defeat gracefully.

        Libertarians like to talk about the people who moved west to start Homesteads but not about the government grants that helped them survive and thrive.

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    • This usually gets someone to the left of this libertarian to say something to the effect of “If you don’t like the social contract, why don’t you move to Somalia?”

      Jay, that’s just nutpicking and you know it. [winky face emoji]

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  5. I think the famous quotation from Justice Holmes is “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.”

    I’m generally in favor of higher taxes in return for better social services but the problem in the United States with this seems to be Federalization. Most Social Democratic countries are much more centralized than the United States. Most non Social Democratic countries are a lot more centralized than the United States.

    I think a lot of the culture war baggage in the United States does make non-centralization at least have a some blaming effect. Imagine how fractured things would be if Blue States like Massachusetts, Oregon, New York, Vermont, and California needed to devise school courses with deep red states like Texas, Wyoming, and Utah. There would be very few points of agreement (if any). Even California and New York would disagree because of radically different histories when it comes to social studies.

    But the way we fund things through local/property taxes is insane.

    I also suspect that the United States has a larger contingent of “taxes are theft” people than other countries. We at least seem to have a larger and more influential contingent.

    LeeEsq is right here. This goes back to the American founding probably. European center-right and right-wing parties might have represented literal aristocrats but they seem to have had some concept of Noblese Oblige if only to save their own skin. They were always more willing to work with unions and learned to make peace with the Welfare State. The American right-wing (including right-libertarians) has made no such peace. They still are believe in Property Rights above all and Freedom of Contract above all. You still see a GOP hellbent on reversing the New Deal and Great Society. You still see them trying to relitigate the 1960s.

    Structural racism plays a part here. So do America’s founding myths of being a nation of yeomen farmers and craftspeople. People like to imagine they are “self-made” rather than look at all the government programs which helped put them into well-being.

    FWIW my girlfriend is from Singapore and she believes that government services are much better there (though she admits they are stingy compared to Europe) and they have lower taxation. But it is more centralized and there don’t seem to be any culture war pride in anti-Intellectualism.

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    • I see the centralization issue as both cause and effect. Our government doesn’t deliver services as well because it is so decentralized. Poor performance sews skepticism and reinforces a lot of cultural myths and other tendencies.

      I’d gladly pay higher taxes to have more of the vagueries of life and late capitalism accounted for. Of course I’m also a realist and don’t think we’ll ever be as good at it as other countries because of how the country is organized and how diffuse we are. I think citizens of a lot of the social democracies in Europe are able to see state services as ‘for us’ whereas here it’s a lot easier to characterize them as ‘for them.’

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      • I concur that it is a wicked and cyclical problem. Also as Oscar points out, the ideas of what people consent for vary wildly. For every person who sees museums and/or libraries has necessary public institutions and vital to our culture, there is another who thinks they are irrelevant and unconstitutional because they are not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.

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      • “Our government doesn’t deliver services as well because it is so decentralized.”

        This begs the question though.

        Are services being delivered poorly? It certainly FEELS that way but do we actually know for sure that is the case? This is probably where the libertarian would talk about letting the market decide. But I bet there exists data in some places about the efficacy of “the government” (which I put in quotes because I’d venture to guess efficacy really varies across various arms of the government).

        Obviously, “Are you getting enough for your money?” is a very individual question because different people are getting different amounts, needing different amounts, and contributing different amounts of money. But the kneejerk response of, “Of course not!” feels, well, too kneejerk for me.

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        • I don’t have a study I can whip out. My anecdata is my semester in Germany and the decent bit of time I’ve spent in France due to my mother’s citizenship. People have gripes about things, none of its perfect but it’s… just different. In my experience dealing with civil servants and administrative state isn’t the running joke it is here.

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          • How do their tax rates compare to ours?

            I’m not arguing we’re perfect or even great or good… just that running jokes sometimes have a way of outliving their accuracy.

            For instance, as much crap as we throw at public schools, their per pupil spending is often less than private schools and they don’t have the ability to be selective about whom they accept. I’ve heard “entitlement” programs have something like 90+% of funds going directly to recipients; can private charity match that?

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            • The tax rates are of course far higher than here. But it’s also a lot easier to do that there and make the case for why its important. Here I think things don’t perform well in large part because we don’t invest in them and we won’t invest in them because they don’t perform well. Thats what I was saying to Saul. I also think we tolerate a level of inequality that breeds socio-economic problems they mostly wouldn’t.

              What I’m about to say sounds classist but I don’t intend it to be that way. I think that government administration is basically set up to the lowest common denominator. We’ve made some policy decisions and have some structural reasons that put our lowest common denominator notably lower than most wealthy European countries. Our respective administrative states are a reflection of that, as are the attitudes towards them.

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              • I think it just requires teasing out. Can you give concrete examples? The French are also much more okay with paternalist and protectionism in ways that we are not. I don’t think Americans would stand for a group like the French farmers that go around destroying wine from other countries as an example.

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            • The other thing is, France and Germany are geographically and population-wise smaller than the US. I suspect the “services run better there” is that it’s a smaller system as much as anything. Similar to how my campus of 4000 students is a heck of a lot easier to navigate, bureaucracy-wise, then the school I attended as an undergrad (I *think* there were 20,000 students then, though that may have included the medical and dental schools as well). (Also it’s possible in a smaller system that you get fewer workers who are heartless burnouts who cease to see those they serve as people and see them as obstacles to a longer lunch or something.. I know there were times when I was a student I got a distinct feeling of being “just a number,” and when a student comes to me wanting help negotiating some bit of red tape, I remember that, and I try to help them as much as I can)

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              • Germany and France have over eighty million and sixty five million citizens respectively though. France is bigger than California. Germany is about the same size as California. They might not be massive in population and geography but they aren’t small either.

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                • Only part of the issue is size. Let’s compare population densities (pop/mile squared)

                  Germany: 598
                  France: 321
                  United States: 86

                  But better yet, let’s drill down to the states.
                  New Jersey : 1217
                  Massachusetts: 871
                  Connecticut: 741
                  Maryland: 618
                  Delaware: 485
                  New York: 420

                  At the other end of the scale
                  Alaska: 1
                  Wyoming: 6
                  Montana: 7
                  North Dakota: 10
                  South Dakota: 11
                  New Mexico: 17
                  Idaho: 20
                  Nebraska: 24

                  So (at a handwave) the states which have population densities similar to Germany and France have Blue solutions and attitudes, which don’t relate well to the Red States. There are lots of cultural side effects which show up all over the place (support for public transportation, gun control, zoning, pollution, animal rights, etc).

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                  • Consider, though…

                    If you exclude the federal land holdings in western states, where no development is allowed, from the denominators, you get a somewhat different top and bottom density list. If you use the urbanized area numbers that the Census Bureau used as a more realistic alternative in the 2010 census to get around several inaccuracies, you get very different top and bottom lists: seven of the ten densest states are in the Census Bureau’s West region, and none of the least dense. You can’t pick Arizona, for example — the tenth densest state by urbanized area — and claim it’s red because of all the people living in the rural areas, because Arizona’s rural areas are effectively empty.

                    The comparison you want to explain is why do the suburbs in California and New York vote blue, and the suburbs in Texas and Arizona vote red? Why have the Denver suburbs shifted approx seven percentage points blue in the last 20 years, moving the state with them? Why did Ohio’s suburbs shift so dramatically red in the 1990s?

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                    • Sure, all of that is true. There are dozens of factors, hundreds of factions trying to put their fingers on the scales, lots and lots of moving parts.

                      Population density is hardly the only thing going on, it’s an incomplete measure, however it’s also a significant barometer. If I tell you a county has a high population density, you can guess it voted for HRC just from that and your odds of being right are pretty good.

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      • True but this works on a state level. A lot of upstate New Yorkers seem to sincerely believe that NYC is a tax-drain on the rest of the state when the reality is that NYC and surrounding suburbs are saving their asses from starvation and post-apocalypse dystopia.

        But they will fight tooth and nail against more money for NYC. I can’t tell how much this is cognitive bias and how much is venality.

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        • Having grown up — to the extent that I grew up — in upstate New York, I can verify this. Don’t even try telling them the numbers (once in a blue moon, the Rochester metro area has been a net exporter of tax revenue to the rest of the state, but the amounts are a rounding error) — and watch them gibber in terror over going to NYC when they will cheerfully send their unescorted children to large cities far less safe..

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          • This is true. There is a bit of context though as Clinton was dealing with a Republican congress voted in under the promise of doing just that. But credit him with reading the moment and seizing the credit for it. Reagan and GW Bush had Dem congresses. W is the one that really sticks out here, as until ’06 he and the GOP had control to do whatever they wanted and did nothing re:deficit. No way to sugar coat that one for fiscal hawks on the right. If there are any anymore…

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    • The European Right also had their origin in kings and nobles trying to build and defend strong centralized states. The American right originated from the people that saw the Cobstitution as a power grab, the Anri-Federalists.

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      • The American Right originated in the *pro*-federalist, pro-merchantile faction of the Revolutionary generation, which lasted from Hamilton to Clay to the Guilded Age to Coolidge and still has ties to big and small businesses to this day. But then in the late 20th century, the Dems made their peace with finance and central banking, while the Republicans had an influx of erstwhile Jacksonian Democrats (who now are the core of the GOP – so I guess you’re right, after all)

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    • I think the famous quotation from Justice Holmes is “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.”

      That strikes me as a decent point to discuss taxation from. Arguing about the merits of taxes generically (including likening them to theft) is pointless for anyone who isn’t an anarchist. If you’re going to have a government, it has to be paid for, and taxes are a better option than the alternatives.

      A better place to start from is to ask how much civilised society we are getting for our taxes, and whether we could get better value for money with different policies.

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  6. This usually gets someone to the left of this libertarian to say something to the effect of “If you don’t like the social contract, why don’t you move to Somalia?”

    I’m more inclined to say, “Fine. Don’t use the roads. Don’t use the airports or the air traffic control system. Don’t use the subsidized entertainment like zoo, concert halls, or sports stadiums. Give up the protection from the armed services and state department when you travel overseas. Hire private security and fire protection. Then I’ll listen to you complain that you’re being robbed.”

    This usually devolves into discussions of how the US is one of two countries that taxes its citizens no matter where in the world they reside (yes, even if they reside in Somalia)

    If I recall correctly — and I may not — this is not true if you spend sufficient continuous time as a working ex-pat. At least it didn’t used to be true. A company where I worked had overseas assignments. They ran for a certain amount of time so the income earned wouldn’t be subject to US tax. The agreements people signed included top-ups from the company to cover taxes if those employees were brought back early.

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    • It became true a few years ago for certain kinds of income tax not others. In theory it was always true in that you are always supposed to file returns… but the exemptions are large enough that in practice people basically never had to pay anything.

      Until a few years ago. When suddenly it was okay to just make a basic living somewhere else, and pay taxes to that country, not the US – but anything major in the income dept would be heavily taxed by the US as well as the country of residence.

      I know this because it caused all kinds of problems for some family friends, dual citizens, who had a successful business and wanted to sell it and retire. They’ve lived in Canada longer than I’ve been alive. They ended up having to formally renounce their US citizenship which was complicated, costly, and not something they particularly wanted to do … but more reasonable than giving the IRS their retirement nest egg.

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    • I’d be in favor of having the option of opting out of income tax with the provision I then have to pay to use services others get free access to via their tax payments. For example, having to pay tolls or a higher ticket price to the stadium, etc.

      But I think I’m safe in saying most of us don’t mind paying taxes for things we use or agree with; the problem is all the other things we are forced to support. Besides being frustrated by the huge inefficiencies in how Federal funds are used, I don’t want my income paying for a border wall, and certainly not to fund the killing of innocent people around the world.

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  7. Oy, this again.

    Even the most minarchist of persons has no problem erecting a coercive state with police powers with which to define, adjudicate, and protect (with violence) property.

    Yet somehow the procurement of funds with which to do this is theft.

    I’m not sure how to square this circle.

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    • You can’t, but then again that isn’t the point of the slogan. It isn’t a thought out position it’s an cry of aggrievement where there is none. There are arguments about usage, waste, transparency, ect. but just spouting “taxation is theft” prevents that conversation and brands you unserious.

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    • This isn’t strictly true. David Friedman’s anarchotopia scheme has none of this. It also doesn’t have people in it, if we limit the discussion to people who think and act like real people, but that is another discussion.

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    • The most dangerous and authoritarian powers of government fall firmly within what miniarchists see as the only role of government; defense, justice, and diplomacy. A minarchy can have a very authoritarian justice system devoted to protecting property rights.

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      • Because the very act of deciding “what is property” and “how do you make legitimate a claim to it” involves distributing wealth from one group to another.

        And those decisions are never by unanimous acclamation, but almost always involve violent confiscation and distribution.

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        • Free market romantics like to protest otherwise but business people needed to utilize a lot of coercive power to get peasants into the towns, factories, and mines during the industrial revolution. The commons got closed off and turned into private estates for the gentry and aristocracy. Vagrancy was made a crime. Industrialization required force to achieve.

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          • There are some who would call the Homestead Act the largest, most wildly successful socialist land redistribution scheme in human history where the government violently confiscated private property from the rightful owners, and distributed it to the peasants.

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                • I didn’t say it was up for grabs, I said it wasn’t private property.

                  Now, I realize I misunderstood what that is at first but I just researched it (should’ve done that in the first place) and it looks like it’s still not private property, but collective property/cooperative property from one perspective (no?), and, according to the gov’t’s lights at the time, public property.

                  I mean, what the gov’t said it was doing was literally taking “the people’s” property and doling it out to individuals. It’s the opposite of socialist.

                  In the other lens, it’s more a matter of invasion than redistribution.

                  *shrugs*
                  It’s not such a big deal but the idea of a First Nation being boiled down to the equivalent of an HOA rankles me. Even as a joke.

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                  • Yeah, I was being kinda tongue in cheek, if only because we don’t have a good way of talking about Native property rights.

                    I mean, it wasn’t communal in the same way we think of HoAs or even public parks. They didn’t consider land something to be owned, but it could and was controlled.So no matter how we talk about it, we will get something wrong.

                    The Homestead act though, WAS redistribution, in that the land wasn’t seized and kept public, but given away to peasant farmers. In this way it was very analogous to Zimbabwe or Russia or Cuba.

                    Usually the Homestead Act is held up as an example of Lockean theory, where the Wilder family just wandered out and found some vacant land and started building their little house on the prairie, and thereby earning property rights fair and square.

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            • A more serious example might be what happened in Hawaii after it became a state. Most Hawaiian residents were renters during the territory days. The land was mainly owned by five corporations and the wealthy elite. The Hawaiian state government decided this wasn’t a good idea. They used their eminent domain power to redistribute land and make tenants private land owners. Of course since the tenants became owners in fee simple absolute, it wasn’t quite socialist either.

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          • This seems cart before horse. Labor got freed up from farms because farm productivity rose, not because factories opened. I suppose it’s possible factories bid up labor so farms had to increase productivity but whatever.

            Similarly when other countries’ sweatshops and terrible factory conditions don’t need “force” to gather workers because worker’s real-world alternatives in the countryside are so much worse.

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                • The attractiveness of city jobs versus rural jobs didn’t just happen by natural forces.

                  Sometimes it was outright coercion, like the Enclosure Acts that literally forced people off the land and become fodder for the mills.

                  Other times it was simply a general policy preference to spend the talent and treasure of the state on urban development at the expense of rural areas, thereby tilting the balance in favor of urban industry.

                  For example. In most cities and states in the Industrial Age, all the tools of state power such as eminent domain, public funds, monopoly power were devoted to constructing urban industrial infrastructure. Things like dams and bridges, harbors and power grids were all built, Sim City-like, to make the urban areas very conducive to the construction of industrial factories.

                  Meanwhile the output of those industries like steam powered machines made rural labor noncompetitive, and yet the farms still didn’t enjoy the benefit of the public infrastructure.

                  But what if there was an alternate reality?
                  Where for instance, the public treasure was used to construct public grain storage facilities, public transportation of grain from field to silo, public-backed farm finance and insurance, all devoted to making farming cheap and easy.
                  Meanwhile, a factory owner would still need to construct his own electric generating station, and dam up his own rain runoff, and find a way to transport his employees to his place of business.

                  I’m not saying this would end up being better. Just that the Industrial Revolution and the resulting shift from rural to urban labor was constructed by choice and policy, not the acts of the gods.

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                  • Where for instance, the public treasure was used to construct public grain storage facilities, public transportation of grain from field to silo, public-backed farm finance and insurance, all devoted to making farming cheap and easy.

                    There are limits to how much food can be sold and eaten. That aside, yes, the gov could subsidize low productivity jobs on the farm at the expense of high productivity jobs elsewhere. Try to keep farms small and “save the small farmer”.

                    My expectation is that this would be something which, over the long haul, diminishes incomes, productivity, and over the very long haul doesn’t end well.

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  8. I find this a bit too pat for my tastes, but he offers some counters and has one salient point:

    In other words, the “taxation is theft” thesis has the effect of raising the standards for justified use of taxes. When the government plans to spend money on something (support for the arts, a space program, a national retirement program, and so on), one should ask: would it be permissible to steal from people in order to run this sort of program? If not, then it is not permissible to tax people in order to run the program, since taxation is theft.

    I expect that I would find what the author considers permissible to be far too restrictive, but his question is worth considering. Of all the things government spends tax money on, which things are something you personally would be willing to hold a gun on a person to pay for?

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          • Agreed, the argument for theft is weak, particularly because we grant government all manner of exception from norms. The military and the police can use force in ways citizens can’t and the criteria to call it assault or murder is thin*, government can intrude on property rights in ways citizens can’t, etc.

            Still, the point I quoted is relevant – Would you be willing to hold a gun to another person to force them to pony up for whatever you want government to do?

            *And in the case of the police, getting thinner every day…

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    • I hesitate to speak for others, but this seems to motivate spending priorities almost diametrically opposed to the ones I associate with, “Taxation is theft.”

      Funding a Night Watchman state sounds almost indistinguishable from the typical “protection racket” of libertarian complaints, but funding a nutritional assistance program makes you Jean Valjean. This lines up with my existing belief that the most dangerous functions of the state are the most basic—law enforcement and defense.

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      • I think it depends on your priorities. I don’t have a problem collecting taxes to support the military, or the legal system, or infrastructure, or other primary functions of government. Even basic human welfare has a place. But the further we get from spending that benefits society as a whole, to spending that benefits a few* (under the justification that society will benefit, later on down the road), the harder it gets to justify.

        *This includes the overly generous pensions that are busy bankrupting states.

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          • In theory, government protecting property rights is something that is extended equally to all (and is thus a social good*). The fact that that’s not how it works in practice is a political problem and not an indictment to the concept itself.

            *I just know Chip is gonna pushback on this somehow…

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            • Yeah, you got my number.

              Per my reply to Lee above, property rights aren’t just these pre-existing artifacts we stumble across, but are constructed ideas that have to be defined, adjudicated, and enforced with violence, with dissenting ideas suppressed.

              The concept of property itself assumes a single monopolistic idea which cannot tolerate competition.

              For example, the Sioux people can petition to get their land back, but only within the framework of Jeffersonian metes and bounds descriptions of property, and even if successful, there is no governmental construct that could define or adjudicate or enforce a “Sioux Territory” system of property as existed in pre-Columbian times.

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                • There’s still the question of whether we would allow the various Sioux sub-groups to manage ownership the way they did before: violent conflict that eventually forced one group to abandon land to the control of another group. A (contributing) part of the problem with the various Great Plains treaties was that any group of Sioux were perfectly happy to cede ownership of land they didn’t actually control.

                  Not just within the Sioux. A high school friend was a quarter Winnebago. The first time I was going to meet his grandfather, I was warned, “For God’s sake don’t use the phrase ‘Winnebago Sioux’ like some people do. Grandpa’s old-fashioned; there’s Winnebago, with great culture and traditions, and then there’s ‘those f*cking Sioux bastards.'”

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              • But that’s more of a complaint against how we specifically do property rights, and not against the idea itself.

                Property, be it land or in/tangible goods, has to have some scheme for control that allows for the maximum good while minimizing the ability of individuals to abuse or exploit the scheme. I’m happy to agree that our current system is flawed, but I need something better to replace it with.

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                • I’m not even saying there is anything wrong with how we think of property.
                  Just pointing out that it isn’t naturally occurring or inevitable, but constructed and particular.

                  Our concept of property works to do the things we want, like facilitate extraction of natural materials and the industrial processing of them into consumer goods.

                  The mere act of saying “This is what property is” is itself a distribution of wealth.

                  Saying “the Colorado river water is the property of whoever can siphon it out” privileges the farmer over the fisherman. Its a form of wealth redistribution.

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                  • I agree that it isn’t natural. To be honest, there are zero ‘natural’ rights. Certainly none that can be determined by scientific observation (beyond, perhaps, the right to die).

                    Rights are constructed and protected to ensure a functioning society. Long established rights, which are the ones most often assumed to be natural, are simply rights we should tinker with very carefully.

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  9. As a semi-permanent guest in this country, I’m not in love with paying taxes, but mostly because I think they are poorly applied. In Montreal I had zero problems with paying taxes.

    The whole representation/being-able-to-participate-more-fully thing is one of the main reasons I consider becoming a citizen. So far it hasn’t won out, but definitely weighs more heavily when I am thinking about taxes than it does day to day.

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    • I lived in Germany 5 years over two different stints, and it was the same they were perplexed that “doing your taxes” was an issue to the point you couldn’t even explain it to them. Granted I in know way want their tax levels, and certainly not their VAT on top of that, but it is only the self preservation of bureaucracy that makes it as complicated as it is now.

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  10. Every extra dollar spent on IRS enforcement/administration would result in another 4 dollars collected. And yet we don’t do that.

    It’s very hard to think about taxes in an instrumental way, rather than an emotive way. There are plenty of people out there more than willing to feed your anger and disgust at having to pay taxes. And if I mention examples of the emotive thinking that are here on this thread, I might be tagged as scolding or divisive or shaming. Maybe someone will say that I’m the reason we have Donald Trump.

    And yet, here we are, complaining about deficits and not doing some of the most obvious things that would reduce it.

    Human beings are complicated. I have no easy answer.

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  11. Taxes aren’t theft. That is a truism. It is a political slogan not unlike “Death Panels” “Assault Rifles” or any number of such things. That said, we pay way to much in taxes for the quality of Gov’t we have now. The best example of this is school spending. Thus gov’t may not be the best steward of our finances and instead is simply a magnet for con-men getting rich of the voters’ backs. The key word there being may, as not everyone will agree with that, in general, or in specific.

    That said, taxes are too complex in that as a man of a certain age making X dollars per year, it should be very easy to figure out my taxes*. But it is not; instead, as other above have spelled out, it is days of uncertainty followed up with the possibility of men-with-guns coming round.

    Progressive taxes are, however, morally repugnant. They lead to the idea that some are better than others and should have more say in government.

    *(I am self-employed so my taxes are going to be difficult, but I accept that.)

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        • Two of the higher spending areas, DC and Alaska, have test scoring well below average, while Utah, one of the lower spending states, has much greater testing results. Private schools have much higher spending? Sure, but they aren’t an example of gov’t spending contrary to achievement. It may be that we need more spending to get better results (something I bet you know a bit about, given your profession) but that isn’t what we are necessarily getting from the gov’t schooling. In some cases sure, we are getting good value for our dollar, in other cases not so much

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          • Do those figures include EVERYthing? Transportation? Overhead? Cost of living?

            Are students with special needs distributed proportionally?

            What populations do they serve?

            The question shouldn’t be: Can Place A get what Place Z gets for the same money they spend to get it?

            It should be: Is Place A getting good value for what they spend?

            That’s hard to determine but not impossible. Comparing states is largely unhelpful.

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            • Perhaps to put it better, before we can determine whether we’re getting good value on our tax dollars for education, we need to know what good value is. That means knowing how much it should cost to educate an Alaskan (on average) to the standard we seek and comparing that to what we actually pay.

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              • I don’t have a source that drills down to the level you are looking for even though it is a good question. You could look at poverty levels (DC pretty High, Utah pretty good, Alaska not bad) Minority populations ( Utah and Alaska white with a high native population, DC majority Africa American) Travel distances (DC is a city, Alaska the largest state, Utah a good sized western state) etc. All very different, with benefits and challenges for all.

                The point is, and you might not agree with it, there are issues all across the board, but one state spends a lot less while getting good results. Really good results. And to my original point, are the schools that are not getting good results a worthy steward of the monies. This isn’t to say that private schools are a better answer, simply that throwing money at a problem isn’t necessarily the answer.

                (The cost numbers include Admin, school and pupil support, other ((I am guessing transport would be here)) and instruction.)

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                • Please know I’m not calling for more money.

                  My point is that it is easy to say, “We’re getting a raw deal here!”

                  It is a lot harder to say, “We’re currently paying $X for the government to do this job but it should only cost $Y.” Especially since most people have no idea what it should actually cost.

                  I’m sure there are ways to analyze this and we’d likely fine that this area of government delivers great value and that area of government delivers terrible value and all these areas are somewhere in the middle. And maybe in some cases the better areas can learn from the worser ones but probably in others there are too many things specific to a given area that things are not transferable.

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                  • It is a lot harder to say, “We’re currently paying $X for the government to do this job but it should only cost $Y.” Especially since most people have no idea what it should actually cost.

                    Another concern is we’re paying $X for the gov (because that’s what we can afford) but it should cost $X+$Y, with $Y being put on the credit cards.

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  12. Can anyone point me to a basic outline of how your system works because it seems odd to me that everyone in America has to do a tax return.

    Unless they run a business (including being self employed) or are very wealthy British people are unlikely to ever see a tax return, I certainly didn’t before I set up on my own. Wages and pensions are taxed at source by the PAYE withholding system, savings interest similarly has tax deducted before we get it, and one off sources of income will either be ignored or if they are sufficiently large like selling a house the lawyers who handle the paperwork will also calculate the tax for you.

    What is it about the American system that requires individuals with simple financial affairs to calculate their own tax?

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    • “What is it about the American system that requires individuals with simple financial affairs to calculate their own tax?”

      There is probably a long historical answer to this because most Americans did not pay an income tax until WWII. It used to be a tax that everyone needed to pay. The idea of withholding wasn’t around until the 1960s or 70s.

      The current answer seems to be the ideological priors of the “Taxation is theft/Zero government crowd” combined with lobbying from Intuit and Accountants like H and R Block. Anti-tax zealots want paying taxes to painful so people lobby against them. They hated the idea of withholding because it meant taxes got somewhat less painful. Intuit (makers of Turbotax) and H & R Block (tax preparers) don’t want the IRS to do taxes for the people because it puts them out of business.

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      • The Right howled at Milton Friedman when he came up with the idea of withholding. The anti-Income Tax faction wanted a system where people had to write a big check to the government every year. They thought it would get more people against taxes if you made the paying process as annoying and painful as possible.

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        • I’m generally left of center and don’t think very highly of the right’s anti-tax arguments or tricks, but I don’t think withholding has been good for us. Yes, it makes collecting the money a lot easier, but at the expense of people being generally confused about how much they’re paying in taxes.

          People who can tell you to the penny how much their water bill is can barely even ballpark their yearly payroll/income tax outlay. That cannot be good for us.

          My ideal world would be a regular (quarerly?) tax bill with an itemized breakdown of what it’s for. People will still make dumb decisions about how much we “should” be spending on certain things, but at least they’d be doing it with real numbers instead of completely backward gut feelings.

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            • Yeah, the prob with govt withholding in the US is mostly that the algorithms used are really bad at it. $3K bad, in our case. (And we took the standard deduction, so it’s not like there was some really weird stuff they couldn’t have predicted going on.) I’ve heard of significantly worse.

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              • The thing that is worst is that withholding doesn’t track well for two working married people.

                We have to massively overwithhold per the forms, because otherwise each of us is treated as though the first $X are at the bottom bracket, etc.

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                • We have to massively overwithhold per the forms, because otherwise each of us is treated as though the first $X are at the bottom bracket, etc.

                  The form’s suggested number of deductions on the W-4 is optional. Increase it until you think you’ll come out even.

                  I’m not sure what I’m at now but it’s FAR past sanity if I just followed the suggested calculations.

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                      • Seeing as how if you owe more than $2000 (I think) on tax day, the IRS dings you a penalty, and multiple years in a row of sending them a check often results in audits; yes, the Treasury would much rather have that interest free loan and cut you a check at the end of the year.

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            • True, it’s not necessary, but you can ignore an auto paid statement. You can’t ignore a number you have to actively pay.

              If I could only get one, I’d absolutely choose the printed statement. It would stop so much idiocy (but nowhere near all).

              “I paid $800 in for roads last year! That’s too much. It should be half of that!”

              “It says here you paid $62.”

              “Oh. Well it’s still too much!”

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      • The ways things were pre-16th amendment are more palatable to me. Have the Federal government tax each state based on population. Each state can then figure out the best way to collect that. If you don’t like the way your state does it, you have 49 others to choose from. Presumably, states have more collective bargaining power with the Federal government than do individuals, so it could provide additional incentive to keep the Federal budget as small as possible.

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        • Law and policy is not based on the palpability to the individual. The 16th Amendment passed. The chances of it being repealed are about as likely as the chance of the 2nd Amendment being repealed. Which is to say the chance is zero. We have the 16th and are going to continue to have it. We should act accordingly.

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    • I suppose the simplest answer is that it is a progressive tax on net income (income after a myriad of credits and deductions). Your bank or employer couldn’t calculate your tax without knowing what income you’ve received from other sources, and knowing what expenditures you will make that year which qualify for a credit or deduction.

      Also, for the working poor there is essentially a reverse income tax, in which you receive money for working.

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    • Take me as an example. I’m an oldster, largely retired, so should be simple. Last year, my income came from Social Security, a withdrawal from a traditional IRA, earned income as an employee (life insurance premium paid by a former employer), earned income as self-employed from a small consulting gig, dividends, and various flavors of interest (some tax exempt, some not). Nothing was withheld from any of that; none of the various payers knew what was appropriate, since it would be dependent on our total income (my wife and I file jointly). Some of the income was offset by a carry-over long-term capital loss — I didn’t have to take it, I could have carried it over to a future year. Both the federal government and my state government implement some programs as refundable tax credits.

      So the tax calculation included things like the SS money wasn’t taxable because the total income was too low. There were both income and payroll taxes due on the earned income piece. We got some Earned Income Tax Credit money, and a state credit for part of the premium on our long-term care insurance policy. Net of everything, the feds owed us $1 and the state $6. Put us down as takers this year (if you ignore sales and use taxes, gasoline taxes, property taxes, etc).

      I’m really not looking forward to next year. We bought a health insurance policy on the exchange. Due to state/county screw-ups in estimating tax credits, it wasn’t effective until March 1. On May 1 my wife starts Medicare so the premiums and tax credits calculations have to be redone. On November 1 I’ll start Medicare, so the exchange policy has to be cancelled appropriately. Nothing can be done in advance — eg, we can’t tell them in April about the May 1 change, so we’ll pay the wrong amount for May. Ultimately, everything gets trued up on my tax return next year.

      complains about what the government spends the tax money on. I complain bitterly about the inefficiencies built into the way we collect and spend it.

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      • FWIW I have been known to rant *at length* about how the gov’t treats kids on scholarships, taxwise. It basically amounts to borrowing the non-taxable-but-still-somehow-taxed amount of their scholarship for a year, interest free. They’re not allowed to just say “dude, it’s going to come out even.” and get a pass. Something no one would do to Canadian college students. GNARGH.

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    • A large part of the problem with the system is that it’s so byzantine there’s no real way to do a simple outline of it.

      Part of the reason individuals end up filing returns is that the system itself is so far off being accurate – for example our federal tax refund this year (not having tinkered with what the system wanted to do in advance, b/c we got raises and didn’t want to accidentally get in trouble for shorting the gov’t)…. it was 3000 dollars.

      We don’t make that much money! $3000 is approximately 10 percent of my own income for the year. So while we probably could have just not bothered to file, it would be pretty dumb not to.

      Here is the closest thing to a basic explanation I could find quickly, for you. Hope it’s useful:
      http://www.businessinsider.com/a-beginners-guide-to-americas-tax-system-2011-4

      The wikipedia page is also not *bad*:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_tax_in_the_United_States

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    • Yeah, what everyone else has been saying. It should be pointed out that if you have only one income that’s a fixed salary and none of the myriad complexities that are built into the tax code you probably actually will come out even at the end of the year. But life rarely works out that way or stays that way.

      In my case, even before I delve into the various deductions and credits I’m legally due or my wife’s two employers, my income varies a lot from week to week. Plus I get a quarterly bonus that’s just added into a regular weekly check and a separate yearly check for vacation pay (not that I actually take a vacation or anything, heaven forbid). So each weekly check has taxes deducted as if I actually were making that same amount every week, which in the case of those four bonus weeks looks like I’m making a hell of a lot more than I really am. So I file to get a refund every year.

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  13. Asserting complete and inviolable property rights claim over our income or wealth leads inevitably to a question of what really belongs to us, and why the rest of us should accept that claim.

    Why do we own what we claim we own? Sez who?
    Why should I or anyone else agree to this?
    When the call comes to help defend those rights, can I say “No”?

    The concept of “Theft” demands an agreed upon framework of property, and an agreed upon framework of enforcement.

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    • I also just don’t take money that seriously as a real thing.

      I mean, it can DO a lot of real things but it’s fundamentally a fungible, agreed-upon fiction.

      So if part of the rules of that fiction are that the government wants to take some of that made-up stuff I would normally use to do things away from me to do various other things with it, but I’m basically fine and can still do what I need to do, I don’t really care.

      However, if the various things are frequently stupid and covered in layers of cruft that make the Chretien corruption scandal look mild by comparison, I get annoyed. And kind of homesick.

      *shrugs*

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  14. (Without reading any of the other comments)

    Taxation is a legit tool of the government, but it’s something that can (and has) been misused.

    Think of the basics that the gov does for us, law enforcement, enforcement of contracts, building of roads/bridges, nuclear waste regulation, putting out of fires: That’s called “discretionary” spending and it’s 20% of federal spending.

    The rest is mandatory (i.e. “entitlements”), and far too often it’s a result of “other people will pay” redistribution. Sometimes that’s “the rich”, sometimes that’s “future politicians will find the money from future taxpayers”. In a Democracy it is corrupt and corrosive to vote yourself benefits for which someone else will pay.

    It’s also corrupt to hide taxes. Social Security’s taxes are much higher than most people understand because employers “also pay”, however in reality employers only pay on paper because economics suggests they take it out of your pocket anyway. This is one of the root causes of stagnant wages, if people understood just how expensive some of these things are then they could make more informed choices. Similarly there’s a reasonable argument that businesses don’t pay taxes so much as collect them, thus the high cost of living in high tax areas.

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  15. Another thought on property.

    In most jurisdictions, property taxes are given absolute superiority to any other encumbrance on property.
    No other mortgage, mechanic’s lien or claim is allowed to take higher precedence over property taxes.

    And even if a person owns a property “free and clear” of any mortgage or lien, the taxes owed are automatically recorded until paid off.

    So it is true that taxes represent not a one time temporary claim, but a permanent one, that there is some percentage of one’s wealth that you do not own, will never own, and have never at any point owned.

    Literally, you never owned that fraction which is being taken in taxes. It wasn’t yours, and could never have been yours. It always belonged to the collective body that erected this whole structure in the first place.

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  16. “Taxation is theft” is the libertarian equivalent of the socialist slogan, “property is theft.” Both are maxims masquerading as axioms. And both are attempts at argument by synonym, which is vacuous. That said, both have something to offer. Private property is exclusive and often exhaustive. When someone exercises a property claim on some thing, that thing is not available to everyone else. We should keep this in mind. Likewise, when the government collects taxes, it does so with the implicit threat of violence; that doesn’t make it theft in any meaningful way, but it is something that we ought to keep in mind. We especially ought to keep it in mind when we consider how much of our tax money goes to things that most of us would never actually pay for. And no I don’t mean all that feel-good stuff that people like to focus on like feeding the poors. I’m talking about bombing Syria or keeping a significant portion of the back population under the control of the Department of Corrections

    Also,

    Those are choices we make, and they start with how much we’re willing to raise in taxes.

    I got into this on another post, but this just is not true. Taxes are taxes and the budget is the budget; they simply don’t link up like this. The government spends what it wants to spend; it collects the taxes that it can collect; and then it borrows to make up the difference. That’s the order. It doesn’t start with the revenue side. It starts with the spending. This is why every major new entitlement bill comes with its own funding (Obamacare is probably the latest example).

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  17. The “taxation is theft” thing always bugged me when people tried to pretend it was something other than a useful framing to make their anti-tax positions stronger.

    Taxation is identically equal to theft? Clearly not. Taxation is a subset of theft? OK, if you want to define “theft” broadly enough that it includes taxation, I guess that’s something you can do. But if I define ATM fees as a type of murder so I can say “ATM fees are murder!” when I argue with my bank, that’s not really doing me much good with people who don’t accept my framing. It also means that the word “murder” is no longer especially useful. So why play these games?

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  18. On the taxation is theft mantra, JR has a good point. But the mantra also reminds me of something I’ve linked to before and probably link to too much, at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. That particular post argues that even though all governmental laws/regulations are arguably “coercive,” not all forms of coercion are equal.

    Speaking personally, I’m with and others here who seem to dislike the process of having to prepare the returns more than the fact I have to pay something. It’s not just the amount of time required, it’s also the possibility that someone of good faith and reasonable intelligence could get it wrong and be punished, potentially criminally,* for the error.

    That said, I’ve had a lot of good fortune lately, so I don’t mind the fact of paying taxes or even paying a preparer. I would, however, have a bigger problem if we couldn’t afford to hire a preparer, as I imagine is the case with a lot of people.

    *I’m sure the criminal punishments are very few and designed for those who openly flout the laws or try to get away with something illegal. But the fact that the possibility exists is sobering.

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  19. We know exactly what taxation is. Whether it’s theft depends entirely on what the definition of theft is, and thus is a purely semantic question, not terribly interesting and not at all relevant to the question of what the proper level and distribution of the burden of taxation is.

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