Commentary

'Taxation is Theft' is Painfully Simplistic

Taxation is only theft if you're really sure that your life would be better in a place that didn't have all the services you rely on that taxes collectively pay for.

By Michael Nabert
Published June 29, 2017

Competing Fire Departments

There was a time when North American cities had several competing fire departments. If your house was on fire and you had purchased a contract with one of them, they would see their shield displayed on your house and try to fight the fire, and if you hadn't paid them they'd let it burn to the ground without lifting a finger.

Sometimes your house would burn to the ground anyway, because when they were coming to try to deal with your fire they'd end up getting into fistfights with a different fire fighting company that wanted them to fail. And in any case, fire protection was not only expensive, but only marginally effective.

Then we collectively did the math and realized that when your neighbour's house burns down it doesn't actually make anything better for you but also endangers your own home, and that it was far more cost effective on all levels to centralize the practice because it not only managed to protect everyone but was also a lot cheaper as well.

So cities, behaving like rational adults, made policy decisions to begin funding those services through the mechanism of taxes, and that's why we have centralized fire services in the first place.

Facts Matter

"Taxation is theft" people like to pretend none of this is true or relevant, but in this as in other topics, the facts matter. Human civilization would never have been possible in the first place if it began from a childish selfish belief that "I'm perfectly happy watching my neighbour's house burn down as long as it saves me $5," because the survival unit of any primate species is the social group, not the individual.

Similarly, I don't drive a car, but I don't go around whining that it's somehow cruel and unfair for me to live in a place where a collectively funded effort builds and maintains roads.

First, even if I don't personally drive, I understand that those roads are also handy for things like shipping food from the places where it is grown to the place where I need to eat it. Second, living in a place where there are roads also means that the fire department can get to where I live if there's a fire.

And finally, I am not an emotional infant completely incapable of giving a crap about the other people that I share this community with and I am able to understand that living in a civilization where people can get around from place to place is objectively better for me, too.

If I don't have a child in the public school system, I can likewise understand that it's better for me to live in a place where people know things, because public education means literacy and skills, more doctors when I'm sick and more engineers to make sure the bridges don't collapse, and so on.

For that matter, pooling our collective resources through the mechanism of taxes is the best chance we have that the bridges those engineers can design will actually get built.

Incentive to Protect

An important difference is one of motivation. A publicly-funded fire department has the goal of keeping people as safe from fire as possible. It can operate at a loss that required an expense, albeit a fairly small one, to the taxpayer, in order to avoid the much bigger expense of large property losses to fire, as well as needless loss of life.

A libertarian fire department has a completely different goal: to profit as much as possible by operating a fire department. If it's profitable to protect house A, they'll do it, and if it's not profitable to protect house B, then it might as well burn down because they don't give a crap about the people in house B.

A perfect example of this is health care. The US spends more than twice as much money per capita for health care as any nation on Earth that provides universal, publicly funded health care - and still managed to end up with significantly worse health outcomes.

What's the difference? On the one hand, economies of scale mean that a jurisdiction like Denmark can get a good bulk rate on medications they need by negotiating with pharmaceutical companies, while a non-centralized US model means citizens must pay much much more for the exact same medications because they have no collective bargaining power.

A state-run health care system has the goal of ensuring a universal basic level of care as cost-efficiently as possible. The private US model, in contrast, has the goal of maximizing shareholder profit, and that means the people with power in that model are tasked with squeezing every last dime out of sick people that they can.

The phrase "Taxation is theft" is a painfully simplistic way of throwing a tantrum at the idea of civilization. At its essence, it is unable to compete with basic math.

Taxation is only theft if you're really sure that your life would be better in a place that didn't have meat inspection, road maintenance, water works, libraries, fire departments, laws, national defence, education, emergency services, public safety measures, and the rest of the services you rely on that taxes collectively pay for.

Writer Michael Nabert has been a dedicated environmentalist for three decades, won an environmentalist of the year award for it, and reached an audience of millions online. He has recently brought his expertise to Environment Hamilton's new Climate Change team.

8 Comments

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted June 30, 2017 at 07:36:42

"Taxes are the price we pay for civilization" -Oliver Wendell Holmes

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted June 30, 2017 at 08:42:33

An interesting little factoid I came across years ago: Approximately 80% of Canadians, if they were to apply to immigrate to Canada, would not be admitted. I think many people do not appreciate how lucky they are to be able to live here and pay taxes for the services we have that are so often taken for granted.

Being born in Canada is equivalent to winning the lottery in my opinion.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted July 01, 2017 at 07:59:20

I confess that I have no idea who the '"Taxation is theft" people' are. Is this a refrain from certain quarters recently?

Even the most authoritative sources don't tell me too much about who is saying this.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted July 01, 2017 at 15:46:54 in reply to Comment 121658

Fools who think that going back to what Hobbes' terms the "state of nature" would work out well for them.

There is a certain intellectual laziness about it ... rather than participating in the creation and maintenance of a civic culture capable of determining what should be a public good and then deliberating on how best to provide it (how much it should cost and how it should be delivered is part of that) they can roll out a slogan that sounds good when you feel you're paying too much and getting too little.

This is easiest when you deny or remain ignorant about the true cost of the services being provided to you ... As Kevin Love notes roads are an example of that.

Comment edited by RobF on 2017-07-01 15:49:59

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted July 01, 2017 at 10:54:25 in reply to Comment 121658

I once saw a car driver with a bumper sticker that read, "Taxes are theft/Government is organized crime."

Needless to say, this individual then proceeded to drive his car onto the on-ramp of a multi-billion dollar freeway. And the provincial government continues to pay our over $500 million per year in health car costs to treat people who are poisoned by motor vehicle operators in Hamilton.

In other words, this is pure and simple hypocrisy.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2017-07-01 10:55:06

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By TreyS (registered) | Posted July 03, 2017 at 14:20:56

O. MY. GOD. Thought I read it all. A blog that likes paying taxes. I am okay with paying for private healthcare, education fire and police. I actually do have private security for my house and alarm system. They are quicker to deploy than the cops. And if that fails they will see the wrong end of a (insert weapon here). This is about where I say something about self-sufficiency. I pay a lot of money for my children's education. Taxes are fine if they are equal... Ie Flat Tax. 20% across the board. No free rides. I don't want my son sitting in a lecture hall next to someone who gets it for free. That's why he is taking mathematics and engineering. The free riders are taking a degree in Women's Studies or Experiential Yoga... In hopes of landing that dream job at Starbucks. Snowflakes .. Get a good paying job, a house or two and support a family or two and after taxes see what you have left of your 125000 dollar a year job. You will change your mind.

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By ergopepsi (registered) | Posted July 04, 2017 at 08:45:21 in reply to Comment 121670

Ok ok, you've used up your 'snowflakes' quota for the week...

I'm sure your Ontario health card is quite safely tucked away in your wallet. It's easy to blither on about how you'll pay for all of these services out of pocket when you know you don't actually have to.

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By OliverV (registered) | Posted July 04, 2017 at 08:27:30 in reply to Comment 121670

Only approx. 10% of Canadians receive $125000/year or more. Are you proposing that if everyone went to math school, we would all magically be able to hold $125000 jobs? What does the other %90 do? The top 10% are already filled.

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