If Wealth Taxation Is Theft, Who’s Doing The Thieving?

Below is a letter from reader David Berry to The Washington Post. On the subject of a wealth tax, Berry tries to distinguish taxing “previously acquired assets” from “taxing high-income earners,” such that the former “would be tantamount to theft” but the latter somehow isn’t:

“While the July 1 editorial “A wealth tax won’t work” spoke to the impracticality and questionable constitutionality of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) proposed wealth tax, one also must question its basic morality and fairness. I believe a scheme to tax previously acquired assets, as opposed to taxing high-income earners, would be tantamount to theft. If one person forcibly takes from another, it’s stealing whether the victim is wealthy or poor, and regardless of how the thief uses the stolen assets. So, if the government were to raise revenue by simply confiscating assets, how would that be any different? And while relatively few Americans own more than the proposed $50 million threshold, that threshold could lie on a slippery slope if that revenue still turned out to be insufficient.”

“Wealth taxation is theft” | The Washington Post (Letters)

1) Berry’s his moral claim: “If one person forcibly takes from another, it’s stealing” is simply true of taxes as such (if “one person” is replaced with “government”) regardless whether assets or earnings are taxed. For instance, estate taxes are taxes on assets passed from one generation to the next. In a wider view of moral claims about taxes, Berry’s points fall right in line with the predictable, boring, and wrong libertarian grievance that taxation is theft. 

2) Berry also makes a slippery slope argument about slippery slopes. Priceless!

3) For a mode of thought so antagonistic to taxation beyond the bare minimum “user fees” (someone has to collect tolls, I suppose, then roll all that change up into paper wrappers), wealth taxes aren’t even within the realm of libertarian possibilities. Still, right-leaning libertarians know that “taxation is theft” has never been about creating a minimal state. They know the U.S. couldn’t support the interstate highway system, a constellation of social programs, higher tax rates so we could actually pay for stuff, and the most powerful (and profligate) military in history without taxation that really is “one person [government] forcibly [taking] from another.” They understand that the programs they hate are the ones many Americans like and think necessary. And they know their primary tenets are fantasies that have little to do with how increasingly complex societies operate. 

4) So, if all that’s true, and if modern libertarianism is just a fever dream of turning America into New Mexico, then just what is “wealth taxation is theft” really about? What message are radical free-marketers conveying without stating it specifically? What would be “free from theft” if the dreams of radical free-marketers came true? Well, if taxation is theft, who’s the thief? Who’s the victim? Who benefits? As you answer these questions for yourself, imagine a sly libertarian’s wink-wink as he explains the odd, morally compromised history of modern libertarianism from Barry Goldwater’s no vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Rand Paul’s modern-day opposition to parts of it. Then take a deep dive into how libertarianism arose as a direct challenge to Great Society legislation as well as a targeted attack on the material gains of the Civil Rights struggle. While “taxation is theft” isn’t about creating a minimal state, it is about shrinking the maximal state even though the maximal state can protect the rights and privileges of citizens in ways that the minimal state not only can’t but refuses. This is why most people reject the minimal appeal of the minimal state.  


Where are your hammers for these nails?

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