Twelve Differences Between Taxation and Robbery

This is a short primer on the differences between taxation and robbery. At times these two phenomena are sufficiently difficult to differentiate that perhaps such a discussion will be helpful. Feel free to append your own differences to the dozen provided:

1. Taxation is done by a group of people that claim to represent you. Robbers do not claim to represent you.

2. Taxes are used to provide services and goods to you that you may or may not value. Robbers leave with your money but do not return to offer you services. Should a corporation sell its product under premises like that of the government, it would be robbery.
3. Taxation is sometimes condoned by a theory of social justice, that those who have more should give to those who have less. Typically robbery fulfills the same purpose, as the robber often has less.
4. Robbers may attempt to intimidate you through the use of guns or violence. Actually, never mind, taxation works the same way.
5. Taxation is done based on some voting scheme wherein other people can decide whether or not to take away your things. Robbery is similar but not the same, because you aren’t one of the voters, only the robbers are. In practice this can be hard to differentiate, but there is still a theoretical difference.
6. Taxation is an obligation under the social contract. The one you signed at birth. Oh wait, you didn’t sign anything. Never mind.
7. Taxation starts with a ‘T’ while Robbery starts with an ‘R’.
8. Taxation is distortionary in that it typically taxes some particular activity or good, thus changing how you behave towards that good. Robbery may also be distortionary although typically not in as clear a manner.
9. Taxation may be justified under the theory that what you own is not really yours and so it can be taken from you. Robbers probably don’t think your stuff is theirs, they just want it.
10. Taxation is based on a well-defined schedule of payments. Robbery much less so.
11. The police will protect you from robbers while enforcing taxation laws. This is similar to the protection racket run by the mafia, but different because we have less control over the mafia and the police are much nicer people.
12. One should always pay one’s taxes promptly. Failure to do so will result in fines. Robbery usually does not impose interest rates on overdue theft.

34 comments for “Twelve Differences Between Taxation and Robbery

  1. lyle
    June 25, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    refuse to produce! down with the looter! ;)

    ok…that was my rand-ian contribution to this great humorous (albeit scarily true) list.

  2. Adam Greenwood
    June 25, 2004 at 12:30 pm

    13. Taxation carries with it some notion of the common welfare, while robbery exalts individual welfare over it.

    14. Taxation exercises libertarian economics profs.

  3. Geoff B
    June 25, 2004 at 12:43 pm

    I think people would have much less of a problem paying taxes if the size of government didn’t balloon continually larger. Jefferson famously warned that the least government was the best. He would be appalled at all of the things we now believe government should do.

  4. lyle
    June 25, 2004 at 12:44 pm

    15. You can “cheat” on your taxes, you can’t “cheat” a robber.
    16. If you cheat on your taxes, you are unlikely to get caught. If you cheat a robber (hidding how much you have on you), you are likely to get caught & penalized heavily.
    17. If you cheat on your taxes & get convicted, you might lose your temple recommend. If you cheat a robber or get robbed, your recommend/worthiness isn’t in danger.

  5. Jeremiah J.
    June 25, 2004 at 12:48 pm

    What does this have to do with Mormonism?

  6. Frank McIntyre
    June 25, 2004 at 12:49 pm

    Is 13 different from 3? Taxation is justified by this idea of common welfare, robbery also served to redistribute goods to the poor among us. Can’t the robber use the same justification as the tax man? If robbery is done for the common good, is that okay?

    Robbery fulfills 14 as well, there is a great literature on the subject. Taxation is more fun though. And by the way, I’m not really much of a libertarian.

  7. Kingsley
    June 25, 2004 at 12:55 pm

    Jeremiah J.: Mormons pay taxes.

  8. Kaimi
    June 25, 2004 at 12:56 pm

    The problem with this and other typical critiques of taxation is that they typically assume the validity of the concept of property ownership, independent of positive rules providing for that ownership.

    Others have articulated this far better than I can. Cass Sunstein, over at, recently wrote:

    “What Holmes is saying here is that even though property is exchangeable, it doesn’t arise from value; it’s a creation of law. And that’s simply a matter of fact. With these sixteen words, Holmes captured much of the legal realist critique of laissez-faire — and a key part of legal thinking between 1890 and 1930. A system of free markets isn’t law-free; it depends on law. Property rights, as we enjoy and live them, are a creation of law; they don’t predate law.

    . . .

    Roosevelt insisted that no one is really opposed to ‘government intervention.’ Those who complain about ‘government’ depend on it every day of every year. Their ‘property rights could not exist’ without its assistance (which costs a lot of money). And he believed that further ‘intervention,’ designed to protect decent opportunities (recall the right to education and the right to be free from monopoly) and minimal security, could be necessary to protect not equality but ‘individualism.'”

  9. cooper
    June 25, 2004 at 1:01 pm

    Frank = :-) !

  10. Frank McIntyre
    June 25, 2004 at 1:07 pm


    I believe governments should exist and protect property rights. So we agree there. I have made no particular argument about whether or not taxation is justified. I certainly don’t favor no taxes and anarchy. I am comparing and contrasting two forms of transfers, robbery and taxes. They aren’t the same. But that just makes it more interesting to think about their differences.

    You point out that the government provides services such as protection, this is (1) and (11). You then argue that property rights are not fundamental, so that perhaps what I have is not mine and therefore the government can take it. This is (9). Am I missing something?

  11. Nate Oman
    June 25, 2004 at 1:13 pm

    Kaimi: Sunstien’s argument — as Chad pointed out over at — is not as powerful as Sunstien seems to suggest. The fact that laws are necessary to define and realize private property in the real world does not mean that the moral force of property as a concept is a function of law. No one thinks that the fact that legal prohibitions on muder are necessary to realize the protection of innocent life in the real world suggests that the moral importance of innocent life is a function of law.

  12. lyle
    June 25, 2004 at 1:18 pm

    and lack of government doesn’t mean anarchy; it just means many smaller competing groups doing what government does…and not necessarily taxing. why aren’t more Mormons anti-government/taxation? if people complain about so many mtgs, the hierarchy of the church…seems like govt is just more of the same. ;)

  13. Frank McIntyre
    June 25, 2004 at 1:26 pm

    Kaimi, Do you really believe Sunstein’s argument that rights are granted by government and have no meaning otherwise? I agree that we have collective action in order to enforce property rights. But I believe that there are such things as inalienable rights that precede government’s jurisdiction.

    If there were no government and someone stole my house, that would still be a bad and wrong thing. Yet in Sunstein’s world, it isn’t bad or wrong because it wasn’t my house because there was no government to create property rights.

  14. Kaimi
    June 25, 2004 at 1:54 pm

    Nate, Frank,

    I’m not in complete agreement with the strong version of Sunstein’s argument, which is essentially that all rights are positive.

    However, I think that the catalog of non-positive rights is very small. It includes broad rights against physical harm. It also includes basic property protection of property. The only property requirements that I think need to be protected in a non-positive way are a basic right to ownership of created property (a la Locke, “the fruits of his labor”) and a basic rule against taking such property that one is currently using.

    So, if you want to go out into the virgin forest, clear an acre of land, erect a house, and start tilling the soil, you’re within the basic property protections.

    But who wants to do that? When people talk about property, they mean alienable goods that they can enter into contracts over, lend out at interest, and move across state boundaries. People want to be able to mortgage their homes, create intellectual property, put money in the bank, buy clothes online. And all of those activities rely on the existence of governments.

  15. Adam Greenwood
    June 25, 2004 at 2:17 pm

    Number 4 and Number 13 are not at all the same. You’re talking about the outside justifications some have offered for them (does anyone really justify robbery as a form of redistribution? Isn’t most crime committed by the young and pathological on the poor, not by the poor on the rich); I’m talking about the moral conceptions that drive the imposition of taxes as opposed to robbery and the different moral attitudes that the citizen can bring to paying them. Further, both taxpaying and taxdemanding by definition occur as part and parcel of a community whereas robbery by definition does not. Even if the incentives and the net economic effect were the same, taxation would still be preferable to robbery for that reason.

  16. Frank McIntyre
    June 25, 2004 at 2:37 pm


    (3), not (4). But I think that was just a typo in your post.

    Most crime is committed on the poor. Many times the criminal is poorer still. Regardless, the criminal cannot be fully justified in their actions (though poverty can be a mitigating factor).

    “I’m talking about the moral conceptions that drive the imposition of taxes as opposed to robbery and the different moral attitudes that the citizen can bring to paying them.”

    So if the robber is doing it because they firmly believe they will use the money for the common good, that would be like taxation? Does that make such robbery okay?

    “Further, both taxpaying and taxdemanding by definition occur as part and parcel of a community whereas robbery by definition does not.”

    This is (5). It is certainly the case that I can vote my preference. But, as is noted elsewhere, this preference has precious little to do with federal tax schedules. I think your argument is much more effective when talking about communities such as towns or neighborhoods. This is probably why you use the phrase “community” in your comment. To extend that to the whole U.S. is quite a stretch. This, of course, is the well-known justification for leaving government local. There are other reasons why you might want government big. But by doing that the “community” defense becomes palpably weaker. In the end, the “community” could decide to take away my property wholesale because I have a lot of it.

    If 10 robbers broke into my house and then held a vote as to what they could take, the fact that I was outvoted is hardly a good defense of the robbers. Suppose a bunch of people vote themselves lavish government funded benefits in retirement and then decide to pay for it by taxing me and my buddies, the comparison should be obvious. The fact that I can vote does not make their action right. They, in fact, look a lot like the 10 robbers.

    Thus when one votes to tax someone else, one should think very carefully about what one is doing.

  17. lyle
    June 25, 2004 at 2:40 pm

    hm: Perhaps no politician should be allowed to vote on a tax that doesn’t include them? Now that sounds appealing…

  18. Adam Greenwood
    June 25, 2004 at 2:51 pm

    I guess, Frank M., that I disagree that a political community with history, language, and other bonds is equivalent to ten robbers breaking in. in fact, the 10 robbers example only works at all because the US is a democracy. The apparent comparison is artefactual.

  19. Thom
    June 25, 2004 at 2:53 pm

    18. If you have a good insurance policy, the value of losses from robbery can be recouped. Nobody sells taxation insurance.

  20. Nate Oman
    June 25, 2004 at 3:16 pm

    Kaimi: You can’t honestly be suggesting that one has significant moral rights to property only one acquires the property by a right of first appropriation. For starters you will need some sort of a theory to explain why first appropriation is morally significant but voluntary alienation is not.

    Furthermore, there must be REASONS as to why we have legal rules protecting mortgages, easements, etc. Now it may be that Sunstien’s argument provides a basis for collapsing the distinction between positive and negative rights. (I am skeptical that it collapses as cleanly or as completely as Sunstien suggests) However, that point is really irrelevent to the question of what level of sanctity one’s property is entitled to.

    For example, the fact that government expeditures are required to defend rights to freedom from personal slavery does not mean (I would assume) that the government may forcibly enslave you every couple of years to work off the debt. Likewise, the face that some government expeditures are required to defend property rights tells us little about the sanctity we should accord those rights. Sunstien’s legal construvist argument seems completely beside the point. It’s only real relevence seems to be with regard to the state action doctrine, which seems a rather technical matter of the cognizability of various kinds of rights under the constitution, rather than the nature or moral entitelements themselves.

  21. Frank McIntyre
    June 25, 2004 at 4:23 pm

    “I guess, Frank M., that I disagree that a political community with history, language, and other bonds is equivalent to ten robbers breaking in.”

    Many a political community is as dysfunctional as a group of robbers. Once again though, your talk of community is very hard to reconcile among 300 million people who do not, as a group, share any one language or history.

    My robbers may be much more closely tied to me by “language and history and other bonds” than millions of other people in the U.S.. But that is simply no justification for their robbery. My brother is tied to me by many close bonds. He still would be morally wrong to rob me. Even if he did it to give money to a beggar (to throw in the social welfare idea). I, in fact, am closely tied to every person on the planet in that we are all children of God. Closeness and similarity and other bonds are reasons not to rob me. They are reasons for me to give. But they are not justifications for robbery.

    Surely you don’t think robbery is in general justified if it is for the common good? Do you think robbery is justified if perpetrated by all of my closest neighbors who decide to rob me in a community vote, a vote in which I am welcome to participate?

  22. Adam Greenwood
    June 25, 2004 at 4:54 pm

    you’re essentially denying that there is any such thing as community. It is, in your view, nothing more than an aggregate of individuals classed by some more or less arbitrary factor (language, geography, history, force, etc.) I disagree. A *town* of 11 people with an established procedure of voting on decisions, a history, some shared idea of what constitutes the common good, and so forth, could expropriate my property to reach that common good in a way much more morally palatable than a group of 10 people showing up on my doorstep and inviting me to join with them in a vote on whether or not to keep my goods.

    Now, and this will stick in your craw I’m afraid, but I’m not at all sure that, in the absence of some other authority, ‘robbery’ to promote the common good might not be justified, just as taxation is.

  23. Jeremiah J.
    June 25, 2004 at 5:14 pm

    “If there were no government and someone stole my house, that would still be a bad and wrong thing. Yet in Sunstein’s world, it isn’t bad or wrong because it wasn’t my house because there was no government to create property rights.”

    This is actually a misunderstanding of Sunstein’s argument about the relation between natural or “moral” right (as he calls them) and legal, positive right. His book the _Cost of Rights_ is notoriously bad, and does not do an adequate job of spelling out the relation between the two, but in that book he does make it clear that he is not talking about what would be good or bad if there were no government.

    I actually believe in natural right of a certain kind, but the right that exists in some imaginary state of nature must be understood in a very different way than natural or moral rights as they exist in a developed society where sophisticated communication, reciprocity, legality, social trust and a high level of moral development are possible. To talk about natural rights (e.g. to property, life, etc.) in modern society that same way we talk about rights in the state of nature is even more of a fiction than talking about a social contract “signed at birth”.

  24. Kaimi
    June 25, 2004 at 5:16 pm

    And there’s the problem that what a democracy wants to take is not necessarily always just. Take a look at the story The Lottery, for instance — random killing of citizens, by democratic decision. Similarly, the Takings Clause exists because governments, including democracies, had (have) a nasty little habit of taking folks’ property when they felt like it.

    On the one hand, taxation is certainly an easy power to abuse. We can see this in colonial history.

    On the other hand, we expect our governments to do things for us, and they can’t do that without the taxation power. Everyone knows this. And it’s not like anyone wants to live in a state of anarchy — especially since then the money you would save on your taxes wouldn’t be worth very much.

    The list is cute, but unconvincing. One could come up with equally (un)convincing lists of “Twelve Differences Between a Law Firm Associate and a Federal Prisoner” or “Twelve Differences Between a Landlord and the Gadianton Robbers.”

  25. Chad too
    June 25, 2004 at 5:21 pm

    So when will Kaimi’s lists get posted? I’m quite interested ;-)

  26. June 25, 2004 at 5:25 pm

    Why is #2 illegal for corperations? My cable, phone, and even videogame ( bills work like described.

  27. Frank McIntyre
    June 25, 2004 at 5:25 pm

    Chad too,

    It must be a bluff. How could anyone come up with Twelve Differences between a Law Firm Associate and a Federal Prisoner?

  28. Frank McIntyre
    June 25, 2004 at 5:42 pm


    Your town of 11 people would certainly be more justified than random people off the street, given that there was some agreed upon norm. But if I lived in such a town, would I vote to take away your things and give them to another? No. Would I be justified in voting to take them away and give them to myself? No. You say robbery might be justifiable, but that can’t be the case too often. We have a commandment about stealing after all. And that was in the wild and woolly deserts of Egypt. Would God rather you stole than you went hungry? There is no commandment against hunger. There are plenty of commandments about how we should dispose of our own goods. It is much harder to make the case that you have a moral obligation to aid people with my possessions. And that seems to be what you are claiming.

    And your example is with only 11 people. The problem only gets worse with more. You’ve never really made any attempt to confront the problem that federal taxation is set at the 300 million person level. Surely this is not the close-knit community of your examples. If you want taxation at the neighborhood level, you may have something there. But in what coherent way does the U.S. meet these ideas of community that you feel justify the ends?

    Jeremiah J.

    I’ve not read his book so I have no comment on it. I’m sure you are right that rights must be thought about differently in a natural setting. But Sunstein’s snippet doesn’t go very far in helping with that task.


    Absolutely governments do things for us and for that they need money. They are going to need the power to forcibly take someone’s property. My point is that every government service must pass the hurdle of being worth doing something not too far from robbery. Many current government services are very valuable. Many others I would not pay a dime for.

    Redistributive policies, where I take money from one group and give to another, seem particularly suspect. Especially when one group has the power to vote money or services away from others and to themselves. I am arguing for a high bar. Perhaps not quite strict scrutiny, but you get the idea.

  29. Frank McIntyre
    June 25, 2004 at 5:45 pm

    Measure, first note that many people are not too happy with the cable company or the phone company. Second, I pay nothing to cable or Perhaps they came after you because you, in fact, signed a contract to pay them. A contract that you can actually end after some suitable interval….

    If the cable company turned on my cable without me asking, they would receive nothing from me. This is not true with taxes.

  30. June 25, 2004 at 5:56 pm

    Good point, but perhaps the phrase “without a contract” should be added to point #2 or to the piece in general, unless the phrase is specifically implied by the word Taxation, which I am not convinced of.

    It seems to me that taxation is a contract that we are born into, complete with rules and penalties all codified into law.

  31. Kaimi
    June 25, 2004 at 6:06 pm

    As the resident redistributionist, I’ll take that bait.

    All taxes are cross-subsidization. Everyone has different preferences: You really care about funding the arts; Nate really cares about having a military patrolling the borders; Russell really cares about saving the whales. Everyone ends up being taxed to help out each other’s pet projects. The amounts don’t always even out — your art funding only costs each taxpayer $10, while Nate’s military costs each taxpayer $1000 — but everyone contributes to the system, and everyone knows that they are potential recipients of cross-subsidization benefits, if they can convince Congress to allocate money to their particular cause.

    Given that those are the system’s parameters, why are you complaining about redistribution? You too are the recipient of at least some redistribution. And you can be the recipient of more, if you mobilize your political forces correctly. The tax redistribution game is truly a game where there is equality of opportunity — and isn’t that what all conservatives want anyway?

  32. lyle
    June 25, 2004 at 11:11 pm

    what if I _do not_ want to receive someone else’s share? what if I consider cross-subsidization to be fancy white folk talk for _stealing_? Esp. if Nate is getting more benefit than the others, unless his utility is the same as Kaimi’s in the Art (despite the lower cash value), then…there is more than one type of theft going on.

    whatever happened to consensus? and if you can’t agree…then no action? I guess the answer is the articles of confederation, but…in the early days of the Founding, it was more similar to planned inaction than the current system of “I’ll rob your constituency to pay for my pork projects if you will do the same.”

  33. June 26, 2004 at 2:52 pm

    19. The government’s power to tax derives explicitly from the Constitution (including its amendments), while I’m pretty sure the Constitution doesn’t speak to robbery.

    It seems to me, whether or not we _like_ our community, we’re still part of a communal endeavor. And, if we don’t like the way taxes are being spent, we have the ability to vote for change (and, if we believe that our votes don’t make a difference, that’s a problem with our current republican form of government, not inherent to the tax system).

    All that said, if you don’t want to pay your taxes, there’s a perfectly legal way not to–don’t earn money (although, actually, I think you can earn almost $20,000 for a family of four before you have to pay tax). It may not be the most appealing choice, but it is an option, meaning that if you pay taxes, you chose to do so (other options presumably include donating everything after $20,000 to charity, but you might run into AMT problems at that point).

    Besides our taxes being paid to cover some social program with which we may or may not agree, though, taxes can be seen as a pay-to-play proposition: our money has value because the government supports it: there’s nothing inherently valuable about a small green piece of paper.

    Finally (and I have to get all of this out now, because in theory I’m studying for the Bar, so I don’t know when the next time I’ll be able to defend myself is), I read an article somewhere that suggested that a large amount of the wealth in America was the direct result of governmental programs. I can’t remember where, so I can’t offer any objective evidence, but I can offer subjective: my grandfather–and many like him–went to college and grad school as a result of the G.I. Bill. Even supposing that he never received another service from the government (a supposition that I’d assume was inaccurate, but let’s suppose, anyway), the government had a hand supplying him with his living. He went to public schools both undergrad and for dental school. My dad went to public schools for his dental school and residency. I went to private schools that receive some amount of federal funding for undergrad and law. But even if I hadn’t, there’s a connection between the G.I. Bill and where I am now. It seems to me that these give me a constitutional, religious (which I didn’t talk about, but render unto Caesar and all), and moral obligation to pay taxes, where I don’t enjoy the same obligations w/r/t robbers. And if I think my taxes are being misappropriated, it gives me that much more ownership and incentive to effect change.

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