No, tax isn’t lawful extortion (or theft)

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tax is theft

Many people believe this

Updated with Chris Giles’ response. 

Sigh. If we had a penny for each time we heard this . . .

This claim is often associated with the U.S. libertarians, but this time it’s Chris Giles, a respected commentator in the Financial Times, in an article entitled How to be hard left without being stupid. It’s about the rise of Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn as front runner to lead Britain’s Labour Party: a man who one might argue is part of a global phenomenon that includes Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and the likes of Bernie Sanders in the U.S.: groups or people who are tapping into concerns about the nature of democracy, political corruption and in many cases a perceived rightwards shift in economic policy-making.

Anyway, the statement by Giles that particularly sticks in our craw is this one:

“any form of taxation is lawful extortion.”

But is it, though? A tax is a payment for services rendered: schools, roads, courts and so on. You get something, and you pay for it. Is a hairdresser guilty of ‘lawful extortion’ when they demand payment for a haircut?

OK, it’s more complex than that, of course. Tax is a collective enterprise: it’s a bit more like a condominium arrangement in an apartment block, where some of the property (like the roof or gardens) is owned collectively. If the owners collectively want to buy something (like a new roof) which benefits everyone, and one of them finds a way to escape paying their share, then it’s that person who’s guilty of (lawfully) getting something for nothing. Not quite extortion, but close. (If you want to explore this in more detail, see Martin O’Neill’s article, here.)

There’s more to dispute in this article – such as a belief that if you tax the wealthy they’ll all run away, which has been demonstrated time and again to be nonsense, particularly in a large economy like Britain’s — but we’ll leave it there for now.

Update: we emailed these points to Chris Giles, and he’s responded:

“I think you misunderstand. The difference between tax and paying for a book is choice. You choose to buy a book, but must pay your taxes. The state has the authority to lock you up if you don’t, a shopkeeper has no such authority. 

Saying something is lawful extortion does not mean I disapprove of taxation. I heartily approve of well-designed taxation. I also fully accept that tax revenues are not poured down the drain. None of that means taxation isn’t extortion – it is – but a highly valuable extortion in democratic societies. If there was any choice in paying taxes, there is no doubt that revenues would fall.”

His first point is a strong one, but it is worth challenging. Here’s an online dictionary definition:


Coercion. Well, at the end of the day tax is only coercion for some. Many people do have a choice about paying tax: one can find ways to avoid paying it — or one can emigrate and go and consume someone else’s public services. Not as easy as getting a haircut, but it’s a choice.

At the end of the day, for some people tax is not even coercion. And if there are those (usually poorer people) for whom it is coercion, then it’s not extortion, because it’s lawful.

(And, separately, one can choose whether or not to buy a book: but if one takes a book and decides not to pay for it, coercion soon comes into play.)



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12 thoughts on “No, tax isn’t lawful extortion (or theft)

  1. alfonso says:

    Saing that tax as long as thefts are non voluntary trasfers of wealth sounds more appropriate; it can happens in history you cannot understand the difference.

  2. Iliam Dhone says:

    “Well, at the end of the day tax is only coercion for some. Many people do have a choice about paying tax: one can find ways to avoid paying it — or one can emigrate and go and consume someone else’s public services. Not as easy as getting a haircut, but it’s a choice.”

    Agreed. And this, in a nutshell, is why I support tax competition — once you can’t leave and go somewhere else, tax does become coercive.

  3. Duneflower says:


    coercion ‎(countable and uncountable, plural coercions)

    (not countable) Actual or threatened force for the purpose of compelling action by another person; the act of coercing.

    Where there is taxation, there is threat of force. Given that taxation is an attempt to compel private entities into relinquishing wealth to the government, this means that taxation is an act of coercion; the fact that some do so willingly is irrelevant.

  4. Kyle says:

    Your commenters seem to have a better grasp on words and their appropriate definitions that you. Just because some Jews went willingly into the train cars to get put in the ovens, didn’t excuse the behavior of the Nazis. Tax is theft, plain and simple.

  5. Big C says:

    The metaphor about the roof is quite foolish. What are the anti-war and animal rights crowd to do when government subsidies kill animals and human beings? The roof being created is one they wish to burn down. If they don’t support what they despise by taxation, they go to jail. Furthermore, the whole ‘if you don’t like it leave’ concept is foolish because many who pay taxes are without the economic means to up and leave to another country. It seems only corporate interests are being represented in the US because average Joe doesn’t have time or money to lobby. This regime will crumble soon hopefully. Maybe after that happens an administration not selected by corporations and lawyers who commit genocide and fraud will emerge. Probably wishful thinking. Luckily, State control is a lot weaker than those extortionists think. I’ve been preaching economic secession since I was 17 , so there are promising developments on that front here in 2016, at 26.

  6. brian says:

    What service do i receive for my income taxes? I live in colorado if that helps you answer.

  7. Paul S says:

    “One can find ways to avoid paying it. One can emigrate and go and consume someone else’s public services. Not as easy as getting a haircut, but it’s a choice.”
    Well, of course it is a choice, but only for those who can afford it. In the end avoiding to pay taxes will end up costing money too.

    And then you seem to say that as long as you have a choice, it cannot be extortion. Apply your argument to other (or “actual” if you must) cases of extortion. Can you name victims of extortion that had absolutely no choice?

    To illustrate: A mobster makes his way into a local family-run store and tells the elderly owners that they need to pay him ‘protection’ money so he can defend them from the neighbourhood thugs. Elderly man says “That is extortion”. Mobster says: ” Well, you can also move somewhere else with your shop if you don’t like it”

    I am not against taxation, but it is extortion.

  8. Seth Robinson says:

    Taxes are taken from me without my consent, at threat of imprisionment. That is textbook extortion

  9. John says:

    This article is written by a statist slave loyal to the crown. Muh roads, muh courts, muh blind obedience to authority. Pathetic. I don’t want courts, private companies can build roads that we can voluntarily pay for if we want them, I don’t want police, we can educate children without the state. Everything you have said, no one asked for. Therefore I am forced to pay for “gifts” from the crown that I neither want nor asked for. Not only that but if I don’t pay I’ll be arrested, that’s the definition of extortion. I bet you also believe in imaginary lines drawn on a map to separate states. “If it pleases the crown, may I please pass into a territory that I have ever natural and human right to move to without molestation….” this writer is a hack

    • Nick Shaxson says:

      Genius. You’ll find that there’s plenty of “molestation” once you remove all the police. For starters.

      • Krombopulous Michael says:

        There’s plenty of cops that molest children to. What’s your point? The bottom line is you get imprisoned if you refuse to pay taxes, therefore it is by definition extortion. Ya they give public services great, however usually it’s only the bare minimum in many places, road maintenance and sub-par health and education services and the rest gets pocketed by corrupt politicians. If it wasn;t extortion you;d be able to choose access to public services or not paying instead it’s go to jail or get a half-assed road maintenance and maybe get treated at the hospital if you ever need to go…… which for healthy , intelligent adults who aren’t walking in front of a bus or getting into shady business can almost be never.

  10. krisp says:

    this issue will continue to be pushed, and the connection will continue to be pressed when our tax dollars are going to useless or bloody conflicts

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