Saturday, January 08, 2005

What is Taxation Anyway?

William Tanksley Jr. writes:

Why do you define a "tax" as the government taking money in return for the government providing something? This isn't true at all; a tax is simply the government taking money.

BV: Let's first of all get clear about what it is to define a term. Suppose we want to define 'weblog.' It won't do to say that a weblog is a website. For there are websites that are not weblogs. An adequate definition lays down necessary and sufficient conditions for a term's correct application. It ought to have the form of a biconditional. For example, X is a weblog if and only if X is a website consisting of regularly updated posts in reverse chronological order with hyperlinks to material cited. One could quibble with this definition, but you get the point. Ideally, a definition conceptually isolates the definiendum (that which is to be defined) from everything else. The part of a definition that does the defining is called the definiens.

To mention a feature of something is not to define it, even if the feature is essential to the thing mentioned. If I say that a hard drive is a data storage device, I say something true, but without defining 'hard drive.' (Floppy disks are also data storage devices.)

So I wasn't defining, or attempting to define 'taxes' when I said that taxes are monies paid in exchange for certain goods and services provided by a government. I was merely stating something true about taxes. Suppose I say that a cat is an animal. That's true, though no good as a definition. It would be foolish for someone to object to my statement by saying, "You're wrong, a cat is a four-legged mammal." That's no objection since the two statements are consistent.

Tony Flood reminds us that taxes are coercive levies. True, but consistent with my claim that one gets something in return for one's tax dollars. For example, property tax buys public libraries and public schools, etc. Federal income tax bought the Defense Department that kept us from getting nuked by the Soviets from the late '40s to the early '90s. Even if you thought it was a lousy deal, or didn't want the service anyway, you still got it! That's why Joan Baez in the '60s refused to pay all or part of her income tax: she didn't like what she was getting.

Since you cannot possibly be denying such obvious truths, perhaps you are saying that it is not essential to a tax that it bring the taxpayer any good or service, that this is merely an accidental feature of taxes. Perhaps what you are saying is that the essence of taxation is a government's taking of money by force. But then how would taxation differ from theft?

Whether or not they provide something "in return" is irrelevant. It's still taxation if they used it to build palaces for themselves on inaccessible (to us) islands.

BV: I simply deny that. You are failing to distinguish taxation from theft. Of course, I am assuming that a certain amount of government is morally justified, and that, as a consequence, a certain amount of taxation, in some form or other, is morally justified. To argue for those assumptions, however, would require a lengthy treatise of political philosophy.

Furthermore, SS doesn't return the taxed money to the people who paid it; it does nothing of the sort. It pays out taxed money from current workers to people who were former workers. The amount of money contributed is irrelevant to the payout.

BV: Your first sentence is plainly false. Your second sentence is true. Your third sentence is obviously false: the amount a retired person receives on a monthly basis reflects how long they have worked beyond the mandatory 40 quarters, and also the salary they had when they retired.

But the main thing is that you and Tony missed the whole point of my post, which was that money taken, coercively or not, to provide for people's retirement cannot be legitimately called a tax, and so, cannot be called a regressive tax. You should be on my side: my post was aimed against liberals and leftists.