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

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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Comments • 27

  • Avataralfonso
    August 27, 2015 - 3:46 pm

    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.

  • AvatarIliam Dhone
    August 28, 2015 - 5:57 pm

    “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.

    • AvatarTurp
      March 28, 2018 - 11:37 am

      Agreed. I was born into this so-called free society, however saying that I can only live here if I forfeit some of my personal property, against the threat of theft is exactly that stealing, It is therefore, not a completely free society, but rather a somewhat free society depending on which freedoms the government allows people to have. Hmm, i’m almost positive that sometime ago I read in some document somewhere that it should be the other way around…

  • AvatarDuneflower
    April 28, 2016 - 11:55 am


    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.

    • AvatarTurp
      March 28, 2018 - 11:45 am

      Well said sir, completely correct and extremely relevant! Every single “reason” or “justification” argument trying to defend why we have tax is totally irrelevant to what tax in and of itself is. Coercive theft = extortion!

    • AvatarGSAT
      November 4, 2019 - 6:18 pm

      you can’t willingly submit to coercion that’s an oxymoron, you acquiesce to coercion under duress depending on how much of a fight you wish to put up, and as most of us have no defence against taxation because the liability to pay tax is manufactured consent, we tend to give up any hope of objection.

  • AvatarKyle
    May 30, 2016 - 5:30 pm

    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.

    • AvatarTurp
      March 28, 2018 - 11:50 am

      W-O-W! Very powerful, and correct!!

  • AvatarBig C
    June 1, 2016 - 7:26 am

    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.

  • Avatarbrian
    September 28, 2016 - 11:56 pm

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

  • AvatarPaul S
    November 18, 2016 - 2:08 pm

    “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.

    • AvatarJason
      March 12, 2018 - 9:14 am

      To magnify the authors opinion, if said mobster is providing a forced service to the shop owner it’s ok. Can’t get something you don’t want for nothing you know.
      Coerced taxation is extortion. I don’t remember voting on it do you?
      The fact that they tell us our elected officials made the decision is B.S also. We rarely get what we vote for or we would still be free.

      FREEDOM- The right to act, speak or think without hinderance or restraint.

      They give us speaking and thinking but the act part trips government up. They have a huge book full of hinderances and if you don’t comply you will be restrained legally. Ha ha what a joke.

  • AvatarSeth Robinson
    January 11, 2017 - 5:03 am

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

  • AvatarJohn
    February 26, 2017 - 8:32 pm

    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 ShaxsonNick Shaxson
      February 28, 2017 - 1:22 pm

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

      • AvatarKrombopulous Michael
        May 18, 2017 - 9:09 pm

        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.

  • Avatarkrisp
    June 14, 2017 - 9:21 pm

    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

  • AvatarMatthew Carr
    June 26, 2017 - 10:55 am

    Author: “is taxation legalized theft? No because its legal haha checkmate libertarians!”

  • AvatarSean
    June 26, 2017 - 11:21 am

    So, you’re saying taxes aren’t theft because I get something for my money?

    Then you won’t mind if I come and wash your car without asking, and then threaten to throw you in a cage for years if you don’t pay?

  • AvatarGottleib
    January 30, 2018 - 3:37 pm

    What a wonderful thing to spend other people’s money … like a drunken sailor. No offense meant to our fine sailors.

  • AvatarOrlando
    March 14, 2018 - 3:43 pm

    It is utterly ridiculous to say that TAXATION is not legalized theft or extortion since you are subject to taxation from the moment you are born without having ever signed an agreement for such action from the government.

    The legal definition of extortion is:the gaining of property or money by almost any kind of force, or threat of 1) violence, 2) property damage, 3) harm to reputation, or 4) unfavorable government action

    I am not surprised that the person who created this article would like blatantly to its readers since its in the governments interest to hide the truth from the masses

    To the writer of this article: Yes fool, taxation IS extortion. weather I receive something from it or not, I never agreed at birth to be subject to it.

  • April 15, 2018 - 8:37 am

    Official acts are most certainly coercive. Think about how you change your behavior to garner favor in an official act. You will pay the Government to get a passport, so you can travel. But this is a justified use of coercion.

    Now think about a police officer that said pay me or else I will use an official act an arrest you. That would be an unjustified use of coercion because the officer is trading official acts for private third-party benefit.

    In other words, extortion is an anti-corruption law. See Wilkie v. Robbins, 551 U.S. 537.

    Tax is just like the passport situation. Official acts that are coercive are being used to obtain property, but the benefit is solely for the Government. That is a justified use of official acts and therefore NOT extortion.

    A hair dresser may say to a person to pay me or else (threat) they will not work for them. But a hair dresser may not say to a person pay me or else (threat) I will call the police and report you for crime. That is blackmail. In other words, extortion is a trespass on the King’s coercion.

  • AvatarScott
    January 11, 2019 - 11:36 pm

    Taxes in the example of the book are as if the shopkeeper had the legal right to put a book in the pocket or handbag of everyone in their store, walking by on the sidewalk, charge them whatever they see fit for the book, and them thrown in jail if they don’t pay the required price for the book they didn’t choose to take.

    If paying taxes for public were like owning a condo, it would as if two units of 500 were in charge of figuring out who to hire to install the new roof on all the buildings. Best case, they would either pay twice market value to hire the contractor that gave both parties a bribe. Another likely scenario is people putting tarps over their leaky roofs while the two parties (who each got bribed by two different contractors) fight over which contractor they wish to employ.

  • March 5, 2019 - 6:51 pm

    > 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?

    If you don’t want the haircut, and are charged for it whether you get one or otherwise consent, then…okay, that’s not theft, it’s a protection racked.

    And that’s what taxation, in this context, is.

    It’s a gang coming to you and saying “we provides you with dis protection, now yous gotta pay up.”

    What if I don’t WANT that protection?

    “That’s some nice property yous got there. It’d be a shame if something…happened to it.”

    A protection racket.

  • AvatarMack
    July 25, 2019 - 2:15 pm

    All these comments don’t take into account one simple thing: We, as residents of a country, are forced to pay a percentage (often high) of our income to a government which has no interest in accountability or transparency for how and where it is spent and commonly abuses that gift from its citizenry any way it sees fit. It’s free, non-taxed money to a government from hard working people with nothing truly tangible in compensation but lip service. Taxation without documented transparency and accountability for how its used for the public benefit, with significant punishment for noncompliance, is immoral might over right. In real life, the government collects more than enough public funds from charges for services people actually purchase and use as needed and massive merchandising. Taxes are the icing on top of a globally corrupt cake.

  • AvatarAaron
    August 10, 2019 - 8:37 pm

    Taxation is more akin to a squeegee man who holds you at gun point until you pay him for “services rendered”.

  • AvatarDrew
    February 16, 2020 - 1:22 am

    But what if you didnt want a hair cut? What if my hair cut is not what i asked for and is unsatisfactory? What if the barber cuts me? What if the section of roof over my living are is completely fine and i dont want it replaced? My point being consent (like sex) If im raped by a stripper or a hooker and then demand payment for services or takes my money for there “services” is that a form of tax? If so then we are fucked as a society. If it is for the “greater good”, then why is there no tax to help fund cancer and disease research and cures? Because heroin users in southern oregon need food stamps and welfare housing aid and hard working people like me who are just trying to support there families and live have to pay for them to eat better than us.

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