No, taxation is not theft because you do not have a right to your pre-tax income, in legal and moral terms. Many political arguments start from the assumption that taxation is the government taking ‘our money’ off us. This feeling that your pre-tax income is ‘your money’ is understandably difficult to shake. It’s hard not to see the pre-tax figure on your payslip as representing what’s really owing to you for the work you’ve done, and hence to feel that the state is taking away from you something that is yours by right.
However, the fact that you are legally obliged to pay tax on your income – and face fines and jail time if you don’t – means you clearly don’t have a legal right to your pre-tax income. So if you do not have a legal right to your pre-tax income, do you have a moral right. No because to suppose that each person has a moral right to their pre-tax income would imply that the distribution of pre-tax incomes the market happens to throw up is perfectly just, and this is clearly not the case. There is no justice in the fact that the pre-tax income of a City banker is many hundreds of times the pre-tax income of scientist working on a cure for cancer.
Your pre-tax income isn’t the money you deserve; it is the money the amoral market has gifted you. A government may have cause to respect the whims of the market as a matter of practical necessity. But the state has no moral reason to respect the whims of the market. The only legitimate bar to redistribution is economic reality. Any politician who thinks it a good thing, in and of itself, to give people more of ‘their money’ is confused.
This answer is an excerpt from the Philip Goff’s guest blog on our website on this subject. Read the full blog here.