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An argument commonly ascribed to libertarianism runs as follows:

  1. Property is the right (either shared or exclusive) to enjoy the benefits of a particular resource.

  2. Theft is the non-consensual deprivation by one party of the property of another.

  3. Taxation is the non-consensual deprivation by the state of the property of the citizen.

  4. Therefore, taxation is theft.

A possible counter-argument runs as follows:

  1. At some point in history, someone must have first claimed ownership over some resource that was not previously considered "owned".

  2. In doing so, they must by definition have (presumably non-consensually, since who would consent unless coerced?) deprived everyone else of the (previously shared) benefit of that resource.

  3. Therefore, private property is theft, and taxation merely a form of restorative justice.

Assuming that they do indeed subscribe to the first argument outlined above, how might a libertarian challenge the second?

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Note: I have attempted to describe the arguments above objectively. However, since I am not a libertarian, I may have missed some subtlety in at least the first one. However, the counter-argument described is specifically against the first argument as it is written, so for the sake of avoiding confusion, I'd appreciate it if corrections to my description of it are contained in any answers given, rather than by editing the question. – user97 Dec 14 '12 at 5:00
This argument assumes there's a fixed lump of property existing in the world waiting to be possessed and divided up, and once it is divided nothing is left. It is obviously false in general - new values are created every second. Here this site is a perfect example. It is owned by some private company. Did they deprive anybody else of owning this site and sharing the benefit of it? Of course not - before them, there was no such site at all, and after they created it, people still share the benefit of it. – StasM Dec 14 '12 at 9:54
@StasM you're right that I don't address created value. That was a deliberate omission, in fact, mainly to avoid overcomplicating the question. The question of created value is very complex, and hotly disputed. If I can think of a reasonable way to word a question about it, I may post one at some point. And of course Intellectual Property is a whole other can of worms ... :-) – user97 Dec 14 '12 at 19:49
@Keen Please think of a difference between "it is a fallacy to assume all X are Y" and "no X is ever Y". – StasM Dec 14 '12 at 20:23
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I'll take a stab at this but it's not a very well referenced answer, so someone with a better clue is more than welcome to provide a better one.

There are two reasons for this counterargument to be invalid in a vast majority of cases where someone is taxed:

  1. The main reason this is not necessarily a valid counter-argument is that a vast majority of the taxes that libertarians object to are NOT taxes on a held property which someone may have shared-owned before.

    A vast majority of taxes being objected to are income taxes. Your income is not something that was previously commonly shared, therefore such a counter-argument doesn't apply.

    The only "previously non-owned resource that was shared" that can be claimed as property would be land, or some other natural resources.

  2. Second reason is legal. This one gets really hairy and complicated.

    • As far as I'm aware, coming into possession of stolen goods in good faith does not make one a criminal, OR liable to return the goods. In other words, if a thief steals your TV and sells it on eBay to me, you can sue the thief. May be you can sue eBay for facilitating the sale. But under current criminal law you're not liable for posession of stolen goods if you didn't know they were stolen (and especially if they were NOT considered stolen under prevalent law of the jurisdiction where they were taken, which is the case here).

    • One complication is that purely theoretically, you are not entitled to keep possession of stolen goods once the owner makes a motion to recover them.

    • However, in most jurisdictions, there is a statute of limitations on this. While the intricacies of the law seem... intricate (duh), as best as I can tell, they all start to apply when it is known that the possessor possesses the property; and last several years (2-6 in USA and UK [1]).

      In other words, since the original owner of the property openly held the property and the "everyone" knew of this (most such natural property as land/resources is done in public with the government, so this counts), within several - let's say 3 to 6 years - the statute of limitations on recovery passes, and you can no longer be sued to return the property. TADA. You are now a legal owner, and so are anyone who buys it from you down the road.

    • In light of that, the only person who "stole" the previously shared resource was the first guy who claimed ownership of that resource, more likely than not many generations ago. As such, even that miniscule amount of private property that your counter-argument MAY have applied to (land/natural resources) is no longer theft once you have purchased/inherited it fair and square after statute of limitations passes.

So, in summary, even if you allow your argument to be valid, the only time it's valid and the taxation is fair under it is if you tax a person who claimed a plot of land or a natural resource (mine, forest, river) that was previously unowned and they didn't pay a prior owner for it.

And to be honest, I'm not entirely sure that there exists a unified libertarian position on whether such "first claim" property ownership should or should not be taxed. I will ask that as a separate question. I asked a follow-up question to clarify: Are there libertarian views on proper procedure to obtain property that was previously unowned?

You can also rephrase the problems with the counter-argument in terms of it relying on a logical fallacy.

It takes the assumption that "some private property is theft", and extends it to "all private property is theft".

I'm going to claim that its that Fallacy of composition, but i'm far from rhetoric expert, so feel free to edit with more correct fallacy.


[1] - "In most jurisdictions in the United States, the statute of limitations for actions in replevin ranges from two to six years.23 Similarly, in the United Kingdom, actions to reclaim personal property expire after six years24" - "THE THIRD TIME IS NOT ALWAYS A CHARM: THE TROUBLESOME LEGACY OF A DUTCH ART DEALER - THE LIMITATION AND ACT OF STATE DEFENSES IN LOOTED ART CASES" by BERT DEMARSIN

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Nice answer :-) I disagree with some of it, but the back-and-forth there could go on for ever - an inherent limitation of the Q&A format, I think. At first glance, though, your refutation on the basis of logical fallacy seems fairly strong ... – user97 Dec 14 '12 at 6:06
@ZeroPiraeus - I'm curious as to what you points of disagreement are. You can post them on chat if you wish to avoid comment discussions. – user4012 Dec 14 '12 at 6:07
On a point of fact: law.com on possession of stolen goods says: "... Innocent possession is not a crime, but the goods are generally returned to the legal owner". – user97 Dec 14 '12 at 6:08
@ZeroPiraeus - updated to address your comments. Better? – user4012 Dec 14 '12 at 12:08
Definitely :-) I am in general unconvinced by arguments based on law - in spirit, they seem to me to be (indirectly, I admit) begging the question, since I regard law as a product of political argument rather than a basis for it - but that's a fundamental philosophical disagreement, and not one I'd expect to see addressed here. In terms of explaining what the libertarian counter-counter-argument is, I think it's an excellent answer ... and your "logical fallacy" argument seems particularly robust, at least against my counter-argument as written. – user97 Dec 14 '12 at 19:36

Steps 2 and 3 of the argument both have significant problems.

Regarding step 2: If some piece of land somewhere is currently unowned, I generally get no benefit from that resource - it's just sitting around unused. If somebody takes possession of that land and "mixes their labor with the land" to make it somehow useful for humanity, they are in most cases doing me a favor; they do so with my consent. Someone who clears a bit of forest and turns it into a farm provides me with an improved possibility of acquiring fresh strawberries. Somebody who builds a house on a bit of prairie provides me a place I might be able to stay in comfort when visiting the area. These are both options I did not previously have when the land was unowned. New options make me better off, even if I might need to pay for them with some labor of my own. Land by itself is almost worthless; land being made use of benefits society at large. In short, I do approve of that first taking in the distant past. I do not resent it; I am owed no compensation for it.

Regarding step 3: Even if we granted that there was something wrong with the original taking, what specifically gives the government the right to take value from it now? The government doesn't have my proxy - I don't want them acting on my behalf. And what is it, exactly, that makes taxation "restorative justice" rather than one new additional injustice on top of all the prior ones? Taxation - even taxation of others - is done without my consent. Which makes it yet another non-consensual taking, presumably requiring yet another transfer payment to provide "restorative justice" for the taxes. And there's no reasonable relationship between the beneficiaries of taxation and those "harmed" by the original offense. Is there?

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land can be shared and used productively, this happened historically in many places and societies, it's a false dichotomy – Anentropic Apr 28 '15 at 9:17

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