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, 2012 at 5:00
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    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, 2012 at 9:54
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    @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, 2012 at 19:49
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    "Taxation is the non-consensual deprivation by the state of the property of the citizen." --not sure that's true. Not many people like taxes, but they usually pay them. Jun 5, 2013 at 20:21

6 Answers 6


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

  • 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, 2012 at 6:06
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    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, 2012 at 6:08
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    @ZeroPiraeus - updated to address your comments. Better?
    – user4012
    Dec 14, 2012 at 12:08
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    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, 2012 at 19:36
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    You cannot gain ownership on stolen goods, even if you buy them in good faith. If my car is stolen, and you buy it for $5,000, I can take the car back because I'm the owner, and you can feel free to sue the thief for $5,000.
    – gnasher729
    Feb 10, 2018 at 17:45

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, 2015 at 9:17
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    +1 for the second point, but agreed with Anentropic for the first one. While I agree that I don't resent a first taking of land in the distant past, theoretically, someone claiming previously unclaimed land does deprive me (and everyone else) of the ability to claim or otherwise make use of that land. Even if I don't personally have an intention to do so, it's not unlikely that someone else would have made use of the land had the first person not claimed it. This is, after all, why we try to do land-grabs quickly in strategy games. :)
    – reirab
    Jan 24, 2017 at 21:49
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    @Anentropic It can be, but not likely. More likely the shared land becomes a tragedy of the commons.
    – Andy
    Feb 21, 2017 at 23:22
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    "Someone who clears a bit of forest and turns it into a farm provides me with an improved possibility of acquiring fresh strawberries." And deprives you of a bit of forest. YMMV on which is more valuable.
    – Caleth
    Apr 1, 2021 at 16:04

John Locke's theory of land acquisition by discovering and mixing labour with it has no real relationship with facts. It was a popular idea in the Enlightenment, and hence in the US, where it was the ideological foundation for homesteading. However it ignored the existing users of the land, such as the native Americans. The reality is that by around 1,000AD there was no land that could be farmed which was not already occupied. In the Lockean view the "savage" natives were not properly using the land, so it was perfectly fine for "civilised" white settlers to go and take it off them and put it to better use. But somehow, once this expropriation had happened, it was no longer a valid argument and you could not acquire someone else's land merely by occupying it and putting it to better use. (Some jurisdictions do have rules for this, but they tend to rely on the landowner not objecting for 20 years or so).

On the other hand the socialist argument is that the community (however defined) is always in the best position to decide on how property should be used, and hence should always make those decisions. To go back to the Lockean scenario, when new land is discovered it is the property of the whole community, and arbitrarily parcelling it up and assigning some people as "owners" merely deprives everyone else of the benefits of that land, to their disadvantage. Hence the "property is theft" line.

A more modern approach to the problem is basically utilitarian. Limited property rights are seen as a useful mechanism whereby people with a proprietorial right in some land are motivated to improve it and put it to productive use. However this right is not seen as absolute or unlimited; for instance eminent domain laws enable the government to declare that it has a better use for the land and to take it, with appropriate financial compensation. There are also laws about pollution, nuisance, water rights and so on which reflect the fact that no man's piece of land is an island entire unto itself.

Socialists believe that communal decisions, work and sharing will produce a better outcome than private decisions and trade. In practice this has turned out not to work so well. If they were right then dissolving property rights would be the appropriate response.


Point 3 says:

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

This is just plain wrong. To enjoy the benefits of citizenship, that is to be a 'citizen', one must also consent to the rule of law of the state, its writ. This generally includes taxation. Thus point 3 should read:

Taxation is the consensual deprivation by the state of the property of the citizen.

Hence point 4 then does not follow, instead we can give a modified 4:

Taxation is not theft.

It is, as you have put it, a form of restorative justice, as well as being a form of distributive justice. It is also much more than that - we would not have gee-whiz computers if nascent technologies whose payoffs may be accounted for in centuries and are supported by government for this very reason - and paid through taxes.

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    This answer could be improved by focusing more on how libertarians might address "private property is theft" arguments, and less on how socialists might address "taxation is theft" arguments. As is, I don't see how it addresses the question at all. Apr 3, 2021 at 23:32
  • @Joel Harmon: I'm challenging the logic in the argument made by the OP. I think the question can be improved by actually using reasoning as we normally use it. As I point out, claim 3 is simply wrong and hence 4 - the conclusion - just falls down. It has no heft behind it. Apr 4, 2021 at 6:57
  • @Joel Harmon: How can one address the question as it stands when the argument it makes is false? Please address that. Apr 4, 2021 at 6:57
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    Anyone of any belief system could provide a great answer to this question by researching libertarian refutations to the provided counterarguments, then provide a summary of them with citations for sources. If someone is interested in something related, such as socialist perspectives on libertarian "taxation is theft" arguments, they can ask a question focusing on that. Further action could include self answering the socialism version, and maybe posting a comment on each question linking to the other as a related question. Apr 4, 2021 at 17:01
  • @Joel Harmon: That is a different question altogether. A question which highlights logic in its question, as this question very much does so, must stand and fall by its use of logic. Especially, libertarianism whuch fetishes logic. As I've pointed out, the first given argument for libertarianism falls apart when it's reasoning is looked at. Moreover, the question itself asks for a 'counter-argument'. I've countered it by pointing out the logic is suspect. In fact more than suspect, it is plain wrong. Apr 5, 2021 at 11:12

Something that was not previously owned is not a shared resource. In many cases it is not even a known resource. Example: Someone invents a fabulous product, Thing A. Because the idea and its reduction to practice was not formerly known of by anyone, it was clearly not owned. Now the inventor of Thing A owns what was not previously owned. Did he steal from anyone in that process? No.

Laissez-faire allows people to explore, discover, create and therefore claim hitherto unclaimed, unowned and unknown wealth.

If argument #2 were true, that would imply that the laziest and most ignorant person on planet Earth would have equal claim as any other on all previously unclaimed wealth discovered, invented, or created. Guess how many planets I own that I don't even know about? Guess how many undiscovered resources and ideas I have equity in? This is mutually exclusive with property rights and laissez-faire.

The definitions involved are inherently flawed. Claims 1 and 2 are mutually exclusive. By definition, a thing not previously owned cannot be stolen. This is responsible for the contradiction.

  • The claims still hold. What is unclaimed cannot be regarded as anyone's private property, and hence cannot be stolen.
    – pygosceles
    Apr 7, 2021 at 2:11
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    Ownership is that a person has the right to be the Earthly steward of a certain property, to possess it and exercise autonomy and dominion over it, as granted by Heaven. God is the Creator of all, and all things are His to give. Children fighting over the last brownie is not a dispute for the children to settle. It is for the giver to decide. Our portions are given to us by claims, broadly as nations, which were created at first by God. Intrigues and theft have ensued, but each child born into the world is a rightful heir. There is enough and to spare. Each is to be content with his portion.
    – pygosceles
    Jul 9, 2021 at 19:30
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    Given this knowledge, there is no such thing as something not previously owned once we are inclusive of the Creator, so to own something not formerly owned, one must appeal to God. To receive at His hand by His consent something by lease or stewardship is therefore not theft. The rationale introduce in OP claim 2 is absurd as I stated; it is not possible to steal something not previously owned or claimed; the natural depository for all such goods being nature and nature's God. The only thefts occur when multiple claims are made on an item, at least one of those claims being unjust.
    – pygosceles
    Jul 9, 2021 at 19:32

I used to be a radical libertarian. Now I am more of minarchist, or meritocratist.

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

Not all resources. I think the black and white cases from libertarian points of view is when an object is produced by humans hand. Not when it's natural resources. Natural resources is grey area and there are several practical win win way to resolve that.

Most libertarians objects to Income taxes. You see. Once you produce something. It's yours.

Say you build a house on top of a land. The house is definitely yours. The land, well, that's a bit of grey. I like George Hendry on this one. Yap. The house is all yours. There is no grey area there.

Recognizing that your house is a property is not only "right" in libertarian sense, it's also very beneficial for society. Imagine if you don't have property right for that house. Imagine if government does not actively protect those house. Then someone would just seize your house. Then no body would build houses, and everyone will just seize houses. That would be sucks right. So yea, no grey there. Your house is your property because you build it.

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.

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

This is actually a good point. However, your position is too extreme here. Rather than "theft" why don't we call it, "renting". Land owners are really borrowing land from society that not only tolerate their use of land but continually protect the land owners. That means land owners should be tax reasonably for that rent.

And I think George Hendry has a good solution here.

Tax land.

See. You build a house on a land.

The house belong to you

The land? We can say it's partially belong to the state/society. And owners continually get the benefit of the security and infrastructure build by the state. Owners should pay maintenance fee for this.

So you buy usage land from the state/society. And then you keep paying the state/society some tax for protection of your land proportional to land tax.

How much tax for land should be? I don't know. Let the states compete. Whichever can produce good infrastructure, with good security on a peace of area with lower tax rate will have digital nomad and rich people moving there. If I enjoy a safe and secure life with access to shops and stuff, I won't mind paying tax there. If I don't like it, I can always go somewhere else.

So yes, I agree with you. Taxing property and using it to pay citizens can be a reasonable restorative justice. However, I do not think owning a house or a land as "theft". Let's not get extreme here. I would oppose any government that just seize land. That's stupid. Why would you do that? Taxing land fine. Seizing? What for?

Now let's take a look how we can use this principle to solve Palestine and Israel conflict.

The land that Israel occupy is in dispute.

However, it used to be a desert. And now it's filled with metropolis.

What about the infrastructure, the road, the building, the working democratic society on those land? That is not in dispute. 95% of the land value, and all the buildings on top of it belongs to the jewish people. They build the land.


Well, may be multiple nations can have some sort of rules. Land, especially those who are in dispute, should be taxed, say at a rate of .01% for non disputed land, or .05% for land that really should have belong to others. Notice 90% of land value is created, not just there by it self.

You can say that American seize Indian land. So what happened? The indians live in metropolists with fiber optic and roads and sky scrapper, and this evil whites come seizing them all? Of course not.

The empty land, may arguably belong, at least partially to the indians. But land value in US would have been very close to 0 if not for all the road the fiber optic and who knows what the "whites" build.

That's why I am advocating very little tax to land for the UN. The government that controls the land can tax the land for 1% rate and keep the rest as profit.

We use the money to I don't know, buy some cheap land and give room for refugees? Especially refugee that are replaced.

Tada. Problem solved right? Much less war here. Much cheaper solutions than war.

If latter some palestinians really want to go back to their land, all they need to do is to build their place to be as advance as israel, earn money honestly, and brought this whole issue up to court of justice, and rebuy the land. Notice that palestinians are the not only refugees there. Many jewish land are also seized by arab nations. That too will go through the same process.

Cheaper than war.

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    Why did you have to bring the Israelis and Native Americans into this? This will likely attract a lot of downvotes from people who don't agree with your "solution" which puts the weaker sides of these conflicts at a severe disadvantage.
    – Philipp
    Feb 10, 2018 at 16:16
  • This comment does not answer the question asked, so I have flagged it. SOME parts of this answer could be easily fixed (eg, writing "George Hendry" when you mean "Henry George"), but the writing and the reasoning is also unclear, sufficiently so that it's hard to even to guess how the answer was intended to contribute to understanding - it feels at best loosely inspired by the question.
    – glenra
    Jun 5, 2018 at 19:12

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