We, the Extorted

There is a remarkably simplistic, captioned sepia-toned photo making the rounds on several of the social networks. I won’t post it in this entry, but the gist is that until 1913 Americans “kept all of their earnings”, and in spite of that fact we had schools and roads and railroads and an Army and unicorns pooped tax-free rainbows. Therefore people today are being “extorted”.

The implication is that prior to 1913, when the 16th Amendment was ratified (allowing Congress to levy income taxes without apportioning them among the states or basing them on the United States Census), we weren’t paying taxes on our earning, and we did just fine. Therefore taxes = extortion.

But this is a remarkably ignorant reading of history. Just because in 1913 Congress could levy taxes without apportioning them, doesn’t mean taxes didn’t exist before then. You can’t even claim to have read the Constitution and say that, since the 16th Amendment was just a modification of Congress’ ability to levy taxes as granted in Article I, Sections 2 and 8; not something brand new. Prior to 1913 there were direct and indirect taxes: excise taxes and tariffs, import taxes, property taxes, taxes on economic activities, personal income taxes (on and off since 1861), inheritance taxes, poll taxes, sales taxes, etc. Or does someone think the state and federal governments worked with zero budgets until 1913?

In addition, a lot of the income taxes imposed before 1913 used wars as their justification, so that helps explain the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Heck, one of the main reasons the Constitution came to be was because the nation was unable to pay its war debts, thanks to the lack of collection powers in the Articles of Confederation.  And prior to the establishment of public education, schools and colleges were available only to those who could afford to pay for them personally or within their community, so it wasn’t exactly an educational utopia for those who wanted the opportunity to better themselves but lacked the money.

But fundamentally we need to ask the question: does anyone think that 1912 was the high-water mark for American society and the welfare and happiness of its citizens, one that we should strive to recreate?

Sure, there is tax fraud and waste today, and we can work to eliminate that within the current tax context. But as my friend Ben Zvan said after April 15th this year, quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” To equate taxation with extortion or to claim that prior to 1913 no one paid taxes and everything was peachy because of it is ridiculous.

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12 thoughts on “We, the Extorted

  1. Um, no.
    While I agree with most of your article, I don’t think there’s any way of getting around the fact that tax is collected by threats of punishment, no matter how many of us would be willing to pay voluntarily. That is extortion.

      • Not quite. While I have my reservations about the justification of punishment, as well as laws in general, I think there is a more or less fundamental difference between forbidding someone to punch me and ordering someone to give me $50.
        Don’t you?

  2. Sure. And there’s also a huge difference between ordering a random person to give me $50 (let’s say, in exchange for not punching them), and a system of laws that have been voted into place by representatives elected by the people, wherein we have agreed that the only way to build roads, pay for a court system, public schools, police protection, national defense and firefighting equipment is for all of us to contribute part of our income towards those ends.

    The latter is not analogous to either of the cases you presented.

    • I think it is. One group of people is forcing others to give them money. That’s extortion, or robbery, depending on the details.
      The number of people involved, to me, is not relevant when judging the principle of it, and neither is the use the money is put to.
      You write “We have agreed”. How? When? Who? I have never been asked for my agreement, and neither have you.
      Now, we could argue about the justification of property in and of itself, and I’m not sure I could make a convincing case in this regard, but as long as we accept it, I see no way around the classification of taxes as extortion or robbery.

      • Did you personally agree to laws against murder and the punishments for it? Were you asked for your agreement on laws against fraud? Did I personally sign a letter agreeing that the laws against piracy were just and the punishments were appropriate?

        Of course not. But that has never been a requirement.

        It’s inherent in the concept of democracy (and not coincidentally, in the Constitution). You have the right to make your case and help elect officials that represent your views and have your taxes raised, reduced or eliminated. You have the right to attend your local meetings and argue against property taxes, and have those changed if your arguments are convincing. You will probably have to make the case of how to pay for the services you want in the absence of that income, or how those services are not necessary and can be eliminated, but you’re free to make that argument and convince people.

        I don’t have the ability to do that if I’m being extorted. If you don’t see how that is fundamentally different, I would suggest that your definition of the word “extortion” also includes any punishment for me threatening to send you to jail if you don’t pay for the goods and services I have provided to you.

        We have agreed, by virtue of living in a democracy and through our democratically-elected representatives, that we will pay the government for the goods and services we want them to provide. When the bill comes due, paying for those goods and services is not extortion: it’s fulfilling our side of the social compact.

        By your definition, all laws are “forcing” people to act in a certain way, therefore they are all extortion. Because hey, I never “agreed” that murder should be punished: when were you asked for your agreement? I wasn’t asked either, therefore it must be extortion that you are threatening me with punishment for murdering someone.

        Your argument is so broad that it includes opposition to a system of democratically-elected representatives that negotiate on our behalf on the ways we will pay for the services we demand in order to live in a civilized society that protects its citizens. Because that’s the system we’re living under. And if you can’t understand the critical difference between that and “extortion”, then I can be nothing but amused that you can call something “extortion” (implying illegality), when you also cannot point to any agreement you or I have signed that says that “extortion” is a punishable offense. Therefore, by your own definition, “extortion” is not something that there can be a consequence or punishment for, since you and I haven’t personally agreed on one.

        The argument that taxes=extortion relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of both concepts.

      • I like amusing people, so this conversation was not wholly pointless. Still, maybe I can still get a little more out of it.
        Depending on your patience, I would ask for your definition of extortion (which should be rather easy and not especially controversial) and/or your position on why an when a person’s agreement to being treated in a certain way is not a requirement.

  3. Extortion is a criminal offense of obtaining money, property, or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion (Wikipedia).

    Collecting taxes is (a) not a criminal offense, and (b) an ability we provide to our government through the representative democratic process in order to pay for the goods and services the government provides. Obeying the rule of law that is a result of that representative democratic process is a critical part of maintaining the society and the civilization that uses it as its foundation.

    We agree to pay taxes, because we understand that the benefits, goods and services the government provides must be paid for.

    Your turn: if I disagree with the law that says that murder should be punished with imprisonment, and I was never asked for or signed off on my agreement on that law, is the policeman’s threat of throwing me in jail for murdering someone “extortion”? After all, the policeman is treating me in a way with which I do not agree, which is the answer to your second question: a person’s agreement to being treated in a certain way is not a requirement when that treatment is based on a representative democracy having chosen it as an appropriate action to help maintain peace, order and equal treatment under the law.

    Which is helped, by the way, by having a legal enforcement and justice system… paid for by taxes.

    • Collecting taxes is (a) not a criminal offense

      Okay, I’d have to admit that my “no way” was premature. Of course, if your definition excludes whatever the state says is not extortion, then taxes are not extortion. So that’s okay.
      I could still quibble with your statement that it’s ridiculous to think differently, but I don’t want to.

      We agree to pay taxes

      There it is again. Is there a special reason why you insist on stating it that way, when many people clearly don’t agree, and when you yourself have written that agreement doesn’t matter?
      Really, if your core argument is “Taxation is not technically a crime, so it can’t be extortion”, then why all the other stuff? Or is your core argument something else, and I misunderstood?

      if I disagree with the law that says that murder should be punished with imprisonment, and I was never asked for or signed off on my agreement on that law, is the policeman’s threat of throwing me in jail for murdering someone “extortion”?

      I wouldn’t say so, because extortion is “obtaining money, property, or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion”.
      And to do you the courtesy of answering the gist of your question rather than its plain wording: I think it’s perfectly acceptable to defend oneself from other people. I think it’s rather unacceptable to use coercion to get stuff from other people they don’t want to give me. I think there’s a pretty plain difference between the two, generally. (As I said, if we want to question property as a concept, things might get more interesting.)
      Punishment, on the other hand, I don’t believe in. But I’d have to do some (read: a lot of) research to form an educated opinion on it.

      • >I think it’s rather unacceptable to use coercion to get stuff from
        >other people they don’t want to give me.

        The problem is that they way you define it, any law that you didn’t specifically sign off to and that requires you to behave in a certain way under threat of punishment is illegally coercive. In that world, every citizen would have to sign agreement to any law before they are bound by it, and is free to ignore any law with which they disagree.

        Needless to say, that is unworkable, not to mention not a requirement for democracy. Fortunately, the Constitution, our system of justice, and the rule of law disagree with you. And that’s why we have freeways you can drive on.

        If you choose to define “extortion” that way, then obviously your definition makes sense. But your definition of extortion is one in which the rule of law could no longer apply. And again, we come back to the amusing point that you are claiming extortion is a bad thing that shouldn’t be allowed… based on what authority? Did everyone agree to that definition, and that we should be “coerced” to not extort others under threat of… something? Did I? Did you? Under what authority could you claim relief against extortion in that case?

      • The problem is that they way you define it, any law that you didn’t specifically sign off to and that requires you to behave in a certain way under threat of punishment is coercive.

        How is that a problem? Of course they are. Do you not consider laws coercive?

        Needless to say, that is unworkable, not to mention not a requirement for democracy.

        I would doubt the former, although it seems plausible, and could not care less about the latter.

        And that’s why we have freeways you can drive on.

        Okay, I have a limit somewhere. Thank you for this discussion, but I’m done. Probably best for all involved.

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