Is Taxation Theft? The state vs bandits

Inspired by Infowarrior1’s comments on Theory: the inverse relationship between warfare and homicide, I got to thinking about “What is a state?” (Please note that I am sort of thinking out loud, so I can’t promise that I’ve got every detail worked out. Feedback is welcome and useful.)

I tend to take a pretty expansive definition of “government,” including not just the formally recognized thing people mean when they say government, but also the entire power structure of the entire society, including your boss, newspaper publishers, popular people, religious leaders, and even parents. (Note: most of the time when I use the word “government,” I mean it in the normal way that people would understand it.) Under the normal definition, the gang violence is just homicide, but under the expensive, gangs are a form of small-scale government (they exert power over others, after all,) and violence between them is warfare.

Gangs do many things that formal governments do: they engage in trade, regulate contracts, tax people, punish people who break their laws, control territory, and engage in warfare. The Mafia clearly has its origins in the family-based governing structure of Sicily/southern Italy, and creates a structure within which its family members benefit from government contracts and the like. The Japanese Yakuza “began as a temporary staffing agency on the docks of Kobe” and host “an annual rice cake-making event at the start of the year in which the gang distributes food and booze to the locals. … And after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the great disaster of March 2011, the earthquake and tsunami and Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, the Yamaguchi-gumi was quick to provide aid in the form of blankets, food, water, and shelter.” (source)

(It has long been somewhat of a mystery to me why the formal gov’t doesn’t just treat gangs like invading armies, and simply shoot everyone involved until they stop trying to occupy American cities.)

So what is the difference between such groups and formal governments? If we call a formal government a “state” and these other organizations “non-state governments”, then what is a state? Is ISIS a state? Yes, it seems to have enough of the normal characteristics of a state to call it a state. Is a gang a state? No, clearly a gang is not a state. What about Somalia? No, not a state so much as a state-shaped hole in the map where other states don’t want to go. The Somali government simply does not exert an organizing influence over its own territory.

Which got me thinking about the state as an institution that increases organizational complexity of a society/aids in its homeostatic maintenance within a specific territory.

By contrast, bandits, while they exert power over others, decrease a system’s organizational complexity by interfering with normal function in order to shunt other people’s wealth to themselves.

I’m sure you’ve heard the claim that “taxation is theft.” This has always seemed like a fallacious argument, especially since most things that taxes get spent on are actually programs that people want and support, and so such conversations generally lead to painstakingly laying out the fact that libertarianism doesn’t deal very well with multipolar traps yet again, which, sorry, starts quickly feeling like explaining to my kids again that, yes, things really do cost money and no, people aren’t going to just give you what you want in life because you want them to. (Not that libertarianism is all bad–just the vacuous repetition of certain catchphrases.)

At any rate, a legitimate government uses its taxes to increase the overall order of the system, while an illegitimate one uses its power to decrease order. The Somali government does not increase (or maintain) the overall order of Somalia, so it is not a state.

Let’s switch for a moment from Somalia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ne Zaire, ne the Belgian Congo.

I have mentioned before Josephine and Frederick’s account of their attempt to drive from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa–a distance of about a thousand miles, or 1,500 km–in the DRC. It’s a great story, so I recommend you read it yourself, but I’m going to highlight a few relevant bits:

When the Belgians ruled the area, they built a lot of roads. Today, if you are brave enough to go there, you can see the condition the roads are in:

Photos by Frederick and Jospehine
Photo by Frederick and Jospehine

There are a few good roads in the country–built by Belgian-run NGOs, mining companies (I believe these are generally run by the Chinese), and Catholic missionaries, eg:

“That night we talked for hours with Frère Louis. Our little adventures here dissapear in the nothing compared to everything he went trough. He had been in DRC for over 40 years, he stayed during all the wars. He had to abandon everything and run for his live three times as teams were sent out to kill him. But he always returned. Many books could be filled with his adventures.

He is also responsible for most of the bridges Katanga. He build hundreds of bridges himself. He has a small working budget from Franciscans, but he funds most of it all by himself. He has put every last penny in the Congolese people. That is why his house in Luena was so rundown.

He also told us about the Mayi-Mayi rebels that still roam the jungle. We were not prepared for the horror stories we would hear. I still have problems giving these stories a place. They are not just stories though, he gave us a 100 page document with his interviews of victims. If you thought, like us, that cannibalism was something that belonged in comic books and dusty museums about Africa. You are wrong. :cry:” [source]

Not only do the Congolese themselves not maintain their own roads, they contribute to their destruction by digging holes in them to trap passing vehicles so they can demand money in exchange for helping them out. Likewise, many of the “tolls” charged of passing vehicles go not to road maintenance (a legit reason to charge people for using a road,) but to line the pockets of the people charging the tolls.

In other words, while many Congolese are trying to use the roads to conduct trade and transport goods, others are actively destroying the roads and sabotaging that trade in order to benefit off other people’s hard work. A man who charges tolls in order to pay for improvements to the road is contributing to the structural complexity of society; a man who charges tolls to line his own pockets is a bandit.

In response to a comment in the thread–“Absolutely great to read you ! Belgians in the Congo ! You must be nuts ! “–Frederik responds:

I presume you are referring to the “not so nice” role Belgium has had in the history of Congo. For a while I thought that would be a problem as well, but it isn’t. Just about anything that still exists in Congo is made by the Belgians. The older generation who had their education from the Belgians really have fond memories of that era. And at the moment Belgium is still one of the main funders of the country (via aid). The dark pages of history during the Leopold 2 era is not what the Congolese people think about. All in all I think being Belgian was actually a plus. As a matter of fact, a lot of people asked how things were going with the “war” in Belgium :-o” [source]

Also on the subject:

“Occasionally (and I must admit, it was a rare event) we meet nice people. Like this guy on his bike. [picture] He stopped to say hello. He was a well educated person who previsouly worked as an accountant for a big company. The company is no longer there so now he survives like everybody else by trading a few things. [picture] He was a good example of the older generation. They grew up in a prosperous (relative) Congo and have seen it go downhill. They still have the pride every person should have. The younger generation grew up in disastrously f*cked up country and lack the pride. Why should they, they know they do not get any chances?
It is that old generation that longs back to the colonial time. They acknowledge there were a lot of problems in that period and that they were discriminated by the white colonisator. But at least they had a functional country. They had roads and schools. They had jobs and could buy supplies. And above all, there was stability. Now there is nothing but uncertainty.. waiting for the next war to start.” [source]

And on a related note:

If there is any thing you can find anywhere in the world it is Coca-Cola. They should know how to get their goods in the country. We had no response on mails, so we called them up. Their answer was pretty short: They do not have a distribution network outside the major cities in Congo 😯 And it proved to be true, Congo is the first country we have visited were Coca-cola is hard to get once you leave the major cities.” [source]

Someone else–Christian P.–comments on his own experiences,

Before entering the country, we did not really know what to expect and we had the same exact nervosity as you were reffering. And it never went away.

The place is hard to imagine and describe. I have travelled a lot in Africa but the DRC is like nothing else. And I have only spend a few days there….

The look on people’s face is different. The vibe on the street is intense. It seems like everything is on the verge of exploding. I had never seen that many guns in one place. There is no bank, no guidebooks, no backpackers, no tour bus, no hotels, nothing. It truly still is the dark side. [source]

And I haven’t even mentioned all of the times random villagers tried to hack Frederik and Josephine to pieces with machetes, which is a definite deterrent to trade!

Like Somalia, the DRC isn’t a country so much as a country-shaped hole in the map. What government there is tends to be local, tribal, or run by folks like the mining companies or Catholic missions, and much of the time, what authority exists is actively undermining any larger systems of social/economic complexity for their own short term gain.

But what about states that are clearly “states”, but are clearly bad for the people under their rule? Soviet land collectivization in Ukraine, for example, killed 2.5–7.5 million people. Collectivization caused mass famines throughout the USSR; the exact number of lives lost is unknown, but estimated between 5.5 and 8 million deaths. The previous Soviet famine of 1921 had killed another 6 million people. Depending on whose definitions we use, communist regimes are generally blamed for somewhere between 20 and 100 million civilian deaths during the 20th century.

(How is it, then, that some of the nicest people I know are communists? Are they just idiots?)

Communist governments, I think it is safe to say, are state-level bandits.



9 thoughts on “Is Taxation Theft? The state vs bandits

  1. I’m sure you’ve heard the claim that “taxation is theft.” This has always seemed like a fallacious argument, especially since most things that taxes get spent on are actually programs that people want and support,

    It means that people are forced to pay for these programs , or else face consequences like jail – similar to how a robber extorts money from his victim by force, hence theft. If someone wants to donate to help pay welfare for unproductive people, they should, but the tax system is not voluntary. maybe these services are necessary, but that doesn’t mean people want or support them.


    • Yes, I know.

      It’s just that, “Let’s make all taxes optional” probably doesn’t result in a functional system. Everyone wants to free-ride and let other people pay for roads and the like if they can. (If someone can make it work, I am, of course, all ears.)


      • A lot of these services can be privatized. Roads, for example, can be privatized. Under such a transfer, nothing (in theory) should chance except for the private entity owning the land under the roads and then having to maintain the roads. A contract can be worked out whereby if maintenance isn’t made, some sort of fee is levied. Or revocation of said road – kinda like a franchisee system, where franchise owners have to abide by certain rules of the parent company. Private owners could also assess tolls to help pay for maintenance, but this could still be cheaper than taxes.


      • This might be a reasonable way to do roads, but roads are a very small % of gov’t expenditures. Most gov’t money is spent on national defense, Social Security, and other forms of welfare.


  2. Stalin at least was a gangster/bandit. He raised significant amounts of money for the communist by robbing banks and extorting oil companies, although many of these resembled terror attacks. His most infamous robbery resulted in 40 dead. If your interested in Stalin’s history before he became Stalin you should read “Young Stalin” by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

    Bonus one of his poems:

    The bud has blossomed; now the rose
    Touches the tender violet.
    The lily, bent above the grass
    By gentle breezes, slumbers not.

    The lark, signing its chirping hymn,
    Soars high above the clouds;
    Meanwhile, the nightingale intones
    With sweet, mellifluous sounds:

    “Break forth in bloom, Iberian land!
    Let joy within you reign.
    While you must study, little friend,
    And please your motherland!”

    Iveria, no. 280 (1895)


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