This post is some of my thoughts on a comment made by LDS Philosopher. In it I hope to illustrate why Karl Popper was correct that battling over the meaning of a word has political ramifications, but never rational ones. My desire is to put this issue to bed (at least for myself) so that I can just put a link to this post when this issue comes up again. As such, the post is not actually about ‘taxes as theft’ per se, though I’m sure many will desire to respond to it as such. (And that is okay.)
Here is the comment in question:
Taxes are only objectively unlike theft in certain ways if you define theft as “forcible seizure of property, in which the victim has no token of a say in what happens with it.” I define theft as “forcible seizure of property, regardless of what happens next.” So your argument only works if you define theft in your specifically narrow way, which conveniently precludes taxation.
This argument is, in style, a common sort of argument of which I wish to illustrate a hidden logical fallacy in it.
The idea being expressed is that because I (in LDSP’s view) defined the word ‘theft’ wrongly, my whole argument is wrong. But, in fact, this isn’t rationally the case. In fact, I will illustrate that – rationally speaking – it simply does not matter who ‘has the correct definition.’
Words are Only Symbols of Meaning
To understand why this is so, we must start with the realization that words have no innate meaning of their own. Words are actually symbols that point to some underlying meaning. The words themselves have no meaning on their own prior to the existence of some concept worth labeling. (Physically and biologically speaking, we would say that words point to certain similar mind/brain states shared across individuals. But this is a matter for another time.) Further, rarely if ever do words point to a single underlying meaning. We use words in various ways and nuances, often using them in slightly different but overlapping ways.
Imagine the Word Police
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the word police come along and declare that LDSP’s definition is the ‘right’ definition for ‘theft.’ So the ‘correct’ definition for ‘theft’ is now (as recognized by the word police) officially this:
- Theft: forcible seizure of property, regardless of what happens next.
Now it’s an objective fact that I have not been thinking of the word ‘theft’ as having that broad a meaning. I have (wrongly for the sake of argument) been using it with a bit more nuance. I’ve been excluding all sorts of forcible seizures of property from being kinds of theft.
And, apparently I am not even close to being alone on this. This we know because we just witnessed Adam, SilverRain, not to mention all non-libertarians in the world – that would be nearly everybody – not feeling that ‘taxes’ fit the proper nuance and connotation of the word ‘theft.’
This simple fact – that the word police’s definition is actually not the normal common usage of the word – is in no way affected by our choice to declare it to be the ‘correct’ definition. For in fact both ‘underlying concepts’ are valid concepts in their own right, regardless of what word you choose to call them by.
Words Have Multiple Usages
So, regardless of how the world police insist the word is intended, even they must now accept the reality that the word “theft” does in fact have at least one (probably far more) nuanced usages. So let’s write it down and make it unofficial.
- (Formal usage) Theft: forcible seizure of property, regardless of what happens next.
- (Informal usage) Theft: forcible seizure of property from non-authorized sources or by non-authorized means without due process.
The Difficulty in Defining Words Consistently: The Need for Charity of Reference
Now if I were really arguing with the word police, I’d probably point out that their definition [i.e. theft(1)] has some fairly serious issues. For example, a court taking away property as payment for negligence is now theft. Eminent domain is definitely theft. Tariffs are definitely theft. Taking away someone’s gun so that we can put them in jail is even theft. Sadly, even the police taking away disputed property so that we can work out who really owns it is theft as well. In fact, take 10 minutes and think of at least 10 other ways that “Theft(1)” now doesn’t refer to the way the word ‘theft’ as used in real life by real people.
Now granted, given additional time, I’m sure LDSP could refine his definition more and more until it took more and more time for me to find counter examples. Eventually we’d wind up with a 10 page legalese document defining ‘theft’ that only lawyers care to read. And even then, I’d be able to find some counter examples (albeit they’d be really far stretches) because there is no human way to make natural language definitions 100% consistent. There is always some ‘charity of reference’ that must take place. The person listening must decide to not argue over whether or not the word is ‘the correct definition’ and must instead just say “okay, let me get into your mind and try to understand what you really meant, regardless of whether or not it’s officially the correct definition.”
Defining Terms Has No Rational Content
In fact, my real claim is it’s pointless to try to win a debate via defining of terms because it never has any real rational content once we’ve come to that. Defining of terms has one and only one place in a discussion: helping others understand how you happened to be using your terms (be it right or wrong) so that they can understand you better. Arguments over definitions never clarify meaning. They are effectively a discussion killer. For there is never a time you can’t both just say “okay, let’s split this word into two definitions and keep going with the discussion.”
Is it the Majority Vote that Matters?
But the word police actually have a much more significant problem on their hands, because even if the word police eventually convince everyone in the world (including me) to stop using ‘theft’ in the common way and to adopt their definition instead, we still have a valid concept of taxation as something meaningfully different from the type of ‘theft’ done without due process. The underlying concept itself does not change just because we slapped a different label on it. Indeed, the underlying concept doesn’t change even if we declare that it’s illegal to ever make up a word to refer to it. The concept has a platonic reality of its own independent of any words.
If the word police convinced everyone in the world to use their definition for ‘theft’ — i.e. Theft(1) — that ‘theft’ would no longer even have a negative connotation any more. It would be more similar to how we used the word ‘confiscated’ today. It would just be a neutral word for taking something away from people. “Theft” would just mean any sort of situation where we are forced to take a person’s property away, being for either a good reason or a bad reason. This is because merely redefining ‘taxes as theft’ in this way still leaves a whole world of people convinced that states are good and taxes necessary.
Ironically, we’d now need a new word for forced taking of property without due process. Pretend that the word “efou” is this new word. Libertarians would now give up even caring whether or not ‘taxes are theft’ (just as I never hear Libertarians crying ‘taxes are confiscation!’) and their new refrain would now be ‘taxes are efou!.’
Why? Because it’s the negative connotation they were after in the first palce, not the specific concept. And so really nothing would have changed even if the change of definitions had been unanimously agreed upon. In short, defining of terms does not buy Libertarians what they want here. What they want is for people to start thinking of taxes in the negative way that Libertarians do. And this can’t be accomplished via a redefinition scheme.
So it’s not the definitions that matter after all, it’s the underlying concept that does!
(Side Question: Does this not also mean that when Libertarians claim ‘taxes are theft’ that there is an underlying assumption that their definition isn’t the common one?)
Conceding LDS Philosopher’s Definition Buys Him Nothing (Rationally)
So I’m actually quite comfortable with the idea that LDSP has a right to define ‘theft’ any way he wishes. Conceding this point buys him nothing rationally.
The fact is that all we’ve done now is split the word in two. So, at best, all we can say is that ‘taxations are objectively Theft(1) but objectively not Theft(2).” That just means there is no disagreement any more. In fact, it means there was never a disagreement to begin with! Arguing over whose ‘word’ is ‘the most correct’ is meaningless to this or any future conversation.
So I’m willing to conceded that, given LDSPs definition, he’s right that ‘taxes are objectively theft(1)’ but that given mine [theft(2)] I’m right. So there is nothing to debate or argue about here after all. Case closed.
Plus, we can play this game all day, of course. Let’s, for example, decide that ‘theft(3)’ now refers to any form of charity. Am I now rationally correct to say “tithing is theft as I’ve defined the term?” Absolutely! And so what?
Understanding Each Other Is What Matters…?
Rationally speaking, the only thing defining terms gives us is a clearer understanding of what was intended. I now know that LDSP is not defining ‘theft’ in the same way I am. (A point that I wish he had clarified long long ago.) Both of us should be charitable and allow for both definitions for the sake of discussion. I can do that: LDSP is right – taxes are Theft(1).
And I don’t care. Because that’s not a definition of ‘theft’ I have ever used before nor will ever use again any more than I will ever refer to ‘generous giving’ as ‘theft’ beyond the last paragraph.
Perhaps he feels the same way in reverse. Okay, fair enough. But he still has the issue of dealing with the fact that the vast majority of human beings do in fact see Theft(2) as the way they normally use the term. So from this point forward, the only thing that would make sense rationally speaking would be for LDSP to admit this. From this point forward when he says ‘taxes are theft’ it behooves him (if communication is his goal; see below) to first admit that he’s using a different definition then what most people mean by the word. Failure to do so is merely to choose to be misunderstood.
The “Political Pros” of LDSPs Definition of Theft
I confess that it does seem to me that LDSP’s position on this issue is different from Geoff’s. Geoff was clearly using the phrase ‘taxes are theft’ in an objectively inconsistent, but personally consistent way. i.e. It was an objectively correct expression of how he subjectively felt.
LDSP, coming from an anarchist point of view, is a different beast. I suspect that what LDSP is getting at is that there should be no ‘states’ at all and therefore there should be no taking of property by due process except in some very narrow exceptions. (Perhaps in the example of the court taking away property to pay for negligence).
Given this view, it seems understandable to me that he’d personally feel that due process isn’t the sufficient distinction that most people understand it to be between taxes and theft. So I am not denying the rationality (i.e. consistency) of LDSPs view here. He is right that taxes are theft given his set of assumptions. (Which I do not agree with.)
But this doesn’t really resolve the rational issue at stake, does it? This still boils down to the same choice Geoff had to make. What is the purpose of LDSP’s comment? Was it to carefully communicate his position? Or was it rhetorically meant to ‘taint’ the concept of due process and states?
Had careful communication been the desired goal, it would not be hard for LDSP to be more clear about his position. He could easily say something like this instead:
I understand that most people see a difference between taking someone’s property by due process and taking someone’s property without due process. I do not personally accept this distinction because I don’t believe that there should ever been states. So to me I can’t politically accept that taxes are not theft, though I can easily see why those that accept the distinctions of due process would say otherwise.
It’s just not that hard to communicate the underlying idea here. But it sort of removes the intended taint right along with it. In other words, the approach above, while far more accurately communicative of LDSPs real position, lacks the emotional punch desired.
So in the end, despite a clear difference in LDSP’s position compared to Geoff’s the end result is basically the same. He must decide what his purpose is when writing his posts and comments. For objectively speaking it still a fact that the way most people commonly define ‘theft’ taxes do not qualify. Redefinitions do not change this.
To realize why LDSP feels taxes are theft, one must first understand the chain of thoughts that hooks together such diverse concepts as theft, due process, and states. LDSPs previous comments (prior to the one being considered) failed to convey the required information for an outsider to make sense of his comments. But I can see why that might have been by design. So I am not prepared to take issue with LDSPs chosen approach.
In fact, I think LDSPs approach represents a trade off that he gets to choose to make between expressing how he feels (and finding others that feel the same) and communicating to those that disagree with him. And because that is true, this approach comes with the very same high price Geoff’s did: outsiders will sincerely be unable to understand his position until he clarifies it.
But so what? Again, can we really call LDSPs approach unsuccessful? Didn’t he just get me to spend a few hours thinking about his position in depth?