The Proper Use of Violence

There’s a right way and a wrong way to use violence.

…I refer, of course, to the word in the English language. “Violence” has joined a long list of words hijacked for purposes of argumentative rhetoric, selectively misapplied in order to take advantage of their negative (or positive) emotional associations, removing us one step further from constructive debate. Thus, for instance, meat is “murder” (as that Smiths song goes), maternity leave is “socialism“, Israel is a “colonialist power”, and taxation is “violent“.

This last example, especially popular among libertarians, refers to the fact that taxpayers, well, taxpay quite reluctantly (to say the least), without having free choice in the matter. libertarians’ negative view of this state of affairs comes as part of a larger worldview that is especially abhorrent of any kind of involuntary action (in the 2nd dictionary sense). While perfectly legitimate as such, some proponents of this viewpoint nevertheless distort(2) language when insisting to misconstrue taxation as “violent”.

Consider the following nuances of definition:

Force¹ – v. [with obj.] – ⑵ make (someone) do something against their will.
Coerce – v. [with obj.] – persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats.
Violent – adj. – ⑴ using or involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.
– from the New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., also at

Presumably even the most freedom-loving individual can find in the first two words a negative enough association to attach to taxation – while still presenting a reasonably true description. Most taxpayers are indeed forced to pay, one might argue that they are coerced. but where is the direct, physical, club-on-head action in taxation?

“Ah,” replies the well-versed libertarian, “but taxation most certainly is violence. If you avoid paying taxes long enough, men with guns (MWG) will come to your house and exhibit all sorts of behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something!”

I’ll get to the main problem with this in a moment. On a side note, I’d argue that the above generalization is a bit of a stretch: how many tax evaders (and minor law offenders) get away with a slap on the wrist, or less, every day? Also, libertarians often downplay the fact that they condone this kind of ultimate threat of “violence” for purposes they approve of, like law enforcement (however minimal), military defense, and defense of private property rights; I have yet to hear a libertarian bemoan how, in a libertarian society, all of these would be backed by their version of “violence”.

But all of this is debatable, and secondary. The main problem is that even if the MWG scenario were true, using the word “violence” to describe taxation is equating a potential outcome, when exacerbated to an extreme¹ – “if you refuse to pay taxes…” –  with the state being discussed (taxation). (This is a line of argument I’ve mentioned before.) Unless that’s already in the definition of the word, it is an error to use it as such. X isn’t Y just because it might come to be Y. By the same logic, any assembly of people is a riotous coup (a pet argument of libertarians), not eating is the same as starvation, and annoying someone is the same as being killed by them in a fit of rage.

Thus, if one insists on invoking violence towards taxation, the closest one can get is to say that taxation is backed by the threat of violence (just as any law in a libertarian reality would). And there’s already a perfectly good word for that – coercion. Even here, I would argue it remains to be demonstrated categorically that in the event of serial tax evasion, the taxation Men With Guns – who presumably would come banging on the evader’s door – would in fact intend to hurt, damage, or kill someone and not, say, carry out economic sanctions (like foreclosure), or an arrest – without intent to hurt anyone. (That police violence occurs doesn’t negate this.) But again, that’s debatable, and one needn’t agree with it to accept my central argument. Taxation “is” no more violent than private property “is” violent.

None of this is to say there’s no room to criticize, analyze, or reassess taxation. But the discussion would be much more effective without the red herring of misleading terminology.

A word on the definitions: I’m big on the New Oxford American Dictionary, but lest I appear to have favored a particular definition for its convenience, here are a few more dictionary entries for “violence”. You’ll notice how all of them refer to the actual act of physical force – not a potential threat of using it, however inescapably, somewhere down the road – and state a physically destructive intent, rather than purposes such as tax collection.

Violence – n. –
Involving the use of physical force, with the deliberate intention of causing damage to property or injury or death to people.
(Macmillan Dictionary)
The use of physical force, usually intended to cause injury or destruction.
(Collins English Dictionary)
Physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing.
(American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)
Physical force used so as to injure, damage, or destroy; extreme roughness of action.
(Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed.)

¹ Ironically, the slippery slope argument is a favorite of libertarian nemeses – dogmatic, social-justice moralizers.


4 thoughts on “The Proper Use of Violence

  1. A very thoughtful post. I agree that coercion is a better way to describe taxation than violence.

    I don’t agree on the second point, though. If you decide not to pay taxes, the immediate response wil almost certainly not be an act of violence. You will receive quite a few letters from the tax authorities, in graduating degrees of aggressiveness. You will then have fines levied against you. Next, these fines may be taken out of your earnings without your consent by an organization beholden to the government, such as your bank. (In Israel they might go straight to this step without even bothering to send you a single letter.) Finally, you may be summoned to court.

    What’s important here though, is contrasting this to what would happen if I decided you should give me money. If you didn’t, I could send you all those letters. I probably wouldn’t be able to induce your bank to give me the money. I could summon you to a court date at my place where a bunch of my friends would sit in judgement. You probably wouldn’t be too concerned about all of this, except to the degree that you worried about my mental health.

    The difference is, when the state does it, you know that if you don’t show up to court MWGs will show up and you take you there. Now I could also send some beefy guys to take you to my place for your hearing, but at this point you probably wouldn’t want to come, and we’d be talking about real violence. Kidnapping, and murder when you tried to escape and they had to shoot you. This was a long journey, but the crucial difference between me and the state is this legitimized use of violence. And it affects your choices from the very start. Your willingness to pay taxes, and your acceptance of the fines as a small price to pay in order not to be kidnapped. And that’s why libertarians are so obsessed with the concept.

  2. Josh,

    Thanks for the detailed reply. By giving a reasoned rationale for your objection to taxation, you demonstrate the larger picture of this post: that using rhetorical tricks are *not* actually arguments; reasoned explanations are.

    “Free-riding” a rhetorical trick to try to convince someone is dishonest (“taxation is violence” -> violence has a particularly bad emotional association -> taxation must be bad, too). By contrast, convincing by reasoned debate and argument, as you started here in your comment, is the far more justified – and constructive – option.

  3. 1. Libertarians use “coercion” a hell of a lot more than “violence”. I don’t think that in using “violence” they (we) try to factopinionize the discussion. It’s more of a bootomlinish expression, more so than coercion.

    2. Tax evaders will most certainly be on the receiving end of MWG. When Libertarians talk about the consequences of not paying taxes, they usually mean EVER. Not skipping a single payment, but rather continually shunning the tax machinery. The outcome is quite deterministic–MWG will lock you up, and will use physical means if you’ll try to resist. So “Taxation is violent” is nothing like “any assembly of people is a riotous coup”. There is really no need to speculate on this issue, people do time for not paying taxes. That is a fact.

    3. “Also, libertarians often downplay the fact that they endorse this kind of ultimate threat of “violence” for purposes they do support, like law enforcement (however minimal), military defense, and defense of private property rights;”

    Many Libertarians (I’m inclined to say “most”) support a voluntary taxation; you may choose to pay taxes for services (e.g., military defense, law enforcement) the minarchistic state will provide, but you don’t have to–quite like an insurance policy.

    4. Libertarians don’t consider violence to be inherently evil, it’s just usually is. An act of violence against an aggressor is (special circumstances aside) justified.

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