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Who in the state is a "thief" (alluding to Rothbard's dictum)?

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QuisCustodiet Posted: Sun, Dec 9 2012 3:56 PM

We've all heard Rothbard's dictum, "The state is a gang of thieves writ large!" I'm having trouble really grasping this.

I can see how tax collectors could be considered "thieves," but does Rothbard mean to say that every employee of the public sector is a "thief"? Are public school teachers and public part attendants thieves? These two groups of people don't "steal" any money, themselves, they're just paid with coercively-obtained money from the tax collectors and the "money-printers"

But if public school teachers and public park attendants are thieves, then are people who accept Social Security checks also thieves? If so, then it isn't just the state that is a gang of thieves writ large, it's anyone who chooses to cash checks from the state.

So my question from the subject line: Who in the state is a "thief"? Is the answer really "Everybody"?

I'm not trying to troll here. As a matter of fact, I really respect Rothbard as an economist. I regularly recommend Man, Economy, and State to my friends majoring in econ, and actually convinced one to buy a copy (the $30 one from Mises.org with Power and Market).

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Malachi replied on Sun, Dec 9 2012 4:02 PM
Its more accurate to say that almost everyone you mentioned is a gang member of sorts. Everyone in the army is a soldier, but only some of them are infantry.
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QC, in a strict definition, yes, everyone is a thief to some extent (if you define accepting stolen money as thievery).

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Walter Block has provided a detailed answer to this question.  See Radical Libertarianism: Applying Libertarian Principles to Dealing with the Unjust Government.  Particularly the parts about the hypothetical 'libertarian Nuremberg trials'.

 

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Very helpful responses, all. Thank you.

@Malachi

Everyone in the army is a soldier, but only some of them are infantry.

Saying "everyone in the army is infantry" is not only less accurate than saying "everyone in the army is a soldier"; it is completely inaccurate. So do you think that Rothbard's saying is just wrong?

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@Wheylous

[E]veryone is a thief to some extent (if you define accepting stolen money as thievery).

So even the people who enlisted to fight off the Brits in the American "Revolutionary" War were thieves? I sense there's something really wrong here with Rothbard's statement. Anyone else feel the same way?

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Were the people paid through taxes? Did they possess stolen money?

I'm not going to make an exception for a group of people simply because there has been a romanticized history written about them.

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No, no. My point there was that you really had no choice but to serve in the military if you wanted to fight off the Brits. Some people join the military/teach at public schools/seek employment at public parks because the public sector dominates in those areas, making it hard (if not, illegal) to get a job doing one of these things in the private sector.

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Malachi replied on Sun, Dec 9 2012 5:07 PM
I'm saying that membership in a gang of thieves doesnt mean one is a theif, it means one is a gang member.
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QC, I think what you're really asking is who is part of the ruling class and who is not.  It is the ruling class that Rothbard is referring to when he says "gang of thieves".  Block's paper addresses that and it is not a simple thing at all.  Public school teachers and public park attendants are clearly not part of the ruling class... they just happen to work in an industry that is monopolised by the state.  Top politicians clearly are part of the ruling class... they know what they're doing and they're playing a key role in the aggression.  With tax collectors and soldiers, academics and media moguls, etc, things become murky. 

The question to ask yourself is: if there was a libertarian revolution tomorrow and a subsequent libertarian Nuremberg trials, who would be found guilty and held accountable for crimes committed in the name of the state?  It's those people who are the ruling class; they are the gang of thieves.

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That makes sense, Graham. I wonder if Rothbard decided to go with the dictum he did rather than "The state's ruling class is a gang of thieves writ large" for the sake of catchiness. Unfortunately, I think it was at the expense of accuracy.

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Anenome replied on Sun, Dec 9 2012 6:21 PM
 
 

QuisCustodiet:

We've all heard Rothbard's dictum, "The state is a gang of thieves writ large!" I'm having trouble really grasping this.

I can see how tax collectors could be considered "thieves," but does Rothbard mean to say that every employee of the public sector is a "thief"?

Not exactly, but aren't they complicit with thieves? Who pays their bills? The state. And how does the state get its money? By thieving it.

It's like taking blood money from a gangster or something, it's tainted money and it constitutes endorsement of the means of its obtainment to take it.

QuisCustodiet:
Are public school teachers and public part attendants thieves? These two groups of people don't "steal" any money, themselves, they're just paid with coercively-obtained money from the tax collectors and the "money-printers"

Exactly.

QuisCustodiet:
But if public school teachers and public park attendants are thieves, then are people who accept Social Security checks also thieves?

Sort of. These people have actually been defrauded and misled. They're less culpable. They did pay money to the gov as fee for service, and they were defrauded in the process, their money was never set aside, protected, and invested, it was made part of a ponzi scheme. But, having been done by the government it's not strictly illegal, just unethical, and any private company who tried to do the same would be shut down and its principals arrested and convicted. It's just for social security recipients to receive back the funds they paid in, even if they're being defrauded and stolen from ultimately.

But bond holders might be more culpable than SS recipients, because bond holders are explicitly buying a percentage of tax receipts, buying directly a share of ill-gotten gains.

QuisCustodiet:
If so, then it isn't just the state that is a gang of thieves writ large, it's anyone who chooses to cash checks from the state.

So my question from the subject line: Who in the state is a "thief"? Is the answer really "Everybody"?

I don't cash checks from the state, what are you talking about?

In any case, if every does it, that doesn't make it just.

 
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Marko replied on Sun, Dec 9 2012 6:26 PM

In my view a school teacher is not a thief for accepting stolen money from the mafia. However, if the person who the mafia stole from wrote the school teacher a letter asking if they could have their money back and the teacher did not send it back to that person, then yes the teacher would become a thief. 

There isn't  a positive obligiton to seek out the person to whom the money belongs, but it would be unjust of the teacher to attempt to hold onto it once the person had sought him out.

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@Anenome

I don't cash checks from the state, what are you talking about?

Social Security checks, welfare checks, checks you get for being a public school teacher or park attendant, etc.

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Anenome replied on Sun, Dec 9 2012 8:41 PM

QuisCustodiet:

@Anenome

I don't cash checks from the state, what are you talking about?

Social Security checks, welfare checks, checks you get for being a public school teacher or park attendant, etc.

That's not -everyone- tho. I don't receive any of those things.

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That's not -everyone- tho. I don't receive any of those things.

But you drive on the public roads! ;)

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AJ replied on Mon, Dec 10 2012 9:40 AM

I personally find the "gang of thieves" view 100% useless, except as some kind of hypothetically-effective rhetoric to "shock" someone out of their statist mindset.

The Internet is bringing us out of the age of propaganda, where the game was to simply bombard people with facts, arguments, and rhetoric that make your side look good, in hopes of drowning out or at least raising doubts about the opposition. The game was to win followers; people who believed what you said more or less unconditionally. 

Now it's different. You cannot really drown out the opposition, and if you make an argument that is less than accurate, it can and often will backfire because people talk outside isolated social circles far more often and easily. Bad arguments for libertarianism were perhaps helpful in that restrictive past, but now a person who becomes a libertarian because of a bad argument is liable to later reject it when he turns around and tries to employ this flawed understanding in debate and gets his ass handed to him. 

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@Andris

Great point! If you're a thief for accepting money from the state, then aren't you a thief for accepting any of the goods and services provided by the state, like the roads?

Ah, but you don't really have a choice but to use the public roads, do you?

Well, you don't really have a choice but to be a public park attendant if you want to be a park attendant. Same thing with being a teacher, or fighting off the forces of the British Empire in the Revolutionary War!

So then we're all "thieves".

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Anenome replied on Mon, Dec 10 2012 5:28 PM

A, you don't have a choice with roads.

B, you do pay for roads already through gas taxes, only your probably pay way too much and get poor service in return. Los Angeles has the worst road-care ever.

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@Anenome

In response to A- You do have a choice with roads. You can choose to build your own roads not subsidized by the government. The point is it's very difficult because the government dominates the road industry.

Not unlike how the government dominates the park industry. So if you, like Wheylous, maintain that employees of the public parks are thieves, then you must also admit that you are a thief for using roads, as it's possible to work for a private park, but pretty difficult to find one.

 

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I suppose that's @Wheylous, too.

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Anenome replied on Mon, Dec 10 2012 6:06 PM

I don't think you're a thief for using that which you pay for.

Like I said, we pay for roads at the gas pumps and in taxes.

There's no way that I'm a net tax consumer on the basis of my use of roads.

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Clayton replied on Mon, Dec 10 2012 6:11 PM

The State is the ruling class. The State is a fuzzier term than government. The government has many employees, including people who do jobs that really do need to be done and would be done even in the absence of a government - think of road maintenance, powerlines, game wardens, etc.

The State, however, is the corrupting principle within all of this. It is the redistributive kernel, the complex of ideological arguments and real social networks which combine together to legitimize and systematize the political means, the means of coercion. Trying to tackle the State by shouting down postal service employees as "parasites!" is as fruitless as trying to stop Genghis Khan by attacking the cooks and camp-attendants.

This is the spirit of striking-the-root - the jugular vein of the State is its revenues streams: taxes, debt and inflation. Delegitimize the systematic fleecing of the populace, and the organs of the State will whither automatically.

But the State is like an ideological fortress... its greatest vulnerability (taxation, revenues) is also its most closely guarded. No subject is more difficult to tackle than taxation. Try it and you will find out just how busy the State has been in constructing a labyrinth of ideological and real defenses. As pointed out in some other thread, one of the books that is actually illegal in The United States of America, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave with a First Amendment that guarantees that SouthPark-can-spray-animated-diarrhea-all-over-the-screen is Irwin Schiff's book on how to legally avoid paying taxes. I mean, how much simpler do we have to make it?

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@Anenome

What if a 60-year-old retires from the private sector and then lands an easy job at a public park? He's paid into having that park open all of his life via taxes. So he's not a thief, right?

Also, did you conceed the point you made with A? If so, the question of whether or not you "paid in" is irrelevant in the case of public sector employees.

@Clayton

Thanks for the clarification.

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Anenome replied on Mon, Dec 10 2012 6:38 PM

Anyone receiving an income from the state is different than having the state monopolize certain services and forcing you to pay for them.

The latter is generally not optional. The former is optional.

Thus taking a job with a park, the salary of which paid out of tax coffers, I would say is participating in theft, as you are being paid with unjustly taken money.

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Nobody forces you to use the public roads.

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idol replied on Mon, Dec 10 2012 8:30 PM

Using the roads cannot be considered stealing. Maybe building them, but not using them.

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@Idol

I agree with you. But if you say that, you also have to say that working for the state isn't stealing. I see no difference in getting a check from the state and using the state's goods and services.

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Or maybe it's clearer to say "working for the government", specifically in the capacities mentioned above (teaching, attending parks, etc.).

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idol replied on Mon, Dec 10 2012 9:05 PM

Well, the difference is that using the roads does not actually come at a cost to anyone else. You also paid partially for the road through taxes.

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