The Euphemism Treadmill

In The Stuff of Thought Steven Pinker talks about the use of metaphor in politics, leading him to discussing George Lakoff’s recommendations to the Left on how to come up with metaphors to support their ideology. For example, Lakoff recommends that “taxes” be reframed “as “membership fees” that are necessary to maintain the services and infrastructure of the society to which we belong” (246). Let me suggest why this won’t work by referring you to another of Pinker’s works, The Blank Slate. In it he talks about something he calls the “euphemism treadmill.” That is where “People invent new words for emotionally charged referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its own connotations, and so on” (212). He then points out that we went from “water closet” to “toilet” to bathroom” to “restroom” to “lavatory.” He then observes that “The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people’s minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long” (213).

In other words, no matter what name we give taxes, it remains a fact that when you are taxed, that means that someone with more power than you is taking money that you earned and using it for projects that either directly or indirectly benefit them and which my or may not benefit you and which you may or may not agree with, and threatening to do you harm unless you hand over the money. When a private citizen does it, we call it being mugged. It is theft, plain and simple. Calling it a “membership fee” isn’t going to change that. It’s just putting lipstick on a pig.

Profit Vs. Theft

Profit is always ethical –- theft is always bad (though it may be good to steal from a thief, but only if you know you are stealing from a thief, and you do so to give it back to those who had their money stolen from them –- this is the story of Robin Hood, who stole from the government, from Prince John, who was taxing everyone too much, to return the money to the poor). Theft is taking something from someone else by force. Thus, taxation is theft –- so long as the government arrests people for not paying taxes. The line in the tax code that states that the income tax is based on the “voluntary compliance” of the citizenry should either be taken seriously or stricken from the code. I would prefer the first idea. Leaving it in there is insulting to every taxpayer.

People who mistake profit for theft are thieves themselves. They cannot tell the difference between good and bad. So, what is profit? The gain from any transaction. Any gain resulting in mental, physical, or spiritual betterment. From the Latin prefectus, an advance, from pre-, forward, and facere, to make. Thus, profit makes us advance. Profit is growth –- it is life. Thus, those who make the most profits are doing the most good for the world.

Thus, we need to stop taxing profits, including capital gains, as this actually punishes profit-making, and thus punishes good. All income taxes should be abolished, stricken from the Constitution, and (If we must have a tax) replaced with a very small federal sales tax. If the purpose of taxation is to generate revenues, this will generate the most revenues without punishing people for doing well. It is likely to generate the most revenues overall of any form of taxation, and will do so while allowing for increased economic growth, once making money is no longer punished. And it has the added bonus, for those who hate profits and thus want the rich to pay more in taxes, that the wealthy will pay more in taxes, since they in fact spend more money. Further, there’s no non-compliance for the regular taxpayer. The way sales taxes are paid, the tax payer isn’t threatened to pay it; it’s built into the prices. But if you do decide to support such an idea, please note that it is important that we rid ourselves of the income tax first, and do so in such a way that it cannot legally return –- otherwise, we will be in danger of burdening everyone with both kinds of taxes.

Taxation is NOT Generosity

It is unethical to use taxation to be generous, as happens when we are taxed to help others –- which means we are not actually being generous.

Why is it acceptable for a large group of people (like a government) to do something it would be illegal for an individual to do? I cannot force people to give me money so I can give it to other people whom I prefer to have the money, under threat of taking them by force and locking them up in my basement. But a government can do just that –- it just replaces the basement with prison.

How easy it is to be generous with other peoples’ money! And what is worse, when government is generous with your money, you do not feel obliged to help others –- why give when it is taken from you? So now people are acting less generous and charitable than they would otherwise (more heavily taxed Europe is less individually generous than are Americans). And money that could have been used to either lower prices of goods (making them cheaper for the poor to buy), hire more people (including the people “helped” by the government), or buy things that would have resulted in other businesses having to make more product, resulting in a need for more hiring, is taken away, filtered through people who are overpaid do an hour of work for eight hours at work, so that the poor get a very minuscule portion of the money anyway.

The latter problem could be solved with a simple negative income tax or basic income guarantee that neither rewards people for not working nor punishes people for getting even a minimum wage job replacing all forms of welfare. If we’re going to have welfare, it ought to be the least disruptive and least penalizing for doing well. The larger problem of being generous with other people’s money requires a change in overall philosophy in the country at large, and in Washington in particular. While that is more difficult, it can be done with a strong bully pulpit. Only when someone important publicly and consistently talks about moral government (one which doesn’t initiate force to get things done) will it get realized in the world.


If I were to approach someone and tell them that if they did not give me some money, that I would take them by force and lock them in my basement, I would be arrested for extortion. If they refused to pay and I followed through on my threat, I would be guilty of kidnapping. It is unjust for me, a private individual, to earn my money in such a way, even if I then turned around and gave that money to the poor. Which is why it is both immoral and illegal in every society.

But if the government approaches someone and tells them that if they do not give the government their money, that it would take them by force and lock them in jail, it is called taxation. If they refuse to pay and the government follows through on its threat, it is called arrest and imprisonment. This is considered by many to be a just and proper way for the government to make its money.

Why is something that is unjust for an individual to do to another just for one group to do to others, so long as that first group is larger, stronger, and called a government? If something is unjust and immoral for an individual, then it is unjust and immoral for a group, even if that group calls itself a government. A change in terminology does not justify unjust behavior. Theft is theft, no matter if you call it by its proper names of theft and extortion, or by the evasive term taxation. To tax is to steal. And that is what any government does whenever it taxes. A free and just society is based on the concept of free trade. Free trade is based on the premise that “if you do something good for me, I’ll do something good for you.” The opposite of free trade is extortion, or “unless you do something good for me, I’ll do something bad to you.” Any government or society based on free trade is just. Any government or society based on extortion is unjust.

Whenever the concept that taxation is theft is brought up, the response is always that the government has to make money somehow. Which is true. But so do I. Yet this is clearly not enough for me to engage in extortion. So why is it a legitimate reason for the government to do so? Anything immoral for an individual is immoral for a group, whether they call themselves a gang or a government. Anything illegal for a private individual or group should be illegal for the government. It is no better than anyone else simply because it is called a government. It does not know more, is not wiser, it is not more intelligent. And even if they did have these attributes, that would still not give government the right to steal – which is the right to take away another’s rights to their life, liberty, and property – a right nobody ever has, least of all in a free, civilized society.