This assertion -- government as a criminal gang -- often accompanies, or occurs during, a discussion of taxes. In fact, I had a discussion with someone just this past weekend during which I said that taxes were theft because I had never consented to them. Invariably, this leads (as it did in this case) into discussion about helping the poor, benefits of services paid for by tax revenue, and "civic duty" and what it means to be a "good citizen". The argument goes: taxes are fine and good as long as we put them to "good" use; to be against taxes is to be against the good that taxes provide. Don't get me wrong. I believe in helping the poor; I drive my car on roads; and I'm all for peaceful cooperation and being a productive member of society. I simply differ from the bulk of the population on how these ends should be achieved.
Since I'm likely in agreement with most about what can be achieved with the proper use of tax revenue (assuming the "proper" use could really be known), let's back up a bit and look at taxes themselves. A tax is simply a financial charge imposed by a state (or functionally equivalent "legal" entity), the payment of which is enforced under penalty of law. This is a somewhat euphemistic definition, though. A tax "is not a voluntary payment or donation, but an enforced contribution, exacted pursuant to legislative authority" according to Black's Law Dictionary. With that definition in mind, we begin to see now the shape of the criminal gang metaphor. The state imposes a financial charge on its subjects and enforces the payment of said charge with force. In less civilized societies, failure to pay may be immediately met with the state's armed enforcers stopping by to collect the charges. In more civilized societies, one might first be given a trial in a state-run court, after which failure to pay will be met by the state's armed enforcers. The result is always the same, though. Taxes are ultimately, always collected by force be it through property confiscation or (the threat of) incarceration. (A discussion of the equality of the threat and actual use of force is omitted.)
When a criminal gang takes money by force, it is theft. When the state does it, it is taxation. The difference is curious, to say the least. Looking back at Black's definition of taxation, note that taxes are "exacted pursuant to legislative authority". So, despite all outward appearances, taking money from someone against their will is not always a crime; the legality of the act depends on who is doing the taking. The state is empowered by "legislative authority" while the "criminal" gang has no such authority. So, let's step further back and examine from where the state derives this authority.
Imagine, for a second, a person living alone on an island. For all intents and purposes, this person owns the island and everything on it, if for no other reason than there is no one else contending for ownership. Now let's add a second person into the mix. There are myriad ways for the two to decide how to divide up the land and coexist, but they all begin with the question of the proper ownership of each person's body. The simplest, most common sense solution to this question is that each person is the exclusive owner of his or her body. After all, it doesn't make sense for each person to own the other's body but not his or her own. Nor does it make any sense for the two to own both bodies jointly. These latter solutions would only produce conflict as the two would never be able to agree on how best to use their bodies. Indeed, the only viable solution is for each person to be the exclusive owner of his or her own body.
If we accept this premise, then it follows that the initiation of force/violence against another (without this other's consent) is never justified as it constitutes a violation of the person's ownership of his or her body and sole discretion as to how that body should be used. It further follows that if a person does not have the authority to initiate violence against another, he or she cannot contract this authority out to a third party, namely, the state. That is, one cannot grant power or authority to another that one does not have in the first place. Thus, we arrive at the conclusion that the initiation of force/violence by the state is never justified, and since all state actions are predicated on the use of force, we must further conclude that all state actions are without proper authority, at a minimum, with respect to those who do not consent to violence against them.
By now, it should be clear that there is little difference between the actions of a "criminal gang" and the state in terms of their authority to commit those actions. The only place where the two may differ is in the fact that, occasionally, the state may use its ill-gotten gains to help the public in the form of welfare, roads, etc. But the state is no Robin Hood. It steals from the rich, the middle class, and the poor, alike. Not only that, but it pays its bureaucrats first and then uses what's left to pay for these services. So, even when the state does good, the taxpayers are forced to overpay for these services since they can be provided by and found in the private sector -- often the state ends up contracting with private sector businesses -- with less bureaucracy and the added benefit of market competition to keep prices down. We must also note that money left, after paying bureaucrats, is further reduced by the state's spending on warfare and all that that entails. Taxpayers really aren't getting a good bang, no pun intended, for their buck.
All of this talk about how the state spends money, though, is simply a giant misdirection intended to confuse the issue. After all, we don't tolerate crime when the proceeds are used for ostensibly "good" purposes. Nor would we tolerate it if the criminal offered to give us a partial say -- a vote if you will -- in how he or she might use the proceeds. The criminal act must be addressed first and foremost, and this should be no different when it applies to the state. When there are different rules for the state and for the subject/citizen, what we have is most definitely not the rule of law.
The state is indeed criminal in its actions; the next step is to establish conspiracy. Strictly speaking, a conspiracy is "an agreement by two or more persons to commit a crime, fraud,or other wrongful act". Under this definition, a conviction of the state is all but certain. This isn't exactly what I have in mind, when I say conspiracy, however. Conspiracy, in reference to the state, implies to me some larger goal: not only to keep power but to further and further enhance and centralize it. It also implies that the state is always working toward this goal as an end unto itself. Now, I won't argue that this isn't what happens, in practice; however, I have a hard time believing that the state, at all levels, is always and everywhere conspiring toward this end for one simple reason. Again, Murray Rothbard:
[I]n a profound sense, no social system, whether anarchist or statist, can work at all unless most people are "good" in the sense that they are not all hell-bent upon assaulting and robbing their neighbors. If everyone were so disposed, no amount of protection, whether state or private, could succeed in staving off chaos.If Mr. Rothbard is correct, which I believe him to be, that most people are "good", then we must conclude that either a significant number of people working for the state are "good" or that by some sort of social malfunction the state exclusively employs the "bad" people in society. There is certainly a good argument to be made for the latter possibility, but I'm a believer in the former.
If I am correct in that belief, then there only remains the question of why the state continues to exist. I believe there are two, related reasons: 1.) people do not understand the nature of the state, and 2.) people believe that they are not responsible for the actions of the state. I've addressed the former in this post; I'll try to address the latter in the next.