Saturday, November 15, 2014

Taxation is Theft?

The first time I came across this idea, I was reading Left, Right & Christ (Russell Media, 2011), in which a Christian Republican and a Christian Democrat each took chapters to address the pressing political issues of our time. The Christian Republican, D. C. Innes, stated on pages 75-76: “The Christian moral objection to the welfare state is . . . that it violates the eighth commandment [thou shalt not steal]. . . Thieves come in different forms. . . [T]he government’s power to secure property is also the power to take it away. When a mob uses government to pillage its more propertied neighbors, we call it progressive taxation, or redistribution of wealth. Sometimes we call it fairness. But it is theft all the same.”

Taxation as theft.  The government as robber, as thief-- as a criminal.  Strong language, to be sure. And apparently there are more and more Christians who think this way, who identify themselves as libertarian and claim that Christianity essentially teaches the same.  Notice how Innes' quote above identifies this mindset as "the Christian moral objection" to taxes.  Innes appears to limit his objection to taxes that support social programs and "the welfare state," but many proponents of this position appear to believe that any taxation whatsoever is a moral, even a criminal, wrong.

Here's the standard argument, quoted from Godfather Politics:
Taxation involves force. If you don’t pay up, you will be fined, have your assets levied, or imprisoned. If taxation means taking someone’s property and giving it to other people, how is this not a moral issue? The Eighth Commandment is quite clear: “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15). There is no “except by majority vote.”
According to this viewpoint, then, "theft" is to be defined in an all-inclusive sense: that there are virtually never any instances in which it is legitimate for a person to be required to give up some of his or her money.

I do wonder how far those who promote this idea are willing to take it. Is it "stealing" if the government forces a parent to pay child support for his or her child? Is a traffic fine "stealing"? What about charging a fee to reimburse a government agency for its costs in giving driving tests?

Perhaps it's ok with these Christians to require payment in these circumstances.  After all, libertarians do believe people should be held responsible for their own actions and should pay for what they get, right?

But the problem I'm having is this.  Other than direct fees for specific services, taxes are how governments function.  To make a blanket statement that all taxation is theft is essentially to render all government illegitimate: it's saying government really ought not to exist at all.

And that means that police officers, fire fighters, judges, lawmakers, all would have to be for-profit, private organizations.*  If the police came to your house to catch a thief, they'd have to charge you a fee.  If you couldn't pay, they wouldn't come to your house next time.  Maybe some people, out of the goodness of their hearts, would choose to help others by paying more than just what it costs to protect their own property-- but would it be enough to protect everyone?

And what about roads and bridges? We all benefit from them. Even those without driver's licenses go to the grocery store and buy food delivered across those roads and bridges. If we made road maintenance taxes voluntary, what would happen?  Would all the roads continue to be maintained, or only those with enough traffic that private owners could make a profit charging tolls?  What would happen if you couldn't afford to pay someone to maintain the road to your own house?

Is a world with no government really what we want?  And since this is the implication of the "taxation is theft" mindset, what is it that makes this anti-government stance so very Christian?

The New Testament never treats taxation as theft, but as the legitimate "due" of government:
For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is duecustom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:6-7, NASB, emphasis added.)
In Matthew 7:24-27, tax collectors ask Peter whether Jesus pays the temple tax.  When Peter asks Jesus, Jesus acknowledges that the "kings of the earth" collect taxes, and says nothing whatsoever to contradict their right to do so.  He only indicates that, since this tax is for the Temple, he (as the Son of the God whose Temple it is, presumably) should be exempt--but then he agrees to pay it anyway.

In my three-part blog post on "The Bible and Human Authority," (which can be read herehere and here, I note that the Bible in general treats human governments as necessary, and that God's plan for the earth includes them.  Though many passages appear to support limitation of human governmental power, the attitude that government should not exist at all, or that taxation in and of itself, absent any abuses, is evil or criminal, is simply absent from the Scriptures.

As I said earlier, some versions of this viewpoint don't consider taxation itself to be theft, but only taxation which redistributes resources from the haves to the have-nots.  In Left, Right and Christ, D.C. Innes declares that the Bible limits the role of government to one thing: “The task of government is simple and limited: punish those who do evil and praise those who do good. . . God appoints government for our benefit, but it is not to provide every good. It is only to prevent bad conduct with creditable threat and punish it. . . .” (pages 58-60).  However, as I explained in an earlier post, the verses Innes uses to support this claim were never intended to give a comprehensive theory of government; they do not, expressly or implicitly, limit government to only the functions those passages highlight.

Certain passages instead seem actually to support required redistribution of wealth as a form of equitable justice. As I said in the same post:
[W]e can glean certain basic principles from the Law regarding how a civil society should govern the treatment of one another. God, working with the people of that time and place, simply did not promote economy liberty over basic equity and fair-dealing. In economic dealings, as in other areas of life, the Law restrained the people from fully exercising their liberty, recognizing that the natural human bent towards selfishness and greed needed to be curbed.
The gleaning law in Leviticus 23:22 amounted to a tax on all landowners of a portion of their income, for the benefit of the poor. The Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25:13 amounted to a redistribution of wealth every 50 years, so that each family could return to its own land and possessions—and so that the concentration of all the nation’s wealth in the hands of a few could never take place. One of the most foundational principles of the Bible is that all of humanity is sinful, and therefore cannot be trusted to simply do the right thing as long as you leave it alone. The Law included certain regulatory provisions to make sure that everyone in the society did the duty of the society to the poor among them. Though free-will giving was encouraged, it was not left up to free will alone.
One argument I recently heard raised against this was that it was ok for God to take people's money away from them, because He's God and it all belongs to Him anyway-- but it's wrong for human governments to do any such thing!  However, these passages are not about God requiring money to be given to Him, but to be given to the poor or to those who had lost their ancestral land through financial hardships.  These passages really don't say, "I'm God and all your resources came from Me, so I want you to give some of it back to Me."  There are passages in the Law pertaining to religious offerings that do exactly that-- but that's not what these passages are about.  These passages are about achieving a more equitable society through required redistribution of wealth.

Of course, in our various modern Western societies, most taxation is not even something imposed by "the kings of the earth" upon us as helpless subjects.  Democratic representative government means that our elected officials are sent by us to create tax codes on our behalf, and if we don't like what they're doing, we can protest, we can write or call them, or we can vote against them. Representative government means the government is us, not a monarch or an emperor.  If we through our elected representatives decide on certain taxes, then the requirement to pay is our own requirement, imposed on ourselves as a people.  Taxation with representation has always been an underlying principle of American concepts of freedom. Taxation with representation is not stealing, but a decision by the people, for the people, to pool our money and use it for the common good.

It's true that there will always be those who don't agree with laws passed by our elected officials, but we don't expect to be released from other laws just because we don't agree with them or didn't vote for the representative who helped pass them.  We don't equate other laws with criminal activity just because we are required to obey them.  We don't say, "the officials who installed that stop sign are thugs, forcing me to stop when I don't want to."

Steve Kangas, a Christian liberal, is living proof that "taxation is theft" is certainly not the Christian position on this issue.  He says:
Taxes are part of a social contract, an agreement between voters and government to exchange money for the government's goods and services. . . Arguments like "taxation is theft" are . . . the equivalent of saying "Everything I make is by my own effort" -- a patently false statement in an interdependent, specialized economy where the free market is supported by public goods and services.
Kangas also points out:
No one truly makes 100 percent of his money by himself. Individuals depend on a wide array of government services to support the very free market in which they earn their money. Without these supports, there would be no free market in the first place.
He then gives a long list of social supports and physical infrastructure provided by government that enables citizens to prosper and make wealth.   It hardly seems to me to be a definitively Christian viewpoint that looks on each individual as a sort of island, independent of the community structures that are largely responsible for our financial well-being.

Even many libertarians object to the "taxation is theft" mantra.  Washington DC writer and policy analyst Julian Sanchez, who is himself a libertarian, says:
[A]lmost nobody residing in any actually-existing state can justify their present holdings by reference to an appropriately untainted provenance running back to the State of Nature. 
Serious theorists tend to acknowledge this at least in passing, but it’s one of those elephants in the room. . . If there’s a libertarian theorist who’s grappled with this at the length it merits, I haven’t seen it. I would love to be able to point to a few serious book-length efforts, but the Year Zero approach that just takes current holdings as given and proposes Entitlement Theory Starting Tomorrow have always struck me as the sort of ad hoccery that makes caricatures of libertarianism as an elaborate rationalization for privilege more plausible than they ought to be. So an independent reason to shy away from “taxation is theft” as a slogan is that it can be interpreted as an unreflective endorsement of distributional patterns riddled with profound historical injustices.
As a middle-class white American, the assets I came into the world having (because my parents had them and used them to support me) had a lot to do with exclusionary practices that kept other, non-white, non-middle class people from being able to acquire what I took for granted.  My father went to college on the GI Bill, but if he had had black skin, the GI Bill would not have helped him no matter how long he served in the military.  He also bought land and built a house using a Veterans Housing loan that a person of color could not obtain.

My own ability to earn wealth, similarly, only partially came from my own merit or my own efforts-- a lot of it came from opportunities afforded me due to my social and economic status.  Other opportunities have eluded me at least partly because I am female in a society where women still bear the greatest burden of the care of the young, and where jobs traditionally held by women pay less than jobs traditionally held by men.

So when those who benefit most from these inequitable systems claim some absolute moral right to hold onto what they have, they are ignoring the fact that some people were to all intents and purposes denied a chance to even try for those things.  This article from By Their Strange Fruit details some of the built-in advantages of being white that we did not earn, that have resulted in our simply having more to call our own.  In what sense is this just?

The active undoing of unfairly weighted systems is not injustice, even if it may seem for a time to be "unjust" to the group in power. But when something starts off out of balance, you have to balance it by throwing weight on the other side.  Taxation for programs to help right old wrongs is hardly theft. What it amounts to instead is restitution.
Another libertarian, Loren Lomasky, protests the "taxation is theft" mantra in terms of the radical nature of its criminalizing language:
[I]f it is then taken in its straightforward sense, that pronouncement denies the legitimacy of the social order and announces that I regard myself as authorized unilaterally to override its dictates as I would the depredations of a thief. It says to my neighbors that I regard them as, if not themselves thieves, then confederates or willing accomplices to thievery. Is it pusillanimous to suggest that declaring war, even cold war, against the other 99 percent of the population is imprudent? [Emphasis added.]
Words like "taxation is theft," as Lomasky points out, are "fightin' words."  To say this is to set yourself against the social order, to declare yourself a rebel against the system.  As Christians, is this what we should be fighting against?  To declare our governments illegitimate and criminal-- to fight to hold onto our own stuff against all comers-- neither of these seem like particularly worthy Christian endeavors to my mind.

Taxation is not theft.  And we're not helping anybody when we say it is.

*I don't mention the armed forces because most of the time Christians concede to them, at least, as being an exception.