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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Kristen,
I hope you don't mind me following you to your blog - as you indicated on Roger Olson's blog.
I would really like to be constructive, if I can. I do think that taxation is tantamount to theft.
I suppose I'd let it all go if it weren't so soul-crushingly intrusive into the lives of pretty much everyone. The American Revolution was fought (in part) over single-digit taxation - but what people put up with now towers over that!
Not everything that is called a tax do I view as a tax. In MN, where I live, there is a tax on gasoline. In the original law, all the money collected from the gas tax was to go towards maintaining and improving roads. That would be like a user-fee. I can live with that. (Regrettably, the MN State government does divert money out of that to other purposes, so this exceptions falls apart somewhat.) I willingly pay user-fees for roads, firefighters, police, and etc.
I'm discouraged about your view concerning government. I take my cue from 1Samuel8 where God warned about centralized government. When I have a chance to vote, I take heed of this warning. I don't understand how Christians of good character and intention can look at world history, see the horrible fruit of centralized government, and vote for more of the same. These leaders promise peace and liberty and prosperity, but deliver war and slavery and starvation. If you want to see some of this played out in recent weeks, search on the internet for "Jonathan Gruber".
My arguments are confused and poorly worded, and I'm sorry for that. If you wish to grapple with intellects of great caliber, I'd point you to Lysandar Spooner and Murray Rothbard.
-Tim Reisdorf

Kristen said...

Tim, I appreciate your reading my perspective and respectfully offering a rebuttal. I do have two questions that I wish you'd explain further. First, the American Revolution was not fought over taxes themselves (whether single or double digit), but over taxation without representation. How do you equate today's represented taxation with that situation? My second question is similar. I see 1 Samuel 8 as talking mainly about the dangers of monarchy-concentration of power in the hands of one person. I see in the Law an attempt to at least provide some checks and balances by placing the king himself under the Law, and not allowing the king to also be a priest. However, the king as contemplated in 1 Samuel still had much more power concentrated in his hands than any one of our three branches of government does today.

Can you show that the 1 Samuel passage is about all forms of centralized government, and not just about centralized power in the hands of one person, the king?

The existence of representative democracy, of course, post-dates the Bible, so it's important to any position about what "biblical" government means, to determine how the Bible passages apply to today's forms of government. I don't think your position adequately does that.

Finally, please check my Topic Index under the "Politics and Government" section and read my other posts on this subject. You may find that we are in agreement at least that the collusion of government with big corporations is unbiblical. But unless you can show some correlation between the monarchy being anticipated in 1 Sam. 8 and today's three-branch form of US representative government, I cannot agree with you. The important thing is not centralization vs. decentralization, but whether adequate checks and balances on power (and that includes corporate/business power) are properly in place.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kristen,
I should not let it pass how wonderful it is to have a respectful discussion about about a contentious topic. I am grateful for your generous tone.
First, the American Revolutionary War. I believe that a major cause of the foment in the American colonies was about taxation - as representation would have practically changed their tax status exactly zero. While they did want representation, someone with "status" to plead their case, they had no illusions that this would switch the majority position in parliament. The "no taxation without representation" was a legal way to express their outrage at the taxes. The Stamp Act, the Tea Tax, the Sugar Act, and etc were hated because they were burdensome (they reduced the liberty of the colonists).

Today's situation can be considered much worse, for the minority (in illusion) think their vote counts. Divided government was meant to limit government and protect minorities - and that has worked to some degree in the US. But both major parties have colluded in the idea of limitless government (so the battle is not big or small government but big or bigger government).
1S8 takes place in a very decentralized government situation. The time of the judges - and they did not take good advantage of their liberty. Instead they wanted a king. What would a king do? The NIV puts it like this: "The king will ... take ..., assign ..., take ..., take ..., take ..., take ..., and you yourselves will become his slaves." While other more modern forms of government were not considered, the results are the same as any big government. To understand this passage, "King" does not exclude "Queen", because they are functionally the same. But the same is true with "Dictator". The same is true with "Oligarchy". If the result to the people is the same (or meaningfully equivalent), then I lump them into the same group. So also I would put Communism (for that is really One-Party rule - a fancy name for Oligarchy). They issue for me is this, if Democracy produces the same results as Monarchy, then Democracy should also be "understood" in this passage. Really, the goal is not a particular system of government, but certain results of government. The take, take, take, make slaves of the government (think taxes) predicted by Samuel and God is to be shunned. Rather a limited government ought to be embraced. To put it in a phrase, "minimal government, maximal liberty." And yes, I'd be comfortable with a monarch (as Tolkien once imagined) whose highest calling was stamp collecting.

I will have to check out your links a bit later. But yes, we are in agreement about the very disagreeable collusion of government with big business.

But I do believe that the 3-branch form of US representative government as understood in the Constitution/Bill of Rights is excellent. Unfortunately, the US has moved far away from it. Read the 9th and 10th Amendments to see just how far away we are. There is nothing magical or spiritual about democracy or 3-branches. If it produces despotic results, then labels cannot hide the stench.
Tim Reisdorf

Anonymous said...

Hi Kristen,

I have read your other politics blog posts. I confess that you and I are miles apart.

On a happy note, many of your other observations from other blog entries, indicate that we are very similar on more important topics than politics. Please continue to write as you are led and able.

I love it that you are thoughtful and free to write from your research, your experience, and your heart.

God bless you,

Tim Reisdorf

Kristen said...


I do appreciate the respectful dialogue and acknowledge that it isn't likely we are going to see eye-to-eye on this issue. I do want to point out that the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War did have taxes imposed by their own colonial governments, and did not object to these in the least. Here's a quote from a history source:

"The colonists, however, uniformly resented the Stamp Act and its assumption that Parliament could tax them without their direct representation in Parliament. The colonists taxed themselves through their own local assemblies, and they resisted the limitation on their self-rule."

Here's the site address:

Yes, the size of the new British taxes were at issue as well, but the fact is that the colonists did not object to taxes per se, nor did they deny a government's right to tax. The issue was Britain saddling the colonies with helping to pay Britain's own debts (it had been 150 years since the colonies had been started, and they no longer saw Britain's problems as their own), without the colonies having any say in the matter.

Kristen said...

I might also point out that the things that 1 Sam. 8 says the king is going to "take" and "use" (with the possible exception of the armed forces) are described as things to enrich and empower the king and mostly involved demanding servants-- they were not things to be used for the benefit of the people. Though our current system is not perfect, it's a far cry from what 1 Sam. 8 is describing.

So we will have to agree to disagree. I appreciate you stopping by!

Ariel Rose said...

Wordgazers words and readers...

I'm taking a survey about spiritual abuse and the representation of survivors in the media. It's a very quick one-question survey, and your participation would be monumentally helpful! Thanks!

Kristen said...

Hi Ariel Rose,

I'm so sorry it's taken me so long to get back to you. I went and took your one-question survey. I'm now posting the web address as a hyperlink so more readers will take the survey:


Anonymous said...

Now if I believe the bible to be true, then I can't agree that taxation is theft. The pharisees questioned Christ on this very subject on rather they should pay the government taxes or not.

Mark 12:13-17New International Version (NIV)

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

Kuudere-Kun said...

It's not the Simple. Jesus supped with Tax Collections and Prostitutes, but he still clearly declared being a Tax Collector to be Sinful.

Kristen said...

Jared, I appreciate all your comments on my blog! It's important, I think, to understand the position of tax collector in its original, historical context. It wasn't like being an IRS employee today. Tax collectors were paid by Rome (the imperial occupier who had conquered the country) to collect much-resented taxes from the people on its behalf. For this they paid a very small wage, so that tax collectors almost invariably demanded more taxes than they were actually required to collect, pocketing the balance. When the Gospels refer to "tax collectors and sinners," they are referring to two despised groups of people. "Sinners" generally referred to prostitutes, thieves,etc." But it's also interesting that they don't lump the tax collectors in with the "sinners." They are two different groups.