Taxation: Theft or Not?
There is an old adage that goes, “nothing in this world is certain but death and taxes,”
Indeed, history would seem to prove this is true. It has been so since the dawn of civilization. The question of taxes, tributes, and how to fairly collect them has plagued mankind since the foundation of government. Some say taxation is theft. Others say it is the price we pay for society.
I have explored this issue on a religious level in discussing my views on taxes and Christianity. This time, I thought I might discuss it from a more philosophical standpoint.
A brief but persuasive case can be seen in the words and writings of Andrew Napolitano. Napolitano is a former judge and constitutional scholar. He is perhaps just as famous for his work as a libertarian analyst working with Fox News. He asserts that taxation is theft, and it cannot be seen otherwise. This, he says, is a matter of natural rights. We as human beings have the right to keep the fruits of our labor just as we have the right to keep, own, and acquire property. It appears the rights we have to our money are intertwined with the rights we have to our property.
The founders did, in fact, believe this to be a natural right, but it went beyond that. They believed that preserving the right to own and also acquire property to be paramount. They saw it as vital to the preservation of liberty as well as a free and just society. They strongly believed that property ownership should be widespread, which we will discuss in another post.
Napolitano seems to suggest that the belief in a system that taxes its citizens by violence and force gives credence to a”frightening notion”. It suggests you don’t own your property. The government does. The government has the right to withhold the fruits of your labors and to determine what you’re entitled to. It then gets to do with its allowance whatever it pleases.
This, some may say, is because property rights do not exist. They are a benefit reaped through society derived from the benevolence of a progressive government.
To Establish a Just Society
Contrary to the libertarian view, some on the progressive left see taxes as a duty as members of a society from which we reap the rewards. Looking back at progressive figures, and thought this would seem to be rooted in the “frightening presumption” Napolitano described. Do “natural rights” even exist? Do we have rights, or is everything that we enjoy a special privilege bestowed on us by the kindness of government? This question is asked, and this view would seem to be shared by Professor Philip Goff.
Goff is an associate professor of philosophy at Central European University, located in Budapest, Hungary. In his essay, he poses the very question we are exploring today, Is Taxation Theft? In it, he flays the notion of natural property rights, particularly the right to one’s wages, saying, “The assumption that you own the contents of your pay-packet, although almost universally accepted, is demonstrably confused.”
He begins his arguments on a moral standpoint. He states that one cannot assume ownership of his or her wages unless they receive the exact portion of what they rightfully earn. This can be measured, he seems to suggest, by one’s contribution and the amount of work and effort exerted. Since our economic system does not fairly and justly reward those factors, it cannot be assumed that you are entitled to anything. It demonstrates that natural rights do not exist but must be established by a progressive government.
Human Nature and Natural Rights
The mistake that Goff seems to make is that he assumes that natural rights will automatically mean the condition of man in his most natural state. His arguments assume one must hold the Utopian view that natural rights will automatically exist once government steps out of the way. There may be some who hold this anarchic belief, but the American founders don’t share it.
Throughout the Federalist Papers, we see very clearly how they viewed the nature of man. It differed greatly from the views of the progressive that man is evolving and always improving, and so must the government. The founders saw both human nature and government as something that needed to be restrained. They also argued that It would remain so for all of time. The Papers paint this picture vividly with examples from ancient history as well as from the time. Their thoughts are best summed up in the words of James Madison, who said
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.“
Taxes or No Taxes, What is The Purpose of Government?
The founders believed that the only purpose of government was to protect and preserve natural rights. Minimal government has to exist to protect us from those who would take them from their fellow citizens by force or fraud. The purpose of the U.S Constitution served to protect those very same citizens from the government itself by establishing checks and balances. Thus natural rights are not to be understood as rights assumed by how things are in their natural state. They are rights naturally endowed by right of our humanity. What gives us these rights is that we are dignified creatures capable of reason, thought, and complex emotions. We are also capable as living and sentient beings to yearn for those rights and to be free. By that very state, we are endowed with these rights, not by the fact we automatically enjoy them with no intervention or effort.
The fact that in its current state, our economy does not always reward all justly is not evidence these rights don’t exist but that they are violated. We can agree that some kind of mechanism must be implemented to ensure these rights are preserved and protected. The founders clearly believed the constitutional republic to be their best attempt. The establishment of natural rights then did indeed require a government, but a government tightly constrained.
Payment for Services Rendered
The second part of Goff’s argument seems to focus a little less on the moral abstracts and more on the practical. Whatever money you make, you’re able to make because of the government. The roads you use are paved by the government. Many businesses benefit from government programs and contracts. You’re able to enjoy public safety and a smooth commute to work because the government provides it. Prices are reduced by government subsidies. There are surely numerous ways we may not even think about in which the government benefits our lives. In that regard, because we enjoy the benefits and reap the rewards, we should also pay our fair share. Taxation is not theft at all, but payment for services rendered.
The problem with this argument and principle is that it doesn’t account for the quality of services rendered or the absence of choice. I won’t digress by going on about the failures of government or the lack of choice they provide, but they do apply to this post. The problem begins when these principles get universally applied. Imagine if a company was allowed to send their workers into your home while you’re away. They break in and tidy the place. Most of the home is sanitized and now fully clean, but your door is broken, and they’ve used a corrosive cleaning agent on the sensitive surfaces of some of your kitchen countertops.
They then break into the family safe, take your life savings, and run.
The house is clean, so you certainly received some positive benefits from the services. However, someone came into your home unannounced without your consent. They then chose to charge you whatever they wanted with no agreement beforehand from you, the property owner. You look around and note their services are subpar.
You may be able to put in a few more hours at work with the time they saved you from having to clean, so at least you’ll be able to partially pay for some of the damage they did to your kitchen counters. Does this sound like a service you’d want to use, or would you rather pay someone else? More importantly, did they steal your money, or is that the price you pay for having a clean house?
Yet this is the standard we apply to government, and worse, use to justify the monopolization of government services. Democratic or not, no monopoly is good for a free society. It is the absence of choice and any real motive to improve as the progressives believe it will somehow do over time.
Is Taxation Evil?
It does not make consistent sense to redefine the type of an action based only on motive. Not only that, but the breakdown in communication and the deviation from clearly defined terms may open the door up to all kinds of evil. In this case, the ends do not merely justify the means but redefine morality and reality itself.
Taxation seems to match the definition of theft. It is the removal of property and wealth from the rightful owner without their consent. It is the depriving of one of what they originally agreed to be paid. If it is not theft, it is at very least fraud and breach of contract, particularly in failing to preserve this country’s natural rights.
If taxation is theft, however, does that mean it’s inherently evil? That, we’ll discuss in my next post.