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Is Taxation Theft?

[Editor's Note: I wrote the following letters to J. Budziszewski, who is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin. Professor Budziszewski did not give permission to reprint his replies.]

October 30, 1999
Dear Dr. Budziszewski:
    I first learned of your new book, The Revenge of the Conscience, when it was featured by the Conservative Book Club.
    You made a powerful point about Expropriationism at pp. 92-93: expropriation [stealing] would be wrong even if each of its causes were good. In other words, the end does not justify the means. The pertinent passages from your book are as follows:
    But expropriation would be wrong even if each of its causes were good. Consider the following progression:
  1. On a dark street, a man draws a knife and demands my money for drugs.
  2. Instead of demanding my money for drugs, he demands it for the Church.
  3. Instead of being alone, he is with a bishop of the Church who acts as bagman.
  4. Instead of drawing a knife, he produces a policeman who says I must do as he says.
  5. Instead of meeting me on the street, he mails me his demand as an official agent of the government.
    If the first is theft, it is difficult to see why the other four are not also theft. Expropriation is wrong not because its causes are wrong, but because it is a violation of the Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not steal.
    But how, one may ask, can government steal?... [I]s it wrong for the government to tax...? No, government may certainly collect taxes for the support of its proper work; that work, however, is not the support of all good causes, but merely punishing wrongdoers and commending rightdoers (1 Pet. 2:13-14)....
    If government were to end its subsidy of good causes, wouldn't these good causes suffer? Not necessarily; they might even thrive. Marvin Olasky has shown in The Tragedy of American Compassion that government subsidy itself can make good causes suffer, for in taking money by force one weakens both the means and the motive for people to give freely. But what if the causes did depend on the proceeds of theft? Should we do evil, that good may come?
    I do not understand how you apply this reasoning to government taxation.
    There will always be a few people, at least, who would not willingly and voluntarily contribute their money to our government, even if that government were devoted to its proper work. They might be conscientious objectors to taxation, or pacifists, or anarchists who do not consider that government has any proper work to do. So long as such objectors remain peaceful and do not initiate any violence against other citizens, is it not expropriation [stealing] when the government takes their money against their wills?
    It does not seem to me that you can have it both ways. Either expropriation is wrong regardless of the cause for which the money is used (therefore taxation is theft in the cases in which the taxpayer would not willingly pay the tax) or the end does justify the means, which is the case you argue when you say that the cause of proper government justifies the expropriation.
    Doesn't the Eighth Commandment apply one standard of behavior to all - both taxpayer and government itself? It does not say, "Thou shalt not steal - except when the government requires money for its proper work".
    This letter is offered in the spirit of constructive criticism. I wish you would reconsider your defense of coercive taxation for government's proper work. Please let me know what you think of my reasoning, even if you disagree.

                                                         Carl Watner

November 12, 1999

Dear Professor Budziszewski:
    Thanks for responding to my letter about expropriations, taxes, and the stealing commandment. I know it is difficult to envision proper government in the absence of coercive taxes, but I wish you would give it some more thought.
    You emasculate the meaning of both theft and the stealing commandment when you argue that "there could sometimes be a sufficient warrant for the taking of wealth without consent." One person's good cause might be charity; another's (such as your's) might be having a proper government. But in neither case is the end a justification for using wrong means. To say that "he [a man] ought to approve the taking of his wealth for the support of the proper work of government" is the same as saying that the "good" cause of proper government justifies the taking of another's wealth without consent (or at least the result is the same).
    You affirm that stealing would be wrong even if its causes were good. ["Expropriation is wrong not because its causes are wrong, but because it is a violation of the Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not steal." p. 92]. Then, however, you contradict yourself by asserting that the "good" end of proper government justifies taxation. The question then becomes: Why do you make an exception for proper government? Is there some necessity about having a proper government which requires us to make an exception to the stealing commandment?
    The Christian way of honoring the commandment would be 1) to persuade and educate those who refuse to contribute to proper government about why they ought to contribute to its support (in other words, convince them why they ought to contribute rather than permitting the government to steal from them), and/or 2) to contribute enough of their own money to make proper government possible. Instead, most Christians readily approve the placing of men in jail and/or confiscating their property against their will when they refuse to contribute. This initiation of violence is un-Christian and a violation of the stealing commandment.
    At the very least you ought to concede that there is a valid justification for not paying all the taxes demanded of us because you admit that our existing government goes far beyond its proper bounds. Even under your own theory, the most that government has the right to demand from us and that we ought to rationally approve are the expenses necessary to operate a proper government. Therefore those who refuse to contribute their full share of taxes are justified in their partial tax refusal. Thus a person who pays enough of his taxes to cover his share of the expenses of a proper government is justified in not paying any more than this. Of course, no government I know of is willing to allow this.
    Religious dissenters of the 18th and 19th Centuries were faced with the question of contributing taxes to State churches. Many a nonconformist was placed in jail or had his property distrained for failing to pay church rates. At first many people believed that State churches were just as much a necessity as proper government. However, after a great deal of struggle, most people in this country eventually came to the conclusion that churches ought to be voluntarily supported. We haven't reached that point yet with respect to proper government, but the analogy between tax-supported churches and coercively supported government is very a propos. I am enclosing an article that I wrote a number of years ago about this parallel.
    I would welcome your further comments.

                                                         Carl Watner

November 20, 1999

Dear Professor Budziszewski:
    Thanks for acknowledging my letter of November 12th, in which you briefly point out that the primary question involves "the proper meaning of theft," and that it is "unrealistic" to expect "voluntary obedience to proper authority" (which I interpret to mean that you wouldn't expect people to voluntarily pay their taxes). I understand that you are busy with other obligations and that a lengthy correspondence may be futile (I've had a few of those in my time!).
    Nevertheless, I'd like to give you some more food for thought - without any expectation of a reply.
    First - as regards the definition of theft: I am sure that you would agree that the actions of a criminal gang in extorting money may be classed as a form of theft (the taking of rightful property without the voluntary consent of the owner). And the actions of a legitimate government involve extorting money from the taxpayers (pay your taxes or have the money confiscated and/or go to jail!). Now the same actions cannot be a form of theft in one case and not a form of theft in the other, unless 1) you allege the taxpayer does not rightfully own the portion of his property the government is taking; 2) you allege the government has a prior claim to part of the taxpayer's property; or 3) you change the definition of theft (when the government does something that would ordinarily be described as theft, you define it as taxation - therefore it is not theft). Unless you see all property rights as stemming from the State (therefore the State does not need the taxpayer's consent to take its property back; [on the contrary, I see property rights as flowing from the self-ownership each person has in his or her self]), there is no basis for saying the taxpayer does not "own" all his property or that the State has a rightful claim to part of it. If the citizen "owns" all his property (which means he must voluntarily consent to yielding it up), then we are faced with the pons asinorum of political philosophy: "What distinguishes the edicts of the State from the commands of a bandit gang?" and "How can you define taxation in a way which makes it different from robbery?" As to the third case, I don't think maintaining a double standard (having one standard for the individual and another for the State) is an honest way to solve the problem. The stealing commandment leaves no room for relativistic definitions.
    Second - regarding the morality and practicality of taxation versus voluntary payment for services: Your discussion of expropriationism (pp. 91-92) in The Revenge of the Conscience led me to believe that you thought the moral arguments for obeying the stealing commandment were superior to any practical justifications. In other words, just because we cannot visualize how a thief or a government might survive if they were forced to honor the stealing commandment, there is no warrant for them to steal or to continue to steal. It is my belief that the moral and the practical normally go hand in hand. We can all live the best life possible if we do not steal, but the justification for not stealing is not that we can live a better life, but rather that we are honoring the stealing commandment and respecting other people's property rights (property rights in themselves and in the things around them that they have come to own). Therefore, there is no justification for allowing the government to steal (tax) from us because we cannot see how the government would survive without the power of coercion to collect the tax. Historically, every service ever provided by government has been produced on the open market. Just because we need essential services, like schools, religious institutions, protection from criminals, food, and shelter, is no reason that the government must monopolistically and coercively provide them for us. I don't see why it is unrealistic to expect government to survive by voluntarily collecting fees in return for the services it provides us - if we want them. That is how each and every non-criminal in society survives. Why should the institution of government be any different?
    Enough said! I hope this discussion sticks with you as you think about and teach political philosophy. If you ever would like to re-open our correspondence, please do so. The article that I sent you about Church-State taxation was from a small bi-monthly newsletter that I have been editing for the last decade and a half. It is titled The Voluntaryist. I'd be happy to furnish you with a complimentary subscription at any time.

                                                         Carl Watner