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
October 30, 1999
Dear Dr. Budziszewski:
I first learned of your new book, The Revenge of the
, 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:
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
- On a dark street, a man draws a knife and demands my money for drugs.
- Instead of demanding my money for drugs, he demands it for the Church.
- Instead of being alone, he is with a bishop of the Church who acts as
- Instead of drawing a knife, he produces a policeman who says I must do
as he says.
- Instead of meeting me on the street, he mails me his demand as an official
agent of the government.
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
I do not understand how you apply this reasoning to government
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.
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
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
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.
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
," 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
the edicts of the State from the commands of a bandit gang?" and "How
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.