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Way back near the beginning of this school year, I remember Prof. Northcott recounting to our class a recent debate in Durham, NC, that he’d been invited to participate in, a debate with Calvin Beisner, whom he aptly termed “a cornucopian dominionist.”  With humored incredulity, he shared with us the astonishing fact that Beisner thought it was “theft” for the government to take people’s money through taxes and distribute them to others through programs like Social Security or the debated healthcare initiative.  Could we believe he said such a thing? he asked.  I timidly answered that almost everyone I’d grown up around would’ve employed that rhetoric.  And I’ve been thinking about it ever since--is this really a rational criticism?  If it is rational, it certainly isn’t self-evident.  And not being self-evident, and being a rather harsh and provocative accusation, it seems that, if there’s any weight to it, it ought to be carefully argued, not casually thrown around without a shred of argumentation, as it often has been, particularly during the healthcare debate and in its aftermath.

The “taxation is theft” claim is of course a commonplace, and I’m sure you have all heard it in many settings, but I’ll mention briefly here two examples of it that I happened to come across and bookmark when I was thinking about writing this essay.
On, you can find an interview with Shawn Ritenour, a Christian Libertarian who has written yet another “Look!  The Bible is a manifesto for free market economics!” book, called God, Socialism, and the Free Market.
The sycophantic interviewer, Kengor, begins: “I like the way you turn the religious left’s thinking on private property on its head. You note that “God prohibits our coveting the property of others.” With that being the case, isn’t it wrong for the government to use the mighty arm of the state to forcibly remove property from one person to give it to another?
Ritenour: I see no other way around that conclusion, especially when we realize that, in our day of mass democracy, the state usually accomplishes policies of wealth redistribution by inciting envy and covetousness among the populace.”
Later, Kengor asks, “On a separate point, near the end of your book, you make a statement that’s especially appropriate right now, given the prevailing view by President Obama and the Democratic Congress. You write, “We simply cannot grow the economy into prosperity by resorting to government spending. It cannot be done.” Are you arguing from a strictly economic standpoint or also biblically?
Ritenour: Both. Forcibly taking money from someone to give to another in an attempt to “grow the economy” is a violation of Christian ethics. It also fails to achieve the explicit goal of its advocates.”
Recently, discussing Obamacare, Douglas Wilson states the accusation still more clearly:
“The Bible says not to steal. I have quoted Margaret Thatcher on this before. As she put it, the problem with socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people's money, and this aphorism highlights two of the problems. But the moral problem is foremost, the part that sees that this racket depends on "other people's money." No benefit can be given to one person without it being first removed from another person. What is the basis of the removal? We threaten that other person with jail time in order to extract a sufficient amount of money from him. It is not a "contribution." In order to defend Obamacare, you have to be in favor of raw extortion at raw levels. This is a moral failure, and the difficulty that many professed Christians have in seeing it as a moral failure represents an even deeper level of moral failure.”
In both cases, of course, the Bible is appealed to, because, of course, the Bible says not to steal.  On this, I think all parties will agree.  But we are not shown enough (nor do I feel like I have ever shown enough) in the Bible to show that this prohibition applies to the question at hand.  Margaret Thatcher may believe it does, but on what basis?
This claim seems to be based on a narrative involving three basic actors: first, “the government,” an independent, power-hungry entity; second, a group of innocent victims who have their money taken from them at gunpoint; third, a group of well-fed beneficiaries, who happily receive the largess of the second group, given to them by the first.  Now, I admit that this sounds like a bit of a caricature, but it really is often stated that simplistically.  Let’s evaluate the basic elements of this narrative.  
First, this narrative depends on the presupposition that we can isolate these actors.  Is that really true?  I don’t think so, for two main reasons: a) the second and third groups are not so easily distinguished; b) the first is not so easily distinguished from the second and third.  Let’s look at a) for a minute.  There are some people who are almost entirely on the receiving end (the third actor) and some people who are almost entirely on the paying end (the second actor), but almost all of us are somewhere in between, both paying in to the government and receiving a number of things back.  This is not a trivial point, because it raises the question, “When do we make the ‘theft‘ accusation?”  Is Social Security theft, because some people get more than they pay in, and others get less?  Is the new healthcare bill theft?  After all, we’re all getting healthcare out of it, even if some people are getting it subsidized at the expense of others.  But regular businesses often sell some people an item at a much lower price than they sell it to others; in this case, we may speak of getting ripped off, but “theft” seems a little strong.  Is it theft when our tax money is used to pay for roads or utilities, or is it simply paying for a service?  Purist libertarians will offer a resounding, “Yes, it is theft.”  For them, it is theft simply by virtue of the fact that it is a compelled transaction, rather than a voluntary one.  This leads us on to consideration of b) .  
In older societies, where the ruler really did stand over against the ruled as an independent actor, ruling perpetually and by divine right, the narrative of the first party extorting from the second to give to the third might have made some sense.  But does that really make sense in a modern representative democracy?  (Now don’t get me wrong; I’d be the first to say that modern representative democracies fail to be truly representative or truly democratic, but that is our own fault.)  In the United States, however huge and bureaucratic the government, however impenetrable it seems and however much inertia it has, in the end it derives its powers from the consent of the governed, and it operates by means of men that we have voted into office, and whose ideas we have shaped by the kind of education and religious values we have promoted.  Like it or not, the people there in Washington are acting in our place, and so we are all responsible for the decisions they make.  We may accuse them of exercising bad stewardship, of betraying our misplaced trust, of acting against the better reason of those who elected them, etc., but to treat them simply as an independent actor preying upon us as independent victims does not seem to me very coherent.  
And this raises a larger point.  While we may think that the current condition of American society is inordinately and dangerously prone to a tyranny of the majority, the fact remains that, unless you are a radical individualist, one must always accept the fact that certain segments of a society will have to make decisions that are binding upon the whole, even if the whole do not agree.  If the shareholders of a corporation vote to agree to a merger, in which their stock of, say, Cingular Wireless, is replaced by the stock of, AT&T, and 20% of the shareholders vote against the merger, do those 20% get to opt out of the deal?  Do they remain as shareholders of a now 80% smaller Cingular Wireless, while the rest are bought out by AT&T?  No.  Can they then claim that their stock, their company was “stolen”?  Not generally!  Or how about this?  A town referendum agrees on a levy to cover the town’s expenses in a number of different areas.  The town council, which has the responsibility for allocating the funds, then looks at the situation and decides it needs to spend, say, more on education and less on infrastructure than many of the townspeople would have liked.  Can the latter complain of “theft” since they’ve now had “their money” taken to pay for things they haven’t agreed to?  
In any society, decisions about how to dispose of resources amongst various needs of different portions of the society will have to be taken, without, except in very rare cases, the consent of every member of the society.  This means that most members of a society will have some of their pooled resources used for purposes that they’d rather not; but this is simply part of the cost that comes with being a member of a society (and, not being a contractarian, I don’t believe that we have the choice to opt in or out of being a member of civil society, at least on some level).  
As John Medaille of The Distributist Review put it to me, 
Every society has some public and obligatory contributions to justice. The plain fact of the matter is that man is both individual and social, and there are social obligations which may be enforced by law. We live within a framework of institutions, and these institutions are always imperfect, and will imperfectly deliver justice to all the participants. Hence the needs for charity, both social and individual....Certain services must be socialized, and those who object to all forms of socialism should not pull that socialist lever in their homes, the one that carries away their wastes into the socialized sewage system.
So, by all means let’s complain that our society’s values are screwed up, that it’s structured in such a way that the will of the members is easily disregarded, that a lot of people are getting a raw deal, but let’s not talk as if we were just sitting in our homes, minding our own business, and along came a tax man with a gun and took our money.  I should add one more example, that seems most akin to the question under consideration.  In the years leading up to World War II, a tremendous percentage of US defense spending was budgeted to protecting the Hawaiian Islands and other US Pacific territories from potential Japanese attack, even those these were not actually part of the United States and very few Americans lived in these places.  Should Americans in Missouri or North Dakota have complained that they, who were perfectly safe from Japanese attack, were having tax money extorted from them in order to pay for the defense of a few Americans chilling on Waikiki Beach?  I don’t know...but for whatever reason, while conservatives always cry “theft” over liberal causes, they never do when it comes to defense spending. 
Second, the narrative requires that we can characterize taxes as the result of “coercion” or “raw extortion,” which just doesn’t seem accurate, based on the discussion above.  In general, societies, even our American society, prefer not to resort to violence, but seek to establish consensus that the money is being used for a good cause and to establish a sense of social responsibility that everyone ought to pay up, and only use coercion as a last resort.  Our society’s laws would not work if they depended simply on coercion, and taxes would not be collected if they really had to be “extorted”; rather, the majority of the people either willingly obey, or else conclude that, as members of society, it’s their duty to obey whether they want to or not.  Only with that minority who will only obey under compulsion is compulsion truly exercised.  At least, that’s how I analyze coercion’s role in civil societies, but this is a fairly incidental point, if you be disposed to disagree.

(See Part 2 for “Third, and most significantly in my mind...”)


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