Government Theft and Other Tax Day Thoughts

Happy tax day! Here’s hoping for a big return for you, whoever you are!

Taxes suck. Nobody likes paying taxes, but does the government even have the right to take money from us? I run in circles that tend to be very politically far apart in their answers to this question. On the one hand, there are those who hate taxes and believe they are simply theft. On the other end, many are deeply suspicious of wealth and believe justice demands strong taxation in order to bring about a more equitable society.

I don’t quite fit into either group and I don’t think the Catholic Church does either.

Classical liberalism, foundational to our current social order, tends to hold that there is a universal and near absolute right to private property. On that understanding, only the consent of the governed can justify taxation. Anything else is theft. Of course, various complicated theories exist as to just how that consent works—only the most hardcore libertarians believe that taxation would require the explicit consent of each individual being taxed—but the basic principle remains the same.

The classical liberal viewpoint is often contrasted with the more modern liberal and progressive ideology that believes in a positive right to equity which it is the job of the government to actively bring about. According to this ideology, inequality is injustice.

Of course, there are also a whole host of viewpoints between these extremes, but the contrast is clarifying. For my part, I’m not at all persuaded that taxation and government programs are the best way to bring about a just distribution of goods. A trip to the DMV should give anyone a healthy skepticism regarding the efficiency of government.

But the question of the efficiency of taxation is separate from the question of the justice of taxation. It certainly isn’t straightforwardly obvious that taxation is theft any more than it is obvious that imprisonment is kidnapping. Most of us acknowledge at least some areas in which the state has recourse to force that is not open to individual citizens. This is because one of the primary mandates of the government is justice and part of justice is ensuring a just distribution of goods.

According to Catholic social teaching, “In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2402).” This universal destination of goods means that every “person must have access to the level of well-being necessary for his full development” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 172). At the same time, the Church also teaches that private property is a right and in fact its existence is “the guarantee of a correct social order” (CSDC, 176). However, “Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable” (CSDC, 177). The Church holds that private property is a right precisely as a means to the betterment of the whole of society. This means that those who acquire wealth have a duty to use that wealth for the common good.

The universal destination of goods entails obligations on how goods are to be used by their legitimate owners. Individual persons may not use their resources without considering the effects that this use will have, rather they must act in a way that benefits not only themselves and their family but also the common good. From this there arises the duty on the part of owners not to let the goods in their possession go idle and to channel them to productive activity, even entrusting them to others who are desirous and capable of putting them to use in production (CSDC, 178)

As a corollary of these principles the Church teaches that, “Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good” (CCC 2406). This means that the Church, in concert with Jesus (cf. Mk 12:13-17; Mt 22:15-22; Lk 20:20-26) and St. Paul (Rom 13:7), insists that governments have the right to levy taxes and that citizens have a duty to pay them. At the same time, the fact that individuals have a right to private property means that any taxes should not be burdensome. Thus, the Church teaches that taxes are in principle just.

Yet, as I said above, these are questions of the rights of individuals and the rights of the government. Many would argue that the very wealthy tend precisely to be people who are making good use of their money for the common good. Individuals like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, for example, are fabulously wealthy but gain that wealth through economic activities that create wealth in the form of jobs for millions of others. It is not necessarily the case that taxation and redistribution would lead to a more just society according to the principle of the universal destination of goods. It may be the case that the best way for the government to fulfill its duty of promoting the common good is for it to foster a free market that allows entrepreneurs to  freely invest their money in ways that increase wealth throughout society.

In light of the principles of the universal destination of goods and the right to private property, leaders in the Catholic Church have tended to favor a mixed economy over either a system of absolute private ownership or one set up along the lines favored by progressives. I personally tend more in the free market direction, but I am also convinced that it the State is well within its rights to tax in order to be able to fulfill its responsibility of justice and that so long as the State taxes we have a duty to pay.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Kenneth R Greenlee says:

    “one of the primary mandates of the government is justice and part of justice is ensuring a just distribution of goods.” I do not see in our constitution that the government has any role in the “just distribution of goods”. The right to tax is enshrined in our laws. Liberals or more exactly, progressives, believe they have the right to equalize property among the many. This is almost always exclusively at the expense of the entrepreneurs who produce goods and services that (as you mention with Gate’s) produce jobs, etc. This often amounts to outright theft by most just definitions. Think Bernie Sanders.

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    1. Kevin G. says:

      Thank you for your reply. A couple of points:

      First, I am extremely grateful for the Constitution and I want the leaders of our nation to give it greater respect. That said, the claim that “part of justice is ensuring the just distribution of goods” is a claim about natural law (i.e. the moral law) and not positive law (i.e. man-made laws). At least, I take it that those who say “taxation is theft” are not claiming that taxation is theft because taxation is illegal. I take it rather that they are making a claim about the moral order of the universe.

      These are two levels of questions and its important to keep them separate. I happen to believe the Constitution provides a good framework for a just society, but it is a mane-made legal framework and so not the same thing as the natural law. If we confuse the issues of natural law and positive law, then we lose any ability to critique injustice in systems of positive law.

      Second, the principle that “part of justice is ensuring the just distribution of goods” doesn’t necessarily mean that the best way to do that is through taxation and redistribution programs. As I made pretty clear in the post, I don’t actually think they are the best way. If free trade is the best way to ensure a just distribution of goods and the King posts soldiers on the highway to stop bandits from robbing the traders who use the road that king is “ensuring the just distribution of goods.”

      My argument is that taxation is not theft, but that too much taxation would be unjust as it would violate the right to private property. Where the line gets drawn between just taxation and unjust taxation is not something I tackled, nor is it even something I think I have a clear answer to.

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