Rendering Unto Caesar

I shouldn’t be having to write this blog post. Who wants to write an apologia for the tax man? But there’s a particular brand of conservative thought here in America that maintains that taxation is theft, or at least extortion. The thinking, as far as I can follow it, goes something like this:

I have a job and get paid. I put in my time and effort and I am remunerated financially for doing so. I earned that money; it’s mine. And because it’s mine, the government has no right to take it away from me. It does not belong to them. The term we give to someone taking something that doesn’t belong to them is theft. Even if they are demanding it (extortion), it’s theft. Therefore taxation is theft.

It’s a nice logical chain. One thing follows from another. But when one or more of your starting premises is flawed, you can be as logical as you like and still end up in the wrong place.

It’s rather like the joke that’s told sometimes about a man asking a local for directions to Scarborough. In the joke, the local thinks for some time, then says, “Well, if I were going to Scarborough, I wouldn’t start out from here!”

The starting premise that I think is flawed is the idea that it is somehow illegitimate or immoral for the government to take money from its citizens in order to meet its legitimate responsibilities.

Now, liberals and conservatives (in the classical political sense of both terms) will argue back and forth over what constitutes a legitimate function and responsibility of government. Liberals place a lot more on the government’s plate, conservatives a lot less. But unless you are an outright anarchist, you will probably agree that there are at least a few legitimate areas of responsibility that a government has, for example:

  • Drafting of legislation. How much legislation we need may be a matter of debate, but I don’t think even the most ardent conservative would agree to the outsourcing of legislative function to, for example, a private company. Can you imagine what might result from, say, Lockheed-Martin making defence policy, or Halliburton running the Environmental Protection Agency?

  • Defence. There have been private military contractors in history. On land, they were called mercenaries. At sea, they were known as privateers, or more commonly as pirates. The big problem with them is that at the end of the day they are answerable to their own pockets and not to the citizens. And when you most need them, you can least afford them.

  • Law enforcement. If a privatised military is a bad idea, a privatised police force has to be orders of magnitude worse. Imagine calling the police and being told “I’m sorry, ma’am. We can’t prosecute your rapist because you aren’t paid up”. This ia called a protection racket. And those who most need police protection – the poor – would be least able to afford it. You’d end up with a situation where equality before the law was completely bent towards monetary gain.

We might add other areas, depending on our political persuasion and personal taste: healthcare, international relations, regulation of commerce and so on. How much you consider to be within the legitimate purview of government is one of the big differences between Left and Right. But I think we can all agree that there are certain functions that only a government can legitimately exercise.

All of these cost money. Soldiers need to be paid, unless you want them to subsist by the 17th-Century method of plundering the enemy in time of active deployment and extorting money from citizens in time of peace. Law enforcement officers need to be paid for the same reasons. Even legislators need to be paid, because otherwise the only way you can afford to become a legislator is if you are already wealthy, and that way lies plutocracy. The already-wealthy running the nation to suit themselves.

If we agree that there are legitimate functions of government, we are agreeing that the costs of these functions are legitimate costs.

Taxation is, quite simply, the only reasonable way I can think of for a government to meet its costs. We all pay taxes because we all use those things which government provides: stability, rule of law, freedom from foreign aggression, and so on.

A government could, I suppose, make its money by charging large fees for services like passport applications or marriage registration or the like, but why should only those using said services be stuck with the entire bill for the things we all enjoy? We all rely on the existence of the rule of law and stability. We rely on them so much that we don’t even think about them as government services, but they are. Take away an effective government and you get Somalia. In some ways, even a tyranny is better than that.

Is taxation always justified? Probably not. It can certainly be burdensome and oppressive. But there is a difference between taxation and theft.

Personally, I have a wider view of what legitimately belongs in the government’s purview than most people I meet. However, I live in Texas, and a lot of people I come across would probably think that the Ferengi from Star Trek were dangerously liberal. (Incidentally, Trek could have made the Ferengi terrifying, if they hadn’t decided to play them for laughs. The evil corporate sharks of the Trek universe, soulless corporations constrained by no law or conscience, only profit. They could have given the Borg a run for their money as most terrifying villains).

Government, in my mind, has a legitimate role in restraining the power of business so that it is a servant of the people and not a master. History shows the tendency of large business interests to become predatory on the common citizen, from child labour in the 19th Century through to the sweatshops of the 21st. To my knowledge, no industry has voluntarily cleaned up its act without being made to by the enaction of laws or the prosecution of key players. Not all business people are sharks, but the historical record speaks for itself. Corporate leaders aren’t stupid; they are going to look for ways to make as much money as they can. This is part of what makes them successful. And the actions of those who bend and break the moral law (even if what they are doing is technically legal) skew the field for everyone. If “everyone” is acting oppressively, it takes a brave, wise and perceptive individual to challenge the rightness of it. It has become normal, and normal is “right”.

Except it isn’t. This is what Jesus’ actions in driving the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals out of the Temple are about. The Temple market may have been normal, but righteousness is something else.

Anyway, I cannot agree with the idea that taxation is theft. Oppressive, perhaps. Unfair, undoubtedly, at times. Overburdensome, certainly, at times. But not theft. More like a service fee. We all pay because we all benefit from having a government not an anarchy.

In many ways I’m shocked that this conversation even needs to take place, but apparently it does.

Now, if we could all stop the misleading use of loaded words like “theft” and “extortion”, we can all get back to arguing over how much we should legitimately expect the government to handle for us.