What are we to think about the state and taxation?
I have several things in mind as I write this piece. First, the issue found in my title is commonly heard, especially among libertarians. Second, just today in my Bible reading I came upon the dreaded “T” word. Third, I have written on this topic before, at least on the broader issue of taxation from a biblical perspective: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/09/23/taxation-and-the-bible/
But here I will look at all this a bit further. Those arguing that taxation is theft are easy enough to come by and quote from. Let me feature just one such person. Back in 2013 columnist and former judge Andrew P. Napolitano made it quite clear where he stood: “Taxation is theft – so why do Americans put up with it?” He starts his piece this way:
With a tax code that exceeds 72,000 pages in length and consumes more than six billion person hours per year to determine taxpayers’ taxable income, with an IRS that has become a feared law unto itself, and with a government that continues to extract more wealth from every taxpaying American every year, is it any wonder that April 15th is a day of dread in America? Social Security taxes and income taxes have dogged us all since their institution during the last century, and few politicians have been willing to address these ploys for what they are: theft.
Every official foundational government document — from the Declaration of Independence to the U.S. Constitution to the oaths that everyone who works for the government takes — indicates that the government exists to work for us. The Declaration even proclaims that the government receives all of its powers from the consent of the governed. If you believe all this, as I do, then just as we don’t have the power to take our neighbor’s property and distribute it against his will, we lack the ability to give that power to the government. Stated differently, just as you lack the moral and legal ability to take my property, you cannot authorize the government to do so.
Here’s an example you’ve heard before. You’re sitting at home at night, and there’s a knock at the door. You open the door, and a guy with a gun pointed at you says: “Give me your money. I want to give it away to the less fortunate.” You think he’s dangerous and crazy, so you call the police. Then you find out he is the police, there to collect your taxes.
The framers of the Constitution understood this. For 150 years, the federal government was run by user fees and sales of government land and assessments to the states for services rendered. It rejected the Hamiltonian view that the feds could take whatever they wanted, and it followed the Jeffersonian first principle that the only moral commercial exchanges are those that are fully voluntary.
This worked well until the progressives took over the government in the first decade of the 20th century. They persuaded enough Americans to cause their state legislatures to ratify the Sixteenth Amendment, which was designed to tax the rich and redistribute wealth. They promised the American public that the income tax would never exceed 3 percent of income and would only apply to the top 3 percent of earners. How wrong — or deceptive — they were.
There are only three ways to acquire wealth in a free society. The inheritance model occurs when someone gives you wealth. The economic model occurs when you trade a skill, a talent, an asset, knowledge, sweat, energy or creativity to a willing buyer. And the mafia model occurs when a guy with a gun says: “Give me your money or else.” Which model does the government use? Why do we put up with this? www.foxnews.com/opinion/taxation-is-theft-so-why-do-americans-put-up-with-it
A few things can be said in response. Andrew Napolitano of course is a secular libertarian, while I am a Christian conservative. I agree with much of what he says here and elsewhere, but not on everything. We both are greatly concerned about big government, Statism, the loss of freedoms, and excessive taxation.
But as a biblical Christian I know that God created the state and that taxation has a place – see for example Romans 13:1-7. I stated above that I had just read about tax – it comes from Exodus 30:11-16:
The Census Tax
The Lord said to Moses, “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. Each one who is numbered in the census shall give this: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as an offering to the Lord. Everyone who is numbered in the census, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the Lord’s offering. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the Lord’s offering to make atonement for your lives. You shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord, so as to make atonement for your lives.”
I mention this passage not to suggest it is some sort of binding economic template for folks today – whether Christian or non-Christian. It is interesting to note however – in this passage at least – that there is no call for progressive taxation: that the rich should pay more than the poor.
This is not the place to go into a detailed assessment of what a biblical taxation policy might look like – if such a thing is possible – but I can note two earlier passages found in the book of Exodus which are rather interesting when it comes to how the poor are to be treated:
Ex. 23:3 Do not show favoritism to a poor person in a lawsuit.
Ex. 23:6 Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits.
The point is, many biblical texts do speak to the matter of taxation and how we are to treat others. A main New Testament passage is of course Romans 13:6-7: “For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”
See the article I linked to above where I share a number of other such passages, including those where Jesus speaks directly to the matter. While it can be argued that the Bible is not an economics textbook as such, it does have plenty to say on this and related matters.
But plenty of questions remain, and much more can be said on all this. One Christian from Sydney who has a background in economics also spoke to this issue. He closes his piece as follows:
Who do we rely on?
There is no right answer for the question of “How much should our governments tax us?” In countries such as the United Arab Emirates, much of their government revenues come from oil exports, which means they do not have a necessity to increase the tax base. Smaller countries might not have as many alternate sources of revenue and will inevitably need to draw from local businesses and citizens.
The problems that policy makers face on taxation is inherently an economic problem. There are simply too many things we want to try and solve through government, but only so much time, money and resources we have to deploy to resolve it. The more we try and get government to resolve issues, the greater impact that will have on our tax base.
Today, for many working Australians, income we earn from almost 1-1.5 days out of each full working week goes to pay taxes. If we want to reduce our tax base, we would need to reduce the amount of government expenditure and the scope of government involvement in our lives.
A government that is excessive in its taxation or spending is ultimately stealing from its constituents and wasting their money. We need to be politically active in our democratic government as it is ultimately accountable to its constituents. One part of being politically active is to help keep our government accountable for its spending and taxation so that it is not in excess in its scope, spending or taxation.
As citizens, we should also make sure we are not unknowingly worshiping government and seeing it as the solution to everything. We should instead be relying on God.
When we are trying to solve societal issues, the solution may not simply be to raise taxes and start a government program to correct it. Instead, it might be our responsibility individually and locally at a council level, a community level and/or a church level to step up and try and solve the issue. It might mean we should start first by turning to God in prayer, repenting and committing our worries and issues to God before we turn to the government. christiantoday.com.au/news/is-taxation-theft.html
Quite so. In sum, and in answer to our question, ‘Is taxation theft?,’ the Christians would say: ‘No, not always, but it certainly can sometimes be.’ Thus it would be better to rephrase the question: ‘Are some forms and some levels of taxation theft – or at least excessive and damaging?’ The answer to that is clearly ‘yes’.
But as always, we need biblical balance here, and we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Taxation is not something inherently wrong or sinful, but like everything in a fallen world, it can become so.