This post argues that people have forgotten and/or conveniently ignored the eighth and tenth commandments. What are they?
Exodus 20:15 — Don’t steal
Exodus 20:17 — Don’t covet somebody else’s property.
What does it mean to covet? Dictionary.com’s definition of “covet” is interesting: “to desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others: to covet another’s property.”
Laws should have some basis in morality. The 10 commandments are one of the foundations for many of our laws, but the moral laws against theft and against coveting are often ignored today.
It is clear from the Constitution and even modern-day revelation that property rights were central to our republic’s sense of identity. The 4th Amendment to the Constitution implies expansive property rights (the government cannot search your property without probable cause — if your property were community property, the standard would be different, but the Constitution is clearly implying private, individual property); the 5th amendment says people cannot be “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” The 14th amendment says no law may abridge the “privileges or immunities” of any citizen and again says: “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” I would argue in fact that a careful reading of the entire Constitution, including the 9th and 10th amendments, makes it clear that it is primarily a document intended to protect individual rights — including property rights — from a tyrannical majority.
Today, there is a much more expansive view of property rights than in the 18th and 19th centuries. We don’t think twice about passing new taxes or fees, without considering that we are in effect stealing from some people to give to others. And our desire to covet other people’s property knows no bounds: we love to talk about taxing “the rich” without considering that we may in fact be encouraging people to violate the 10th commandment against coveting.
The Founding Fathers were very aware of the need to protect property rights from overweaning government. Their writings are filled with worrisome references to populist uprisings caused by majority rule, in which the majority would pass laws violating the property rights of the minority. John Locke was often cited as one of the most influential philosophers read by the Founders. This is the same John Locke who said: “Government has no other end, but the preservation of property” and “All mankind… being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”
Therefore, it is no surprise that Thomas Jefferson said the following:
“To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father’s has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association–’the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.’”
Madison warned that the loss of freedom would be gradual, as indeed it has been: “I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
This sense that property rights were central to the American experience extended to Joseph Smith and modern-day revelation. Doctrine & Covenants Section 134:2 says very clearly:
“We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.”
Right now every liberal or progressive who is reading this is saying: “well, if you can’t take any property at all, how can you form a government with an army, a police force and courts?” And, interestingly, this is exactly the conundrum faced by the Founding Fathers. John Adams struggled with this issue and finally came to the following conclusion:
Each individual of the society has a right to be protected by it in the enjoyment of his life, liberty, and property, according to standing laws. He is obliged, consequently, to contribute his share to the expense of this protection; and to give his personal service, or an equivalent, when necessary. But no part of the property of any individual can, with justice, be taken from him, or applied to public uses, without his own consent, or that of the representative body of the people.
To sum up: property can only be taken with the consent of the people involved or by the representative body of the people. But notice that the property that can be taken is intended to provide funds to defend only his “life, liberty and property.” Adams is not saying property can be taken for a long list of reasons, but instead only to help form the most basic features of a civil society.
In practice, this meant that taxation was minimal for most of the first 140-plus years of the republic. The income tax was used during emergencies and was not formally approved until the 16th amendment in 1913. And it was only intended for the very richest, people who today would be multi-millionaires.
In 100 years, we have buried ourselves under sales taxes, property taxes, state income taxes, city income taxes, federal income taxes, car registration fees and on and on in an endless parade of taking from one person or group of people and giving to another.
Clearly, some level of taxation is needed to form a society. We can all probably agree on paying taxes for national defense, police, fire and the courts. Some of us would favor some level of taxation for education and roads and anti-monopoly federal enforcement. But as we ponder the endless list of taxes that we have allowed to be foisted on ourselves, I think we should ask ourselves in each case: are we violating private property rights? Why do we have the right to steal from somebody else to give to another? Are we basing our laws on coveting the possessions of another?
I’ll give one example that clearly, in my opinion, amounts to theft and clearly involves coveting the goods of another: the death tax.
Let’s consider a business owner who successfully grows a profitable enterprise. Let’s consider how his profits are taxed in the United States. First, he pays a corporate income tax of 35 percent (one of the highest rates in the world) on his profits. Then he pays income taxes on his salary. The top rate is 35 percent scheduled to go up to 39.6 percent in January. Then, if he saves any money (the money intended for his heirs), he is taxed on capital gains and dividends. So, the same money could have been taxed three times for this business owner.
How under any just system (taking into account the eighth and tenth commandments) could we then turn around and tax the savings of this business owner another 55 percent (the amount planned in 2011)? The only justification used by modern-day thieves is, yes, that they covet this money. The caterwauling over the untimely death of the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner daring to die in 2010 — a year without an estate tax — rather than in 2011, when the tax will be 55 percent, was positively ghoulish. What better example of coveting do you need than people trying to steal the wealth of another person after he dies?
Frankly, I believe we need to re-think many of our assumptions about society’s right to take money from some and redistribute to others. It is not justified, in my opinion, by the words of the Founding Fathers and important philosophers like Locke. It is not justified, in my opinion, by the broader intent of the Constitution. And it is not justified, in my opinion, by the eighth and tenth commandments and modern-day revelation.
What does this mean in practice when we live in a society with an ever-growing burden of taxation? It means we take immediate and persistent steps to decrease the size of government and the amount of taxation. It will likely be an unending battle. And we might want to remind people about the eighth and tenth commandments while we’re at it.