Thoughts on Income Taxes, Theft, and the Making of a Blog Debate

Politics are patently ridiculous, “testimony” masquerading as rationalism — SilverRain.

I had an epiphany while engaging in this thread that eventually turned into a side thread about whether or not ‘taxes’ were the same as ‘theft.’ I wanted to write it down to remember it. I hope Geoff (who I have to use as an example) will realize that I’m in no way knocking his position. In fact, I hope Geoff will see that he successfully helped me understand his position better.

First, a quick summary of the ‘taxes = theft’ debate. The whole debate was between various conservatives. No liberals or even moderatres (unless you consider me a moderate) were part of the debate. Geoff and some of the more libertarian leaning commenters (LDSP, Rame, Skyler) took the stances that taxes were theft. Adam, SilverRain, and myself (to a lesser degree on this thread, though I’ve engaged in this argument elsewhere) took the stances that taxes, while they should be minimized, are not equivalent to theft. (In a humorous moment, Adam — regularly perceived as an extreme conservative – sent an email to some of us on the thread and said how much he enjoyed finding himself on the other side for a change.)

I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I realize that there is a really important point that came out of this that I personally didn’t want to forget, namely that from a certain point of view, both sides were right.

First, let me just point out that I think everyone engaged in the debate is rather intelligent. Granted, given her quote above, it’s obvious SilverRain kicks tail over all of us in terms of intelligence. But the rest of us are pretty smart too. Even Adam is. (Though rumor has it that it was actually his seven year old doing all the typing.) So it makes sense to admit the obvious: all of us had valid points of view given the set of assumptions we were each starting with. The problem was that none of us were starting with the same assumptions. Indeed, it wasn’t even clear that we all were having the same discussion at times. Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

Objectively Speaking: Taxes Are Like Theft in Some Ways, But Not Others

Consider the whole idea of taxes as ‘being theft’ or ‘not being theft.’ There are, in fact, some striking similarities between ‘taxes’ and ‘theft.’ For example, I have no doubt that both are a mandatory taking of someone elses property. And isn’t this, perhaps, one of the most important qualities of what we often call ‘theft’?

On the other hand, there are some very meaningful ways in which taxes are very much unlike theft. For one thing, if I get robbed, I don’t get equal representation with how the robber spends my former money after the fact. Plus, I don’t get equal representation on how much I’m going to get robbed next time. Further, robbers don’t end up spending money on public goods like roads and schools. In fact, unless we’re talking about Robin Hood, robbers rarely if ever actually rob from the rich to give to the poor.

So on the one hand taxes are like theft in at least one very meaningful way — it’s forced. But it’s also objectively unlike theft in some very meaningful ways as well. And this really is objectively the case, so it’s not just a matter of opinion.

It Depends On Your Point of View?

Now put yourself in, say, Geoff’s (or other non-anarchist Libertarian commenter’s) shoes for a moment. (I’m going to use Geoff as the example because this was his post.) Geoff isn’t against government. He’s not even really against ‘taxes’ per se. He just wants ‘taxes’ to be indirect sorts of taxes, like tariffs. (As per the original constitution!) He makes several points about why her prefers this approach that I’m not going to summarize, but a couple jump out as me as good examples of where he is coming from.

First, when you have taxes through tariffs they are often ‘hidden’ in the cost of the goods. Second, you don’t have to buy the goods, and therefore you perceive some level of control over how much you are being taxes. (Ignoring Adam’s counter argument here for the moment.) Third, its harder (but probably not impossible) to collect enough taxes through tariffs to set up massive entitlement programs, and Geoff particularly dislikes entitlement programs.

If I really want to understand why Geoff insists on calling ‘taxes’ (which we now know is limited to ‘income taxes’) a type of theft you have to put yourself in Geoff’s political shoes and experience taxes as he experiences them.

Geoff hates that our tax burden is so high. He hates that the whole system in in danger of failing due to the entitlements programs. He dislikes working six months out of a year for supporting these programs that — mind you — he’s entirely against and has been long before we all started to realize what a problem they are becoming. Geoff really does experience income taxes as a sort of theft! His emotional view of what is being done to him really does feel very similar to how I’d feel if someone robbed me. So there is a legitimate sense in which taxes are theft if you experience taxes in the way Geoff does.

Adam and SilverRain, on the other hand, aren’t looking at it in this way. They point out that Geoff isn’t being ‘logical.’ Does it make sense to call ‘income taxes’ theft and not tariffs when both are a forced taking of money? What objective criteria is Geoff using to define one was theft and the other as not theft?

There is no possible cool and rational response that Geoff can give to this question because it’s an objective face that taxes (of all sorts) are unlike theft in meaningful ways. So Geoff instead starts to explain why he feels worse about income taxes then he does about tariffs because he feels tariffs would work better in maintaining his political goals.

In fact, this is the correct answer given what Geoff is really trying to say. For Geoff has written this post for the sake of explaining his personal feelings about how income taxes have come to be used and abused and how it has (given his own political views) become so at odds with what he’d like the government to be doing with his money that it really does emotionally feel (but ultimately subjectively so) like theft to him now.

I want to emphazie here that Geoff is patently correct given his point of view: Geoff really does experience taxes in such a way that they feel like theft to him. No one can possibly disprove this for the obvious reason that he’s objectively correct that he experiences taxes as a kind of theft.

But given this answer, it’s obvious that ‘rationally speaking’ Geoff hasn’t answered the question. Adam quickly points this out. Rationally speaking Geoff has done nothing to explain in what sense tariffs (a forced taking of money) is not theft while income taxes (also a forced taking of money) is.

Perception and “Who’s Right?”

So who is right? It depends on how you perceive the purpose of the original post. Adam, SilverRain, and myself are looking at it in strict rational terms and are not factoring in Geoff’s subjective experiences with taxes. Instead, we’re taking our own experience with taxes and plugging Geoff’s arguments into that (incompatible) point of view. Given this point of view, we are correct as well. Taxes will never been equivalent to theft in an objective sense. 

But this is literally besides the point of the purpose of the original post and we can’t seem to see that! Geoff is expressing his feelings and doing so accurately. Given his political views and situation taxes emotionally come off so much like theft that calling them ‘theft’ very accurate reflects how he feels about being forced to pay them.

I hope people will not think that by calling one side ‘rational’ and one side ‘emotional’ that I’m somehow downplaying Geoff’s point of view and playing up Adam’s and SilverRain’s (and my own). The truth is that from a certain point of view the opposing viewpoint is really rooted in emotion as well. Using myself as an example, I simply do not have the visceral response to how taxes are being used for entitlements that Geoff does. My ‘lack of emotion’ is in fact an ‘emotion’ in and of itself. I am relatively conservative so I’m not in favor of raising entitlements and I believe we’re going to have to dramatically cut them back to avoid bankrupting the government. Austerity is in our future… or bust!

So the issue here isn’t a case of  one party being rational and the other being emotional, per se. I feel quite comfortable in saying I’m even bit driven by emotion here as anyone else and I suspect that true of all of us in various measures. But given that lack of emotion on this specific issue, Geoff really has no means of conveying to us his real meaning — for his real meaning is his subjective (but very real) experience.

Rationality is the limit of what we can convey objectively. And even then, it’s often quite hard, for human beings are not primarily rational. Unless I actually first experience what Geoff experiences, I’m not likely to ever really ‘get it’ when Geoff labels taxes as a kind of theft.

But suppose I’m Skyler or Rame instead of myself. They clearly seem to ‘get it’ when Geoff refers to taxes as a kind of theft. I would suggest this is because they have had that required visceral experience required to ‘get it.’ (Note the similarities here to the Mormon concept of ‘testimony’ and then refer back to SilverRains quote above.)

In short, the whole refrain of ‘Income Taxes are Theft” is really a way of expressing in group how one feels about a number of related issues: i.e. how we’re taxed, how much we’re taxed, and how the taxes are used. It’s a shorthand of sorts for something much much larger. If you are not hooked into that shorthand, you literally can’t understand what Geoff is talking about.

In large measure, I am only now understanding this precisely because Geoff actually does do a good job (in comments) of explaining the larger issues he’s really thinking about. I have to take those comments, allow myself to try to ‘feel’ (in so far as that is even possible) how I might feel if I viewed that world that way, then think about how I’d feel about taxes given that viewpoint. Only then can I (to some small measure) ‘get it.’

Objectively Speaking: Taxes Are Not Theft

Are taxes theft? Objectively speaking, of course not. We do not decide something is something based on a partial match of criteria or based on mere analogy. A dog is not a cat because both have fur. And a plane is not a bird just because its is like a bird. A CPU is not a brain because it’s analogous to a brain. Indeed, a house cat isn’t even a lion because both are felines.

So long as there are meaningful differences between taxes and robbery, the refrain of ‘taxes are theft’ will never be objectively true and will always serve only as a shorthand for other unstated subjective experiences.

But I do think I see where Geoff and others are coming from now. It must be absolutely terribly frustrating to have to work 6 months out of the year for governmental spending that is primarily spent on items you entirely disagree with. So telling me ‘taxes are theft’ does have the potential to communicate the feelings involved if supplemented with some heavy effort to make sure I eventually realize in what sense the refrain is intend.

But What About Effectiveness?

However, there is a point I like to mention to Geoff and others: there was a heavy cost for such rhetorical shorthand.

By insisting on calling taxes a sort of ‘theft’ you are losing those that that aren’t experiencing taxes the way you are experiencing them. I mean let’s admit it: the original arguments being made in the original post have all largely been lost in an completely unnecessary discussion about whether or not ‘taxes are theft.’

I personal haven’t had the sort of visceral reaction to taxes Geoff has. It’s to be expected that when I hear ‘taxes are theft’ I’m going to assume Geoff means it in the literal sense of there being no meaningful differences between taxes and theft. And since that is objectively not true, my natural desire will be to question or debate him on that issue rather than the one he originally intended. (Worse yet, when we ask if the refrain is intended ‘literally’ we’re told ‘yes’ so we can’t claim it’s all just a misunderstanding on our part. Though even if it was, it’s still a misunderstanding that must be dealt with if one’s desire is to communicate.)

The cost of claiming taxes as equivalent to theft was high! For the fact is that this entire ‘debate’ was all between a bunch of fairly hardcore conservatives. If half of hardcore conservatives reacted badly to ‘taxes being theft’ how will moderates and liberal reacted to it? Worse yet, they’ll be right to see that it’s rationally not true! It’s a phrase that causes people to fail to understand the rest of what you are trying to say! And even worse yet, this phrase is unnecessary to make the argument.

In short, the real underlying message of the post failed to make it out of the gate due to the use of an rationally unnecessary phrase. How else to honestly describe an argument that can’t make it past several people that basically agree with you!

So here is the question: what was the purpose of the original post? Was it meant to convey Geoff’s feelings and frustrations? Or was it meant to convince others that might currently disagree with him?

It seems to me that both of these are entirely legitimate reasons to make a blog post. Let’s face it. One of the main reasons we blog is so that we can express ourselves. We aren’t always looking to convince the world. Often all we want is to find others that feel the way we feel. (Isn’t that why The Bloggernacle” exists in the first place? To say nothing of the DAMU community!) And the posts Geoff made were largely successful in these ways! In fact, the very fact that I’m writing this post shows just how successful he was. I literally ‘got how he feels’ in a way I don’t think I understood before. In fact, he successfully got me to think about it for a several hours and finally spend a few more hours writing this post about it.

But if the purpose of the post is to convince others that don’t already agree with one’s point of view, this post was severely hindered by the ‘taxes are theft’ rhetoric.  And the reason it was a hinderance rather than a help was because it’s subjectively true based on personal experience rather than objectively true based on objective criteria.

33 thoughts on “Thoughts on Income Taxes, Theft, and the Making of a Blog Debate

  1. In 2001, Jonah Goldberg of National Review described his frustration with his ongoing engagement of libertarian types by asking “But what exactly is the rule governing arguments with very smart and committed people so ideologically bound up, you’d need a truckload of Metamucil just to get them off a minor point?”

    As it turned out, he was dealing with folks from the particular wing of libertarianism represented by the Lew Rockwell Institute. When we recognize that our arguments are often subjective, one of the best reality checks is to see who else is making those arguments. I was astonished by the number of references in that previous thread to Lew Rockwell and Murray Rothbard. These people propound retrograde views on race and holocaust denial, and campaign for the likes of David Duke, KKK. When you rely on folks like that to make your arguments for you, your arguments aren’t worth making, and it’s time to consider finding a new group of friends.

  2. re: Rothbard, Rockwell, et al: this is really a non-argument. If a good economist has unpopular views on race, should we ignore his valuable contributions to other schools of thought? Each view should be considered independently instead of assuming it defunct by association. There are many who would say, “When you rely on people with retrograde views on sexuality and morality [i.e. Mormons], there’s nothing for you to stand on”, but really this is evil. Christofferson encouraged us to find value even in harsh criticism in April; the same goes elsewhere, I think. We should actively seek out that which is lovely and of good report, even if we disagree on some elements.

    To the main topic, I don’t think that taxes are equivalent to theft until the taxation become onerous and/or inappropriate. Thus, taxes are not inherently robbery, but when power to tax is placed in the hands of persons that don’t use it appropriately either by malice or ignorance, taxation becomes theft. Redistribution schemes particularly have this sting. See Benson’s “Proper Role of Government” and D&C 134.

  3. BTW, many people dismiss my views because of a perception that many “libertarians” are racists, and since I hand out with libertarians, my views aren’t worth considering. Let’s just not go that route. Consider ideas on their merits.

  4. Jeff,

    I agree that is the best way to go. However, Bruce’s point, as I understand it, is that often we think we are making rational arguments and considering ideas on their merits when we are not, really. Much of what we think and argue is irreducibly subjective. It is at this point that I find it useful to take a look around and see who is lining us as an ally, and if I find that I am flocking together with birds of a feather who think black people are morally inferior, that Hitler was a misunderstood genius, and that Abraham Lincoln was a war criminal, I hope I would see some big red flags. It doesn’t make the idea in question necessarily wrong. But if I am on a bus and the other people on the bus with me are crazy, it’s a good bet that I am on the bus to Crazytown, regardless of how much I like their ideas.

    Also — do you think his views on race are merely unpoular, as you put it? Or are they morally wrong, evil, and disgusting? Ron Paul has denounced them as the purest of crap.

    Christofferson’s advice was to seek wisdom even in criticism. I do not interpret that to mean that we should get down on our hands and knees and go digging through the fertile bed of horse manure from which these ideas spring in hopes of finding anything of value. If the ideas have merit, it shouldn’t be difficult to find somebody at least marginally decent who upholds them. Again, the fact that the other thread featured so many references to such bad actors is reprehensible.

    ldsphilosopher,

    I reject the charge that I am making ad hominem attacks. I said that Rothbard held racist views and supported a Klansman, David Duke, in a campaign for political office. Do you dispute either of those points? I think they are established facts, accepted by all sides. It is a strange thing to recite a person’s opinions and immediately be attacked by a partisan as engaging in ad hominem.

    I’m wondering which of the following views you think represent strong contributions to political philosophy. 1. The idea that the state has absolutely no say in whether a woman has an abortion. 2. The idea that the state cannot compel parents to care for children if they don’t feel like it, particularly handicapped children. 3. The idea that parents should be able to sell their children via contract.

    As for the Austrian school, I repeat, can we not find better people to cite than a bunch of Klan suck-ups? There are plenty of advocates for the Austrian school who are better representatives than these two.

    If you want to hang out with racists, fine. But the burden is then on you to make some meaningful distinctions. Ron Paul has done this, it can’t be that hard.

    Again with the idea of considering ideas on their merits. Bruce can correct me if I misunderstood him, but I think the thrust of his post is that while that is ideally a great thing to do, in practice, it is very difficult. You might think you are making a valid argument re: taxation = theft, but you also might just be stating an article of faith, and are not really interested in dialogue on that point. You might just want to sound off and draw a line in the sand, and that is fine. That is mostly what takes place on blogs of any kind. But if we really want to get away from our own subjectivity, I submit that one of the best methods is to take a good, hard look at our ideological allies. If we see a lot we don’t like, we needn’t disown them entirely, but it behooves us to think carefully about the common ground we share with those knuckleheads and clowns. (See, now THAT is ad hominem.)

  5. Bruce, this was a very well thought-out post. Considering it is mostly about me, I wish I had more time to respond. I have some family obligation until Monday or Tuesday and won’t be able to spend much time here.

  6. Geoff, btw, in comment # 5 I did ask three specific questions about Rothbard’s political philosophy. It would be great if we could engage the ideas around here, rather than throwing around mistaken accusations of ad hominem and anti-intellectualism.

  7. Mark, I deleted the other comments between you and me. I really don’t have time for this. If somebody else would like to address, we have several people who have read some Rothbard, perhaps they can. It is worth pointing out that the subject is pretty tangential to Bruce’s post and mine considering Rothbard was not mentioned in either of the OPs.

  8. Bruce N, you spent a lot of time on this post, so it’s probably worthwhile for me to address your central argument while this issue can still be discussed before going off in 10 different directions.

    My first point would be to agree with you that the “taxation is theft” tangent was probably a mistake in terms of rhetoric and winning people to your side. The empirical evidence is undeniable: by going in that direction, there were people who might have been won to my side who instead felt a need to put a stake in the ground saying they disagreed. So, this point is, imho, undeniable.

    Whether or not it was a mistake in terms of morality is another issue. Sometimes you stand up for what is right regardless of whether you are winning the argument.

    I will ask people to go back to the original post and read just the OP and ignore the comments. My point was: we often frame discussion of taxation and government in terms of “fairness.” Nobody likes the idea of anybody starving in the street (including me), so what we often see from many people is, “we must take money from the rich so we can give it to these starving people.” When we do this we are painting of picture of “the rich” in our minds. They look like the guy from Monopoly or Daddy Warbucks or Scrooge or some other character from our imaginations. And of course the poor are all starving widows, not layabouts like the Mr. Adams character in my other post. I have had the great good fortune in my life of knowing a fair amount of really, really rich people. Some of them are really bad people, but a surprising number are very, very good people. I will give you one example.

    When I lived in Brazil I became friends with a family that had started a very large supermarket chain in Brazil. They were poor immigrants from Lebanon — they came to Brazil 50 years ago with barely a penny in their pockets. Through hard work, they built up a chain of supermarkets and were undeniably rich. They were extremely generous with their money, gave a huge amount of money to local charities, had a large family and were all-around good people.

    Meanwhile, there was a guy in my ward in Brazil who was exactly like the Mr. Adams character I mentioned. It was even worse because, in addition to be good-looking and charming, he was multi-lingual. He could have made a very, very good living as a translator. He just hated to work and loved to surf, so he spent his time scrounging money from other people.

    So, I repeat, is it “fair” to forcibly take money from these hard-working people and give it to the Mr. Adamses of the world?

    Is it a decent point that this model is not necessarily representative? Yes, it is. I don’t think anybody says “yes, all rich people are EXACTLY like” Mr. Jones (handicapped but hard-working and relatively rich) and “all poor people are EXACTLY like” Mr. Adams (handsome layabouts). But this is an obvious point, and I considered it so obvious that it should be taken as a given. Instead, the point of my post was simply to get people to think about their ideas of what “the rich” is and what “the poor” is.

    Another point was to discuss what exactly is “fair.” It is all about money? Are there other aspects of fairness that we should consider? I don’t think God looks at us and only considers us based on our income (in fact he does the exact opposite). So, we would be wise to follow his lead.

    And the end of the day, as I have said many times, “fairness” is an emotional issue and subjective. Tax policy should be based on other things that are more objective (like what raises the most amount of revenue while not discouraging work, what the Constitution says about taxation, what was the intent for taxation when the country was founded, etc). But that is another discussion for another day. I hope I challenged a few peoples’ ways of thinking of things.

  9. People come into these things with many different objectives, and if understanding another point of view is one of them, it can take an exercise like Bruce’s above to get past the words and see the hyperbole as an expression of feelings and not madness. Few people are mad, but many do find hints of it do seem to describe the world terribly well.

    Besides taxes, there are a other things that some perceive as theft, such as natural resource extraction, or capitalism. A lot of life requires us to act in ways we’d rather not and spend most to all our money in what we term “non-discretionary” outlays, and sometimes it chafes.

  10. This was an interesting post. From a historical perspective I agree with your larger point. I’ve got a paper I’m working about the use of the term “robber” in early medieval Rome and China. What I found is that even the great warlords in Europe such as Childeric, Clovis, Attila the Hun and Alaric also held court offices in the Roman Empire. In China we find the same thing and in an extreme case the founder of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuangzhang, started his political as a river pirate and ended it as an Emperor with Heaven’s Mandate. In both cases there was little distinction between plundering a town and demanding they pay taxes since their ability to do both rested upon their use of force or the threat of force. Often the only difference between a tax and theft was the perceived legitimacy of the person threatening force.

    Thanks again for the post.

  11. I think that Geoff’s arguments have some merit as to taxes being theft, to some extent. Start out with a totalitarian government where the governed have no say at all, taxes are theft. In governments where the people have more of a voice in their government, the percentage of theft becomes less.
    However, we do not have a true democracy in the U.S. and the majority still can force its will on an unwilling minority, taking a larger share of the money that a minority makes. Once taxes, in a free society, start taking from one person without his/her consent and putting into the pocket of another, it is a type of theft, albeit legal. But then taxes in a purely totalitarian society are also legal.
    As to the point that Geoff “lost” a few just by comparing taxes to theft, well, that is hardly logical itself. It seems to be a subjective, emotional type of reaction.

    Glenn

  12. Your argument is a little weird coming as it does at this moment in our history. Our taxes are lower than they have been in a long, long time. But as long as your advancing the humane argument that my taxes should not be taken from my pocket and placed in someone else’s, please stop the government from giving my hard-earned money to the wealthy. Thank you.

  13. Bruce,

    Thanks for this post. I am going to disagree with you, though. Taxes are only objectively unlike theft in certain ways if you define theft as “forcible seizure of property, in which the victim has no token of a say in what happens with it.” I define theft as “forcible seizure of property, regardless of what happens next.” So your argument only works if you define theft in your specifically narrow way, which conveniently precludes taxation.

  14. “Each view should be considered independently instead of assuming it defunct by association”

    “Again with the idea of considering ideas on their merits. Bruce can correct me if I misunderstood him, but I think the thrust of his post is that while that is ideally a great thing to do, in practice, it is very difficult”

    I know nothing for this Lew-guy, so I’m not trying to support nor deny Mark’s point about that one particular person. But Mark does understand my point correctly. In theory, we *should* separate ideas out just as Jeff suggests. In practice this is not impossible, but far far harder than we realize.

    But my main point at this time was really that there was no real argument or debate here. Had I sooner realized that we were using ‘theft’ in difference senses (or had Geoff) then the thread debate over it becomes basically meaningless. It’s more like arguing whether the sky is blue when one person means its the color blue and the other means the sky is not sad.

  15. Geoff in #9:

    I really basically agree with you with everything but one point.

    However, I cannot accept that there is some sort of objective ‘moral responsibility’ that we define ‘theft’ in such a way as to force taxations of some sorts (but not all) to be ‘theft’. I just can’t accept that there is *ever* a moral responsiblity to force a word to mean one thing and not another. If some future generation used the word ‘theft’ to mean ‘giving generously of your own time and money’ and everyone used it consistently that way, we’d still have no moral responsiblity to correct them. And, in fact, they’d then be right and we’d be wrong. Meaning of words may be the one thing in the world that really is determined by how people actually use the word.

    If the vast majority of human beings think of the word ‘theft’ in such a way that ‘taxation’ doesn’t qualify, so be it. Instead, I should concentrate on what is immoral about the types of taxation I disagree with and concentrate on that. (Or rather, that is what I should do if my chosen outcome is communication with those I disagree with.)

    So there cannot even in principle be a moral duty per se to call taxes ‘theft’ especially since they are not theft the way most people understand the term. (And we know that is true because most people do not consider taxes to be theft. Even Geoff doesn’t if the taxes in question are tariffs.)

    However, I will accept that you might feel a moral duty to *strongly express your displeasure.* And if this is what you mean, then I’ll accept that you have a moral duty to use a strong (but ultimately inconsistent in usage) term like ‘theft’ to describe some sorts of taxes.

  16. Regarding taxes as theft, how does this idea gel with LDS doctrine?

    1. We “own” nothing. We have scriptures reminding us that everything we have comes from God, and that nothing we own can ultimately be called ours. When God takes things forcibly from us, through disaster and trials, we don’t call it theft. We say “the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.” (Even though in the story of Job, where this comes from, it was Satan who took from Job, having been given permission by God.)

    2. Governments granted authority by God. But, you will argue, taxation is government taking, not God. However, in the scriptures, governments are granted their authority by God, and they are ultimately in the hands of the Lord. The authority of government has been continuously asserted in the scriptures, from Paul’s “Slaves, obey your masters,” to the Articles of Faith, “We believe in being subject to kings, rulers, magistrates, etc.”

    3. God’s authority given to government extends even to evil governments. When the Pharisees tried to embroil Jesus in speaking against the evils of the Roman government, asking if it was lawful for the Romans to tax the Jews, he asked them for the inscription on their money, which had Cesar on it. “Render unto Cesar that which is Cesar’s,” he famously said. Taken literally, this means that Cesar owned the money of the Jews, and like Tithing, Cesar, the god of this world, was asking for a portion of his money back.

    4. By using money ourselves, we are participating in the currency of the “god of this world” who’s motto is that you can buy anything in on earth with money. Money is not the currency of the heavens. It belongs to the god of this earth, Satan, who has been granted his temporary authority by the God of heaven.

    5. Jesus does not accuse the government of theft. He said if someone compels you to go a mile, go with him twain, turn the other cheek, give him your cloak, AND your coat, etc. You might argue with Jesus about whether or not demanding your coat is theft. Perhaps you could corner Jesus into admitting that well, yes, technically, it is theft. But Jesus wants us to focus on giving freely, rather than being forced to give. He wants us to think of it as a goodwill offering, which we freely give, even more than is requested. “then you are no longer his servant, but servants of your Father in heaven.”

    Focusing on taxation as theft turns us into victims, unduly focused on retaining our narrow sliver of our earthly possessions. But Jesus invites us to cease being preoccupied with possessions, “take no thought for the morrow, what you should eat, wear, etc,” “straightway leave your nets” “without purse or scrip.”

    I don’t want to accuse Geoff of being unchristian. He is a patriot, who believes that even if God grants his authority to evil governments, we should still actively try to ameliorate government, and make it more like heavenly government, which operates according to principles of free agency rather than force.

    But I personally think Geoff’s desire to mold the US government into something moral or divine, is a lost cause. It never was divine and it never will be. But millions of Americans suffer under the misguided notion of American exceptionalism, which I think distracts from where the focus of true Saints should be: not on earth, but in heaven, the kingdom “not of this world.” As great as the USA is, it is still the domain of Satan, and always will be.

  17. Thanks, Bruce. This is essentially what I was originally trying to point out before getting sidetracked a bit. Taxes can be theft, but they aren’t necessarily, and when that rhetoric is used, it fails to convince.

    You can see taxes as theft, or as a price tag on citizenship. The former makes you into a victim, the latter can turn you into a conscientious citizen.

    I have some deep disgust and emotional reactions to certain government programs, even to the point of refusing to take advantage of them when I qualify. But that doesn’t mean I will allow my emotions to imbalance my perspective, or demonize those who hold differing opinions.

    And thanks, too, Nate. You get into the rest of what I wanted to point out, but didn’t know how without sounding judgmental. The gospel includes many beautiful ideals, but charity covers them all.

  18. Nate, while I fully disagree with you politically in #17 (i.e. you can’t realistically make a good society today based on an assumption of no personal ownership rights) I confess that your point was well taken. We can freely and easily moralized either point of view.

  19. Nate, I completely and utterly disagree that ALL governments have authority from God, even evil governments. The Doctrine and Covenants bashes that idea to pieces many, many times. Doctrine and Covenants 134 places so many caveats on that idea it renders your reading of it untenable. For example, “We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments.” The direct implication is that when we aren’t protected in our rights, no such duty exists. And Caesar’s government was NOT authorized by God, I will tell you that. A nuanced, historically situated reading of Jesus’s instructions to “render unto Caesar’s that which is Caesar’s” indicates a very different story than “always pay your taxes, because your government has a right to tax you.”

    I find your perspective on the issue quite terrifying, and personally dangerous to me. It is your perspective that leads to despotisms that kill people like me.

  20. LDSP, you may be right that it’s a stretch to say that God grants evil governments “authority.” But where do we draw the line? No government that has ever existed has been perfect. And from whence do governments derive their authority, even imperfect but relatively good governments?

    All I am saying is that I believe the authority of governments is intrinsic. It is granted by virtue of the power they obtain. This is a fallen world, and God has given unto men the ability and the authority to exercise dominion over others, just as he has given Satan dominion in this world. This doesn’t mean they are not evil, or that authority is also given to those who wish to destroy the government. He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword. God also inspires men to destroy evil governments, and their authority to rebel is also intrinsic. So really, maybe it’s just a semantic argument, and thus a bit pointless. I’m sorry if that’s all it is.

    I believe the correct understanding of God’s view of government is found in the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar. “Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory. And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath he given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all. Thou art this head of gold. And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth…..And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed.”

    But just because God gave Nebuchadnezzer a kingdom with power, strength and glory, doesn’t mean that Daniel and his brethren had to obey his evil edict to bow down and worship the image. We are entitled to defy the evils of government, just as governments are entitled to rule over us with the sword. Exercising their authority will not get the kings to heaven, but it is nevertheless their right.

    Only when using the priesthood is it forbidden to exercise control, compulsion or dominion over the children of men. Otherwise, authority is freely granted by God to all parties to battle it out for dominion on earth.

    But that is just this earth, which shall pass away like the morning dew. Jesus came to teach us of another government beyond this earth, the only one we should be truly concerned about. Perhaps His perspective also seemed personally dangerous to those who wanted to topple the despotic Roman government. It was so dangerous, they felt they had to crucify Him to get rid of Him. But His kingdom was not of this world.

    I would be interested to hear more about LDSP’s particular interpretation of Jesus’ teaching about tribute to Cesar. What is the historically situated reading you were talking about?

  21. Don, it doesn’t matter what the nominal level of taxation is, it matters what the level of spending is, because that will all be experienced in the future as taxation, inflation, or default. In additional federal taxation and spending alone is not a good metric.

    Total government spending in this country peaked at 42% of GDP in 2009 and is currently just under 40%. It has been on a relatively steady upward trend for about a century now. The only time it was higher in the past century was during World War II. Until recently, it was about 30%. The government share of the economy has increased by a third in the past decade.

  22. @LDSP in #20,

    I did not read Nate as suggesting God support of all nations, including something like Nazi Germany. I read it merely refering to our nation. Please re-evaluate based on this assumption because I’m curious how it might (or might not) change your response.

    It seems to me that it’s beyond doubt that the LDS church does teach us that we have a duty to pay taxes and support our current government and therefore does not recognize taxes as equivalent to theft.

  23. The Saints in Nazi Germany were also encouraged to support their government in one sense, and many fought for Germany in WWII. I find it fascinating to read about the Saint’s experiences in Communist East Germany. I have spoken to a few of these Saints myself.

    The gospel is not about following any ideal to the exclusion of all others. All righteous principles that come to my mind in this moment, except reliance on the Spirit, become stumbling blocks when taken to the extreme. And all good principles can be mocked and imitated by evil.

    If support of evil men is NEVER asked of us by God, then what of the many messages of submission throughout every book of scripture? There is a time and a season to every purpose under heaven. Patience in the face of evil is perhaps one of the most difficult gospel principles to practice, as is not making others offenders for a word and practicing charity in all aspects of our lives. Including political discussions.

    It is all too easy to allow emotions such as those outlined in the OP, or a sense of pride in our own understanding to overshadow more weighty principles of discipleship, such as kindness, patience, charity, and humility. When we do, we need to repent.

  24. Bruce, you are corect that we have been instructed to pay our taxes by the Lord’s spokesmen, and therefore have an obligation to do so. However, this does not mean that the obligation arises because governments have any divinely given power, authority, or right to tax, or that taxes aren’t theft. It may very well be that God has pragmatic reasons to instruct us to do so. For example, LDS missionaries are instructed to give money to robbers if they are mugged, for their own safety and well-being. Does this mean mugging is not theft? The church has a strong interest in projecting an image to the world, particularly nations that are not currently open to proselyting, that Latter-day Saints are peaceful, law abiding citizens. This is wise. However, it does not legitimize taxation as an institution.

  25. “However, it does not legitimize taxation as an institution.”

    I agree. But I’d still like to see you respond to Nate’s comment #17 assuming he’s talking about the USA.

  26. I suppose I should address Nate’s five points above, although I would really rather discuss “Twilight.”

    1. We “own” nothing. Answer: True, but God has given us ownership of certain goods as part of a functioning society until the Millennium. Various societies at various times have tried “community property,” and it simply doesn’t work in a fallen world. What DOES work is granting people freedom by respecting their ownership of property and then encouraging them to help the underprivileged. This is how the 19th century US prospered, and abandoning these principles has helped lead to our decline. It is countries that embrace economic freedom (HK, Singapore — even China and India) that are prospering today. We are turning away from the policies that clearly have worked in the past toward corporatist statism, a system that stifles equality of opportunity and personal freedom.

    2. Governments granted authority by God. LDSP already addressed this. Men have inalienable rights that cannot be infringed by anybody, including governments. God sees individual rights, not governmental rights.

    3. God’s authority given to government extends even to evil governments. I can’t believe that Nate really believes this. So, Hitler had authority to massacre the Jews and kill various other millions? No, governments are the means that people use to govern themselves. Almost all governments in history have been evil. Satan has reigned with blood and horror on the Earth, inspiring a long list of tyrants to kill, steal and mutilate. It was the American experiment that was different. Central to that experiment was a Constitution with enumerated powers. The rights for government were limited — the rights for individuals were vast. The intent was to specifically prevent tyranny of the majority and the kinds of tricks Hitler used in a democratic system to take power.

    4. By using money ourselves, we are participating in the currency of the “god of this world” who’s motto is that you can buy anything in on earth with money. Agreed. I like to think money will disappear during the Millennium and be replaced with the barter system. But in the meantime, it’s what we have.

    5. Jesus does not accuse the government of theft. He said if someone compels you to go a mile, go with him twain, turn the other cheek, give him your cloak, AND your coat, etc. You might argue with Jesus about whether or not demanding your coat is theft. Perhaps you could corner Jesus into admitting that well, yes, technically, it is theft. But Jesus wants us to focus on giving freely, rather than being forced to give. He wants us to think of it as a goodwill offering, which we freely give, even more than is requested. “then you are no longer his servant, but servants of your Father in heaven.”

    Nate, your number five is right in some ways, but Jesus clearly sees a complete separation between worldly governments and the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the true understanding of his “render unto Caesar” quotation. His kingdom is not of this world. So, Jesus wants us to give, but *not to the government.* Jesus NEVER tells people to give money to the Romans or the Sanhedrin, which were the governments of the day. He asks for direct charity. Find a poor person, a widow, and go give to them. Don’t give to somebody else (a government official) and then ask them to give to them. President Uchtdorf’s talk at Conference also made this point: there are two ways, the world’s way and the Lord’s way. The Lord’s way involved direct giving and direct work, not just writing a check. Please go back and read that talk. Let me know if you want me to link it for you.

  27. Honestly, I’d rather hear your discussion of Twilight as well Geoff, but thank you for responding to my points. Regarding point no. 3, that God gives authority to evil governments, I suppose my point doesn’t really make sense. But that is the language I see the prophet Daniel using with King Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps authority is the wrong word. God gives Hitler freedom to kill the Jews, not authority. God still holds Hitler accountable for what he has done with his freedom. If he goes against the light of Christ given to him, he is under condemnation.

    There is a sense however, in which I believe freedom equals authority. Like the freedom granted specifically to Satan to harass Job. Or the fact that God specifically puts Satan on this earth as part of a preordained plan to help Adam and Eve understand good and evil. There is a sense in which this can be called authority. So this is really more a disagreement over semantics.

  28. As I noted in Bruce’s other post, I do not necessarily believe that taxation is theft. I recognize that taxation is necessary and proper in order to maintain the order and freedoms we have. In such cases, the people are represented by statesmen, who will carefully use the funds they receive, as if they are sacred.

    That said, there comes a point where government no longer truly represents the people, and begins down a path of tyranny. When the bail outs have not helped the American people, but have saved big corporations, banks, Freddie and Fannie, unions, and others that should not have the same level of representation as the people; we find that we have hit a point where $15 Trillion of deficit spending becomes a form of theft. Why? Because we risk the future of those yet unborn, who are not represented by today’s Congress. Instead, we find Democrats and Republicans both accepting bribes from those they really represent in Washington DC.

    In the situation we are in right now, where cuts are not real cuts, just a slight reduction in the amount of increased debt we enter into, where super committees fail the American people, etc., we are not represented. Yet, they still are taking tons of money from us, and from those yet unborn. In this instance, we can call it theft, as there is no true representation in Washington DC anymore of and for the American people.

    Geoff feels that tariffs are one way to force Congress to live within our means. Yet, without a Balanced Budget Amendment (which Congress just shot down) and term limits for Congress, I’m afraid it would not help us. There would always be the temptation to be bribed by special interests, and then bribe the American public to get re-elected.

  29. There are, in fact, some striking similarities between ‘taxes’ and ‘theft.’ For example, I have no doubt that both are a mandatory taking of someone elses property.

    It would be better to say “involuntary.” “Mandatory” connotes rules and authority, while in most usage “theft”, by definition, is contrary to rule and without authority.


    Very thoughtful post. Naturally I agree with it. I especially like the distinction between words used objectively–to convey a meaning–and words used phenomenologically–to convey a feeling or an experience. That’s a great aid to charity in understanding other people’s language. Of course you’re right that using words that way can often lead to catfights. Also, using words that way often is a cover for posturing–do I want to portray myself as rational or as a barnburner?

    re: Rothbard, Rockwell, et al: this is really a non-argument. If a good economist has unpopular views on race, should we ignore his valuable contributions to other schools of thought?

    In a world of trade-offs and opportunity costs, it is extremely rational to avoid committing yourself to years studying the thought of someone who is known to be loony in at least one area.

    Sometimes you stand up for what is right regardless of whether you are winning the argument.

    And sometimes you’re losing the argument because you’re wrong. You still haven’t provided a distinction between income taxes and tariffs and excises that make the one theft and the other not. Which is not to say that I don’t largely agree with your OP. I do.


    Our taxes are lower than they have been in a long, long time.
    The federal revenue as a percent of GDP is not at an all-time low, or any other kind of low. Federal revenue in real dollars is at an all time high. I can’t find figures on per capita federal tax burden over time in real dollars, though I’d bet you dollars to donuts we’re not at a low. Don’t forget state and local taxes, either.

    But as long as your advancing the humane argument that my taxes should not be taken from my pocket and placed in someone else’s, please stop the government from giving my hard-earned money to the wealthy.

    Amen.

    Nate, #17,
    In your first two points you have the makings of a minimalist case for the legitimacy of authority (normally folks making that argument would add in some stuff from St. Paul about rulers being appointed by God to wield the sword). From there you gradually descend into confusion and contradiction. In fact, I submit that if you really believe that the US is Satanic, you really should agree with the Rockwellians that taxation is theft.


    For example, LDS missionaries are instructed to give money to robbers if they are mugged, for their own safety and well-being. Does this mean mugging is not theft?

    But they are under no moral obligation to do so. The harms of resisting the mugger would be practical only, not moral. Whereas theft and disobeying the law of the land is clearly taught as a moral obligation by LDS authorities, including with reference to temple worthiness.

    I resisted a mugger on my mission and, believe me, it never occurred to me or anyone else, including my mission president, that I had been sinful. Foolish, yes,* but hardly wicked. Its possible that we were all gravely mistaken, but I suspect not.

    *I realized myself I was being foolish, but by that time I had an audience and didn’t have the moral courage to back down.

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