“Though shalt not steal.”
When making the case for basing legislation (or even an entire criminal or civil code) on the Ten Commandments, this is usually right behind the Sixth Commandment in being cited as to why it would be a good idea. After all, the reasoning goes, who among us could object to a law that says “don’t steal”? Sure , we might quibble a little about the specifics (there’s a big difference between shoplifting and grand theft: auto, for example), but the basic concept is sound.
And yet… what is theft, exactly?
I believe the Merriam-Webster definition is particularly instructive in this regard: “1. a. the act of stealing; specifically : the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it; b. an unlawful taking; 2 obsolete : something stolen”. Isn’t it interesting that both current definitions involving personal property include words like ” felonious” and “unlawful”, and it’s an obsolete use to say something as direct and simple as “something stolen”. It becomes even more interesting when you follow that particular line of thought over to the definition of “steal”. I won’t pull every part of the definition I found intriguing and useful, but here’s the very first one: “to take the property of another wrongfully and especially as a habitual or regular practice”.
So where am I going with all of this? It’s an old argument, and one that a lot of folks have written off before as crazy, but pause for a moment and think about it. If someone came to your door and demanded money, and if you didn’t give it to them they would come back with guns and take it by force, would you call that theft? And yet that’s what taxation is, in a nutshell. There may be a few more steps in between the nice ask and the men with guns (they’re called “police”, by the way), but the end result is the same.
So what justifications do people offer for why this isn’t, in fact, theft? First there’s the suggestion that “you owe it to the community”. An interesting thought, and one that I’ve never quite understood. If I offer something for use by “the community” and then demand payment post-facto, that is by definition illegal and immoral; either I state a charge upfront or there is no charge. And yet the oft-cited reasons I “owe it to the community” are for the roads, police, fire department, etc. which I have either never used, never wanted, or never been billed directly for so that I can determine whether I am interested in the service at that cost. As for the schools I attended growing up, what about the taxes my parents paid? And what about the sales taxes I paid on goods I purchased? And again, why was I never given a choice as to whether I was interested in those services in the first place?
But of course, that is often the second argument I hear as to why taxation is not theft; “you had a chance to vote”. I’ve already expressed my opinion on voting, but in this specialized case I’ll narrow it further: this is blaming the victim. If I voted and didn’t get the guy I wanted, I’m being robbed for policies I don’t agree with, except for the ones I do. How is that fair? If I voted and I did get the guy I wanted, I’m being robbed for policies I do agree with, except for the ones I don’t. How is that fair? If I didn’t vote at all, I’m just getting robbed, but I get lectured about how it’s my own fault for not voting, and how is that fair?
Speaking of blaming the victim, there’s another argument that ties into both of the ones above: “You choose to live here.” This is occasionally accompanied by “if you don’t like it here, leave.” This is somewhat akin to saying to someone born into the ghetto that they chose to be born there, and therefore they have nobody but themselves to blame for being there. Show me a country on Earth where I won’t get robbed just for trying to live there, and I might consider living there. As I have yet to find that option, I take the best that’s on the table, but that doesn’t mean I can’t (and won’t) try to make it better, and noting the flaws is the first step.
Having said all this, does this mean I am completely against taxation for all reasons, at all times? No. In all things there must be compromise and balance if we are to live together as a society, and necessary evil is sometimes one of those things. For the common defense, for police and courts and fire departments, the things that we all need and benefit from but nobody wants to pay for until after we need them and it is too late to pay for them, taxation is a necessary evil. But being aware that it is theft, that we are stealing from ourselves and our friends and our neighbors every time we tax, will hopefully keep in check the desire to “do more good”. There is very little good that can be done when the root lies in breaking a Commandment, even though we all know where that paved road leads.