The Kuyperian Commentary

Politics, Economics, Culture, and Theology with a Biblical Viewpoint

Is All Taxation Theft?

Click for more in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

In chapter two of For A New Liberty, Murray Rothbard writes:

…The State habitually commits mass murder, which it calls ‘war,’ or sometimes ‘suppression of subversion’; the State engages in enslavement into its military forces, which it calls ‘conscription’; and it lives and has its being in the practice of forcible theft, which it calls ‘taxation.’”

While all of these accusations may be true, they don’t always have to be.

Civil governments could follow a defensive-only war policy with strict orders to not harm non-combatants. This would be compatible with the non-aggression principle and wouldn’t entail “mass murder.” Governments could follow the practice of not having standing armies and military needs could be volunteer-based, thereby escaping the charge of “enslavement.” Taxation, however, is foundational. Some form of taxation will be implemented in any form of government. Our anarcho-capitalist friends say all taxation is theft due to its compulsory nature. The individual is forced to give a portion of his money to services that he doesn’t want, nor has he given his consent to be stolen from. Is this correct? Is government based on an immoral practice?

Determining if taxation is theft depends primarily on what God has authorized governments to do. It’s clear that God has authorized the institution of civil government for the purpose of executing justice. Apostle Paul even calls civil rulers “God’s ministers” (Rom. 13:1-7). While the Bible doesn’t command a specific method of paying civil rulers for their service, we know that the laborer deserves his wages (1 Tim. 5:18). Just as ecclesiastical ministers are paid through tithing, so civil ministers are paid through taxation. The terms are different but the concepts are the same.

When civil rulers use their authority to protect the righteous and judge the wicked according to God’s wisdom, they are performing the job he has ordained for them. Each citizen within a localized jurisdiction would benefit from this service and should happily pay their portion of the tax – which I believe would be under ten percent (1 Sam. 8:10-18). Under this scenario, paying the tax would be no different than paying for any other product or service that you enjoy. Like tithing to the Church, it would be “voluntary” but not optional.

Taxation only becomes theft when civil rulers deviate away from God’s direction and start using tax money for unauthorized purposes. When they force you to pay for someone else’s grocery, education or medical bill, they are taking your money unlawfully through wealth redistribution. When they force you to fund wars of aggression and prohibitions against alcohol, plants or milk, they are taking your money for a purpose that God has not given to them. That is theft: taking what doesn’t belong to you. But God says the authority to execute justice does belong to them, and the responsibility of funding that service belongs to us.

Two Tax Collectors, Marinus Claeszoon van Reymerswaele [c 1540ad]

Two Tax Collectors, Marinus Claeszoon van Reymerswaele [c 1540ad]

What about the individual who didn’t consent to the system? He did not choose to be under the authority of civil ministers; it’s his “natural right” to be free. Well, this person did not consent to exist. He should practice humility and realize that he is the product of two people coming together and making their own free choices. Similarly, governments are the product of people coming together and making the free choice to share burdens of the community. They do not form through coercion. If the person wished, he could move away and take his chances with another government. But whether he decides to stay or moves elsewhere, he is choosing to be under civil authority and to abide by the rules of that jurisdiction. He cannot escape authority absolutely because he is a creature of God; yet he still makes free choices because he is an image of God. This is to say that we do consent to be governed, even if passively. Freedom and submission are not opposed to one another.

continue to part four

Adam McIntosh lives with his wife and daughter in Southern Illinois where he is fulfilling a pastoral internship at a local church. You may write to him here.

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10 thoughts on “Is All Taxation Theft?

  1. Cyrus on said:

    You say, “Taxation only becomes theft when civil rulers deviate away from God’s direction and start using tax money for unauthorized purposes.” This is what I find frustrating about this debate when I have it with people. I think that the question of the ethics of coerced taxation is a separate issue from whether or not governments has legitimate authority.

    After you list some of the things that are the appropriate functions of a government you say, “Under this scenario, paying the tax would be no different than paying for any other product or service that you enjoy. Like tithing to the Church, it would be “voluntary” but not optional.” I honestly don’t understand this idea. How can anything be “voluntary” and yet not be “optional”? Your example of paying tithes doesn’t seem to hold since tithing is certainly optional.

    You also say, “While the Bible doesn’t command a specific method of paying civil rulers for their service, we know that the laborer deserves his wages (1 Tim. 5:18). Just as ecclesiastical ministers are paid through tithing, so civil ministers are paid through taxation. The terms are different but the concepts are the same” What I would say to this is that although laborers do deserve their wages, if the service is unwanted, then it’s not a service but a disservice.

    • Using my analogy of tithing, I don’t think tithing is optional. It’s voluntary in the sense that we tithe willingly in obedience to Christ, but it’s not something we have the option of doing or not doing. The OT saints were instructed to bring tribute to the Temple, at the footstool of the Ark of the Covenant. In Acts, the saints bring tribute and lay it at the feet of the Apostles. A clear indication there that the Church is the new Temple and the principle of giving is still in place. I think church rulers have the authority to discipline any member who refuses to give (if they had proof, of course, and there wasn’t some special situation that prohibited the person from giving). If no one gave, the Church would not function properly. If a pastor preaches on the necessity of tithing and how God wants us to give and disobedience is sin, is God coercing us to tithe? I suppose God is “coercing” us to do good works altogether since he threatens us with eternal separation if we do not live repentant lives (one reason why so many new An-Caps are anti-Christian).

      I would reverse your order: the question of authority comes before the question of coercion. Presuppositionally, you are already saying that coercion is immoral by some authority. So authority comes first. Maybe you could argue that there is good coercion and bad coercion; dependent upon authority. Parental discipline is a fundamental example of coercion towards children that we say is “good” if done according to God’s standards. So, we may not want the government’s service, but God says we need it. I may not want the Church, my parents or my boss at work, but God says we need them. God hasn’t said that we need the government to force us to fund welfare or economic stimulus, that’s the difference. It still limits the state drastically.

      • Cyrus on said:

        You seem to be saying that something is voluntary if we do it out of obligation, but not because of some positive threat. But optional, to you, means that a person can “take it or leave it” without it altering their relationship to the organization requesting the optional payment. So you say that tithing is voluntary because people do it out of obedience to the Lord, but that it isn’t optional, because people who don’t give are rightfully brought under discipline, and might ultimately be put out of fellowship with the Church, and God. Given that understanding, I agree that tithing is voluntary, but not optional.

        However, I still don’t think that this analogy holds when applied to taxation. If the consequence of my not paying my taxes was that I would be put out of fellowship with the state, and the wicked god democracy, then that would be a bargain that I wouldn’t hesitate to take! If I refused to pay my tithe, and thought that there was nothing wrong with that, then the elders of the church would be right to put me out of fellowship with the church. But they would not be right to lock me in a cage in the church basement until I paid. That situation would be neither voluntary, nor optional. That is why I think you are making a false equivalence between tithing and taxes.

  2. The punishment must fit the crime. If you refused to pay tax in a biblical minarchist system, your punishment would not be confinement but fines or banishment from the city/jurisdiction. Perhaps the civil rulers would not enforce the tax laws very heavily. Since the Bible doesn’t lay out a detailed code for tax collection, I think there is an amount of freedom given in that area. I do think it would be at least lower than 10%, but how it’s collected and how often is open for discussion.

    I don’t think my analogy between tithing and taxing is false because I think Paul is making that analogy himself when he calls civil rulers “ministers.” There are two institutions that bear the sword: the Church (sword of the Spirit) and civil government (sword of justice) but Christ is the Lord over both. Each institution has its own sphere of authority and the leaders of both are Christ’s servants. So just as the Church has the authority to collect tithe, so the government has authority to collect tax. I think that’s the general theme of Paul’s statements in Romans 13. Taxation for justice is moral, but taxation for anything beyond that scope is immoral.

    • Cyrus on said:

      Far from laying out a “detailed code” for the expropriation of taxes, I have not found a single verse that specifically instructs the civil government to extract taxes by force. I may have missed it. Could you point me to such a verse?

      • I do not know of any passage that specifically says, “Civil rulers may extract taxes by force.” I would say it is a logical deduction. If God says they have the authority to “force” us to obey laws, then it follows that they are authorized to force us to give the laborer his due wages. Remember, also, that Joseph in Genesis 41 (per God’s guidance) instructs Pharaoh to collect taxes during the seven years of plenty. The citizens were said to be relieved by Joseph’s tax rate, even though it was more than 10%. We can assume it was originally much higher under Pharaoh and therefore it was considered a reduced tax. In wisdom, Joseph brings peace and prosperity through taxation. Joshua 17:13 has God’s people putting the Canaanites under forced labor, not a sinful act on their part as far as I know. These passages coupled with Romans 13 and the inescapable nature of coercion adequately shows that the primary issue is not whether all coercion is immoral, but by what standard and whose authority the coercion is performed.

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