If Taxation is Theft, then What About Romans 13?

Recently I was privileged to read yet another attempt at proving that taxation is not theft, this time from a recent ThD recipient who’s a friend of mine. His entire argument rests upon the fact that since Romans 13:6 says specifically for Christians to pay their taxes that taxation is not theft. It’s a leap in logic, to be sure, but I can see why someone would hold to such an argument. I guess we should just stop calling it theft, and start calling it sharing at gunpoint?

The following response is only cursory because I’m working on a more detailed answer to this lacking, but frequently stated retort to the admittedly simplistic mantra — taxation is theft.  This is my meager attempt at a worthy rebuttal.

Introduction

First off, the reason most of us libertarian Christians (politically speaking) frequently make this declaration is because we have studied economic truths and legal theory and have come to the simple conclusion that marketable enterprises do not require compulsory funding (e.g. general infrastructure, education, emergency services, military, security/police, healthcare, roads, etc.). If enough people see a need for, and therefore desire a product or service, then it will be provided by the market. Even the poorest of the poor would be able to acquire such products and services. To put it another way that’s commonly stated, good ideas do not require force. It is this concise proposition that is lost on most people.

The problem here is that since Christians have essentially failed to develop a robust and Biblically consistent philosophy of polity — though, it hasn’t been from a lack of trying[1] — they continue to make logical blunders that disallow any form of government that doesn’t require violent and arbitrary rule. In most cases, Christians have just sort of gone with the flow while appealing to whatever jurisprudence they find themselves under at any given time. They haven’t given much thought to go beyond the sacralism of the past and the Statism that persists today.

The buck stops at the State

American Christians, be them Evangelical or Reformed, want some sort of State. In other words, American Christians are essentially Statists; at least for the most part. But what is Statism, and what do I mean by State? Murray Rothbard defines Statism as, “a political ideology where the central state, rather than the people, are the ultimate source of authority and power.” To put it another way, it is the belief that decisions about society and the economy are ultimately made by a centralized governing authority — the State. Ludwig von Mises in his book, Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition writes,

We call the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion that induces people to abide by the rules of life in society, the state; the rules according to which the state proceeds, law; and the organs charged with the responsibility of administering the apparatus of compulsion, government.[2]

Please note the specific distinctions that Mises makes between Government and State, and how he calls attention to the fact each government creates its own laws. The State is always a Government, but a Government is not always necessarily a State, and governments always produce some sort of civic standard or law. To put it another way, governance does not require the existence of a State — States are just a means to governing. It is important that I make this distinction before moving on because of the frequent interchangeable use of these words in the American vernacular. On this site, and especially in this article, State will be used hyponymously — as a specific form of Governance.

Impossibility of Lacking Governance

As a more tangential, but necessary note, the reader must know that I do not believe in the possibility of lacking governance (what is typically mislabeled as anarchy). This is where I part ways with many libertarians. I believe that natural law is universal and that in all communities everywhere, by the grace of God, there will always be some sort of jurisprudence, though it may not always be ideal, well developed, or clearly structured.

In an article on Natural Law R.C. Sproul makes some useful observations. He writes,

Many espouse moral relativism today, but the existence of any law at all in society testifies that a supreme authority exists. Mankind creates law because we, in some sense, have it innately in our hearts. …In Romans 2:14, Paul is not telling us the Gentiles have the right to determine for themselves what is right and what is wrong. He is simply demonstrating how the ethical standards of the Gentiles reveal that we are all made in God’s image, and thus His moral principles are in the consciences of all people.

Even those without divine revelation forbid things like murder. These laws may not conform to God’s law in every way; for example, some tribes have been cannibalistic. Yet even these cultures reflect the divine fiat against murder in that not everyone is allowed to be eaten!

This universal sense of right and wrong is the lex naturalis, or natural law. It has a long tradition in Western jurisprudence and is still reflected to an extent in our judicial system.

The point here is that, by the grace of God, and by divine decree as innate to the imago Dei, mankind has the capacity to spontaneously develop jurisprudence by God’s Law within. This is seen in the various types of governance documented in history from the Code of Hammurabi to Brehon Law, and from Danelaw to the Magna Carta. History gives us examples of concentrated power in autocracies, and decentralized power in republicanism.

Believe it or not, the types of governance in recorded history are myriad, but unfortunately most forms tend toward authoritarianism because it has been widely believed that law and order must come from the top down. I do not necessarily disagree with this belief of top-down rule, if certain communities opt for such a standard, but I do not believe it is generally achieved apart from aggression and arbitrary injunctions over free people. If a community volunteers for centralization, then so be it. Otherwise, it requires unethical means for its implementation and is therefore an insufficient form of governance.

From Hobbes to Hope

Many have their theories as to why States exist or why they should exist. Some, who are of the same mind as Thomas Hobbes, suggests that mankind’s depravity necessitates Statism as the only legitimate form of governance; that the State is divorced from responsibility to God and the consent of the governed.[3] On the other hand, while Hobbes preferred a more concentrated government, America’s founders preferred a sort of federalism to thwart the existence of a monolithic federal State — even though, by my estimation they utterly failed in this regard (which is a whole other subject worth considering).

We know Nero was not a virtuous leader to Paul and early Christians any more than Hitler was to the Jews in Europe. Therefore, one cannot assume that just because a person enforces his own twisted definition of law and order that what he does is virtuous and good. The good of authority in general should not be confused with the nature of any particular authority. Otherwise one is left trying to justify each and every totalitarian in history while equivocating the definition of good.

If the State is defined as that institution which has the right to impose taxation, and has a compulsory territorial monopoly of jurisdiction, then it is easy to demonstrate that this sort of institution is inherently incapable of meeting those expectations for governing authorities as expressed in Romans 13 — particularly to be servants for our good. Nonetheless, this is no reason to revolt against such authority. We submit lest we be no less evil than those who rule us.

Conclusion

If there be any blessing in governance — any good worth noting, it is that God subsidized such authority to His image bearers (though marred by sin), to allow man to govern over man; but whether it be by consent or coercion is up to each community by their own accord. Therefore, if any Christian is worth his salt, he would vie for the former over against the latter with respect to the repercussions of compulsory rule which always inevitably results in tyranny over his neighbor. Such rule being man’s vain effort to usurp Christ’s authority over creation; and Christians would be remiss not to intellectually dissent through civil discourse.

So, to answer the question, is taxation theft? The answer is a resounding yes! Apart from the required use of coercion to exact financial support for an arbitrarily ruling authority, any governing entity that uses aggression or threats of violence to implement its ideas, or to provide services not necessarily solicited or called upon by the governed, is ruling contrary to God’s precepts. The ill-gotten gains of a highwayman are no more sullied than that of a governing authority who levies taxes, especially when one comes to the realization that worthy standards do not require coercion for their implementation.

[1] Throughout the centuries Christians have espoused everything from Sacralism to Pacifism, and have thus demonstrated abiding incompetence in legal theory and governance. The policies stemming from Constantinianism to the so-called Moral Majority have had lasting repercussions that I would suggest has damaged the witness of Christians.

[2] Italics, mine.

[3] See Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan.
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