When Theft is Moral

By Amod Lele

We live in an age of tax revolts, when people are no longer willing to give the government money that it might need to support public education, public health care, or income for the needy. A central plank of these revolts is that taxation is theft. As the bumper sticker says, "Don't steal. The government hates competition."

Is this true? Absolutely. And there's nothing wrong with it.

What is theft, after all? Theft is taking money without the consent of the one it is taken from. And in an important sense, all property is theft.

One way or another, most property rests in its current hands because of coercion and non-consent. You may have worked honestly for your money, and I don't begrudge you that. But simple work is not enough to obtain money. You can work your ass off arranging grains of sand into little neat lines, but if nobody wants your work, you don't get a cent for it. Who gets money in the end is decided by who has money in the beginning. Trace any money back far enough and you will find robbery. Someone, at some point, said "This is my stuff, because it's on my land, and even if this land used to be your land, I have a gun and you don't, and therefore it's mine." This is most obviously true, of course, in the case of North America.

Move beyond that and there's a broader issue. What produces property? What forces are there that cause us to live under a system of private property rather than, say, the system of communal ownership used in the Ju/'hoansi tribes of Africa? In short, coercion. You own what you own because the government -- or, increasingly these days, a private security force -- has decided that you own what you own and it is worth taking measures to keep it in your hands.

Libertarians loathe this line of argument. Yes, they say, we use force to defend our property, but it is not *initiatory* force. Like children pulled apart from a fight, their argument against a thief is "He started it." The main thrust of libertarianism here is reaction against change; the status quo is good. Property has to stay in its current hands irrespective of past coercion because, well, those are its current hands.

How wonderfully this all works to defend existing inequities. Libertarians' anti-tax rhetoric attacks any coerced movement of property out of its current hands. Coercion today is anathema, but coercion in the past is way cool. We are unjustified in using force to siphon off some of Bill Gates's money to feed starving homeless people; what we are justified to do is use force to ensure that the homeless people can't get any of that money, because they "initiated" the force. Excuse me while I retch.

Okay, disclaimer time. Do I seriously believe that people should be out breaking into houses and pickpocketing more often? No. But not because they are crimes against property; rather, because they are crimes against order. When uncontrolled, they make people live in the state of the Hobbesian war of all against all, never knowing what they will have to do to hold on to their earnings, turning people against one another with mistrust.

When the government steals "your" money, you know exactly when it's coming and what is coming. Taxes and death are certain. There is no breakdown in public trust or order that results from taxation. You can plan for it. And, more importantly, it goes -- at least in theory -- to a just cause, decided upon with at least a semblance of popular participation. (There are many places our taxes shouldn't be going, but that's an issue of how we decide to allocate resources as a society, nothing to do with theft or not-theft.) This is what distinguishes taxation from the (also orderly) tithes taken by organized crime.

I don't begrudge the starving person who steals from me for dinner; I simply take measures to ensure it doesn't happen, thus preserving order. In the same way, I don't begrudge the employer who suddenly lays me off; rather, I take care to continually upgrade my skills and send off job applications even while working, so that I know I won't have too hard a time finding the next job. Both people have done me a disservice and broken down public trust, even though -- depending on the particulars of the situation -- they may have done no moral wrong. I don't waste my time blaming them and telling them what awful things they have done; I just make sure that they don't have too great an impact on my ability to lead the life I choose.

Of course, a lot of people tell us that stealing is morally wrong, whether or not you have any other opportunity. Certainly most of our religious instructions tell us something of the sort; you'll find a prohibition against it in just about every work of organized religion. But of course this shouldn't come as a surprise. The people writing these works are our well-paid church authorities, the ones who have an interest in making you think stealing is always immoral because then you won't take from them. As some Hindu brahmans once put it, "Whoever attempts to take away the right of these brahmans to their lands shall suffer reincarnation for a thousand years as a worm in dung." I Got Mine and don't you take it away from me.

Well, kiss that attitude goodbye. Most of us have a conscience. We know it's wrong to steal from our friends, because part of what makes us friends is that we share and respect one another. We know it's wrong to steal from our equals, or to frighten someone beyond recognition by putting a knife against their throat in a mugging.

The conscience is one way that God manifests Herself to us. It comes from a mixture of common sense and thoughtful rational discussion. And it should not be cowed under by authorities telling us to leave their money alone. When the day comes that progressive taxation and generous social programs no longer exist because our superiors have told us that all theft is immoral, that is the immoral crime that our consciences should move us to prevent.

Copyright © 1996 by Amod Lele.

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