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Is taxation theft?

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taxesLast week, before the most recent news about Donald Trump and the current US presidential campaign burst onto the scene, Think Christian ran a short reflection of mine on the question of taxation. As I argue, “There is no duty to pay anything other than what we owe in taxes. But whatever we do owe we must pay in good conscience and out of a spirit of justice.”

If you spend any time on the internet reading about political liberty, you are likely to come across the formula, “Taxation is theft.” The picture the Apostle Paul paints is rather different. The point of departure for my thoughts on taxation is his instruction: “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes.”

So the moral status of taxation as such doesn’t seem to be problematic. But as I note in the piece, the question of implementation is different and much more complex. Just because taxation isn’t in itself theft, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t forms or levels of taxation that cannot devolve to that level.

Leo XIII, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, considers appropriate taxation. He warns of the necessity “that a man’s means be not drained and exhausted by excessive taxation.” He continues,

The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether. The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair. (47)

As with so many questions of political economy, the issue turns on the question, “Who decides?” What Paul and Leo make clear, however, is that there is a divine standard of justice to which those who require and those who pay taxes must both adhere.

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Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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