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Sed contra: Taxation is theft

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Maerten de Vos - The temple taxOver at the Libertarian Christian Institute, Jamin Hübner engages my reflection on taxation and Sam Gregg’s book, For God and Profit, with his sed contra: “But what if the ‘taxation is theft’ creed is consistent with both Christian and libertarian ideas, and that all things considered, taxation really is theft? And what if we’re simply misreading or misappropriating the New Testament? This wouldn’t be a comfortable or popular conclusion to draw, but it might be the case nevertheless.”

Hübner accuses me of prooftexting because I take as point of departure for my short reflection (not really an argument, I would say) Paul’s instruction in Romans 13:7, “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes.” I don’t properly connect my treatment to Jesus, says Hübner, who is “Paul’s primary source.”

Now if all that was said about paying taxes was that short verse in Romans from Paul, then perhaps Hübner may have a point. And I agree that a full argument and exploration of taxation in Scripture would take into account a good deal more, not only of Scripture but of Christian reception of Scripture. Hübner wants us to account for Jesus in our theology of taxation. I’m fine with that. But I think we would probably need to explore the full scriptural witness, too.

Next, Hübner points out that my prooftexting hermeneutic could likewise be applied to legitimate slavery. If he can find a scriptural text where Paul instructs someone to buy slaves, then I suppose I would have to grant him that point, too. The moral status and treatment of taxation and slavery in the Bible are not exactly equivalent, however. Even if “no NT writer condemned [slavery] outright,” neither did anyone of them instruct Christians positively on this matter, e.g. to acquire slaves. But not only are taxes not condemned outright, there are numerous indications, including Romans 13:7, where paying them is positively mandated.

But perhaps all that is just outdated, contextual instruction relevant for the first century but not now. Hübner promises to examine that in a future installment, and in the meantime you should check out his first part. Whether or not I am prooftexting, I think we can agree that our hermeneutical approaches are quite different.

I wonder whether the taxation issue really is just a symptom, however, as the quote from Rothbard at the end of Hübner’s post might indicate. Isn’t the problem for Hübner really the existence of “violence-based governing authorities,” of which taxation is just one manifestation?

Early in his post, in which he engages Gregg’s work, Hübner takes up Gregg’s claim that “Christian ethics has never disputed that governments may engage in taxation.” Hübner notes that he and many other Christians have in fact taken issue with taxation. But granting that is true, that not all Christians affirm the validity of taxation (although I think Sam’s claim could be read more narrowly as a claim about Roman Catholic ethics), can we also stipulate that not all libertarians think that all forms of taxation is theft? Consider, for instance, F.A. Hayek, writing not in the context of the first century but in modern times:

There are, finally, undoubted fields where no legal arrangements can create the main condition on which the usefulness of the system of competition and private property depends: namely, that the owner benefits from all the useful services rendered by his property and suffers for all the damages caused to others by its use. Where, for example, it is impracticable to make the enjoyment of certain services dependent on the payment of a price, competition will not produce the services; and the price system becomes similarly ineffective when the damage caused to others by certain uses of property cannot be effectively charged to the owner of that property. In all these instances there is a divergence between the items which enter into private calculation and those which affect social welfare; and, whenever this divergence becomes important, some method other than competition may have to be found to supply the services in question. Thus neither the provision of signposts on the roads nor, in most circumstances, that of the roads themselves can be paid for by every individual user. Nor can certain harmful effects of deforestation, of some methods of farming, or of the smoke and noise of factories be confined to the owner of the property in question or to those who are willing to submit to the damage for an agreed compensation. In such instances we must find some substitute for the regulation by the price mechanism. But the fact that we have to resort to the substitution of direct regulation by authority where the conditions for the proper working of competition cannot be created does not prove that we should suppress competition where it can be made to function.

Here Hayek is clearly arguing for the theoretical legitimacy of “direct regulation by authority,” which presumably would exist via some form of taxation. So even if it is true that #NotAllChristians, I think it is also true that #NotAllLibertarians (although I grant: definitions matter!).

For those interested in further reading on the topic, I recommend Richard Teather, “Tax and Theology,” Journal of Markets & Morality 9, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 115-125. And word is that we also have a Christian Social Thought Series volume in the works on the subject of taxation as well. Look for that sometime next year.

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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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