What Started This Discussion?

When I wrote a post about our POTUS of Platitudes (here), the subject wandered off topic into the realm of government “investments”. Thus, we have this question from a commenter.

So are you stealing when you drive on an interstate? Is it stealing when you fly from one country to another safely? Is it stealing when the fire department or police show up to help you? The internet was created using shared — or in your view ‘stolen’ resources. Are you stealing now, then? (from here)

What is Heather asking? As I see it, she is asking me what I think is the legitimate function of government? However, she may also trying to put me on the spot. Supposedly, if I mean what I say, I must not drive, accept police and fire protection, use the products of government research, and so forth. I may even have to stop blogging. Of course, that would be absurd; my fan club would suffer enormously. Thus, my position must be absurd.

Can We Equate Taxation With Stealing?

Is the notion that we can equate taxation with stealing absurd? No, but it depends upon how we expect government to spend our money. When government taxes merely to redistribute the wealth, that is wrong. If it is wrong for you or I to play Robin Hood, why is it okay for politicians to play Robin Hood? They have more power? They can get away with it?

Let’s consider Heather’s examples.

  • Driving on the interstate. When we drive on the interstate, we drive on a “free” way. That is, our glorious and wise leaders take money from everyone in the country just so they can build roads for their favorite special interests. In theory we all benefit, but don’t those with the right political connections benefit more?
  • Fire protection. Should we pay for tolls for fire protection? Should we depend upon private charity? As a matter of fact, many fire departments do use volunteers, and that is something we must encourage. Nonetheless, we all benefit from fire protection, and we cannot figure out a way to charge for the service that would not involve an involuntary tax. So government financing appears necessary, presenting us a puzzle. If we believe government exists to protect our rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, what do we do? Let people burn? No. We leave the problem to local governments. We let the laboratories of republican government do their work. We let the lowest level of government that can solve a problem deal with the problem. 
  • Police protection.  Because we do not know a good way to privately administer justice, we do it collectively through government. Justice does not involve stealing or redistributing the wealth. Justice is about preventing that sort of thing — unless we are talking about so-called “social justice”, a perversion of justice contrived to steal or redistribute the wealth.
  • Government research. When the government “created” the Internet, it applied research. That is, government made use of knowledge that had for the most part already been discovered to solve a specific military problem. DARPA, the government agency most credited with creating the Internet, conducted that applied research for military purposes. Why? We pay for military protection to prevent other nations from stealing and redistributing the wealth of our nation.

Therefore, we have a mixed answer. Sometimes we tax to steal and redistribute the wealth, and sometimes we tax to protect each other’s rights from worse abuses.

Should we all stop driving. No, but we should try to fix the unfairness. When we can insist that each road pay for itself with tolls, we should not allow politicians to arbitrarily decide where and how to build roads. If a road cannot pay for itself, we do not need it.

Are fire and police protection equivalent? No. Firemen protect us from an elemental force; policemen seek to enforce justice. Whereas the administration of justice is the fundamental function of government, fire protection is an adjunct function. Nonetheless, each presents similar issues so we handle these functions similarly.

Why Don’t We Fix The Problem? Why Don’t We Limit The Problem Of Government?

Ask almost anyone the following question: Are you a good person? Most people will promptly respond in the affirmative, and many will be insulted that you even dared to ask. Unfortunately, most of us are wrong. We are not good.

Instead of looking at ourselves through God’s eyes, we find it far more consoling to look at ourselves with our own eyes.

Luke 18:9-14 (Today’s New International Version, ©2005)

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

When Jesus spoke of the Pharisees, he was not speaking of “them”. He spoke of people of like us, arrogant souls who desperately want to believe themselves to be good. When we are arrogant, we overestimate what we can do, and we seek to force our fellow human beings to serve our purposes. We convince ourselves we know what is best for them. Then we pervert justice by using government to do others an injustice.


  1. I agree. It’s theft whenever Congress is taking money from taxpayers to pay for things the Constitution has not authorized it to do in the first place.

    The comment about driving on the Interstate being equivalent to stealing is just plain silly. If you’re driving a vehicle, you’re paying state and federal gasoline taxes. That’s one tax that actually makes sense, provided all the revenue generated goes to building and maintaining roads and bridges and so on.

    Both as a moral matter and as a practical matter, ALL charity should be private and voluntary. I would say this even if the government were good at providing it, which it manifestly is not. The private sector — families, neighborhoods, communities, churches, private charitable organizations, etc. — do a far better job with far less waste and at far less cost.


    1. Oops, sorry — that should have been “the private sector DOES a far better job…” (Guess I’m not quite awake yet.)


  2. Invite your reader to look up “public good”. In a representative democracy we, The People, agree to create and provide for some public goods. A few are enumerated to be the responsibility of the Federal Government in our Constitution. Charity is not one them.

    State governments have plenary powers. They – if their Constitutions allow – may engage charity all they like.

    It is far better – for many reasons – and far more efficient to have communities of common interests provide charity – and government, the more local the better, be the last safety net. It is wise for government to reduce the tax burden so more communities of common interest – like families – have the money to pay for the compassionate care needed.

    Charity from government is usually abused, corrupted, grossly inefficient and bureaucratic. It is a sad state of being for the people who have to seek their compassion from cold comfort of government.


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