A couple of days ago, the Deseret News published an op-ed piece by Walter E. Williams under the arresting headline “Immoral Beyond Redemption.” Caught my attention, for sure. He begins with a couple of quotations from Founding Fathers: Ben Franklin, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Also John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Heavy hitters, in other words; big guns. We are as Americans, apparently involved in very very serious shenanigans. We’re doing serious, massive, horrendously sinful bad bad stuff.
So what is it? What evil are we perpetrating, what villainy pervades our society, what callous calumny do we commit?
We’re using tax dollars to help poor people. That’s it. Here’s the link in case you don’t believe me.
I’m ordinarily a pretty laid-back guy. I try to be pretty reasonable. When I disagree with someone, I try to see his argument, try to understand where he’s coming from, try to assess his evidence.
This, though, this is crazy stuff. This is seriously loony. Walter E. Williams teaches economics at George Mason University, apparently. I don’t know anything about good old GMU, except they’re named for a Founding Father and they have a pretty good basketball team. I don’t know if their entire economics faculty is some hotbed of libertarian thought, or if he’s the embarrassing elderly tenured prof the rest of the faculty wish would retire. But he’s nuts.
I do want to say this pretty emphatically, though: taxation is not theft. Taxation. Is. Not. Theft.
Taxes are part of the social contract we agree to in order to live in a free society. As citizens, we agree to a certain compact. We agree, for example, that we will be governed by elected officials, who will pass laws, and that generally we will obey those laws, and pay penalties for not obeying them. Those officials, however, are bound by certain rights, God-given, unalienable rights, which set forth boundaries which laws cannot abridge.
But central to the argument is this: we cede to government a legitimate monopoly over the use of violence. If we behave violently, we break the law, and can be arrested, and arrest carries with it the threat of violence–perpetrators who resist arrest can properly and legally restrained, if necessary forcefully. Elected officials can pass laws regulating where we can drive our cars, or how loudly we can play our stereo systems. If we disobey those laws, we can be arrested.
And elected officials can legitimately decide to use tax dollars to help poor people. That happens to be a function of government I enthusiastically support. Citizens who disagree with me can say so, campaign for office, make their case. We can enjoy a vigorous debate together. But if I lose the argument, if people are elected I disagree with and pass laws I disagree with, it’s nonetheless my legal and moral obligation to pay my taxes anyway, even if the money is going to pay for things I think are wrong.
For example, I thought the war in Iraq was immoral and wrong. But I wasn’t actually paying taxes for that war. I was paying for the system of government that produced that result. I was paying for the privilege of living in a free society. And government can, wage war, if our elected officials are persuaded that a casus belli exists.
It would be, for example, illegal and immoral for me to fly to Afghanistan and start shooting people. It is not, however, illegal–and is at least debatably not immoral–for the US government to send soldiers there.
The heart of Williams argument is this: “does an act that’s clearly immoral and illegal when done privately become moral when it is done legally and collectively? Put another way, does legality establish morality?” And, of course, legality does not establish morality. As Williams points out, apartheid was legal. But legality does confer legitimacy.
And yes, absolutely, an act that’s immoral when done privately can be moral when done legally and collectively. It would be immoral for me to break into my neighbor’s house, no matter what. But the police can do it, if they can show probable cause sufficient to get a search warrant.
Democracy isn’t perfect, and sometimes majorities support actions that impinge on our rights. Governments do overreach; mistakes are made. But requiring people to pay their taxes is neither immoral or unconstitutional. When Oliver Wendell Holmes (a conservative Supreme Court Justice, let’s not forget) said “I like paying taxes. With them, I buy civilization” he was not just expressing an opinion in a pithy and memorable way. He was expressing a theory of governance. It is, thank heavens, the theory we built our society on.
Walter E. Williams is certainly free to express his views; of course he is. His freedom to write is perhaps the most precious of our freedoms. I also have the freedom to point out that he’s a dingbat, and that his argument is not just silly, but dangerous.