Taxation is Theft, Part 1: Property Rights

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

You’ve likely heard the libertarian slogan before and wondered if it was biblical or Reformed. This series will seek to show that not only are many taxes theft but that all taxes are theft. It will do so primarily by showing that property rights are biblical and the foundation of all of libertarian theory. You will not get this message listening to certain candidates and members of the Libertarian Party, and it is one of the reasons for the continued confusion surrounding the Christian libertarian message. In seeking to develop libertarian theory, we should not go to the Libertarian Party or to the Constitution. We should first go to the Bible. In doing so, we find that the Bible’s political theology lines up well with the Austro-Libertarian tradition.

The civil and ceremonial aspects of OT law have been abrogated.* The Christian is left with the moral law to derive our political theology, which is summed up in the Ten Commandments. The key to establishing all of libertarian theory (and taxation as theft) is in our application of the moral law to those in government. Most Christians view government as some sort of special institution that doesn’t have to abide by the moral law of God in all circumstances, despite the lack of biblical proof for such a belief. Murray Rothbard summed up our beliefs well when he wrote:

“Far from being immoral, libertarians simply apply a universal human ethic to government in the same way as almost everyone would apply such an ethic to every other person or institution in society. Libertarians make no exceptions to the golden rule and provide no moral loophole, no double standard, for government. In short, the key to libertarian theory is that it makes no exceptions in its universal ethic for government.”

We don’t go to the Bible looking for a detailed and varied system of laws for government to enact. We simply have our system of ethics (summed up in the Ten Commandments) that we apply indiscriminately to each and every individual in society. Since the government is merely a collection of individuals, we apply these ethical principles to them. The eighth commandment is “Thou shall not steal.” The Reformed Libertarian believes that when God commands us not to steal, he expects those in government to follow this command as well. Property rights are then derived from this command. In his Themilios essay, Wayne Grudem notes:

“On deeper reflection, however, we will discover that this commandment provides the necessary foundation for all human flourishing on the face of the earth. Governments and cultural traditions violate the Eighth Commandment at their peril, for wherever this commandment is ignored, entire nations remain trapped in poverty forever. When that happens, they tragically fail to achieve many of God’s purposes for them on the earth. The command, “You shall not steal,” assumes that there is something to steal—something that belongs to someone else and not to me. I should not steal your ox or your donkey—or your car, your cell phone, or your wallet—because it belongs to you and not to me. Therefore, the command, “You shall not steal,” assumes private ownership of property. Other passages in the Old Testament also show that God was concerned to protect the private ownership of property. Property was to be owned by individuals, not by the government or by society as a whole. For instance, God told the people of Israel that when the Year of Jubilee came, “It shall be a jubilee for you when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan (Lev 25:10).” There were many other laws that defined punishments for stealing and appropriate restitution for damage of another person’s farm animals or agricultural fields (see, for example, Exodus 21:28–36; 22:1–15; Deut 22:1–4; 23:24–25). The Old Testament also shows an awareness that governments could wrongly use their immense power to disregard property rights and steal what they should not have. At the urging of wicked Queen Jezebel, King Ahab wrongfully stole Naboth’s vineyard, and had Naboth killed in the process (1 Kings 21).”

In his book “Biblical Economics” R.C. Sproul Jr. agrees:

“The principle of private ownership of property is woven throughout the Scriptures. Two events took place during the exodus from Egypt that illustrates the biblical notion of personal property. The first occurred at Mount Sinai with the formulation of the Ten Commandments. The eighth commandment reads, “Thou shall not steal.” Though a relatively simple commandment, it is deemed important enough by God to be elevated to the top ten precepts that establish the foundation of Israel’s society.”

In “Foundations of Economics: A Christian View,” Shawn Ritenour lays this all out for us nicely:

The first way God communicates the right to property to us is his through our natural conscience. It seems that the ethic of private property is part of the law the Apostle Paul tells the Christians in Rome, is on our hearts (Rom. 2:15), and as such, is communicated to us by our conscience. All people, as soon as they begin to think-even at a very young age-perceive the difference between mine and yours. Particularly among children is this evident; the concept of mine does not have to be taught. This relation of property is expressed by possessive pronouns in all languages. People naturally feel that whoever violates their property is wrong.

Additionally, the created order also bears witness to the rightness of private property. There are observed consequences to either upholding or violating the right to property. History shows that both the existence and progress of society, and the human race itself, depends on the right to private property. In those lands without the right to property, people tend to labor only enough to manage their own individual subsistence; they tend neither to accumulate capital goods nor plan for the future. In such societies, there is little accumulation of capital, no tools, no provision for the future, no houses, and no agriculture; those people who survive into adulthood tend to exist in the basest of poverty. Without private property, Wayland notes, “the human race must perish or exist in wretchedness.” Civilization progresses, therefore, in proportion to the right to private property being held inviolate.

God’s supernatural revelation in his Word also treats the right to property as something not to be violated. The Old Testament contains many precepts against acts of theft. The eighth commandment (found in Exodus 20:15 and Deut. 5:11), of course, prohibits theft. Elsewhere, the Old Testament Law also explicitly prohibits theft and fraud (Lev. 19:11, 13). In Proverbs 30:9 we read that stealing profanes the name of God. The prophet Jeremiah lists stealing with sins of murder, adultery, swearing falsely, worshiping Baal, and walking after false gods (Jer. 7:9).

This prohibition against theft is reiterated in the New Testament as well. Our Lord Jesus affirms that not stealing is a commandment to be kept by the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:18; Mark 10:29; Luke 18:20). When exposing Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit, Peter expressly told them that their property was theirs to do with as they saw fit (Acts 5:4). The Apostle Paul implies that not stealing is part of loving your neighbor as yourself and commands Christians to repent of their stealing, and instead provide for themselves and others through honest labor (Rom. 13:9; Eph. 4:28) When exhorting churches to contribute to the common charity fund, Paul never calls for coercive extraction of property, but for voluntary giving (2 Cor. 9:7).

The biblical prohibition of theft includes abstaining from fraud. In Leviticus, we read that God told Moses to tell the people, “You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. And you shall observe all my statutes and all my rules, and do them: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:35-37). The condemnation of fraudulent weights and measures is repeated in Proverbs where we read, “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight” (Prov. 11:1); and “Unequal weights and unequal measures are both alike an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 20:10). God considers it an abomination to cheat a trading partner. It is considered an act of stealing. The encroachment of someone else’s property by moving recognized property boundaries is likewise prohibited. The Judaic law states, “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.” (Deut. 19:14) In Proverbs we find confirmation of this prohibition where the author straightforwardly mandates “Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set” (Proverbs 22:28). One chapter later he warns, “Do not move an ancient landmark or enter the fields of the fatherless for their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.” (Prov. 23:10-11) The context of both reminds us that God intends private property rights to be a legal protection for the poor, not only the wealthy and politically powerful.

Besides outright acts of theft and fraud, we read in the Bible that God prohibits the thoughts from which violation of the right to property proceeds. Jesus tells us that the motivation for theft and other sins come from the heart (Matthew. 15:18-20). Not surprisingly, God prohibits our coveting the property of others (Exod. 20:17, Deut. 5:21).

In Acts 5, Luke documents the demise of Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit. Ananias and his wife sold a piece of property and asserted they were giving all of the proceeds to the Church in Jerusalem, all the while holding back some of the revenue for themselves. The Apostle confronted Ananias saying, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” (Acts 5:4) Peter expressly says that their property was theirs to do with as they saw fit.

Peter was affirming the same principle Jesus used in his parable of the laborers in the vineyard recorded in Matthew 20. In this parable about the Kingdom of God, Jesus told the story of a master who hired different laborers to work different amounts of time, but paid them the same amount of money. In response to complaints from the laborers who worked the longest, but received the same pay as those who worked the shortest, the master, who represents God, says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ (Matthew 20:13-15) While not the main point of the parable, the moral force of Jesus’ teaching relies on the acceptance of the principle that the owner of property can do with it what he wants, as long as he does not violate someone else’s property right.”

Here we have been given a good glimpse of the Bible’s expression of property rights. We could also add that the Bible’s endless uses of possessive pronouns also imply the ownership of property and property rights. Used in this sense, a right is merely one’s legal ability to engage in a behavior without being physically coerced against (punitive actions of the civil magistrate) in response. If we wanted to be even more precise, we could specify that robbery is technically a violation of both the sixth and eighth commandments. The eighth commandment presupposes private property rights since you have to own something in order for theft to occur. The sixth commandment presupposes self-ownership. You can’t take somebody’s life if that person doesn’t already own it. All lives are assigned this value due to our being made in the image of God. If we own ourselves, then we also own what our bodies produce. When anybody-whether a private citizen, president, or local mayor-exceeds these parameters and takes the fruit of someone else’s labor, the act of theft has occurred. In order to steal, an act of force/violence/aggression has to occur. Calvin noted that this also falls under the domain of the sixth commandment: “The sum of this Commandment is, that we should not unjustly do violence to any one….[U]nder the word kill [murder] is included by synecdoche all violence, smiting, and aggression.” Clearly, the threat of force (imprisonment, fines, or death) also falls under this category.

We know, however, that we have our property forcefully taken from us all the time under a State. It is not consensual, despite what purveyors of the imaginary “social contract” would have you believe. If it were consensual, the money would have been offered up voluntarily. Also, it is universal theft-nobody is exempt. You would think with something as far-reaching and significant as mass theft that Christians wouldn’t be relying on a couple of proof-texts to justify their support. Yet, this is exactly the case. In fact, there are really only a handful of verses in the entire New Testament that even speak of taxation. Each one can be easily explained through the libertarian philosophy. In the following parts, we will look at the two primary examples: Matthew 22 (“Render Unto Caesar”) and Romans 13.

It is self-evident that no number of men, by conspiring, and calling themselves a government, can acquire any rights whatever over other men, or other men’s property, which they had not before, as individuals. And whenever any number of men, calling themselves a government, do anything to another man, or to his property, which they had no right to do as individuals, they thereby declare themselves trespassers, robbers, or murderers, according to the nature of their acts.
-Lysander Spooner

*This is the way most Reformed see it, but I am aware of Progressive Covenantalism’s rejection of the tripartite division of the law. The Progressive Covenantalist’s rejection of the tripartite division does not mean that they are unable to come to the same conclusions as the Reformed crowd. They agree that the OT civil and ceremonial aspects have been abrogated and find their fulfillment in Christ. The difference is merely in how, or in what hermeneutic they use, to filter the categories of civil and ceremonial through. The hermeneutic they use, after some modifying, actually appears to be very amenable to the Christian libertarian philosophy. For our purposes in this article, the key point is that we all agree that the OT ceremonial and civil aspects of the Law are no longer applied to us today as a covenant (their general equity still applies). Maybe in a future article I can attempt to show how libertarian conclusions can be arrived at through their framework.