April 2003 -- On April 15th the news is always full of stories about taxpayers standing in long lines at post offices to file their returns on time. Occasionally there are sidebar stories about some proposed tax cut or reform that might help the economy: stories that usually disappear by the next day’s news cycle. But perhaps tax stories would remain in the headlines—and tax policy on the front burner—if they were treated as moral and not merely economic matters.

Why should we acquiesce when governments take our money? We’d be pretty upset if thugs stole our wallets at gunpoint or thieves broke into our homes and carried off our possessions. That’s because we understand that the only moral way for individuals to deal with one another is through mutual consent rather than through the initiation of force, with each individual respecting the equal rights of others.

Thus, in a free society, the sole moral purpose of government is to protect the life, liberty, and property of each individual against thugs and thieves. It is though objective laws, police, courts and a military that governments achieve these goals. Separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism are meant to confine the federal government to its proper functions, as enumerated in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.
Collecting taxes is the way governments cover the costs of providing those services. (In a fully free society perhaps even taxes might not be necessary. Perhaps government lotteries or an only-payers-receive-services approach would work. But that is far in the future.)
Unfortunately, most government expenditures are simply wealth transfers, taking money from individual taxpayers and giving it to others. Perhaps the goals on which the money is spent are good ones and perhaps not. But whether one believes it’s right to feed the poor, to pay farmers not to grow crops, to give scholarships to students or to pay for pornographic “art,” these are not legitimate functions of government. They are choices that each individual should make with his or her own money.
Indeed, there’s a catch-22 here. Since the federal government takes almost one quarter of most people’s incomes, with state and local governments taking another 10 percent, individuals do not have money that they might otherwise use for other purposes. Individuals and interest groups that might otherwise be the recipients of largess, if not for the heavy tax burden on their potential benefactors, too often succumb to the temptation, offered by politicians, of money taken from their fellow citizens. Using tax money for these purposes is government expropriation of wealth as surely as it would be if a poor person, farmer, student or artist mugged you in a back ally. And that is immoral!
It gets worse. With astonishing arrogance many politicians act as if the wealth produced by private citizens is theirs—the politicians—to do with as they please. They assume that citizens need to justify keeping their own money rather than they—the politicians—justify taking it to begin with. Many politicians actually see themselves as moral because they hand out other people’s money. What they in fact do is treat citizens like subjects. They seem to acquire a false sense of self-worth by acting like feudal lords who bestow blessings on the very peasants they have impoverished.
And the tax code that creates material poverty is based on the morally impoverished principle of punishing the most productive citizens. For example, under the so-called “progressive” tax system, the more goods and services individuals produce—as measured by incomes—the larger proportion of their incomes they must turn over to the government. In some cases wealth is taxed twice. When a company makes a profit, that money is taxed as income for the company and then, when the remainder is distributed to shareholders, it is taxed as individual income. The moral principle inherent in the tax code today is envy—punishing individuals for their virtues, in this case productivity, rather than their vices.
Too often, when tax cuts or reforms are proposed, critics reply, “You’re just greedy,” or “You just want to help the rich” or “How does this proposal help the poor?” The usual response, that such ideas produce economic growth and create jobs, is true but it is not the main point. The moral answer is that the money belongs to those who have earned it by producing goods and services and trading them with others based on mutual consent. It does not belong to the government, the poor, the recipients of corporate welfare, or anyone else. Those who suffer under high tax burdens should take the moral high ground. Only then will we be able to return the government to its rightful function and reestablish a just social order.


Edward Hudgins

About The Author:

Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.

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