You shall not steal….You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet…anything that belongs to your neighbor (Ex. 20:15, 16).
Most people, Christians and non-Christians alike, agree that it is wrong to take what belongs to someone else. Every nation and culture has laws against theft. The God-given conscience of every human resonates with a built-in knowledge that stealing is ethically wrong.
God is so deeply opposed to theft that when He chose Ten Commandments among potentially hundreds that He could have written with His finger on tablets of stone, “Thou shalt not steal” was listed there as number eight.
The sin of coveting, which is always a precursor to theft, is also found in that same list of ten essentials. God is deeply opposed to even the desire to possess what belongs to someone else. In essence He is telling us, “Don’t even entertain the idea of taking what isn’t yours.”
Under the Mosaic Law, thieves who were caught had to repay their victims anywhere from two to five times what they had stolen (see Ex. 22:1-7), an obvious divine commentary on the gravity of the sin of theft.
The New Testament underscores the fundamental evil of theft by teaching that it is a transgression against the second greatest commandment. If I love my neighbor, I will not steal from him:
For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom. 13:9, emphasis added).
Similarly, theft violates the Golden Rule. I don’t want anyone to steal from me, so I should not steal from anyone else.
Theft is so grievous to God that He warns that no thief will inherit His kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9-10). Heaven’s doors are closed tight to thieves.
All of this is to say that the fundamental ethical evil of theft is well established. No one has any excuse to claim ignorance in this regard.
Obviously, if it is wrong for one person to steal from another person, it is wrong for two people, or three people, or three thousand people to covet what belongs to someone else and steal it from him. Group theft is just as ethically wrong as individual theft. And this leads me to my topic. Governments can be guilty of theft, and they frequently are.
Before you think I’m about to advocate that taxation is theft, let me clarify.
Human governments have the God-given right to tax their citizens in order to provide services that governments can best provide for the good of all its citizens, such as protection from foreign enemies, a system of courts, public roads, and more. Scripture instructs Christians to pay their taxes and honor those in authority (Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:17).
When governments cross the line, however, from providing services for the benefit of all its citizens to exploiting its citizens for the benefit of government officials or taxing some of its citizens for the benefit of others, that amounts to theft.
We generally abhor the world’s dictators and regimes who steal from the citizens they should be serving. Yet we’ve grown quite accustomed to our government “spreading the wealth”—so much so that very few of us even identify it as being theft. Consider this: Any modern-day Robin Hood, if apprehended, would be prosecuted as a criminal by any government regardless of how noble his motives might be. Yet many of those same governments play the part of Robin Hood all the time, taking money from some and redistributing it to others in the form of special benefits.
Once a representative government adopts a policy of “spreading the wealth,” its citizens are set at war against each other, as everyone clamors to get his or her slice of the national pie. When does it end? One hundred years ago the U.S. government spent only 8% of our gross national product. Last year it spent 43%.
You’ve probably heard the famous quote attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship.
Former Prime Minister of Great Britain Margaret Thatcher is often attributed to a similar bit of wisdom:
The only problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.
Let’s consider some specific cases of theft by the U.S. government.
Although most of us don’t mind paying taxes to help provide for those who are genuinely disadvantaged, to forcibly take money by taxation in order to take care of the disadvantaged is theft. Again, if any individual forcibly took money from someone and gave it to someone else who was disadvantaged, he would be prosecuted as a thief. So how is such an act made right if a government does it?
I am, of course, not arguing against helping the disadvantaged. All of us have a God-given responsibility to voluntarily help the disadvantaged (without encouraging irresponsibility, as do government welfare programs). But the key word is “voluntarily.” And if governments got out of the charity business, taxes could be lowered, and everyone would have more money to voluntarily give to disadvantaged people or to organizations that serve the disadvantaged.
Of course, it could be argued that, unless our government forced us to be charitable through tax revenues that are distributed to the disadvantaged, the disadvantaged would remain in peril. Perhaps that is so, but on the other hand, I wonder how many people justify their personal uncharitableness with the excuse, “The government takes care of the disadvantaged, so there is no need for me to be burdened with helping them.” Regardless, when governments take money from some and give it to others, it is theft.
One “disadvantaged” group that the U.S. government assists are the elderly. (I put the word “disadvantaged” in quotes because not all elderly people are in that category. If you don’t believe me, visit Florida sometime.) The largest expenditure of the U.S. government revolves around caring for our elderly population through Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. Together, they account for about 40% of the federal budget. If you are of the age to benefit from those programs, I’m sure you appreciate them.
If you are employed, you may think that about 7.5% of your earnings are taken from each paycheck for Social Security and Medicare. Your employer, however, is required to match that amount, paying approximately another 7.5%. So all 15% could (and should) be yours if it wasn’t taken in taxes.
You probably realize that 15% is not invested to wait for you to reach retirement. It is distributed to current retirees. Of course, most of those retirees paid Social Security and Medicare taxes themselves, and they feel as if they have a right to the benefits. And those of us who are still in the work force don’t mind paying those taxes now as long as future workers will be forced to fund our retirement years. For that reason, few of us consider the entire program to be theft, taking money from one person and giving it to another.
The system will continue to work as long as workers significantly outnumber retirees. But with the current changing ratio of workers to retirees, it seems inevitable that Social Security taxes will go up and/or benefits for retirees will go down. It won’t seem fair then, especially if you ultimately don’t receive as much as you paid into the system. It will seem like government theft, which it has been from the beginning. The very first recipient of monthly Social Security benefits paid in a total of $22.54 over three years and collected a total of $22,889 before she died. The government took other people’s money and gave it to her.
I am, of course, not advocating not caring for the elderly. Everyone should of course voluntarily care for their elderly parents if there is a need (like just about everyone in the U.S. did before 1940, and the majority of world still does), and if they have the means should help other elderly folks if such folks have a valid need. Think about it: If your income increased by 15% for the rest of your working life, I’ll bet you could not only better prepare for your own old age, but you could also do something to care for some elderly folks right now as well. How many people in their twenties and thirties, if given the choice, would prefer to have the government take 15% of their earnings for Social Security and Medicare or to invest that 15% themselves for their own retirement and to have something they could use to care for elderly parents who need assistance?
What is abhorrent to most all taxpayers is the thought of the government taking their money via taxation and redistributing it to those who are not deserving in the least, such as people who should be paying taxes themselves, but aren’t, or deceptive people who could work, but don’t. It feels like theft when the government bails people out of their self-inflicted problems using the taxes paid by people who have acted responsibly. Again, those same governments would prosecute any individual who did what they are doing.
I’ve occasionally heard Christians argue that our government should be “spreading the wealth” on the basis of what Jesus taught about caring for the poor. But Jesus was not speaking to governments when He preached about caring for the poor; He was speaking to individuals. Voluntary sharing is what Jesus had in mind. Keep in mind that Jesus is also the one who inspired Paul to write, “If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either” (2 Th. 3:10). God does not want governments, or Christians for that matter, to reward laziness or immorality.
How about another example?
It could be argued that graduated tax rates are a form of theft. When the rich pay a greater percentage of their earnings in taxes, it benefits those of us who pay not only less taxes, but a lesser percentage. It is just another form of “spreading the wealth.” Just for the record, I’m writing, not as an angry rich person, but as a lower-income person who benefits every day from the taxes paid by the wealthy.
Similarly, and on a more local scale, wealthy people who can afford bigger homes pay more in school property taxes than those with smaller homes, effectively helping to provide a better education for the children of less wealthy families. That is also a form of government theft, or “spreading the wealth,” taking from some and giving it to others. The entire system of school property taxes is grossly unfair to those who never have children and home-schoolers, who receive no benefit from their property taxes yet help pay for the education of everyone else’s children.
The many “pork barrel” earmarks that are attached to so much of the legislation that pass through our congress are yet another example of government theft. Why should every taxpayer in the U.S. pay for special projects that only benefit very limited numbers of people? How is that any different than theft?
Perhaps the grandest example of government theft is the government’s borrowing trillions of dollars, a debt that will either be repaid with dollars that are worth less because so many more have been “printed”—which amounts to stealing from the government’s creditors—or a debt that will be passed on to future generations, which amounts to stealing from our children and grandchildren. That enormous debt is the ultimate “spreading of the wealth,” as the future earnings of our unborn grandchildren are spread to us. It illustrates the worst form of greed imaginable—to knowingly borrow money which benefits one generation with the full knowledge that the debts incurred will be paid by future generations. Currently, every U.S. taxpayer’s share of the national debt is $113,000. What are the chances of you paying off, through tax legislation, your share of that debt before you die? Incidentally, as long as we continue to cast our votes to keep thieves in office, we’re complicit in stealing from our grandchildren.
OK, I’ve transgressed two cardinal rules by bringing up both religion and politics! Thanks for letting me get this off my chest. I invite your feedback. Please be kind. I hope to publish varied excerpts from your feedback next month. If you wish to remain anonymous, please let me know.