While many would be comfortable defining the act of stealing as taking something which belongs to another person without permission, few today would have a clear answer as to whether the state should have a right to do the same to advance the public good. Unfortunately, their lack of clarity isn’t irrational: our readiness to embrace a total secularism necessitates that many important concepts about thievery, justice, and liberty be left behind as well.
As such, it’s safe to say that while definitions of governmental thievery vary wildly in modern America, our founding fathers had a remarkably clear idea of what rights were. We know this because they penned the Declaration of Independence, plainly stating that humans had very defined, theologically-based boundaries within which they were to be self-governed. As an example: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
“Unalienable” doesn’t mean discussable, or pliable, or maybe even evolving. It declares something as objective and eternal, signifying that the concept of liberty isn’t a matter of philosophy or democratic resolution, but rather so far removed from the human will, it cannot ever be changed; not by King George III, not by President Obama, and not by supreme court justices with radically new interpretations about the intentions of John Hancock.
But as we all know, men in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries cannot suddenly discover a timeless and divinely appointed series of rights without a declaration from God, as those discoveries would be subject to discussion–as natural rights are today–or dissolution. Even in the period of the secular Enlightenment, there was never any sort of conclusion about whether or not groups should have the ability to restrict those rights by entering into a social contract, in order to protect the other unalienable rights of the weak and establish an increasingly abstract public “good.”
According to Stanford’s encyclopedia of philosophy, John Locke (whom many consider to be the Enlightenment’s “discoverer” of natural rights, almost directly quoted in our Declaration of Independence) understood this problem well, thus necessitating that divine Biblical law and natural law overlap in many cases, although specifications in divine law indicated that certain provisions were meant for a specific people. Locke even stated in his philosophical masterpiece, Two Treatises on Government (section 136, including footnotes), that “The Law of Nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men’s actions must… be conformable to the Law of Nature, i.e., to the will of God.” And, in his quoting of Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity, “Laws human must be made according to the general laws of Nature, and without contradiction to any positive law of Scripture, otherwise they are ill made.” As such, a historically-correct concept of property and capital rights must necessarily be dependent upon Scriptural terms.
In regard to taxation, this Biblical system stipulated that a tenth of all earnings go to furthering the ministry of God, and a small portion of produce was left in fields for the purpose of welfare (which the poor would have to work to recover). But aside from these stipulations, little taxation was required for other matters: people were to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and succeed in ways impossible under any other system of government. The divine mandates of Yahweh declared that property rights and economic liberties would be sacrosanct, that no man was to be given control over their definition or suspension.
For this very purpose of protecting people from governmental thievery, the Israeli people were sternly warned against a monarchy. After they refused to heed sound advice, the prophet Samuel once spoke in defense of his leadership: “I have listened to everything you said to me and have set a king over you. Now you have a king as your leader. As for me, I am old and gray, and my sons are here with you. I have been your leader from my youth until this day. Here I stand. Testify against me in the presence of the LORD and his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Whose donkey have I taken? Whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed? From whose hand have I accepted a bribe to make me shut my eyes?” Plainly obvious, Samuel’s defense of his leadership under God rested upon one concept: that he never used his position of authority to usurp the clearly-defined rights of his countrymen, placing Israel in an enviable position of being the world’s first free-market nation (until that point, anyhow).
This trend of unalienable economic rights was reinstated upon the inception of the United States, with our forefathers rebelling against all tyranny by first defining tyranny in Biblical terms. As far as taxation was concerned, the US Treasury reports that although social policy influenced which properties and sales were taxed, taxation was never used to redistribute wealth, but rather for war and the maintenance of civil justice (during one period of 44 years, the US government even collected no internal revenue). Instead of establishing financial control over individual citizens and transferring wealth to others, methods of welfare in colonial and early American history defined different kinds of poor into three classes: the disabled, those willing to work, and the lazy. The first was given material subsistence, the second two were given unpleasant, but substantial work in local poorhouses. Simply put, laziness and immorality were not subsidized, and the destitute were kept from hitting rock-bottom.
So while today’s politicians see the advancement of certain groups as more important than property and capital rights, both Biblical and early American law expressly opposed such a concept, defining it as tyrannical. It is for this precise reason that our founding fathers gave most control to our states, ensuring for that period in time that local government (meaning, the government most closely representing the values of its constituents) would take charge over any additional spending which the people would personally decide is necessary, allocating control to those most likely to be affected by policy. By this localized authority, our fathers decided that government decree would not result in the liberty of the citizen; rather, the liberty of the citizen would result in government decree.
But if the purpose of any truly secular, western modern government–at its most basic level–is to prevent harm and promote happiness and liberty without divine standards, then we have no ability by which to successfully determine its rightful boundaries. Although the mechanics of lasseiz faire capitalism have lifted the world from the depths of disease and starvation and can be proven to promote prosperity, if they cannot have taken every single last person to this point, some must beg the question: by what standard would property rights and the promotion of public welfare be judged? According to the protection of those holding property, or those without? At which point does government seek to address the protection and promotion of those least benefiting from capitalism or–more importantly–those harmed by the abusers of capitalism? And what are those rights of the downtrodden? And what is downtrodden, anyway?
My point is this: without the presence of divine law, there can be no unalienable rights; without unalienable rights, there can be no such thing as legitimate governmental action; and without governmental legitimacy, we cannot determine if the government is acting morally. Rather, we can only determine whether or not it caters to an increasingly uneducated, exceedingly lawless population. So when we are asked by which rules governmental legitimacy is to be considered, our cry for principles–whether right or wrong–must necessarily become drowned by the mere opinions of others, the rights we once held above all else being trumped by newly concocted sets of rights, forged by pompous intellectuals with new hatreds for timeless ideals, their careers predicated on the engineering and marketing of fashionable concepts instead of educating the people about timeless truths.
The government’s right to take property has already been established: even a libertarian government would forcibly levy taxes to promote general safety from outside invaders. The question we must ask ourselves today, then, isn’t whether or not the government has a right to take property and capital from its citizens, but rather how much to take, and for what purpose. If we decide today to abandon eternal principles and blur the line between taxation and thievery, then we had better be prepared to admit–on some basic level–that our property already belongs to the government.
And this is my point. Without an objective standard of liberty, there can be no freedom. Without a series of God-given rights, there can be no such thing as governmental thievery. And finally, without a common understanding of fairness, there can be no justice. Although the process of secularization has left many with the illusion of liberty, the reality of life without divine boundaries is nothing more than susceptibility to human tyranny. If we are willing to toss the unalienable parameters of God aside, then we had better be prepared to deal with our new, entirely capricious master.
His name is Man, his limits defined only by his whims and imagination.
“The moment that idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the Laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. Property must be sacred or liberty cannot exist.” –John Adams
“The Natural Rights of the colonists are these: first, a right to life; second, to liberty; third to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.” –Samuel Adams
“Can the liberties of a nation be sure when we remove their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people, that these liberties are a gift from God?” –Thomas Jefferson
“The foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality; …the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained…“ –George Washington
“Nothing is ours, which another may deprive us of.” –Thomas Jefferson
“Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” -1 Samuel 8