Property Rights

By the Sweat of Thy Brow: Property, Taxation, and Theft

Adam was told by God that “By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread…” (Genesis 3:19). This was man’s introduction to the basic principle of self-reliance. Another translation of the same verse of scripture puts it this way: “You will have to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything…” Even if God had not informed Adam of this principle (or if you don’t happen to believe in God or the Bible), nature itself tells us the same thing. Nature does not provide a delivery system from which we can expect to receive everything we need and/or want. Nature provides the resources necessary for man to survive, but each of us must ultimately work to provide for our needs and for the needs of our families.

Although this principle might seem self-evident, it is worth taking the time to fully understand and to study its implications. There are two possibilities. Either God put man on Earth or man made his appearance “naturally” as the result of processes of nature that are not directed or governed by anything or anyone. In either case, it is easy to see the natural result. Each of us must provide for our own needs. Nobody was given (by God or nature) a superior right to take by force that which another has produced. As such, the only alternative is to provide for oneself. There are certainly those, throughout the history of the world, who have taken by force that which was produced by another. And of course, there are currently those, some under the guise of legitimate government, and some not, that continue this practice. Natural law and logic dictate that this practice should be repulsed and rejected by individuals and society.

In some instances, an objective observation of this practice makes clear that it is outright thievery. This is plainly obvious. Humans, by their very nature, recognize the injustice. But in other instances, the same behavior is accepted and even championed by the masses. For instance, why is government taxation accepted by many as a moral and acceptable practice? Is man, by virtue of nothing more than having been born into the world, somehow indebted to whatever government jurisdiction into which he happens to be born? If some men before him formed a government, does that government now rule over him? By what principle can it be argued that any man is inherently beholden to an institution created by other men? Which men were endowed with an inherent right to forcibly take that which was produced by others? If there were no such men, then how can it be that those same men, having no inherent right to take from others, can form an institution and grant it that right?

I submit to you that there is no rational principle upon which to base any such argument. Each of us has an inherent right to keep that which we produce. It is our private property. After all, we produced it ourselves, with the application of our time, energy, and resources. There is no rational basis upon which one might conclude otherwise.

In the 17th century, John Locke recognized this clear principle. In fact, his writings and philosophies had a profound effect on many of America’s Founding Fathers. They recognized the tyrannical nature of the English government, and it was this tyranny against which they fought. Locke’s principles, particularly those centered around private property rights, were some of the building blocks upon which the founders crafted a new and (then-considered) radical form of government, and upon which they based the Constitution.

Locke stated, in his Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government, that government “can never have a power to take to themselves the whole or any part of the subjects’ property, without their consent. Or this would be in effect to leave them no property at all.” This must be true, for if government can take some from me without my consent, then they can certainly take more, and in fact they can take it all. There is no denying this. If I can’t stop them from taking some now, then how can I expect to stop them from taking more or even all that I have? This leaves the inherent sovereign, the individual, whose natural right is to be ruler over himself, in a position of mere serfdom, grateful for whatever portion of his own production is left within his control. He is effectively left with “no property at all” because government ultimately controls all of the property. After all, government can take as much or as little of his property as it wants, and he can only keep that which government lets him keep.

Consider the national income tax in the United States. The Constitution was adopted by the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787. The sentiment of America’s founding generation regarding private property and income taxation was clear. The following quotes should illustrate this sentiment:

To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” — Thomas Jefferson

The moment the 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.” — John Adams

It is sufficiently obvious, that persons and property are the two great subjects on which Governments are to act; and that the rights of persons, and the rights of property, are the objects, for the protection of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot well be separated.” — James Madison

It should suffice to note that for over a century the United States of America operated without a national income tax. It wasn’t until 1913 (126 years after the adoption of the Constitution) that the Sixteenth Amendment instituted a true national income tax. It was a century and a quarter after America gained her independence from her oppressive master that she took this step backward and adopted a policy that strikes at the very core of what her original purpose was, that flies in the face of the principles upon which she was founded, and that ignores the nature of the government from which she seceded.

There have been many other missteps, but few have had the liberty-diminishing effects as the institution of taxes throughout this country. Most straight thinking contemporaries thought the 400 page US federal tax code was an absurdity and an attack on the most basic principles of freedom and liberty in 1913. Today that code has grown to over 70,000 pages.

Of course, the income tax is just one of many forms of immoral confiscation of personal property. There is a lengthy list of innumerable taxes and fees that would also be appropriately labeled as theft. But the income tax strikes at the heart of freedom. For what purpose do men spend most of their waking lives toiling and laboring? It is that they are innately concerned with their own well-being and with that of their families, and it is just as God said it would be, that is, that only by the sweat of one’s brow might they eat bread.

Some will take this analysis lightly and will ignore the basic principles that prove most taxation to be nothing more than theft. They will do it for various reasons, but none of them will be based on sound principles and sound logic. Many of them will do it based on an argument that the ends justify the means. They argue that taxes are necessary, that “society” as a whole needs to pay for common things such as roads and defense, etc. I would ask those who are making these arguments to consider the detriment to individuals, families and communities that is caused by taxation. Over the past several years, for example, there have been millions of foreclosures each year. There have been millions of bankruptcy filings. Individuals and families have lost everything. During the “Great Recession” families have suffered greater financial setbacks than any time since the Great Depression. Many of those that suffered and continue to suffer were taxed. In other words, they couldn’t afford their homes. They couldn’t meet their financial obligations, but even so they were forced to pay for roads they would never drive on, for city recreational centers they would never use, and for government programs from which they would never benefit.  How can anyone justify taking by force that which another has produced simply to fund someone’s idea of societal needs? As man labors to provide for himself and his family, he should be left with control over his own production.

Utah has been ranked as one of the best managed and fiscally responsible states. But those rankings focus on how well Utah has done at funding their own expenditures. In other words, to some extent, those rankings, held high by Utah politicians and bureaucrats for all to see, are an indication of just how good Utah is at taking from its citizens what they have produced. Utah ranks 20th out of the 50 states as the most burdensome with regard to local and state taxes. Utah, the stronghold of conservative Republicanism, is more burdensome than 30 other states in the union. We can do better. We must do better. When considering any policy question within Utah, the answer is and must always be lower and fewer taxes. Only in that approach can man enjoy the fruits of his labor and feel that the sweat of his brow has resulted in something he can be proud of.