Why Taxation Isn’t (Necessarily) Theft

I still remember the pain when my best friend and I stopped attending the same school after first grade. His parents decided he would be better off in a private school. I asked my mom how he could do that, and she explained that his parents were spending a little extra money to send him there.
So, was my mom spending money to send me to school? She told me that she already paid taxes, and that’s how the school building was constructed and the teachers were paid. As full of questions as any first-grader, I asked if people without children also had to pay taxes for schools, and she told they do.
That didn’t seem fair to me. I’ll never forget her answer:
Even if I had no children, I’d be happy to pay taxes in order to live in a world where people are educated instead of one where only the rich can go to school.
Her statement has remained with me since; it was my introduction to taxes.
There’s a lot of talk in certain circles about taxes being “theft,” and about how the government uses “force” to “take” our property. But is this thought compatible with Catholicism?
When I want answers to questions like that, I consult St. Thomas Aquinas:
[T]he public power is entrusted to [princes] that they may be the guardians of justice….  [W]hatever is taken by violence of this kind is not the spoils of robbery, since it is not contrary to justice.
In other words, as long as taxes are used justly, there is no theft or robberyinvolved in taxation.
The Church’s teaching runs counter to the West’s current view of property rights, which dates from the Enlightenment work of Hobbes, Paine, Smith, and Locke. These philosophers shaped America’s — and the developed world’s — view of the right to ownership at a subconscious level. According to this view, one simply has the right to own whatever one has earned or acquired.
Opposed to this Enlightenment belief is the teaching of Aquinas, who noted that “man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need” (II-II, Q. 66, Art. 2). His position is reiterated in the Church’s social doctrine under the name of the Universal Destination of Goods. According to this doctrine, as explained in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
Each person must have access to the level of well-being necessary for his full development . . . . All other rights, whatever they are, including property rights and the right of free trade must be subordinated to this norm. (172)
In other words, property rights must always take second place to the universal destination of goods.
Some argue that only the individual, through his or her free choice, should help the poor. But this isn’t Catholic social teaching. Instead, “The ethical requirement inherent in these pre-eminent social principles concerns both the personal behavior of individuals . . . and at the same time institutions represented by laws” (163, emphasis added). The government, therefore, has an ethical requirement to help meet the basic needs of the poor. In fact, helping the poor is not charity but “a debt of justice” (184).
And much of this debt is paid through taxes. The Catechism states, “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes . . .” (2240, emphasis added).
The further complaint that the State may not “redistribute income” is also without merit in Catholic thought. In fact, according to the Compendium:
The economic well-being of a country is not measured exclusively by the quantity of goods it produces but also by taking into account the manner in which they are produced and the level of equity in the distribution of income, which should allow everyone access to what is necessary for their personal development and perfection. An equitable distribution of income is to be sought on the basis of criteria not merely of commutative justice but also of social justice that is, considering, beyond the objective value of the work rendered, the human dignity of the subjects who perform it. Authentic economic well-being is pursued also by means of suitable social policies for the redistribution of income which, taking general conditions into account, look at merit as well as at the need of each citizen (303).
In other words, the just redistribution of income is part and parcel of Catholic social teaching. Along with that, of course, we have “the common good,” which gets into a range of prudential matters: Is it in the common good to send men into orbit in space shuttles? Does the common good require the government to spend money on cancer and AIDS research? Does the common good compel us to fund PBS, which broadcasts Foyle’s War and the recent Jane Austen movies? And what about public roads, parks, libraries, and schools?
It is possible, of course, to take this idea too far. Marxist socialism holds that all property belongs to the State, and this is plainly wrong. Aquinas, in the passage already quoted above, even-handedly comments that “to take other people’s property violently and against justice, in the exercise of public authority, is to act unlawfully and to be guilty of robbery,” leaving it up to prudence to determine what constitutes “justice.”
Another serious error would be for a government to set up a “Social Assistance State” — a system that “leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending” (187). This might accurately describe the condition of the United States from the late 1960s through Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform.
And all of this is to say nothing about tax rates themselves. The interest on our national debt claims twenty percent of our tax revenue, something that should please no American. So over-taxation and unjust taxation are both possible, and ought to be avoided.
But that’s as far as it goes. A person who makes the sweeping claim that all taxes constitute “theft” contradicts Aquinas, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. And that’s not a good position to be in, for any Catholic.


Eric Pavlat is a convert from Unitarian Universalism who entered the Church in 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and six children. He is also a perpetually professed Lay Dominican in St. Pius V Pro-Chapter, located in Catonsville, MD. He founded Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., in 2004, served one term as president, and stayed on the board of directors until 2010. He now considers himself more a Distributist than anything else. Eric teaches 10th grade honors and special education students in English literature, composition, and grammar at his alma mater, Parkdale High School.

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