The Power To Destroy

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It’s 2:00 AM. You are aroused from your slumber by the sound of someone’s pounding on your front door. You stumble to the door and open it to find three men in expensive, pin-striped suits who haul you off to a warehouse and, under the threat of "sleeping with the fishes," force you to fork over thousands of dollars to purchase food, clothing, medicine, and other necessities that they promise to donate to the less fortunate — although at that moment you wonder if anyone could possibly be less fortunate than you. The thugs then return you to your humble abode, warning you that they will return to "help" you engage in further "charity" in the future.

The next night, at about the same time, you are again awakened by knocking on the door. This time you find three men in cheap blue vests who march you off to Wal-Mart and force you to purchase food, clothing, medicine, and other items that you need. They then return you home along with your purchases and promise to return to "help" you obtain necessities in the future.

Question: Which of these acts is a crime?

The answer, of course, is that they both are criminal acts. In both cases you were forced to give up your property, which is to say, a theft occurred. That in one case the result was to provide for the poor and in the other the result was to provide for you is entirely irrelevant. You were coerced into handing over your rightful possessions against your wishes, and no amount of good intentions on the part of the coercer can alter that.

Now let us stipulate that those interrupting your blissful nocturnal rest are government agents. Threatening you with fines and imprisonment for failing to cooperate, they take 50 percent of your income, promising to spend it first to assist the poor and second to provide you with necessities such as roads, bridges, schools, police protection, and defense against foreign invasion. Is there any difference between this scenario and the ones I originally proposed?

If you’re like most people, you almost instinctively believe there is some difference, but you can’t quite put it into words.

Conservatives and libertarians can generally agree that wealth-transfer programs, even when allegedly undertaken to help the less fortunate, are morally wrong — legalized theft, as it were. Liberals, while likely disagreeing with this line of reasoning — unless the wealth is being transferred from the poor to the rich — can at least understand it and may even argue that while it’s a small wrong to rob Peter to pay Paul, the "greater good" provided to Paul outweighs the offense committed against Peter.

But what of the case in which the state is providing genuine necessities, so that Peter is being robbed but getting something he needs in return? Isn’t that a different matter entirely? As most would have it, it’s not theft then but merely "the price we pay for civilization." Peter is not being stripped of his possessions so much as being asked to pay his "fair share," much as a group of friends might divide a restaurant tab evenly among themselves. It’s not as if his money is just being transferred to someone else with no benefit to Peter.

This is, of course, the direct analogy to my second scenario, in which the blue-vested thugs forced you to purchase all your necessities at Wal-Mart regardless of your desires. Perhaps you did need that loaf of bread they foisted upon you; but maybe you didn’t want that particular brand, or didn’t like the price, or just plain hate Wal-Mart. Even if you love Wal-Mart and wanted that brand at that price, you’d still resent being strong-armed into buying it. (At least Wal-Mart would let you return it and get your money back if you didn’t want it, which is more than can be said for the state.)

If it’s theft for private individuals to force people to buy particular goods from particular suppliers, isn’t it also theft for government officials to do the same? Arguing that the goods the government forces us to buy are necessities which the market cannot supply — a seeming truism mostly because the government outlaws or greatly impedes any serious competitors — is begging the question. Joe’s Paving can’t build a private road to my house and then charge me for it if I haven’t agreed to it in advance, nor can Barney Fife Security post a guard on my property at my expense without my consent. Why, then, should the government be able to build roads and operate police departments and then bill me for the cost of doing so without my specifically having agreed to each charge?

The burden of proof lies with those who favor any state whatsoever to demonstrate that an institution whose very existence is predicated on larceny ought to be permitted to exist and to command our willing obedience and respect. We have no respect for private gangsters, though we sometimes obey them out of fear. We ought to have no respect for public gangsters either, and we certainly should not pretend that we are obeying them out of any loftier sentiment than fear for our own safety.

I can already hear the next question from the statists, in response to which I quote the magnificent Joseph Sobran: "u2018But what would you replace the state with?’ The question reveals an inability to imagine human society without the state. Yet it would seem that an institution that can take 200,000,000 lives within a century hardly needs to be u2018replaced.’" Would you replace La Cosa Nostra if it suddenly ceased to exist?

Theft is still theft even when the government sanctions it and even when its proceeds are put to supposedly beneficent uses, be they "necessities" for those robbed or "charity" for others. Every theft results in a diminution of freedom, for no one knows to what ends those resources might have been put had they been left in the possession of their rightful owners. Taxation, with or without representation, is merely robbery under an assumed name. Indeed, as John Marshall wrote, "the power to tax involves the power to destroy." It is long past time to put an end to the state, the one institution dedicated to our destruction.

Michael Tennant [send him mail] is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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