When Government Steals From Us

Graphic design credit: Kelsey Crockett

Credit: Kelsey Crockett

When I was 15, I read a short book called The Law  for the first time.  

It forever changed how I understand the function of government.

You see, The Law was written by a French political economist named Frederic Bastiat in 1850.  Bastiat developed his perspective on government and economics after years of serving as a legislator in France.  He also had witnessed a number of political revolutions in France during the early half of the 19th century.

Given this experience, Bastiat had come to understand how easy it is to abuse the power of government.  He saw corruption and greed manifesting itself everywhere in French political life.   Thus, he wrote The Law as a response to the evils of his time, with the intention of warning his fellow citizens of the danger they faced if they did not check their government’s abuse.

And  yet, perhaps the most powerful aspect of Bastiat’s The Law is that it could just as easily be describing the dangers of excessive government power that we face in our time.

How the Law Becomes “Perverse”

Bastiat’s argument is simple, yet profound.  The law should only function as a protector of our life, liberty, or property.  Consequently, it should punish individuals who commit violence against someone’s life, liberty, or property.

Most importantly, Bastiat argued persuasively that the law could not legitimately do things that were immoral for individuals to do.  If individuals were not allowed to steal or murder, then the law could not legitimately be used to steal or murder.  This would violate the very purpose of the law, making it perverse.

Plunder vs. Legal Plunder

Thus, the crucial question that The Law placed before me was:

“Is it morally acceptable for an individual to steal my money, threaten my life, violate my privacy, restrict my freedom of choice, or harm my family?  If not, then is it alright for government officials, politicians, bureaucrats, and police to do the same things?”

This is the question of plunder vs. legal plunder.  In the one instance, a private individual is attacking your person, your liberty, or your property.  In another instance, the state is attacking your person, your liberty, or your property.  In neither instance is such coercion morally acceptable.

The problem is that, while we readily see and criticize illegal plunder today, we quickly overlook how much legal plunder occurs every day in our society.  We again need to hear the warning cry of Bastiat when he proclaims, “The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with it!”

How the Government Steals

Bastiat told us how to identify legal plunder.  He urged his readers to “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”

Look at the graphic at the top of this page.  In the left-hand frame, a robber holds an innocent man at gunpoint, demanding that he hand over his money.  No one could argue that this sort of theft is justified.

But, in the right-hand frame, the robber has taken off his mask and his gun has disappeared.  How does he get the money this time?

Quite simply, he relies upon the institution of government to be his gun.  The robber in the right-hand frame could be a bank CEO, a politician, a government bureaucrat,  or a well-connected lobbyist.  He might receive federal subsidies, a government grant for his new business idea, a bailout after a rough balance sheet, or a stimulus funding package to “spur the economy.”

My point (and Bastiat’s point) is that, whoever he is does not matter.  The robber in the right-hand panel relies upon the government’s coercive power of taxation to take money from the innocent individual (without that individual’s consent) and funnel it towards those activities that benefit himself.  He is the beneficiary of plunder–of the government’s forced extortion of wealth from another individual’s labor and profits.

And you can be sure that as a beneficiary of plunder, he will fight to make sure that the laws that transfer money to himself remain in place.

Legal Plunder Today

It is somewhat disconcerting to realize how much legal plunder occurs in modern times.  Bastiat warned that if legal plunder “is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.”

Unfortunately, this warning has not been followed and we now live under a system of legal plunder.

What are some of the ways that we see legal plunder today?  In other words, in what ways do governments extract wealth from individuals:

  • Income taxesI Want You Stamp
  • Property taxes
  • Sales taxes
  • Value-added taxes
  • Gasoline taxes
  • Automobile taxes
  • Capital gains taxes
  • Dividends taxes
  • Corporate income taxes
  • Payroll taxes  (If you haven’t looked at the withholding section of your paycheck in a long time, do it now.  And then ask yourself what you could do with all the money the government steals from you every pay cycle.)
  • Punitive fines
  • Civil asset forfeiture
  • Central banking

And what sort of programs and activities do these taxes support:

  • Drone strikes against foreign civilians
  • Bank bailouts
  • Corporate welfare
  • Increased lobbying activities
  • Fancy vacations for political officials
  • Social Security
  • Medicare
  • Medicaid
  • Government education
  • Regulations against business and enterprise
  • The War on Drugs
  • The NSA’s spying program
  • The TSA’s sexual assault program
  • Failed stimulus packages
  • Quantitative easing
  • Intellectual property enforcement

This only scratches the surface.

When Government Steals From Us

Governments love to figure out new ways to increase their power through increasing the policies and programs that are reliant upon legal plunder.  Beneficiaries of these programs fight to defend and expand them while politicians gain power and influence through them.

The innocent?  Well, they are often overrun by regulations or they choose to cave in to the system by engaging in plunder  as a defense mechanism against the initial plunderers.

UncleSamTheftThis helps to turn all of the questions of our society into political questions–a convenient state of affairs for the ruling elite.  While we squabble about how we want to turn to the government to solve a certain problem, they accumulate power, riches, fame, and connections.  We are conveniently distracted from the true source of the problem: government officials and the cronies that they are in bed with.

Thus, we debate about how to solve everything.  We attempt to determine how government will fix healthcare, keep us financially secure in retirement, provide for the poor, educate children, fight foreign military interventions, protect us against terrorists, keep our streets clear of drugs, fix the banking system, stop school shootings, give us relief from natural disasters, propel us toward new energy solutions, build our infrastructure, keep the stock market afloat, and on and on and on and on.

Why?  Why should we be turning to the government for any of this?  It’s nothing more than a wonderful excuse to empower the plunderers and ignore the fact that they are causing most of the problems we face on these issues.

The dominant, all-absorbing nature of these political questions sparks conflict and hostility among lot of well-meaning people.  Because everyone’s livelihoods are tied to government’s success at stealing from some and giving to others, they have a stake in ensuring that they argue for their share of resources.

Thus, legal plunder turns friendly strangers into mortal enemies. It divides up societies and fosters political conflict–all because we are trying to figure out how to distribute stolen goods.

In short, legal plunder  literally destroys our moral compass, both individually and collectively.  

If that is not alarming enough, then consider the long-term consequences of legal plunder.  What happens when all of the honest and productive entrepreneurs become cronies seeking handouts and lobbyists fighting for regulations to punish their competitors?

The short answer is that economic productivity is unsustainable.  Wealth is merely transferred, not created.  Innovation and growth falter while regulation and legal plunder dominate.  As all actors rush toward the government for their means of leaving, it is only those who arrive first that receive benefits. The rest are left hanging out to dry.

In a system that has encouraged wealth accumulation by greed and plunder through the power of the state, the incentive for true charity and for earth-shattering innovation dwindles, leaving the “least among us” the most vulnerable.

That’s the world of legal plunder: heightened conflict, a lost moral compass, unsustainable economic policies, and squeezing the poor.

It’s a truly grim world.

Conclusion: Against Legal Plunder

Bastiat opened my eyes to the dangers of legal plunder when I was only a teenager.  Yet, as I’ve become an adult, it’s taken me longer to see how pervasive and hard to eradicate it really is.  I’ve also started to feel the effects of it more personally as I’ve started paying my own bills, paying taxes, holding down a job, and seeing how laws prevent businesses and individuals from bettering their stations in life.

I’m also very concerned about how legal plunder drives people into poverty and holds them down in such a state.  I’m concerned about how legal plunder helps the politically connected and ruling elite get richer as the rest of us get poorer.

Bastiat 2012

But it’s not enough to be concerned.  We must be willing to act.

By acting, I do mean figuring out ways to work around, challenge, overcome, or dismantle legal plunder and government stealing, especially in our personal lives. And, by acting, I do not mean not paying your taxes.  I don’t want anyone to go to jail.

Ultimately, we are as free as we choose to be.  Governments cannot lay claim to our minds, our consciences, our souls, and our individuality.  It cannot control the spontaneous orders that emerge through voluntary human action.

So long as we participate in this process peacefully, choosing to resist the politicization of everyday life and the perverse moral effects of legal plunder in our personal decisions, we can be effective defenders of freedom.

– Jason Hughey

Note: Special thanks to Kelsey Crockett for her design work on the graphic at the top of this post.  If you are interested in looking at more of her graphic design work, please check out her website.

Jason Hughey About Jason Hughey

Christian and libertarian. Follow me on Twitter @JL_Hughey, and on Google Plus.

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