Politics & Policy

Property and Peace

The irreplaceable basis for a prosperous and decent society is property.

There is not very much good to say about the life and career of Vladimir Lenin, but give the pickled old monster this much: He cut through more than two centuries’ worth of bull and straight to the heart of all politics with his simple question: “Who? Whom?” Which is to say: Who acts? Who is acted upon? Even here in the land of the free, meditating upon that question can be an uncomfortable exercise.

The foundation of classical liberalism, and of the American order, is not the rule of law, a written constitution, freedom of speech and worship, one-man/one-vote democracy, or the Christian moral tradition — necessary as those things are. The irreplaceable basis for a prosperous, decent, liberal, stable society is property. Forget Thomas Jefferson’s epicurean flourish — John Locke and the First Continental Congress had it right on the first go-round: “Life, liberty, and property.” Despite the presence of the serial commas in that formulation, these are not really three different things: Perhaps we should render the concept “lifelibertyproperty” the way the physicists write about “spacetime.”

But we do not have any property.

The governments of these United States, from the federal to the local level, have managed to insinuate themselves between citizens and their property at every point of significance. In that, our governments are very much like most other governments, liberal and illiberal, democratic and undemocratic. We have allowed ourselves to be in effect converted from a nation of owners to a nation of renters. But while medieval serfs had only the one landlord, we have a rogue’s gallery of them: the local school board, the criminals at the IRS, the vehicle-registry office, etc. Never-ending property taxes ensure that as a matter of economic function, you never really own your house — you rent it from the government. Vehicle registration fees and, in some jurisdiction, outright taxes on automobile ownership ensure in precisely the same way that you never really own your car: You rent it from the government. Stock portfolio? Held at the sufferance of politicians. A profitable business? You’ll keep what income they decide you can keep. Your own body? Not yours — not if you use it for profitable labor.

A Who down in Whoville? You should be so lucky: Welcome to Whomville, peon.

Good government is a constable — it keeps the peace and protects property. Parasitic government — which is, sad to say, practically the only form known in the modern world — is at its best a middleman that takes a cut of every transaction by positioning itself as a nuisance separating you from your goals. At its worst, it is functionally identical to a goon running a protection racket.

Julian Sanchez of Cato is having none of that. On Monday, he published a column heaping scorn upon the slogan “taxation is theft,” writing:

First, a point so trivial I’d hope it wouldn’t need to be made, but which apparently does: Taken in a strict or literal sense, the claim that ‘taxation is theft” is just false. Standard dictionary definitions pretty uniformly include the idea that “theft” is a form of non-consensual property transfer that is “unlawful” or “felonious” or “without legal right.”

Mr. Sanchez, whose work I admire, is studiously ignoring the point. Taxation is as a phenomenon identical to theft in that it involves the non-consensual transfer of property from one party to another. Insisting that taxation cannot be identical to theft because it is lawful is an exercise in question-begging: Does the endorsement of 50 percent + 1 of the voting population transform the seizure of property into something else? Is formal statutory codification the only criterion for “lawfulness”? If so, how can we say that the Third Reich or the U.S.S.R. murdered their millions — when their actions were perfectly lawful? Either lawful means something more than formal codification, or it is a trivial standard.

In James Bovard’s cutting formulation: “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” Or: Who (dines on) whom?

The desire to be left alone is a powerful one, and an American one. It is not, contrary to the rhetoric proffered by the off-brand Cherokee princess currently representing the masochistic masses of Massachusetts in the Senate, an anti-social sentiment. It is not that we necessarily desire to be left alone full stop — it is that we desire to be left alone by people who intend to forcibly seize our assets for their own use. You need not be a radical to desire to live in your own home, to drive your own car, and to perform your own work without having to beg the permission of a politician — and pay them 40 percent for the privilege.

Principles are dangerous things — whiskey is for drinking, water and principles are for fighting over. The anti-ideological current in conservative thinking appreciates this: If we all seek complete and comprehensive satisfaction of our principles, then there will never be peace. This is why scale matters and why priorities matter. In a world in which the public sector consumes 5 percent of my income and uses it for such legitimate public goods as law enforcement and border security, I do not much care whether the tax system is fair or just on a theoretical level; and while I may resent it as a matter of principle, the cost of my consent is relatively low, and I have other things to think about. But in a world in which the parasites take half, and use it mainly to buy political support from an increasingly ovine and dependent electorate, then I care intensely.

The founding ideal of this republic is that we are the who and government is the whom, a necessary evil that is to some degree necessarily evil. On the right scale and in its proper place, that necessary evil is bearable. But when it oversteps, we are under no obligation to bear it — in fact, we are morally obliged by our particular American patrimony to resist. That is why the usual progressive taunt, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you move to Somalia?” is foolish and shallow: The American government exists at our sufferance — we do not exist at its sufferance. George W. Bush was mocked for talking about an “ownership society,” but if you want peace, that’s precisely what you should be trying to build. The alternative is to have 50 percent + 1 arbitrating the uncomfortable question of who in effect owns whom.

You want a less polarized politics? Consider that the God of the Old Testament asked only for 10 percent, and had Ten Commandments, not ten thousand.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


The Latest