The Problem of Tiffany Sugartoes

Scripture refers to that kind of ruler who frames “mischief with a law” (Ps. 94:20). Those who do this kind of thing are men who sit on thrones of iniquity, and God refuses His fellowship with any such thrones.

There are many ways to frame mischief with a law. Everyone grants that one example would be when a despot pillages all the poor peasants in order to fund his Belshazzarian kegger tomorrow night. That would be one example. That would be the big E on the eye chart.

But are there other examples of thieving mischief? While some established thieves are debauched, others are a bit more clever. If Suleiman the Magnificent takes 20K from me in order to beef up the personnel department of his seraglio, then that is both tacky and theft. But if Obama the Magnificent takes 20K from me in order to provide loan guarantees to Goldman Sachs, and they use it to provide a holiday bonus for a rising junior executive, who uses it on a weekend blowout in the Hamptons with a girl named Tiffany Sugartoes, then this is just as tacky, and just as much theft, but we can say that they cover their tracks better these days.

So let’s spend a bit of time distinguishing sins from crimes. When dealing with individuals, sins that ought not be crimes are either contained entirely within the person’s motives, or they are actual behaviors for which no scriptural case for attaching civil penalties can be made. An example of the former would be bitterness or lust. An example of the latter would be speaking rudely to someone in a crowded elevator.

A sin becomes a crime when we can make a scriptural case for attaching civil penalties to a particular behavior. Murder is a crime; hatred is a sin. Adultery is a crime; lust is a sin. With individuals, the distinction is relatively easy to make.

A ruler is not subject to the same applications of civil penalties, at least not in the same way. In a well-ordered biblical republic, it should be possible in principle to hold anyone accountable for their behavior, regardless of the office they hold. But even in a healthy society, bringing justice to bear in such cases is more challenging because rulers have supporters, and they often appoint their supporters to positions of influence over investigations of injustice. But enough about Eric Holder.

The “civil penalties” for rulers are not limited to the one process shared by all the citizens — indictment, trial, verdict, and so on. To whom much is given much is required. God holds rulers accountable by other means as well. He can do it by other means, such as natural disasters (1 Kings 18:17-19), military invasion (Dt. 28:48), a civil war (2 Sam. 15:10), or a coup (2 Kings 11:14). An average citizen can be punished for his crimes, and so can a ruler be. But when it happens to a ruler, there is a good deal more mayhem.

Property and Love for the Poor

I have written a great deal on how the framework provided by biblical ethics honors and preserves the institution of private property. The argument is not complex. Just as “thou shalt not commit adultery” presupposes and honors the institution of marriage, so also “thou shalt not steal” presupposes and honors the institution of private property.

The private property that is honored is that which comes to a man through the ordinary processes. “Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope” (1 Cor. 9:10). God is the one who gives us the power to get wealth (Dt. 8:18), and it comes up to us from the ground. It does not float down upon us from the state.

We learn the principle when learning to love the haves — but it applies even more to the have nots. When a people are being liberated from covetousness, envy, and the larceny resident in every socialist scheme, they need to learn to mortify this sin in the presence of a neighbor who has manicured lawns, a red convertible, and a beautiful wife (Ex. 20:17). Learning what love means in this instance means learning how to hate the covetousness that arises so easily under every human sternum. Love that is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:10) is a love that does no harm to its neighbor. Listed among the things that are harmful and destructive to our neighbor is covetousness (Rom. 13:9). This is why it is so necessary to elect men who fear God and hate covetousness (Ex. 18:21). And it should go without saying that you can’t hate covetousness if you don’t even know what it is.

But we must insist on something else. Mortifying covetousness is not just a blessing to the fat cats. In his magnificent book The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto demonstrates how a societal refusal to recognize property rights by means of honoring and protecting clear title is one of the central reasons why poor people are locked in grinding poverty. Where property is not respected, property (whenever it is acquired) hides. And when property hides, it cannot come out into the daylight and do useful work. The useful work it could do is that of lifting the people involved out of poverty. But in order for property to be able to do this most beneficent thing, it has to be able to come out into public view and not be assaulted or confiscated. In short, property must be safe, and it cannot be safe whenever the people are envious and covetous. Perfectly Legal

This is why we must love liberty and hate every form of coercive theft. Making that coercive theft “legal” by sanctioning it society-wide only serves to make everything far worse. Legalizing activities prohibited by the Ten Commandments does not successfully whitewash the sin. If something is perfectly appalling, we do not fix it by nodding sagely and saying, “You know, the ways their laws are structured . . .”

With All Your Protections in a Binder on His Desk

After my Due Process post, I received a letter from a friend — a tax attorney — who agreed with my central point about the modern tyrannical state, but who did want to defend the IRS on the point I was making about due process.

“Although I agree with you that the modern administrative state is overreaching and Tyrannical, I believe it is untrue to characterize IRS assessment and collection processes as being ‘without due process.’”

As he defines his terms, I quite agree with him. And as I am defining mine, he (I think) would agree with me. By due process, I did not mean orderly process, or defined process, or published beforehand process. I agree with my friend that all that and more occurs during the processes of tax assessment and collection. Bureaucrats are nothing if not rule-guided creatures.

But before expanding further on what I mean by due process, I need to lurch off into this side paragraph for a moment to explain what I am doing. On this point, I am simply tracking and agreeing with Philip Hamburger’s foundational arguments in his Is Administrative Law Unlawful? This also addresses the objections of those who believe that I have inexplicably set myself up as an expert in constitutional law, har har har, doing so with a degree in philosophy from the University of Idaho, har har har. But Hamburger is a professor of law at Columbia Law School, and the book is published by The University of Chicago Press. Thus it is that I tentatively conclude that a man may agree with Hamburger while remaining clothed and in his right mind. Unless, of course, we have gotten to such a point of administrative tyranny that we are not allowed to decide on our own experts anymore, but must go with the constitutional experts who are assigned to us. These would usually be the living document johnnies, the ones who think that the right to keep and bear arms means that you can’t.

Where was I? As I mentioned, by due process I do not mean orderly process. I grant that the IRS gives us that. I am talking about three basic ways in which our interactions with the IRS — and the administrative state generally — violate the historical understanding of due process. First, the process is inquisitorial. Second, such processes tend to invert the presumption of innocence. And third, a man can get into serious trouble without ever coming near a court of law. This is a problem because the IRS is part of the executive branch. If I am in legal trouble, my troubles should begin in a judicial court, not end there, or miss a real court entirely.

Now as my friend pointed out, if a man plays his cards right, he can wind up in a legitimate tax court. But it is perilously easy for the average guy to not play his cards right.

In other words, if in one circumstance I am suspected of shorting the government by five thousand dollars in 2011, and in another circumstance I am suspected of shooting old Henry Spivvins in a bar fight in 2011, my legal exposure in these two scenarios is entirely and completely different.

Due Process, or Do the Process?

Some, like myself, believe that coercion without warrant from Scripture is a very bad thing. For others this category of coercion is largely invisible. It just appears to be part of the way things are.

In this installment, I want to explain how unlawful coercion is a very real characteristic of our governmental system, and also explain why it is so destructive. This is important for us to grasp because the “powers that be,” to use Tyndale’s phrase, are entrusted by God with the lawful power of coercion. They do not bear the sword for nothing (Rom. 13:4). At the same time, these authorities, who may lawfully coerce, can also cross over a particular line and become abusive and tyrannical. If we don’t know where that line is, or how to police it, then we are naifs, babes in the woods, tyros, despot-fodder.

Such a good question . . .

Such a good question . . .

I have been working off the phrase in the Declaration that says that men have certain inalienable rights, including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This was a more elegant and poetic way of saying “life, liberty, and property” — a phrase that comes up in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. No one may “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Incidentally, while on this subject, the “due process of law” referred to here prohibits administrative agencies from doing a number on us. When an administrative agency (say, the IRS) conducts an inquisitorial investigation, finds against the one investigated, and levies a fine, it is acting like a prime example of the kind of government our Constitution was expressly designed to prohibit. Our current form of government is profoundly illegal. But while we are here, on the point of “due process,”  we can also point out that the word choice of unalienable in the Declaration was not strictly speaking accurate. The word means “impossible to take away or give up,” and what was meant — as the Constitution made clear — these rights may not be taken away without due process in each individual instance. It did not mean “impossible to take away.” A man may lawfully be deprived of his life, his liberty, or his property. That is what criminal courts do to felons.

Now recognition by the government that the right to life, liberty and property are rights that are given by God, and not by the Congress assembled in their majesty, is the first step toward the government doing its appointed job of guarding and protecting these rights. In effect, when the government recognizes that these rights are God-given, it means that the government is in a position to perform its God-given function, which is to protect the citizenry from being murdered, enslaved, or robbed. When the government does not recognize that these rights are God-given, this means that they are actually first in line to be the abusers of these rights.

When men who rule do not fear God, the people mourn (Prov. 29:2). To take these three categories as representative, our godless government is responsible for the murder of 50 million Americans (abortion), the enslavement of a million others Americans (our demented prison system), and the pillaging of millions of children yet unborn (our rapacious and absurd national debt).
The authorities that exist are charged by God to reward the righteous and punish the wrongdoer, and these categories are defined by the standard of what God tells us in Scripture. And when it comes to our own cases, we all know what these standards are. We know and protect our own right to life, our own desire for freedom, and our own stuff.

I want to argue that our right to these things is the right to the same things regardless of whether the one threatening them is a thug in an alley, or a bureaucrat behind a desk. Life means the same thing in both instances. So does liberty. This being the case, property refers to the same thing as well. What a mugger takes and what the IRS takes is, at bottom, the same thing — my hard earned cash.

The key difference is found in that a government official may possibly be doing what he is doing legitimately.

Now it is a funny New Yorker cartoon, but Charles the First actually tried it.

Now it is a funny New Yorker cartoon, but Charles the First actually tried it.

Even though it is possible for the government to behave coercively without being unrighteous, we have to recognize the potential for abuse here. Because of that potential, the burden of proof is on the government to show that they are not acting like thieving scoundrels. A high threshold, I know . . . So this is what due process means. In order for the government to be doing the right thing when it seizes property, and to be known to be doing the right thing, it is necessary for the laws to be grounded in God’s moral order as revealed in nature and Scripture, to be understandable in principle, to be published beforehand, to have been established by representatives of the people, and to be enforced even-handedly in open courts of law, and not by star chambers or high commissions. Our current form of government does not meet these standards.

And anything else is called stealing.

Stuff Inviolate

I have been arguing that property rights are human rights. I have been insisting that it is not possible to love your neighbor without respecting his stuff. I have been saying that the commandment thou shalt not steal presupposes the institution of private property in just the same way that the prohibition of adultery presupposes marriage. And in the same way, I cannot honor the command not to covet my neighbor’s wife if I cannot come up with a definition of “wife.”

But there has been some surprising pushback on this simple idea, so let us dig a little deeper.

So what do I mean by property? Within the boundaries of the law of God, property entails the authority to retain or dispose of material goods without the permission of another. If you are renting something, or leasing it, you do not have the right to dispose of it in the same way you would if you owned it. When you rent a car, you are answerable to someone else for the use. When you own a car, you can paint the passenger door turquoise if you wish.

This means that all property is ultimately God’s. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps. 50:10), and the earth is the Lord’s and all that it contains (Ex. 9:29; Dt. 10:14). So God is the only absolute owner of property, and in reference to Him, we are all stewards. We will all give an accounting to Him for what we have done with the goods He has entrusted to us.

So my argument does not neglect this relativization of property in the sight of God, but merely insists that no creature — especially including kings, parliaments, congresses, and presidents — may usurp and supplant God in this role.

This is why Jesus can tell the rich young ruler to give all his goods to the poor (Matt. 19:21), and if he did not do it, he was stealing in the eyes of God. At the same time, he would not be stealing in the eyes of man — any more than a lustful man could be charged with adultery in our courts, or a spiteful man with murder, despite the words of Jesus (Matt. 5:28; Matt. 5:21). We must, always and everywhere, maintain the distinction between sins and crimes.

“Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings” (Mal. 3:8).

Tithes went, in part, to the poor. The same thing would be true of offerings. And offerings were entirely voluntary — but a man could rob God by refusing to offer them. He would be guilty before God of the sin of theft (greed, covetousness, and so on). But he would not be guilty of the crime of theft. Consider the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1). Peter told them that they could have sold their land, kept all the proceeds at home, sitting on top of the pile cackling like Scrooge McDuck, and they would not have bought the farm, so to speak.

“Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God” (Acts 5:4).

After he sold it, was it not within his power? Yes — as far as the authority of fellow creatures could reach. But could he do whatever he wanted with it, and not have to answer to God? No, of course not.

And this is what I am arguing. When any creaturely entity assumes the prerogatives of the Deity, assuming the power of control over the property of others, that entity has become lawless and wicked. And the Bible does not say, “Thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote.” The Bible does not countenance the notion that two coyotes and a sheep can form a rudimentary democracy, and then vote on what’s for lunch.

If I am walking down the street and encounter someone begging alms, and I have twenty bucks in my wallet, and I receive an unmistakable burden from the Lord to give him that twenty bucks, and I suppress the impulse and walk on, am I being disobedient? Yes. Am I robbing God? Yes. Am I robbing the beggar? No. For if I were, he would have the right to chase me down and take the twenty bucks.

If a woman had her purse snatched by a bicyclist, and fifteen minutes later she pulls into a drugstore parking lot, and that same bicycle is outside with her purse hanging on the handle bars — the thief having run inside to buy smokes with some of her dollars — is she stealing if she takes her purse back? Of course not.

We must learn to distinguish that which is sin in the eyes of God, and that which should be a crime in the eyes of man and God. Being a selfish pig is a sin, but must not be made a crime. If we outlaw “being a selfish pig,” I have ten dollars here that says that within two weeks this crime of selfish piggery will be vigorously policed (and fined) by tribunals made up entirely of selfish pigs.

When we make something a crime without scriptural justification, and penalize it, we invert the order of God. When we make property ownership a crime, and fine people heavily for being guilty of it, we have a society as corrupt and as mendacious and as greedy as . . . well, as our own.

If we love people, if we love our neighbors, we will consider their stuff inviolate. We will form governments that respect our neighbors’ property as much as we ourselves do. But as it is currently, we form the kind of government we now have because we the people have larceny in our hearts. We are governed by thieves who represent us well.

Sure. Let’s Call It a Contribution.

So I have distinguished the payment of taxes that are owed, and the payment of taxes that is rendered out of a principled prudence. In the former instance, paying taxes is a matter of conscience and in the latter it is a matter of intelligence. When I give my wallet to the mugger, I am not granting him authority over my wallet, and still less am I giving him authority over any future wallets that I might come to possess. I am simply doing a cost benefit analysis, and his gun trumps my five dollars.

Now some want to argue that all taxes whatever are illegitimate. While this makes life simple on the conscience front, making every decision of whether to pay taxes or not a prudential one, the simplicity is, ironically, too easy. A good example of such an approach to the argument can be found here. While Joel and I would agree on a great deal on this general subject, we do differ at this particular point. It is an important point, so let me deal with it briefly.

In my argument for this position, I cited Romans 13, which tells us to pay taxes to those to whom taxes are due, and Joel reads this as simply as entirely circumstantial and prudential, telling us to pay taxes to whom taxes are — and please note the scare quotes — “due.” Since the one levying taxes always has the power to coerce, this reading is always possible and sometimes likely. He has the gun, so not only do I give him the five dollars, I also go along with calling it “my contribution.”

So the real test would be those instances when a godly ruler requires taxes (or the equivalent) be paid. Remember that I have no problem granting that the power to tax is routinely abused. All we are looking for are cases where it is not abused, establishing that as a possibility.

Take Joseph in Egypt (Gen. 47:13-26). He was a godly ruler who saved the lives of the people, but at the same time he was not exactly an instrument who introduced a libertarian paradise. To head off commenters, I am aware that Joseph presents a problem to my ten percent rule outlined earlier, which I hope to get to. The issue here is whether there were any level of legitimate taxation occurring. I am not here talking about Joseph selling the grain to the Egyptians in exchange for their land, but rather to the collection of a fifth of the harvest in the plentiful years (Gen. 41:34).

Here is another example.

“And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free. Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee” (Matt. 17:24–27).

Now Jesus is making an implicit distinction here between tribute money illegitimately collected (where most of our discussion centers), but He is also assuming that the collection of tribute from strangers is legitimate. He has Peter pay the tribute for prudential reasons (so as to not give offense, distracting them from their main mission), even though the tribute is not owed by them because they are “children.” But what happens to the Lord’s argument if tribute were illegitimate when collected from strangers also? His argument would simply collapse. This means there is a type of taxation that would be legitimate to levy, and therefore which would create a moral obligation to pay.

If there is such a thing as lawful taxation (as I believe) and if there is something which goes by the name of taxation which is rank theft (as I also believe), we have to do the hard work of determining where the line between the two categories might be. We also have to determine who makes the call, and what standard they must appeal to.

What Jefferson Wrote

Some might want to think it a shame that in my summary of my position on property, I channeled Jefferson, that noted infidel and skeptic. This is what I wrote:

“We are created by God, and it is self-evident that we were endowed by that Creator with certain rights that are inalienable, and that among these rights are the right to life, liberty, and property.”

For my part, I think the Jefferson hat tip is a shame also, but for different reasons. I think it is shame that a noted infidel and skeptic had a far more biblical understanding of these issues than do many contemporary Christians. That really is a shame.

I summarized there what Jefferson wrote, but did not go into why he wrote it. He wrote those wonderful words because he was at the tail end of a long history of Christian intellectual development. Some of the players in that development had their own problematic issues — I’m looking at you, John Locke — but there really was real progress in understanding civil liberty, political rights, property rights, and so on. To point to certain phrases and dismiss the thought because the expressions of Locke or Jefferson can be found in them is to make an exceedingly superficial judgment. Not only is it a prime example of the genetic fallacy, it even gets the genetics wrong. Before Jefferson, there was Samuel Rutherford and Phillipe du Plessis-Mornay and Algernon Sidney.

So that is why Jefferson wrote what he did. He was an infidel worker with Christian materials. So Christians today need to comprehend what was said, and also to comprehend that what was said is the truth of God. Try it this way:

“We are created by God (Gen. 1:27), and it is self-evident that we were endowed by that Creator with certain rights that are inalienable (Gen. 9:6), and that among these rights are the right to life (Ex. 20:13; Dt. 17:6), liberty (2 Cor. 3:17, and property (Ex. 20:15,17).”

Look. Let me spell it out. If my neighbor has no property — and by this I mean property that is actual property; inviolate, protected by God from all comers, including the state — then my neighbor is property. There are no other options. He is either a free man or he is a slave. A man without property is property. A man whose rights to property are not honored and recognized as having been bestowed on him by Almighty God is chattel.

Now it is possible for modern theorists to argue against his rights to property, but it is not possible to argue this without simultaneously relegating that man to the status of chattel. So if you are going to go in that direction, at least have the courage of your convictions. Herding everyone on to the plantation really ought not to be described as liberation.

A Clean Conscience and a Well-Oiled Shield

As I have been noting periodically in this series on liberty, taxation, and theft, I am not issuing a call to action, but rather a call for understanding and recognition. Clearly this is not because action is irrelevant, but rather because rash and precipitous action is usually destructive. Think, and then do. At some point, action will be necessary, and when that day comes, Christians need to have consciences that are prepared for the necessary action. If you are going to run a marathon, you don’t get ready for it by running around the block the day before.

Now by “prepared consciences” I don’t mean callused consciences. All Christians should have sensitive consciences, but they should not have consciences that are universally sensitive. When the conscience is universally sensitive, that tenderized one is a prime candidate for the guilt manipulators, who are quite prepared to tell us anything. You are waiting for your wife, who ran into the mall for a couple things, and you keep the car running so you can have the air conditioner going. Well, it is because of YOU that glaciers are falling into the ocean, and polar bears are keeling over in heaps. And if you want the hotel to wash your towels every day, it is clear that you want the cute little koala bear on that cardboard hanger thingy to die, die, die.

In contrast to this universal sensitivity, we should be acutely sensitive to the words of God. If we are actually sensitive in this way, we will be deaf to the guilt-mongers. If we are sensitive to God’s leading (which He gives to us through His Word), then our consciences will be trained and disciplined by the Word. Resistance to tyrants is submission to God, as Jefferson put it, but there is a corollary. Deafness to tyrants is listening to God.

Democracy in Action: "We heard that Murphy still has some money left!"

Democracy in Action: “We heard that Murphy still has some money left!”

Laws multiply when the lawgivers want to have subjects instead of citizens. When laws swarm like the frogs of Egypt, the reason for it is to increase guilt. This guilt means two things — one is that when there are multitudinous regulations, they can always get you for something. Second, it turns everyone into a lawbreaker, but because our consciences are not trained by the Scriptures, when it gets to the point of resistance, we are dragged into the fray with uneasy consciences — instead of walking toward the confrontation with a clean heart and well-oiled shield.

Swarms of their froggy little laws, and swarms of officers to eat out our substance, are a threat to us. What is a threat to them? Well, the gospel is the enemy of tyrants everywhere precisely because the gospel liberates the conscience. Even if for years after conversion, every forgiven sinner does nothing explicitly political against the tyrants, the tyrant nevertheless objects to the fact that the gospel is plainly removing all his handles from the sinners. A forgiven man is a free man, a fact regarded by taskmasters everywhere with frank suspicion.

If you doubt what I say about how these laws are a teeming nuisance, utterly inconsistent with living as free men and women, this is just because you don’t want to come to grips with the fact that you are probably committing a felony right this minute. Have you ever thrown away some junk mail that came to your house addressed to somebody else? That, my friend, is punishable by a sentence of up to five years. Now if you receive this information, and then next week you receive a missive about a sale at Macy’s addressed to Harry Schwartz, and you are not he, and you blithely throw it in the regular garbage (instead of the mandatory recycle bin, you villain!), and you do all this without any qualms of conscience whatever, it means that you are actually making some real progress. We might make a Christian of you yet.

Now some like to respond to this emphasis on property rights as human rights as a thinly veiled defense of “it’s mine, I tell you!” I make the mistake of issuing a clarion call for integrity as we learn how to stand up to the gargantuan thievery of the modern state, and defenders of that kleptocracy can only hear me saying, “We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious. They stole it from us. Sneaky little hobbitses.”