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.