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What Belongs to Caesar?

Mises Daily: Tuesday, September 02, 2008 by


[Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, By Charles J. Chaput]

As a former parishioner of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver who has had the pleasure of attending scores of masses presided over by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, I can personally attest to the great moral strength, courage, and wisdom of the archbishop. It was for this reason that I eagerly awaited the release of Archbishop Chaput's new book, Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, which was released this month.

I was anxious to read the book for a more personal reason as well, stemming from a brief email exchange between the archbishop and me that occurred approximately a year ago. I had written to the archbishop in the hope that he could explain to me how Christians could morally countenance the practice of taxation by states. I said that it appeared to me that taxation was morally synonymous with robbery, (since taxation necessarily involves taking men's justly earned property by force and without their consent), and thus ought to be condemned by Christians as a violation of the 7th commandment. I asked the archbishop to clarify this for me, and he replied that taxation is not synonymous with robbery, citing the famous "Render unto Caesar" passage in the New Testament (Matt. 22).

When I recently learned that the archbishop had written a new book entitled, of all things, Render unto Caesar, my heart lept at the idea of finding a more thoroughgoing analysis of the moral relationship between Christians and the tax-funded state. I anticipated that I would encounter in the book a moral defense of taxation and the state that would lay bare our responsibilities as a Christians to pay taxes and support the existence of the state.

Unfortunately, however, the archbishop does not endeavor in the book to put forward an argument designed to demonstrate that taxation is not morally equivalent to robbery. Nor does he endeavor to demonstrate why all states are not, as St. Augustine famously put it in The City of God, "gangs of criminals on a grand scale." Despite the title of the book, Archbishop Chaput leaves the reader without any argument as to why the state has a right to rule over us, why we have a moral obligation to submit to such domination, or why the state possesses the moral authority to extract money from us at the point of a gun. Put in even simpler terms, Archbishop Chaput offers no compelling arguments against those of us who happen to be, in Jerome Tuccille's words, "sane, moderate, middle-of-the-road anarchist[s]."

This review will focus on one particularly troubling (and glaringly obvious) contradiction in the book. Specifically, I will focus on the problem of asserting on the one hand, as does Archbishop Chaput, that all human beings are endowed by God and nature with equal dignity and sanctity, while asserting on the other hand such things as "rulers who commanded obedience to just laws, peaceful conduct, or honesty in business dealings posed no moral problem for Christians" (p. 64), or "even in classic Catholic thought, the church must respect the institutions of the state" (p.135).

If we are to take seriously the idea of equal human dignity and the sanctity of every single human life, then, contrary to Archbishop Chaput, we must necessarily denounce the tax-funded, coercive state as the single most egregious violator of human dignity and the most dangerous enemy of human life and civilization. This is true, moreover, of each and every state that gains its revenue through taxation — including so-called "liberal democracies."

If all men are endowed with equal dignity, how is the state morally justifiable?

The reason Archbishop Chaput's assertions are problematic and ultimately incompatible is that the tax-funded state is, in the final analysis, a group of men who have arrogated to themselves the "right" to rule, impress, rob, imprison, and regulate their subjects — without the subjects' consent.

As St. Augustine noted, anticipating the work of such later scholars as Franz Oppenheimer, the state originated in the world, not through social contract or voluntary arrangement, but rather through force, robbery and murder:

A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention. If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renunciation of aggression, but by the attainment of impunity. For it was a witty and truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, 'What is your idea, in infesting the sea?' And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, 'the same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I'm called a pirate: because you have a mighty navy, you're called an emperor.'

Although it might be tempting to view the state romantically as an organic institution, emerging Athena-like from the body of people residing in a given territory, the truth is quite different — even in states that supposedly originated in a so-called "social contract." As the political scientist Terry Moe has observed in this regard, the social contract theory of government is wholly at odds with the political reality subjects confront and submit to in their lives:

Centuries of political philosophy notwithstanding, there is no social contract in any meaningful sense that can account for the foundations of government… The typical situation in all modern societies is that people are born into the formal structure of their political systems, do not agree to it from the outset, and cannot leave if they find it disadvantageous (unless they are prepared to leave the country) … This being so, the fact that some groups may lose in domestic politics — and may, in particular, have new institutions thrust upon them that they don’t want and don’t find beneficial — cannot be glossed over by saying that they have agreed to the larger system. They haven’t.

This is true not only in despotic, dictatorial, communistic, fascist, or monarchical states; it is true in all states — including democratic ones. For in democratic states, just as in every other state, the subject is never given an option to submit to the authority of his self-appointed leaders, or the option to keep out of the exploitative relationship altogether. Instead, he is given the unenviable choice of selecting which among several competing scoundrels will harm him the least. As the 19th-century American lawyer Lysander Spooner noted in this regard, the voter in a democratic state is forced to "choose" his leader in a democratic system as a form of self-defense against the worst of the scoundrels who wish to subject him to their whims and exploitations:

In the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent… On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having ever been asked, a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist, a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practice this tyranny over him by use of the ballot. He sees further that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself of this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot he may become a master, if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self defense, he attempts the former.

The simple yet profound truth that these insights point to is that all states are nothing more than groups of highly organized and extremely effective bandits, since they do not, and in practice never can (as A. John Simmons, Murray Rothbard, Lysander Spooner, and Robert Paul Wolff have amply demonstrated), actually garner the consent of every person, or even a fraction of the people, over which they claim the authority to "rule." Archbishop Chaput himself comes close to recognizing that force is indeed the core ethic of the state when he writes, "Politics involves the exercise of power" (p. 217).

This sets up a serious problem for those who, like Archbishop Chaput, are committed to the idea that every single person on the face of the Earth is endowed by God or nature with undeniable and equal dignity. For, in the face of the cold, hard fact that states necessarily rule by force and coercion, any world occupied by states will thus be a world in which some men are supposedly entitled to more dignity than others.

In a world governed by states, there exist two categorically distinct groups of men: the self-proclaimed rulers and the hapless subjects, who are entitled to a lesser degree of dignity. For the ruling caste, in a world of states, possesses not only the right to determine their own fate in this world but also the fate of their citizen-slaves. The subjugated castes, on the other hand, possess neither of these rights; on the contrary, they possess only the right to abide by the decrees and whims of their self-proclaimed rulers, or suffer merciless penalties. This was the choice given to St. Thomas More, whom Archbishop Chaput cites approvingly, when he was given the option of accommodating his supposed ruler — or death. This is hardly a choice that comports with the idea of equal dignity of all men.

The fallback position of Catholic social teaching, when confronted with these sobering facts about the state as a necessarily coercive institution, has been to affirm that there exists a difference between so-called "proper" or "legitimate" authority and wrongfully employed authority. Thus, Archbishop Chaput claims that Paul's Letter to the Romans,

is a call for proper obedience, not mindless submission. The key line in these verses from Paul's letter is 'For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.' Christians obey secular rulers not because of anything inherent to the rulers. Rather, when rulers properly use their power, they draw their authority from God. (p. 205)

The problem with this sort of argument is that it is almost stupefyingly question begging. It would be one thing to assert that God has bestowed different gifts on people, and that some men are blessed by God with the gift of leadership, while others are not; it is quite another thing, however, to deduce from this that some men are given the right by God to impress their will on their less-fortunate neighbors, take a portion of their neighbors' income by threatening to jail or kill them if they refuse to obey, and impress their neighbors into military service, jury duty, or any other service for that matter.

Furthermore, the idea that some rulers are "legitimate," while others are not would leave unanswered the most critical political question of all. As Robert Paul Wolff puts it, "We must demonstrate by an a priori argument that there can be forms of human community in which some men have a moral right to rule."

It is not enough to assert that some men rule by the authority of God Himself, and not provide any argument or criteria by which to judge so-called "legitimate authority," or any criteria by which we might be able to determine which of the over six billion people on this planet have been singled out by God Himself to rule over the rest of us without our consent.

Are we not better off assuming, with the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal in the eyes of God, endowed with exactly the same amount of dignity and exactly the same rights, rather than trying to deduce special rights of coercion and subjugation for certain privileged castes?

Caesar has a "right" to my hard-earned money? Why?

I am currently employed as a roofer in the city of Denver. I earn my daily bread by the strength of my arms and the sweat of my brow. I also happen to believe, with Archbishop Chaput, in the sanctity of human life and the utter immorality of aggressive wars. At present, however, I am forced to spend a portion of every day, month, and year working to fund the very practices that I abhor. This is because I am taxed by the various governments that claim a right to a part of my labor and then proceed to spend that portion of my hard-won money on state-funded abortion and aggressive war (among very many other things my conscience cannot abide). Where do they get the right to take my money and spend it on practices that I abhor?

The fact that I, like virtually every conscientious American Catholic, am forced to contribute to state-funded abortion and aggressive wars presents a serious problem for Archbishop Chaput's theory of the state. For the archbishop writes, citing the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, "[man] must not be forced 'to act contrary to his conscience, especially in religious matters' (DH 3)… All persons have a God-given right to believe as their conscience demands. Truth can only be proposed. It cannot be imposed without violating the sanctity of the individual person and subverting the truth itself" (p. 115).

If men are endowed with the God-given right to act in a manner consistent with their consciences, how can the tax-funded state ever be morally justifiable? Because taxation is necessarily coercive (that is, all taxes are paid to the state under the threat of severe punishment), subjects are prohibited from employing the fruits of their labor in a manner consistent with their consciences. On the contrary, the subject makes his contribution to the state coffers merely in an attempt to avoid jail or the gulag, and the ruling caste subsequently apportions his contributions to those things that it, for whatever reasons, deems expedient.

In the present American context, this means disbursing Catholic tax contributions to state-funded abortion and aggressive wars — including war against civilians in Iraq. This is true not only in a dictatorship or monarchy, but also in a democracy, since there has never been, and probably never can be, a situation in which each and every democratic subject completely and unequivocally agrees with the disbursement of his tax contributions.

This problem is all the more acute when we reckon the actual cost in human life that the modern, tax-funded state has imposed on the City of Man. The number of people who were murdered in cold blood by their own governments, (that is, they were murdered by the very institutions they were forced to fund at the point of a gun), is estimated by R.J. Rummel to be 170 million in the 20th century alone.

Archbishop Chaput attributes the recent massive loss of human life through "wars, repressions, and genocides" to unbelief in Jesus Christ (p. 74). But, surely this is an unsatisfying explanation, since there have always been unbelievers and murderous thugs in the world of man. What has changed in the 20th century, however, is that the modern state has come to pervade the entirety of human life, has arrogated to itself the ability to tax its subjects to the hilt to fund its monstrous programs, and then turn the murderous apparatus of the state on its own people, as I have attempted to demonstrate elsewhere.Download PDF

It is thus not surprising that Michael Walzer, the most prominent modern philosopher of war, writes, "it isn't too much of an exaggeration to say that the greatest danger most people face in the world today comes from their own states."

What needs to be done?

I hold the worthy archbishop of Denver in the highest esteem. He is, and has been for some time, a beacon of courage for Catholics throughout the United States. I do, however, find the theory of the state propounded in his recent book lax in several important regards. In saying this, I feel it is incumbent upon me to make two notes about the state in conclusion.

First, let me disclose that I am convinced that man does not need government in order to live a peaceful, pious and productive life in society. Indeed, as I have endeavored to demonstrate in this review, the state is an institution that is and forever shall be opposed to the interests of the nature of man: the state necessarily subsists through coercion, robbery and murder, while the actual interests of men lie in peace, trade, and secure private-property rights. I am furthermore convinced that anarchism (specifically, anarchocapitalism) as a system of social organization is demonstrably workable, and is, moreover, the only system that can be reconciled with the idea that all men are endowed by God with equal dignity and equal rights. My convictions are based upon the economic arguments provided by the Austrian economists, most notably Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

Second, allow me to address one final issue that is relevant to both Archbishop Chaput's recent book and the obligation of man to the state in general. If man has a right to live his life as his conscience sees fit, and he may well share his beliefs with a great number of his friends and neighbors, he and his neighbors have an indisputable right to separate themselves and their property from the depredations of a state that claims their allegiance. They have, in other words, a right to secede from a state they deem immoral, for whatever reasons. The so-called "American experiment" was born precisely in this recognition that men have a right to determine their own destiny and strive to serve God as their consciences deem appropriate. The first and greatest step toward affirming man's right to conscience in the City of Man is thus to let him leave the state that currently clamps a yoke around his neck, and let him set off in the direction of his own conscience. All men are created equal in the eyes of God, and all men are entitled to this right of self-determination.