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Listen to Your Mom

Every mother teaches her children that it's wrong to steal. Mine did. Yours did. One of our earliest moral lessons is to respect property rights. Let's assume, arguendo, she's right. What are the implications of that?

When we're children, we might think about stealing a toy. Jimmy wants Alice's toy, so he goes over and takes it. (Or, if you're like me and have an older sister, reverse the genders. … I'm kidding, sis!) This is direct, one-on-one theft. The wrongness is easy to see.

As we grow a little older, we have groups of friends. If they're just social, we call them cliques. If they're violent, we call them gangs. Sometimes these groups don't get along with each other — there will be friction when they interact. Sometimes they'll purposely avoid each other. Sometimes they'll come into conflict reluctantly. Sometimes it's deliberate. Conflicts may be about many possible things, and violent gangs commit many kinds of crimes, but theft is very common. In this case, like the theft of a child's toy, the wrongness is clear.

That makes two examples. Get out your straightedge and draw the line. You know where I'm going with this.

We recognize theft is wrong when an individual does it. We recognize theft is wrong when a small group does it. Why, then, do so many people not recognize theft is wrong when a large group or a majority does it?

I've been writing a lot about Social Security lately, so let me pick on that. I don't want to pay taxes for it. That money is being taken from me against my will. It's theft, despite the approval of the majority. What principle would simultaneously condemn an individual's or gang's theft yet uphold a majority's theft?

Is government theft not wrong simply because it's the government doing the taking? What gives a government legitimacy in this case? What prevents a gang from cornering me in an alley and declaring itself a government before robbing me?

Social contract? I haven't signed one. On this standard the United States government wouldn't bind me to begin with. Besides, I'm explicitly stating my nonconsent to Social Security taxation — I won't sign on that line.

Am I arguing against court judgements, too? No. Court-ordered payments or reparations are for circumstances when you've done something wrong. "Being employed" is not a wrong. Quite the opposite, it's encouraged and regarded as good.

Government power is derived from the power of the governed. Individuals do not have the right to steal, and they cannot grant to the government a right they do not possess.

Most people comfortably believe that individual or small group theft is wrong, and simultaneously believe that large group or majority theft is acceptable. Bridging these beliefs is … nothing at all. It's an unexamined void, a weak spot in the structure of their ethical systems. Most people are unaware of the tension between their beliefs.

Your mother was right. She taught you well. But she didn't follow her logic to its natural conclusion. You should. Insist on a fully integrated, noncontradictory ethical system. If you agree that individual theft is wrong, and have no principle that condemns the gang but not the government, join me in accepting the implications. Government theft is wrong in the same way and for the same reasons that individual and gang theft are wrong.

Tiny Island