Taxes can be badly done, but they are not theft

Somewhere, Murray Rothbard is smiling.

Some of the rest of us are scratching our heads, though.

Late last week, the Speaker of the House, a man second in line for the presidency, cut off all negotiations about avoiding the sequester, which took effect Friday.

Why? Well, John Boehner said he would not work with Democrats so that they could be enabled to “steal from the American people to fund more government.”

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That’s how the man explained his choice to stop trying to avoid the sequester, a blunt-force-trauma way of spending that most agree is fiscally unwise and economically risky.

Maybe he was just cranky about being late for his tee time, but he chose to invoke the old notion of “all taxation is theft.”

That line was the lasting contribution to the American conversation made by Murray Rothbard, a libertarian political thinker who died in 1995.

It’s a common slogan on the right, particularly the Tea Party Right.

Like a lot of political rhetoric all over the spectrum, it’s hyperbolic. But taken seriously, the notion is seriously crazy

Now, I enjoy talking with libertarians. They bring an intellectual rigor to their views mostly lacking among garden variety liberals and conservatives. But there’s a reason they get to pretend that statements such as “all taxation is theft” are a serious proposition. It’s that, thank God, we’ve never come close to actually turning the keys of government over to them. For they would surely run the car into the ditch.

First, the very ideas of personal property and personal wealth, which economic libertarians hold so dear, depend on a government that enforces lines on a map, backs currency, and maintains rule of law. Without all that, we’re in Game of Thrones territory. Taxes are part of the dues we pay to ensure that our neighbor cannot wrench our goods away from us by brute force.

They are also the dues we pay to live in a decent society – one where our children get taught, our sick get medicine, and our common water and air get protected from profiteers who seek to externalize costs they should properly pay.

Taxes can be too high or badly conceived; they can be unfairly administered.

But they are not theft. In a democratic republic, they are a contribution we decide through representative government to make together. Why? To ensure we are not condemned by chance to live lives that are nasty, brutish and short.

For one of our nation’s top leaders to promote the shallow and poisonous notion of taxation as theft is breathtakingly irresponsible.

While I’m at it …

I should not pretend that President Obama’s record on the fiscal crisis is free of hyperbole and special pleading.

Too much perhaps was made of the spat over journalist Bob Woodward allegedly being threatened by White House economic adviser Gene Sperling because Woodward called Obama hypocritical on the sequester.

When you read the email exchange, Sperling was nowhere near as venomous as conservative talk radio made him out to be.  But the defensiveness over the points Woodward was making was striking.

And  Washingon Post reporter Dana Milbank’s take on this little tempest in a teapot gave me pause.  Milbank, who’s earned the right to be trusted when he offers a viewpoint, said that the Obama White House staff is getting a bad reputation for being needlessly aggressive and profane in its interactions with reporters.

You’d think a guy who campaigned on “changing the tone” in Washington would keep a tighter rein. It’s not that journalists are tender flowers who can’t or shouldn’t be criticized.  It’s that Washington has entirely too much egotistical pugnaciousness – and you’d like to see at least one team down there try to stick to sweet reason.


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