The question, “Does the government have a right to redistribute wealth?” is one of the more important questions in our political discourse, but it is rarely asked. What is often asked in its place are questions like, “is it a good idea for government to redistribute wealth?” This question leaves unchallenged the basic premise that the government does in fact have the legal and moral authority to take the fruits of one man’s labor and give them to another, and moves on to the question of whether or not doing so will be economically beneficial.
The second question is an economic question to and there is wealth of data and economic theory showing that when government redistributes wealth, there is a net negative effect on society, even for the recipients, but we’ll leave that point for now. The first question, however, is a philosophical one and can be solved without reference to data or economics, using only logic.
Let’s examine the question, “Does the government have a right to redistribute wealth?” using a syllogism. A syllogism is a logical argument that poses two or more premises and then applies a logical principle to those premises to derive a conclusion. If both premises are true, and the logical principle is legitimate (not a fallacy) then the conclusion must be true (even if you do not like the conclusion.) Here is the syllogism we can use:
Premise 1: The government derives its authority from the people it governs.
Premise 2: No citizen or group of citizens has the authority to take the property of one person and give it to another.
Conclusion: Therefore, the government cannot have the authority to take the property of one person and give it to another.
The logical principle we are using here is equivalence (X is true of A, A=B, X is true of B) and so the argument cannot be refuted because it is fallacious. Either one of the premises is untrue, or the conclusion is true.
The first premise is clearly true of the United States government. Our founding documents explicitly state that government derives its authority from the consent of the governed. The Constitution establishes the Federal government in the name of “We the People”, and the Declaration of Independence claims that all governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Now, this premise is not true for all governments. The British parliamentary government claims its authority from the Queen of England, who claims her authority is derived from God. For governments that make such claims, the first premise of this argument fails. However, in the case of the United States, the first premise holds.
The second premise of the argument is also clearly true. No American person has a legal right to take another’s property without their consent and give it away. Showing up at your neighbor’s front door with a gun and demanding that he give you the keys to his car so that you can donate it to Goodwill is a surefire way to end up in jail.
Not only does no legal right to do this exist, arguably no moral right to do this exists, either. The Islamic, Jewish and Christian faiths all recommend or require believers to engage in acts of charity, but they also clearly establish that theft is not acceptable. They make no exception, that I know of, for the “Robin Hood” category of theft that redistributionists claim to engage in—stealing from the rich to give to the poor. (In actual fact, the government engages in a great deal more upward redistribution of wealth than downward, with inflationary monetary policy, importation quotas, tariffs, subsidies, bailouts, and the use of corporate contractors for infrastructure and military projects.)
Secular ethical viewpoints would also support that robbing Peter to pay Paul is immoral. The objectivist principles of the non-initiation of force and of production as the source of ownership both affirm the second premise. Moral arguments are slightly more difficult to establish than legal ones, though, because of the lack of consensus on moral values. If you do not share the view that people lack the moral authority to steal from one another, at least you can agree that they lack the legal authority to do so.
When I presented this argument to some liberal friends, they raised a few token objections like, “without taxes government couldn’t provide the services we need,” “we all need to take care of each other because we are all in this together,” “you might need to use welfare or Medicare one day” or, (the dumbest argument of them all), “money that goes to entitlement programs gets spent right away because those people need it, so it’s better for the economy.”
Notice that all these inane platitudes could be true and none of them would have any bearing on whether or not government has the legal or moral authority to take your property and give it to someone else. This argument says nothing about taxes to pay for public services, or whether or not a person is morally obligated to give money to someone who has fallen on hard times, or whether or not redistributive programs are economically a good thing or not.
What the argument does establish is that government does not have the right to redistribute wealth. So maybe the next time this topic comes up in conversation, rather than jump into the pros and cons of redistributive taxation, it would be worth asking whether government has the authority to engage in it at all.