The Role and Scope of Government: Property and "Redistribution"

In keeping with the election season, I plan to write about political topics over the next few weeks, hoping, as always, to discuss them usefully from an evangelical conservative perspective. Most political arguments arise from fundamentally different views of the proper relation between man and the state, and that is definitely the case in American electoral politics.

America's Founders had a great deal to say about man and the state, predicating their prescriptions for government not on the search for specific social outcomes, but on the goal of keeping the state in its proper relation to the citizen. One of the lenses through which to view this issue is that of the citizen's property and the state's proper role in securing it, or gaining access to it. That will be this column's topic.

Modern views on this question have become radically different from those of the American founding. Today we have become so accustomed to the government knowing every penny of our privately-earned income, and the exact balances in our bank accounts, that we hardly think about whether this is historically normal or desirable. It can be hard for Americans now to imagine what it was like when the U.S. federal government did not know, and had no means of knowing, what the income of each citizen was.

In the original environment of the American republic, government did not see itself as having a supervisory or discretionary role over the people's incomes or living arrangements. Nor did the people see government in this light. A property owner was liable for the taxes on his real property, but government had no business knowing the extent of his privately-earned assets. If the citizen chose to buy liquor and tobacco, he paid a tax on them, but the federal government had no way of knowing whether the tax was more onerous to him than it was to another purchaser. The same was true of the federal taxes levied on imported goods, or the occasional federal property-tax levies intended to pay off extraordinary debt (e.g., from the Civil War).

To America's Founders, these were features of a limited-government, liberty-promoting system—not bugs. A state in proper relation to its citizens should tax the people to pay for the services of government; it should not investigate their incomes or wealth and use that information to develop policies for treating them unequally. It should certainly not use information about the people's assets to try to move the assets around among the people.

In the view of America's Founders, that was the precise opposite of the role government should play. The state should protect property ownership, respecting it as a right of the individual—something for which citizens before the law should have equal eligibility, access, and protection, even though each person's material outcome would be different from another's. Outside of injury judgments in civil court, the very last thing the state should do is decide arbitrarily that any person's lawfully acquired property must be "transferred" to someone else.

Whatever the ultimate purpose of snooping on the people's finances in order to extract more in revenue from them, the practice itself was a public evil. The American revolutionists decried it in the Declaration of Independence, with this charge against King George III: "He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance." Pursuing the citizens' assets in this manner put government out of its proper relation to the people. Government, in the Founders' view, should respect and protect the people's property. It should not devise plans for the use of the people's property.

While many Americans retain this view of government's proper role today, much of the infrastructure of modern government is based on the opposite view: that the state should intervene to command uses for the people's property. Obvious examples are the Social Security and Medicare programs, which direct the people's income into entitlement systems, and the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act of 2010—ObamaCare—which mandates, among many other things, the purchase of approved health insurance by individuals.

States have various requirements and mandates as well. A requirement levied at both the state and federal level—one that Americans rarely think about—is the set of employer contributions to government funds (unemployment, disability), which are usually calculated as a percentage of an employee's level of pay. In all these cases, the employee is providing value to the employer but not being paid the sum total of that value. The difference goes to the governments involved.

Many Americans would see as much as 25 percent more in their paychecks if chunks of their compensation were not being distributed to government funds and government-mandated insurance payments. These extractions from pay are a pervasive, deeply embedded intervention in the people's use of and prerogatives over their property, but they are not the only kind America has come to tolerate. In the name of helping the poor, we have all but accepted the premise that government is empowered to point down at one citizen and move his property to another, for no other reason than that some particular constituency calls that "fair."