The Question of Taxation: One Latter-day Saint’s Perspective

Serious question: how many friends would I have to gather before we could declare ourselves a government and take your money under threat of violence, justifying the act as taxation?

I foresee a few objections to this.

First, one might argue that I can’t assemble a group and declare it a legitimate government because there’s already an existing government, and I live in its jurisdiction.

But history is rife with revolution. To take just one example, the United States government supplanted the governments of England, France, and Spain in North America in the 18th century. Are we to conclude from this that the US government is illegitimate?

Even ceding that point, one might counter, such a revolutionary government is likely to be quashed. The existing government has the advantage of size and firepower.

However, it seems to me that this admits too much. Is a government really legitimate merely by virtue of having more and/or superior weaponry? Does might make right?

Obviously not. That the brutality of dictators like Benito Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, and Pol Pot could be considered legitimate (until the moment that someone else had a bigger gun, anyway) is preposterous on its face.

Now, I’m often sympathetic to arguments for anarcho-capitalism. Even so, I, myself, am not an anarchist. As a Latter-day Saint, I believe “governments [are] instituted of God for the benefit of man,” and I recognize the necessity of some level of taxation to fund certain functions undertaken by government. But I’m convinced that not all governments (or, indeed, governance) are created equal.

And, in fact, modern revelation suggests that God feels the same. In a revelation to Joseph Smith in 1833, God indicated that He, Himself, had “established the Constitution of this land [i.e. the United States of America], by the hands of wise men whom [He] raised up unto [that] very purpose.” In a revelation given earlier that same year, God further stated that the Constitution was “justifiable before [Him],” and, indeed, that, “as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil.”

So, I’m comfortable with the government framed in the Constitution, which has the power to lay some taxes. I’m just not comfortable with the range and scope of the power to tax that the government has subsumed, especially in the last century.

Interestingly, modern scripture seems to indicate that God also has feelings about taxation. For example, in two separate instances in the Book of Mormon, heavy taxation is given in conjunction with immorality in describing the wickedness of two different kings. One even specifies a rate–twenty percent–that is well below the 29.8% that the average American taxpayer paid from their income to federal, state, Medicare, and Social Security taxes in 2016.

Furthermore, the ways in which tax revenues were used by those wicked kings–constructing thrones and large buildings, and subsidizing the immorality of the ruling class–were likewise presented as morally reprehensible.

With all of this in mind, perhaps I should re-frame my initial question: if effective tax rates amount to burdens that are “grievous to be borne,” is there any moral difference in legitimacy between the governments that impose such taxes, and me and my friends threatening to do you bodily harm unless you fork over your money?