Render to Caesar

A Letter to the Editor of my local newspaper today has a woman suggesting that,

True patriots pay taxes.

I couldn’t help but be struck by her “argument.”

As proof of her proposition, she runs through a series of statements — not arguments, mind you; statements — about what she has allegedly learned in life and where she allegedly learned it.

First off, she credits taxation for helping her learn to count. When she went to buy a candy bar, or a new toy, she was forced to pay a sales tax.

I don’t know if this is a complaint, or if she’s bragging about her own children’s abilities, or what, but she says that because of this she “learned to count by fives and sixes.” Her children learn to count “by nines now.”

Apparently, she went on in the eighth grade to learn how to quote a portion of the Preamble to the United States Constitution and to say that it outlines our nation’s goals. She doesn’t say if she learned what it means, but based on the letter, I’m guessing not.

Moving on to high school, she learned that “union, justice, tranquility, defense and items of general welfare” as well as “liberty and posterity” aren’t free.

Well, I suppose anyone with kids at least knows that last part is true: posterity costs. Unless, of course, you can saddle them with some significant public debt.

In which case posterity pays.

But the part that really caught my attention was her assertion that she went to Sunday School and learned there that we are to “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”

I have no problem with that. Let us render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

So what is Caesar’s?

Assuming, without arguing, that Caesar is “the government,” whatever or whoever that means, what, exactly belongs to Caesar? Where does Caesar work? I know that the same Bible whence this “render to Caesar” idea comes says “the wages of sin are death,” but what are the wages of Caesar?

The letter writer appears to believe “True patriots pay taxes” because — at least, this is the most I can make of her non-argument — “True patriots uphold the Constitution.”

But she isn’t arguing for anything I’ve ever seen in the Constitution. The Constitution I have seen contains an outline of the limited powers ceded by the People to the government for limited purposes.

As the Preamble to the Bill of Rights — the first 10 Amendments to the same United States Constitution that is quoted without understanding by our letter writer — makes clear:

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution….

Our letter writer thinks that “items of general welfare,” which she specifically states include “roads, armed services, police, fire fighters, teachers for example” (as opposed to “teachers, for example,” which she would have learned if she’d listened to her English teacher) need to be paid for. And I agree that “items of general welfare” need to be paid for, and perhaps that will justify some amount of taxation. (This is not a given, but, for the sake of brevity, I’m not going to discuss that here.)

But given the limited powers ceded to Caesar, “items of general welfare” has to be some limited class of things.

What keeps the “general welfare” from including things like a government-specified diet for all citizens? What keeps the “general welfare” from allowing the government to regulate who may marry and produce children with whom, so as to weed out genetic disorders? What keeps the “general welfare” from saying that the government gets all your labor, represented by your money, and returns to you what the government believes you should have?

Nothing, except the limits of the Constitution. Actually, in our times, it’s not really even that, because “the government” routinely ignores the limitations placed upon it by the Constitution. It is really only the limits of the People’s patience, which the government is so far smart enough to realize would be exceeded if they tried to regulate what you can eat, with whom you can marry and produce children, or if they tried to take all your labor or money.

From an early age, we are taught by the taxation of our candy not just how to count, but that we somehow came to have something doesn’t really belong to us, but that actually belongs to Caesar.

And Caesar will tell you what that is.

And you damn well better give it back when Caesar says.

I disagree that the stuff I earn “belongs” somehow to Caesar and that Caesar, in his beneficence, permits me to keep some of it.

I don’t disagree that roads, (some) police, fire fighters, (limited) armed forces, and even possibly teachers are pretty cool things that I’m willing to pay to maintain. But that’s not because Caesar somehow owns me (and thus my labor) and gets to divvy me (or it) up how Caesar sees fit.

It’s because I take something I own and agree to give it to Caesar for these necessities.

My problem here today is that somehow, like our letter writer, Caesar has become confused. Caesar thinks larger and larger chunks of my stuff belong to him.

Unfortunately Caesar is smarter than our letter writer: Caesar does not try to convince me by misquoting documents, including religious tomes.

Caesar just comes and takes my stuff. Sometimes, if he’s pissed off enough about me trying to keep it, he takes me and locks me up.

That’s why I believe in working to try to keep Caesar weak. I want Caesar strong enough to do what the deliberately limited gift of the People, from our stock of property — and rights — allows, for the specific purposes outlined in the Constitution.

And no stronger.

So, yes, let us “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s.”

But let’s remember this: there isn’t actually anything which is Caesar’s.

About Rick Horowitz:
Rick is a criminal defense attorney with an office in Fresno, California. He also writes Probable Cause: The Legal Blog with the Really Low Standard of Review.
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