If you think government is useless, evil and unnecessary, ponder those pictures of looters in Iraq ransacking homes, hotels, even hospitals. Feel for that sobbing official of the National Museum of Antiquities, aghast at the destruction of irreplaceable historical artifacts by an angry mob.
The lesson the looters teach is basic, and it is usually ignored: The alternative to tyranny is not the abolition of government. Absent a government committed to the protection of rights, there are no rights. Without government, individuals have no way to vindicate their rights to property, to basic personal liberty, to life itself.
This lesson is timely. On and about April 15, anti-government and anti-tax groups annually devote much energy to trying to convince Americans that we live under a rapacious, money-grabbing, rights-destroying regime. The anti-taxers always throw numbers about how many days and months you'll be "working for the government." It's their way of describing how much of your income is taken in taxes.
These groups want to make you mad. And especially if you've ever discovered that you owe government more than you thought, you can see how they might succeed.
What these groups never talk about, because it would wreck their story line, is the extent to which our personal and collective prosperity as a property-owning, enterprising people depends on strong and effective government. No government, no property. No government, no security from looting, theft or violence. No government, no national defense. No government, no social stability. No government, no securities law. No government, no food inspections, no consumer and environmental protection, no safeguards for workplace rights, no social insurance.
At this time of year, I am tempted to pick out the two dozen loudest anti-tax propagandists and send them a copy of one of the most important volumes of the last decade. In "The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes," published in 1999, law professors Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein do a brilliant demolition job on the idea that taxes are inimical to freedom.
"Americans seem easily to forget that individual rights and freedoms depend fundamentally on vigorous state action," Holmes and Sunstein write. "Without effective government, American citizens would not be able to enjoy their private property in the way they do. Indeed, they would enjoy few or none of their constitutionally guaranteed individual rights. Personal liberty, as Americans value and experience it, presupposes social cooperation managed by government officials. The private realm we rightly prize is sustained, indeed created, by public action."
Let's take a particularly neuralgic issue: the question of whether the rich are asked to give too much to government through income and inheritance taxes. Because the well-off account for such a high share of total income tax receipts -- and more still of inheritance levies -- the anti-tax crowd argues that our beleaguered, best-off citizens should be the most generously provided for in any tax cut plan. Somehow, you rarely hear about how payroll, sales and property taxes hit the middle class and the poor much harder.
But there is an even more basic point: Our legal and social orders disproportionately benefit the well-off. That makes it reasonable for them to pick up a larger share of the social costs. Both the police and the courts safeguard their holdings. Our system is designed to protect and preserve the current distribution of property and wealth.
"Property rights are meaningful only if public authorities use coercion to exclude nonowners, who, in the abuses of law, might well trespass on property that owners wish to maintain as an inviolable sanctuary," Holmes and Sunstein write. Markets themselves could not function outside the law; "they function well only with reliable legislative and judicial assistance."
Holmes and Sunstein are not Marxists. They vigorously defend property rights and the value of a society that "encourages personal initiative, social cooperation and self-improvement." But they also note that public programs commonly described as "redistributive" are essential to the social stability on which property owners depend. Welfare rights, they argue, "compensate the indigent for receiving less value than the rich from the rights ostensibly guaranteed equally to all Americans." And, especially in the case of education, government expenditures promote both initiative and self-improvement.
I doubt that anyone who wrote a big check to the government in recent days will suddenly feel wonderful after contemplating how much the rights we enjoy depend on the taxes we pay. But they might at least consider that the old saw "freedom isn't free" applies at least as much to paying taxes as it does to the other ways in which we protect and defend our liberties.