Should the State Steal from the Poor?

There is a funny group of people out there who became laissez-faire propertarians for secular reasons but then later had to backfill ways to reconcile it with their Catholic religion. One of the things these people often do is concede that, as Locke famously wrote, the poor have a right to the surplus of the rich, but then insist that the state has no role in actualizing that right.

People who say this seem to imagine that the state can somehow stay out of the matter: the rich will either give it over to the people it belongs to (the poor) or they won’t, and the state will keep out of it. But this can never be the case.

On this view, the surplus of the rich literally belongs to the poor. It is theirs. Yet, under laissez-faire propertarianism, when the poor go to collect what is theirs (e.g. grab up food and supplies and whatever from the houses of local rich people), the state does not stay out of it. Instead, the state comes out and violently attacks the poor, throwing them in jail even.

If you believe, as these conservative Catholics claim to, that the surplus truly does belong to the poor, then state enforcement of property law in scenarios like this is literally stealing from the poor. The state is using its force to keep the poor away from their own belongings. Should the state’s force be mobilized in this way? To steal from the poor and give to the rich?

If we want the state to stay out of this particular area, then that can actually be arranged. The state would come out and protect the goods held by the poor and the middle, those without a surplus. But it would not come out to protect the surplus goods held by the rich. It would instead stay neutral and allow those goods to flow to whomever happens to get them. Neither the rich nor the poor would be kept from those goods by the state.

This is the actual way that you’d implement this conservative position. State neutrality isn’t when the state comes out and attacks the poor for trying to get what they have a right to, but rather when the state just leaves it be.

Now, I know what you might be thinking: this would be a really chaotic way to do things. And of course it would. A better way to go, in my opinion, is to have the state actually create institutions that ensure the poor get what belongs to them, not just stay out of the matter and create the free-for-all that this conservative argument actually requires. This is what tax-and-transfer systems are, an orderly and predictable way to ensure the poor get what is theirs.

In sum, there are three basic approaches here:

  1. State Ensures the Poor Gets What Belongs to Them. This is the social democratic system.
  2. State Stays Neutral on the Poor Getting What Belongs to Them. This is the system I described above where the surplus of the rich (which recall belongs to the poor under this Catholic view) goes unprotected by the state. The state neither gives it to the rich nor gives it to the poor. It’s just there for the taking.
  3. State Steals from the Poor. This is the laissez-faire propertarian system that the conservative Catholics rally behind. Here the state does not stay neutral, but instead comes out and violently attacks poor people and throws them in jail to keep them from getting what belongs to them.

I prefer (1) obviously because it’s effective and orderly, among other things. But if you don’t prefer (1), clearly (2) is the next best option. Option (3) is totally indefensible though.