Is it ethical to work for the government?

2 min read

Handing over money

If taxes are morally equivalent to theft, is it ethical to make a living from taxes?  I don’t mean welfare or corruption or anything thought of as taking advantage of the tax system.  I mean government jobs and even private sector jobs that rely almost exclusively on government contracts, such as military contractors.  If I believe taxes are theft, shouldn’t I refuse to work in a job paid primarily by taxes?


I can see some objections to this reasoning.

1. My job is more important / necessary / valuable than most of what the government spends taxes on, therefore it is justified, or at least not nearly as bad as other uses of taxes.

2. My job would exist in some form in a free society, therefore I’m not deforming the economy as much as other uses of taxes.

3. Someone else would do this job anyway, if I don’t.  It’s better if I take it, because then I can do it in a better way, more consistent with liberty, than some random person.  I might even be able to change the system from the inside.

4. Every job in some way relies on taxes, due to the nature of free trade in the economy.  A plumber may have customers who work for contractors that get government funding.  So, the plumber makes some of his money indirectly from taxes.  This means there is no ethical work.

5. It is too difficult to figure out how much economic benefit one derives from the government, considering income, occupational licensing, regulations in general, legal monopolies, indirect wage distortions from government spending, and other phenomena.  We just have to muddle through as best we can.

6. There are many other compromises we make in order to live in a society dominated by government.  This is no different.

7. It’s not ideal, but I have to feed my family, and since I can’t change the system all by myself, I have no choice but to make a living from taxes.

8. Taking money from the government is a positive good, because it is stealing from a thief, preventing him from profiting from the crime.

Difficulty of measurement is not an excuse

While these are all logically coherent objections, they still don’t answer the nagging fact that I am indeed taking stolen taxpayer money, with full knowledge and consent.

Just because it is hard to figure out how much money someone makes from the government doesn’t make it ethical.  It just means we have to figure out easier and better methods for calculating it.  To begin, we can at the very least agree that working directly for the government is unethical because your entire livelihood depends on stolen money.  We can then develop further metrics to get a more detailed picture of the ethics of one’s earnings.

Net tax payer or receiver?

Because money is fungible and circuitous, and because we make all kinds of small compromises to live in this society, as a standard, I propose asking whether one is a net tax taker or tax payer.  In this way, we know that the plumber, unless he works directly for the government or a government contractor, is an ethical worker since government steals from him more than he steals back.

The good thing about such a standard is that it resolves the complexity and taint objections.  Just sum up your activities and see what the bottom line is, as in a business.

The ends do not justify the means

To all arguments that the ends justify the means, or that we can’t afford to be ethical, or that it’s just not important, just imagine that I am a petty thief.  No amount of rationalization can do away with the reality of my crimes.  But, it is difficult to face this truth if I financially benefit from the crime.  That yields a very practical reason for this ethics: Making one’s living from taxpayer money makes it difficult to oppose government as such.

I look forward to developing this idea more and getting feedback on the challenges and additional objections I may not have addressed.