Collecting taxes vs second precept

There is an idea that has become popular, including among Buddhists, according to which collecting taxes is tantamount to taking what is not given, in case people pay them only reluctantly and mostly out of fear for the fines they would have to pay otherwise. If I am not mistaken, proponents of this idea argue that people should pay only the taxes they want to pay.

For the sake of keeping this conversation friendly and reducing the potential for too sharp disagreements, it may be convenient to not consider the realism and feasibility of such propositions, but rather to examine how they map onto the Buddha’s teaching, mainly regarding the second precept. Most importantly, are there any suttas providing hints of answers on this topic?

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I consider payment of tax as giving a donation.
I know it is not a donation as it is compulsory to pay.
Obeying the law of the country is a factor of Buddhist teaching.
Without taxes how can we provide social services.
Can we run a country only on a donation basis.
The problem is not the collecting taxes.
The problem is how the government spent your taxes.
It could be a problem, If a country spent 40% of their tax revenue to buy arms.
Another problems is the bureaucrats wasting the money.
At least in a democracy you have a saying on how the tax revenue is disposed.
It is your duty to take active role in the governing of the state.

I have read some suttas where the Buddha talks about protecting/hiding your “righteous wealth righteously gained” from “kings and thieves”, but at the moment I can’t remember them. I’ll have to look them up later.

For me, the fundamental issue is whether the forceful collection of taxes by the state is ultimately compatible with a non-violent, peaceful, respectful, compassionate, and voluntary society with the Dhamma as its guiding principle.

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How I wish my government (USA) was efficient, virtuous, and responsive to its citizens. No matter who we elect, it’s the military, corporations making military weapons, and mega-banks who always get a big chunk of taxpayer money. It’s very depressing to see my tax money being spent on bombs to kill children in the Middle East, no matter who is president.

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Spread the Buddhism.
If people do not join the Army and do not work for weapon manufacturers there will be no war.

I wish I could say “you can’t be serious”, but I’m sure you are!

This is just childish sub-Ayn Randism. Collecting taxes isn’t against the precepts. Failure to pay taxes that you owe is. You’re in a contract and have a legal and moral obligation to keep your end of the bargain.

Sure, governments do a lot of horrible things with their taxes, but in a democracy you have at least some say in this. That’s the deal. Taxes are also used for lots of good purposes: education, roads, health, welfare, justice, aid and rescue services, and so on. It’d be a wonderful world if we could pick and choose where our tax dollars went, but that world is not the world we live in.

The Buddha never told people not to pay tax; rather, he advocated that rulers tax in moderation and spend on social services to redistribute wealth and reduce inequality.

We should all do what we can to make our country and our world a better place. Participate in democratic processes, protest where it’s called for, and work with others in an effective and meaningful way. Move people’s hearts and minds, and change things for the better. Tax the rich and give money to the poor.

You know what’s a really dumb way to bring about change? Don’t pay taxes. You will get caught, and no-one will have any sympathy for you, and you will discredit your message forever.

See, here’s the thing, and Bob Dylan said it best: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” If you don’t want to pay taxes, it’s simple: don’t use money.

If you promote an “ethical” argument to avoid paying taxes, you know who will benefit? The rich. The rich always benefit. They already use their money to avoid paying what they should. And the more the idea that taxes are unethical is floated around, the more they’ll be empowered to rip off the poor even more. Tax is the only effective means that we as a society have to counter the utterly obscene situation where 8 men have as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity. The really effective change we can bring about is to ensure that the rich pay their proper taxes, and you can’t do that if you undermine the very legitimacy of the notion of taxation.

This is true, but the “kings” it’s talking about in such contexts are, it seems, acting illegally. The contexts are not very explicit, but it seems that some kings—remembering that the term was not too different from what we might call “chieftain”—abused their powers, essentially going to the villages and extorting or stealing money.

Here is the relevant passage, which occurs in a number of places, eg AN 8.54:

kinti me ime bhoge neva rājāno hareyyuṃ, na corā hareyyuṃ, na aggi ḍaheyya, na udakaṃ vaheyya, na appiyā dāyādā hareyyun
‘How can I prevent my wealth from being taken by rulers or bandits, consumed by fire, swept away by flood, or taken by unloved heirs?’

Notice the verb here, harati. This means “take”, and the same word is used for what the “rulers” and the bandits do. It’s not the same word that’s used for legitimate taxation as below. The PTS Dictionary correctly says that in such contexts it means “to take away by force, to plunder, steal”.

So sure, if authorities come to your house and try to forcibly take money or property that they have no legal right to, or if they extort you to pay them bribes, then if you can, don’t pay. And if you have been taxed improperly, use whatever legal redress you have to get your money back.


Here’s some relevant passages.

AN 2.15:
Iti mameva tattha accayo accagamā suṅkadāyakaṃva bhaṇḍasmin
Thus the transgression is mine alone, like one who owes taxes on their goods.

This assumes that paying legitimate taxes is expected, and taken for granted to such an extent that it can be used as the basis for a metaphor.

DN 5
Bhavaṃ kho pana rājā evaṃ sakaṇṭake janapade sauppīḷe balimuddhareyya, akiccakārī assa tena bhavaṃ rājā.
But if the king were to extract more taxes while his realm is thus harried and oppressed, he would not be doing his duty.

Here it is clear that collecting taxes is a normal and legitimate part of kingship, but one that the king should exercise in moderation, and with consideration for the welfare of his citizens.

MN 98
Yo hi koci manussesu,
Anyone among humans
gāmaṃ raṭṭhañca bhuñjati;
who taxes village and nation,
Evaṃ vāseṭṭha jānāhi,
know them, Vāseṭṭha,
rājā eso na brāhmaṇo.
as a ruler, not a brahmin.

The word I’m translating as “taxes” here is bhuñjati, which more normally means “use, enjoy, eat”. The idiom might be loosely rendered as “enjoys the revenue from village and nation”, or “makes use of the revenue from village and nation”.

This idiom for tax harks back to a simpler time, and a notion of taxation that lies much closer to the original roots.

In very small-scale societies, such as hunter-gatherer cultures, where the prime social group is the extended family, there is essentially no surplus of wealth and hence no inequality.

As larger groups start to form into villages growing crops, a surplus is generated; and at the same time it becomes necessary to manage the society by putting someone in charge. So you get the emergence of the “big man” or the “chief”.

The interdependence of these notions of land use, food, inequality, and rulership are laid out quite nicely in DN 27 Aggañña Sutta.

The earliest taxes were foods, especially grains, as they could be stored easily, although in the ancient Indo-European society cows and horses were also valuable.

So the “chief” would be owed a portion of the food or wealth of the land, given to him by right. This might be conferred in a ritual form as a sacrifice, or a communal event like a potlatch, but as time went on it became a mere accounting measure. We could stand to learn something from how potlatches were done; if you want to make people happy about paying taxes, throw a party!

Anyway, so this digression hopefully illustrates why the same word for “use, eat, enjoy” was applied also to “tax”.

In fact the English word “use” has the same meaning historically, as “the benefit or profit of lands, especially lands that are in the possession of another who holds them solely for the beneficiary”.

DN 17
pāṇo na hantabbo, adinnaṃ na ādātabbaṃ, kāmesu micchā na caritabbā, musā na bhaṇitabbā, majjaṃ na pātabbaṃ, yathābhuttañca bhuñjathā
‘Do not kill living creatures. Do not steal. Do not commit sexual misconduct. Do not lie. Do not drink alcohol. Maintain the current level of taxation.’

This is the exhortation by the Wheel-Turning Monarch to the local kings. Here, bhuñjati is used in the same sense as above, a detail that escaped earlier translators of this passage. (I don’t claim credit for this; it was mentioned to me by Prof Dhirasekera Dhammavihari in a discussion on Walshe’s DN translation many years ago.)

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That’s what I used to tell myself, when peering through the wool covering my eyes and seeing the ‘democratic’ machinations of elected officials. :slight_smile:

The few who really care about proper governance are an almost invisible minority, obscured by the hordes of power-hungry overlords, bent on looting and destruction.

The state of democracy is just a sick joke, at least in India.

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Oh, look, I really sympathize, but the reality is that as bad as it gets, there are the

Try to find who they are and support them. Even if you don’t have time or money, just tell them that you appreciate what they’re doing, that will mean a lot. Politics is a hard and thankless task for the virtuous, and there is little that is really genuine. But politicians are just people, and a good person always appreciates some support.

Anyway, what about Kerala?

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Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.
Benjamin Franklin

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Thank you Bhante Sujato for finding and explaining the pertinent Sutta passages. Your commentary is always highly appreciated. As someone who’s recently taken the Three Refuges and Five Precepts, I learn new things every day I visit SuttaCentral.

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This is what local politicians do with taxes in my state:

So, taxes are collected and then used to secure future vote-banks with things like ‘free gold for women getting married’. For people who actually pay taxes, it’s a sickening spectacle of greed and guile.

JJ died sometime ago, but the situation is still pretty much the same.

The Gulf thing is the mainstay there. But, they have some better numbers and indices in social welfare schemes, at least on paper.

Sorry about the cynicism, but most people over here are thoroughly soured by how the democratic system has been taken over by sycophants…

When I was in Bodhgaya, the president visited. Of course, it’s embarrassing for her to see the desperate poverty and filth in a site that is not only sacred, but has been a major tourist destination for years, with millions pouring in and getting pocketed by officials and outright gangsters. The solution? To clean up the pollution and provide proper accommodation for the homeless? Of course not! They set up a cloth barrier for the 16 kms of road from the airport in Gaya to Bodhgaya so she didn’t have to see the poor people.

I’m sure you have many worse stories to tell. But anyway, it doesn’t really change the argument. To change the system, you have to act in good faith. Conscientious objection is a great thing in some cases, but if you conscientiously object to paying taxes, you’re not going to be taken very seriously.

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In Sri Lanka we don’t use cloths we sweep under the carpet.

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Oh, such things are done regularly. The latest one is this:

I pay taxes (used to anyway, when I was still working), but sometimes even people in prominent positions call for something drastic if things become an unholy mess of corruption and daylight robbery.

But, I do get your point…

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I am so glad you are doing the same as us, my brother!

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I just wonder who is going to pay the judge.

It seems rather hopeless to attempt to develop any kind of well-developed political philosophy from the Buddha’s teaching. Political communities are worldly institutions that exist for the purpose of organizing the pursuit of worldly goals: the holding and guarding of territory, the cultivation of food, the building of capital and commodity wealth, the impressing of animals into labor and killing them as a further source of food, the reproduction of human beings and animals to keep the society going, and the making of war.

The Buddha renounced that life for himself and abandoned it for the holy life, which has utterly different ends. He collected around himself a community of followers similarly dedicated to the abandonment of the “world” and the pursuit of liberation from it. They lived on subsistence begging.

The Buddha seems to have thought that the participation in a political community, such as the Sakyan “republic” he was born into, is a voluntary one and not an obligatory one, since he displays no moral guilt about having abandoned his position as an adult warrior in that community to go forth into the holy life.

Although modern republican and democratic systems find it politically useful to maintain the fiction that the common political life of the community is based on a contract, and seek to socialize people into the belief that they have moral obligations under that contract, no such contract really exists in most cases, and so the ideology is a bit of a pious fiction. Although many people end up with an earnest loyalty toward, and commitment to, the political community they happen to have been born into, the cases in which members of a community have made a genuine contractual commitment to the others in the community are very rare in history , and characterize only a few small-scale and deliberately formed exceptions.

Worldly social life everywhere else depends on a high degree of coercion. That’s the nature of the beast. No large-scale modern state can effectively organize the social and economic life of the people living in the territory it controls without a lot of coercion. Some willingly and eagerly support the goals of the state, and so will be eagerly disposed to support it with their wealth and participation. Others are just grumbling captives in the state, whose participation in the life of the state, and adherence to its requirements, is based only on the weary realization that the only alternatives are even more burdensome and hazardous.

As a matter of simple realism, for those who are not enthusiastic supporters of the political state in which they reside, they have to recognize that unless one is willing to go forth as a hermit, or carve out some other kind of life apart from the state by pursuing a risky internal exile, the only viable path is to accept the various yokes the state imposes on its people.

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Agreed! But all is not lost! This very well may be the last remaining piece of free land on Earth unclaimed by any political power:

And according to the Wikipedia article, their currency is merit! What can be better than this!:heart_eyes:

If I didn’t have any family obligations, I certainly would be tempted to move there, but one can only dream…

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Agreed 100%

Yes indeed. But I guess this refers to kings seizing people’s properties for their personal enjoyment. I doubt state welfare was even existing back then, so it would be a stretch to consider statements the Buddha made about kings as being in all cases relevant to the structure of modern states.

Saying “forceful” is quite an overstatement, it seems. Fining and using force are different things. I think it is obvious that fining is compatible with a non-violent, peaceful, respectful, compassionate, and voluntary society with the Dhamma as its guiding principle, because some individuals need a non-violent way to be reminded they should abide by the law and respect their fellow citizen (thinking about legitimate fines for excessive speeding for example).

Agreed 100%

Unfortunately. This is a rapidly spreading set of beliefs that are advocated by foundations and youtubers high on billionaires’ ‘nonprofit’ money, such as the Koch brothers, whose aim, I suspect, is to gather popular consent to their tax avoidance and paint those who advocate for helping the poor as authoritarian thieves.

Thank you Bhante for the sutta quotes.

There is a book called the Vinaya that deals extensively with such matters, in the case of monks. There is no reason one could not take existing models and transform them to make them Dhamma-relevant.

Yes, for monks. Not for lay people, though.

I believe it is called a constitution. One cannot in good conscience simultaneously enjoy peace in one’s country and reject its social contract.

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Wow, that’s pretty remarkable—the High Court recommending people don’t pay taxes!

The passages I quoted above are of course simple and general statements, and not absolutes. In some cases, maybe a targeted and limited movement of civil disobedience by not paying taxes might be effective, which is what the High Court is calling for. But that’s quite different from a blanket belief that taxes are inherently wrong.

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