Nicholas Provenzo, chairman of the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism, an Objectivist think tank (where I was once a senior fellow) offers this endorsement of a seemingly non-Objectivist position:
The Center for Consumer Freedom is running a petition calling for on the Internal Revenue Service to revoke the tax-exempt status of the “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”
Despite its deceptively warm-and-fuzzy public image, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has donated over $150,000 to criminal activists — including those jailed for arson, burglary, and even attempted murder. In 2001, PETA donated $1,500 to the North American Earth Liberation Front, a criminal organization that the FBI classifies as “domestic terrorists.” And since 2000, rank-and-file PETA activists have been arrested over 80 times for breaking various laws during PETA protests. Charges included felony obstruction of government property, criminal mischief, assaulting a cabinet official, felony vandalism, performing obscene acts in public, destruction of federal property, and burglary.
I support and have signed the petition, but I would take it one step further: if PETA is funding domestic terrorists, it should be held accountable under the laws that punish criminal conspiracy.
CCF’s petition states that PETA is receiving “federal tax subsidies”:
In 2003 PETA collected over $24 million from Americans, avoiding over $3.5 million in federal income taxes. Because this tax break amounts to a huge subsidy, every American taxpayer is footing the bill for PETA’s behavior. (Emphasis in original.)
If Provenzo is endorsing this position, he’s departing from Ayn Rand’s view of taxation, which she explained in The Virtue of Selfishness: “[T]he government is not the owner of the citizens’ income and, therefore, cannot hold a blank check on that income.” CCF’s position is just the opposite–$3.5 million that belongs to “every American taxpayer” is being stolen by PETA.
Two wrongs don’t make a right. That PETA may be engaged in criminal behavior does not justify the government’s confiscation of private property. The tax exemption is mutually exclusive from the alleged criminal actions of PETA’s members.
Furthermore, CCF’s proposed standard for revoking tax exempt status could subject almost any organization to financial devastation if even a handful of members commit a crime. This may sound just fine, but keep in mind, the federal government considers a wide range of behavior to be “crimes.” If a couple employees of the Mises Institute lie to the Census taker—a federal crime—should the government then be permitted to steal a percentage of the Institute’s annual revenues under the guise of taxation?
Tax exemption is nothing more than the government declining to steal a portion of that which it has no ownership of to begin with. Those who commit bona fide crimes—that is, those who violate the rights of another—can and should be punished. But advocating criminal behavior by the state is not an ethical response.
Update: Provenzo, responding to comments on his website, said:
I wondered when I wrote it if it would be misconstrued as support for taxation, but I assumed most readers would recognize otherwise. Affirming an individual’s right to their wealth free from confiscation will not be achieved by allowing PETA to serve as a front group for green terrorism as an exempt organization; no one has a right to the irrational nor is the irrational the justification for freedom. Under existing law, tax exempt groups are not permitted to propagandize nor fund criminal activity. In this case, I agree with the Center for Consumer Freedom that PETA’a actions place it outside of the 501(c)(3) rubric and that PETA’s exempt status should be revoked.
The larger battle for emancipation from taxation is just that: a larger battle that will require a philosophic revolution to precede the law being made consistent with the principle of individual rights. In the interim, I support obeying the laws on the grounds that to do otherwise is an invitation for whim-worship and betrayal of the principle that the establishment of a moral government must be founded upon reason and persuasion.
I’m not totally persuaded by this argument. I concur that the activities CCF accuses PETA of–and I have no personal knowledge of the situation–likely violates the tax exemption rules. But I dissent from the view that one must “obey the laws” until a “philisophical revolution” comes calling. If PETA is committing crimes–violating individual rights–then by all means hold it accountable. But that’s still a separate issue from the tax exemption question. The government is disobeying its law–the Constitution–by playing these tax exemption games in the first place. Why are individuals compelled to obey a law that they never consented to while the state is free to disregard its rules and regulations it claims to be solemnly bound by?