Killing people is wrong.
People ought to do their fair share.
Both of these seem like plausible but not exceptionless moral principles. Sometime it is ok to kill people. For example, if you need to kill someone who is attacking you to protect yourself from death or serious injury, then you are permitted to do so. But if you can achieve the goal of protecting yourself without killing your attacker, then you should. The things you do to protect yourself should be necessary and should be proportional to the actual threat. In ordinary life, it is only people like Tony Martin or George Zimmerman (or their apologists) who think that a threat or the mere perception of one gives you licence to simply blow someone away.
Likewise people should do their share to contribute towards the common infrastructure from which we all benefit. Public services, maintaining a legal system, filling in holes in the road, stuff like that. Sometimes there are excuses and justifications for not contributing. Some people have no money, some people are even too young, or old, or sick to do so. But most people should do their bit, though there may be disagreement on exactly what that bit is.
These two things—killing and paying taxes—don’t seem to have much to do with one another. But I think there are some interesting similarities. In both cases there are plausible moral principles but alongside them there are detailed public and legal codes that purport to implement those principles. And in each case there are people or bodies who think (and claim) they have discharged their moral obligations when they have complied with the letter of the codes – that the codes encapsulate all the things that they are morally required to do. What is more, in each case, many of the people who take this attitude to the rules expend a lot of effort trying to affect the content of the rules and attempting to find interpretations of the rules (“loopholes” and similar) that work to their advantage.
Take the case of killing, as covered by “just war theory”. People (and peoples) have the right of self-defence. (At least, I assume here that they do.) But under just war theory the thought you shouldn’t kill an attacker unless you really need to is transmuted into rules about necessity and proportionality that simply provide a weak constraint on states pursuing their advantage. So long as a vaguely plausible interpretation of military necessity can be cooked up and enough uncertainty shed on the general requirement of proportionality, the rest becomes public relations. You can kill, just so long as you can gesture in the vague direction of the rules. And people (lawyers, philosophers) can be employed to write stuff muddying the waters. (Some of them will even do it for free!)
A rather similar thing happens for tax. The tax laws define an expected level of contribution, but wealthy people and corporations lobby government for all kinds of exemptions and changes and then employ lawyers and accountants to minimize their own contribution. And when people object to Apple, Google and Amazon using the roads and infrastructure by domiciling themselves in Luxembourg or Ireland to avoid paying for them, they point to their compliance with the letter of the law.
There’s a further parallel too. In both cases, a fiduciary relationship with someone else is deployed by way for moral justification for the policy. In the tax case, companies have a duty to their shareholders that supposedly means the are under an obligation to minimize their contribution. In the case of war, governments pursue the interests of their citizens (supposedly) subject to the very weak constraints that they themselves have helped weaken. And in each case, the lawyers, accountants, philosophers are on hand to lobby, interpret or write op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal.
For both death and taxes, a moral principle that ought to guide a person’s (or a collective’s) actions has been transmuted into a matter of bureaucratic rule compliance and public relations management. Impertinent questions about whether a state is entitled to kill some people or about whether Google is paying its fair share can then be batted away with a gesture towards “the rules”. So it goes.