Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Biblical Levels of Taxation?

I try never to miss Sunday School in my church, Franklin Square Orthodox Presbyterian Church on Long Island. Our pastors have a way of engaging serious questions while elaborating the teaching of the Bible but in way that ordinary people can grasp. I always learn something of great value. Sometimes it shows up in my classes. Sometimes it shows up on my blog. Last Sunday, as part of a (blissfully) long series on The Westminster Confession of Faith, Pastor Ben Miller took us to I Samuel 8 to consider the relationship between the fifth commandment, pertaining to obeying authority, and the seventh commandment regarding stealing. This got me started. This is where I ended up. (I am to blame for all these thoughts, however.)

If you would like to read my thoughts on "all-volunteer war-funding," i.e., the way we pay for political campaigns, go to the full article at

"The Prophet Speaks for Low Taxes"

We are still in the shadow of Tax Day, perhaps still smarting from it. But even if you did not pay taxes or are getting a big tax refund, you would nonetheless be legitimately concerned about the trillion of dollars the present government is adding to our national debt, and the corresponding expansion of government involvement in the economy and in each of our lives.

Notice what the prophet Samuel says about taxes when—in describing the model of pagan kingship—he warns Israel against their desire to have a king “like all the nations”:
“So Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day’” (1 Samuel 8:10-18).
This rapacious king will take a 10th of their grain and flocks. Samuel implies that 10 percent is more than enough for government to finance all its legitimate responsibilities. If it claims to need even that much, then either it is doing what it has no business doing, or government leaders are serving their selfish advantage with public funds as we see in the 1 Samuel passage. While it may be overburdening the passage to see an implicit prohibition from God against an average tax rate of 10 percent or more, it is instructive nonetheless.

One might object that modern life is vastly more complicated than Samuel’s nomadic social and economic state, and so a larger, more expensive administrative state is required. But a more complex economy is also a vastly more productive economy. A flat tax of 10 percent would be a generous sum of money to pay for good government in modern America.

Bear in mind that the presupposition of “the administrative state” is that there is no legitimate limit to its administrative reach. It has inherently totalitarian tendencies. Wherever there is a good to be done, it sees a need for at least government regulation, and perhaps also government service providing the good itself. By contrast, the Apostle Peter tells Christians that the purpose of government is to punish evildoers and praise those who do good:
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
Unlike the libertarian, Peter sees a moral relationship between government and the people it governs, and amongst the people themselves as a political community. Healthy civil society is a network of consciously benevolent relationships, and government has an important role in encouraging (certainly not hindering, as activist government does) that mutual well-doing. Government is not to grow impatient or cynical regarding private benevolence and substitute government services in its place. But the administrative state attempts to accomplish by public authority what is legitimately and most productively accomplished only by private means.

One might also suspect that restricting taxation levels to below 10 percent does not account for emergency situations such as war. But if a free people who believe in their country have an all-volunteer army precisely because they are free, why not also all-volunteer war funding?...

If government were limited to a flat tax, or an average tax, of no more than 10 percent, we would establish a moral principle concerning limited government and personal responsibility, and we would have serious public debates concerning spending priorities, living within limits, and the legitimate role of government among a free people.

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