Commentary

Taxes for God?

This article originally appeared in National Review Online on September 9, 2003.

It’s long been said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Today religion seems to be that last refuge. At least it is for Republican Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama, who is pushing for a massive tax hike in the name of God. Alabamans go to the polls today.

Since the beginning of time people have wanted to believe that God was on their side. Little has changed today, even in our secular age.

Indeed, in the U.S. political activists on both the right and left routinely claim to be fulfilling God’s will. Conservatives typically cite divine commandments to justify their position on social issues — that government should toss gays in jail, for instance. Liberals prefer to rely on scripture which they think supports income redistribution.

Now, however, an alleged conservative has discovered that God favors higher taxes. At least, that’s what Alabama’s Gov. Bob Riley argues. He’s proposed a $1.2 billion annual tax hike — about $1200 per family — for Alabama citizens.

There are lots of convincing prudential arguments against Riley’s proposal. For instance, the state’s current fiscal difficulties are largely due to its own profligacy. The governor’s budget includes nearly $800 million in new spending this year alone.

Moreover, Gov. Riley has chosen to avoid making the sort of hard decisions that his citizens have to take in their personal lives during hard economic times. Collecting more money is the easy route, when almost every state budget continues to include low priority items funded when money seemed to come easy.

Alabama, which collected $272 million in emergency federal aid, as part of the Bush tax cut program, has other ways to close the projected fiscal gap. It could tap the state’s $2.5 billion rainy day fund, sell unnecessary assets, refinance the state debt, and slim down the state work force through attrition and buy-outs.

None of these steps would be easy to take, especially when those interest groups which live off of taxpayers descend on Montgomery demanding continued subsidies. But one shouldn’t run for governor if one doesn’t want to make tough decisions on behalf one’s citizens.

Still, Gov. Riley is entitled to try to make the case for a huge tax hike. But instead of relying on the supposed merits of his proposal, he’s citing a higher authority in its favor. God.

“According to our Christian ethics, we’re supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor.” True, but what does that have to do with government levying higher taxes?

Is government supposed to love God? Should it tax everyone to establish a church? Should it create a special religious order dedicated to loving God?

And imagine government attempting to make us love one another. There could be civil penalties for making obscene gestures at errant drivers. Especially important would be criminal penalties for sending inflammatory emails to newspaper columnists.

The duty to care for the poor is first and foremost a personal obligation. Bob Terry, editor of the Alabama Baptist, published by the Alabama Baptist Convention, contends: “The Bible is clear that ‘to whom much is given, much is required’.”

Yes, but no where does Scripture turn this role over to the state. It doesn’t say, to whom much is given, they should raise other people’s taxes.

Instead, one sees concentric rings of responsibility. The able-bodied are to work if they want to eat, instructed the Apostle Paul. Failing to take care of one’s family meant one was worse than an unbeliever.

Both ancient Israel and the early Christian community set elaborate rules for the care of the needy amongst them. And, declared the Apostle Paul, “do good to everyone” (Gal. 6:10).

Indeed, one cannot claim to follow Christ without exhibiting concern for the disadvantaged. But the real meaning of compassion is to suffer with. It requires establishing community with other human beings, not simply writing a check.

It certainly doesn’t mean making other people write checks. Scripture does command us to “help take care of the poor.” But that is us. It is not other people, through the state. Whatever the prudential argument for government welfare, it is a matter of public policy, not Christian theology.

The governor’s other argument is that his peculiar tax-redistribution program — easing the income tax on lower-income people while raising other levies, such as the tobacco tax, on them as well as wealthier folks — is somehow Biblically mandated. “It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 an income tax,” he alleges.

The notion that God has pronounced on 21st Century tax policy is shared by Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America, who calls Riley’s plan “bold and courageous,” and Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama law professor who penned a 112 page law review article arguing, in essence, that God expects Alabama politicians to raise taxes on rich Alabamans.

That’s an interesting claim. However, one will peruse the Bible long and hard to find a verse that says it is better to make a poor person pay more for cigarettes and services than in income taxes. And that $5,000 is the limit for the latter.

What these lay theologians are missing is that God focuses on our relationship with him and our neighbors, not on our use of political power to coerce those around us. While the Old Testament, particularly, is filled with denunciations of government oppression, no where does that mean a regressive tax system adopted by a democratic polity. Instead, it means an autocratic Israelite king or outside conqueror stealing and pillaging. In fact, much of what government does today also could be characterized as stealing and pillaging, but that results from too many, not too few, taxes. It is the endless soup line of special interest spending programs, shrouded with public spirited rhetoric, that most resembles Biblical oppression.

Indeed, Hamill’s elaborate rationalization for big government reflects the standard liberal bias that more spending is good for the poor. For instance, she argues that reliance on the property tax impairs “the ability of most areas to adequately fund their public schools,” and thus violates Biblical morality.

But the evidence is overwhelming that extra spending brings little educational benefit. The real problem is a public-school monopoly that locks poor kids into failing schools that remain largely unaccountable. Here again, too much, not too little, government is the problem.

Nevertheless, Gov. Riley, et al. could argue that more taxing and spending are good public policy. Instead, they are sacrificing the transcendent claims of the Christian faith by arguing that they’ve figured out the kind of tax system supported by God.

It’s not easy being governor when the economy is stuttering and tax revenues are falling. Politically painful choices need to be made.

Hiking taxes is the easy path, however. Instead of setting priorities, shake down the taxpayers.

Trying to sell such a program by hanging onto God’s coattails is far worse, however. God is the ultimate trump, so politicians love to play him. But despite Gov. Riley’s claims to the contrary, there’s no reason to believe that God backs his plan to raise the taxes of Alabamans.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.