Commentary

Thou Shalt Pay More Taxes

It has long been said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Today, religion plays that role. At least it does for Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama, who is pushing a massive tax hike in the name of God.

Political activists routinely claim to be fulfilling God’s will. Conservatives typically cite divine commandments to justify their positions on social issues - that government should toss gays in jail, for instance. Liberals prefer to rely on scripture that they think supports income redistribution.

Now, however, an alleged conservative has discovered that God favors higher taxes. Alabama’s Riley, a Republican, has proposed a $1.2 billion annual tax hike - about $1,200 per family - for Alabama citizens.

There are lots of prudential arguments against Riley’s proposal. For instance, the state’s current fiscal difficulties are largely due to its own profligacy.

Moreover, 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 buyouts.

Still, Riley is entitled to try to sell his huge tax hike. But instead of relying on the proposal’s supposed merits, 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?

Should government tax everyone to establish a special religious order dedicated to loving God? Or create a regulatory agency to force us to love one another?

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.

As Riley argues, scripture does command us to “help take care of the poor.” But that is us. It is not other people, through the state.

The real meaning of compassion is for us to personally aid and suffer with those in need. 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 Biblically mandated.

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, also believe that God has pronounced on 21st-century tax policy. 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.

What these lay theologians are missing is that God focuses on our relationship with him and our neighbors; he does not detail a special legislative agenda. While the Old Testament, particularly, is filled with denunciations of government oppression, nowhere 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, which fund the endless soup line of special interest spending programs.

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.

Nevertheless, 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 God’s preferred tax system.

God is the ultimate trump, so politicians love to play him.

But despite Riley’s claims to the contrary, there is 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.