Thursday, August 4, 2011

Are Taxes Wrong?

One of my favorite bloggers, Darren at RightOnTheLeftCoast, occasionally posts about how the safety net programs of the US government are not Christian. In this post, which links to an article of similar mindset, he argues it again. If you check the comments, you'll see Darren and I have hashed this out on various occasions, and we simply disagree. However, I am somewhat baffled by his line of thought in some areas.

For example, I am curious about his occasional references to taxes as money "taken forcibly" or under the "threat of violence." This sentiment has been voiced by longtime TeachersView commenter Steven, who opposes all taxes - and pretty much all government - on the basis that it stems from threats of violence and confiscation. In his recent post, Darren says taxes and social programs are "not Christian" and other times he's said taxes, because they are taken against some citizen's wills are "not moral." I am wondering about the issue of taxes and morality.

Of course, Darren argues it's not Christian for the confiscated money to be given to the poor. Is it then also "not Christian" and "immoral" to use that money to inflict violence against other nations and peoples? Is using tax money to fight wars that not all people support wrong? Immoral? Un-Christian? Or are we just picking and choosing what we think is OK to use that "forcibly taken" money?

Darren also wondered what the Pope would say about taxes and social programs in terms of morality and Christianity. The pope has publicly condemned the War on Terror. So, clearly, using taxes to fund that would seemingly be un-Christian - especially since man was called upon by Christ to "turn the other cheek." However, the Pope hasn't publicly condemned "taxes" or "Social Security" or "unemployment compensation" or "food stamps." And, of course, Christ never said that "individuals" should be charitable but governments shouldn't. He made no distinction. I have a hard time believing that Christ would have admonished the Roman government if it had a safety net. He said pay your taxes.

Are taxes, as I believe Darren is arguing, immoral? If so, is by nature the Constitution immoral. For one of the first and primary powers given to the government in the Constitution is the authority to "levy taxes." The people went a step further with an amendment to specifically "levy taxes" on income. Thus, the authority to collect taxes is a founding tenant of the Constitution. And, as I've argued before, Christ had no opposition to taxes. Though he did exhort corrupt tax collectors to not take more than was due.

Just wondering.


Mrs. K said...

Well, I'm not sure if Darren has ever called government-run social programs "immoral" with regard to taxes used as funding. I can't really speak to what he believes about this.

But what I can say is that something being "un-Christian" is not necessarily the same as something being "immoral." The simple fact is that the in the ancient world in which Jesus lived, the government that existed was not really that similar to the government that we have today. Even if it were, the ancient model of Christian charity is charity between individuals within a community, given freely and readily. You could argue that government-run social programs do just that, but there are some key differences. Charity within a community isn't anonymous. The people giving, and the people receiving see each other and get to know each other. It's highly flexible and adaptive. There's little, if any, overhead.

Additionally, you mention "turn the other cheek" in relation to war being potentially immoral, but Jesus seems to apply this mentality in a number of ways. I suspect that "pay your taxes" was similar. Someone hitting you isn't performing a moral act just because you turn the other cheek. Being exhorted to pay your taxes and follow the laws of the government you live under doesn't mean those taxes and laws are being held up as moral acts. It's actually a statement that is logically neutral about taxes and laws. The only moral commentary is what you as an individual should do in response--which is to offer up no resistance, and to obey those in charge.

So are taxes and government-run social charity programs immoral? I don't believe they're the most efficient or effective way of accomplishing the goal (to help people). From a Christian perspective, I don't know. It doesn't really matter to me, because as a Christian, I am obligated to pay my taxes to a government that can do what it wants with that money. And the existence of these programs doesn't prevent me from participating in Christian charity. The quantity of taxes taken from me does have an affect on how much I can contribute financially to charity, but I'm a graduate student and the amount is small either way.

And no, I am not a scholar of Christian thought, so my understanding of these principles is limited to my own reading and research, and at the moment, my own memory since all my relevant books are at home.

mmazenko said...


I didn't mean to imply D. thinks the social programs are immoral. But he has argued that taxes because they are "confiscated" under "threat" of punishment are immoral. Of course, as I said, he only mentioned that when the money is then "redistributed" to the poor. I haven't heard the same argument about military spending.

I appreciate your point of view.

Mrs. K said...

I think I see what you're getting at. I tend to lean in the direction of thinking that forcefully taking anyone else's property for any purpose is immoral, but I'm not sure I buy into the idea that the government is forcefully taking our property (i.e. taxes). We always have the option of going elsewhere. I'm still on the fence about that one, though. I'd be interested in reading Darren's opinion of taxes in relation to military spending as well.

And what do you believe? Where do you sit on the issue of the morality of taxes and the morality of how the government spends those taxes?

mmazenko said...

I don't have any problems with taxes and the fact that they are "forcibly taken" because we live in a democratic republic where I have a voice in the taxes. This right is even stronger for me in Colorado where citizens vote on any and all tax increases. I wish that were true for tax cuts as well.

In terms of safety net programs - or really any spending - I, again, have no problems because of the representative nature of our government. In terms of the morality, I do believe that social programs do represent a moral position on the responsibility to care for those less fortunate, and thus it does reflect Christ's teachings. However, I don't believe the programs were founded upon or intended to reflect Christian ideals of charity. They were implemented - as they have been in all successful industrialized nations - simply because they reflect good public policy. Programs such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, free/reduced school lunches are sound and logical macroeconomic ideas.

That's not to say I don't have criticisms of how the programs are implemented - because I have many.

Anonymous said...

You hear the idea of taxes as theft over and over. It's ridiculous, for two main reasons.

All of the assets of the country (and you can extend this to the world) are divvied up according to MAN MADE law. Such laws allow people to inherit land, to hold private property, to travel freely, to visit a public park, etc. Control of resources is probably the fundamental reason why some prosper and some don't. Tax law is simply part of that scheme of laws. You may not like the laws, but there is nothing inherently immoral about their existence, though the laws themselves may lead to outcomes that may seem immoral.

Second, the economy CANNOT WORK if money and assets accumulate in the hands of the few. Taxes serve to redistribute. You may think this is unfair, and it may be, but it is an important part of our functioning economy. If you believe in a system where the rich can accumulate all the wealth and donate what they choose to the poor, then I guess a world without taxes if fine. If you believe in a world where people have the freedom AND opportunity to succeed on the merits of their ideas and efforts, taxes are necessary in our economic system.

We're past the time when you can pack your wagon, head west and stake your claim.

P.S. - After saying all this, I'll add that taxes aren't really necessary, as government can spend by creating money without collecting taxes or issuing treasury securities, but this leads to inflation, and people don't like inflation. Taxes may also give value to money in a fiat currency system and allows citizens to feel a part of their political system.

Darren said...

You misstate my position on taxes and morality. I don't say that taxes are immoral, but I do say that they're taken under threat of force. Try not paying them, and then tell me I'm not correct.

Using your logic about Christian charity, I guess everyone's going to Heaven--at least the 50% of us who actually pay taxes--since our tax money is given to the poor. Jesus never mentioned government programs, he tasked each of us to give.

That is my point. I don't understand why you keep trying to make more of it than that.

mmazenko said...

I may have misunderstood you - though I seem to believe you've argued before that money taken by force and given to others is "immoral." In fact, it's hard to hear the phrase "by force" or "against your will" and not infer that you think there is something wrong, or immoral, about.

I can't for the life of me figure out why you can't understand that I am not saying taxes used for charity absolves others of responsibility or fulfills their obligation or qualifies as any individual's act of charity. I am saying that the social programs that are charitable are in fact done in the spirit of Christ's message. Not the individual's contribution - but the act of giving.

Think of it this way. If you give me some money - under threat or not is irrelevant - and I then give it to the poor in charity. My act of giving was done in the spirit of Christ's message. Maybe your begrudged contribution wasn't - but my act of helping the poor was.

If you can't get that - we are speaking different languages.

Darren said...

There's no "charity" involved when you give away someone else's money--and that's what the government does.

Again, I'm not making an argument about whether or not having government programs for the poor is good *social* policy. I'm arguing that it's not "charity" in the Christian sense of the word.

mmazenko said...

It's your money until you pay it in taxes. After that it belongs to the people of the United States of America. And if the people choose - through elected representatives - to give it to those in need, it's charitable.

Darcy Grubaugh said...

Well, people have different views regarding taxes. But taxation would not exist for a long time now if it is made only for the sake of coercing people to give money. At one point or another, we all benefit from these taxes, right? =)

mmazenko said...

Agreed, Darcy.

That is the nature of civilized society.

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