WASHINGTON (BP)–When President Bush turned to Joe and Jennifer Balsarotti of Clayton, Mo., in January 2003, to represent families and business owners who would benefit from his tax cut plan, the strategy was one which politicians of all stripes strive to employ — putting a face on public policy. The president framed the issue with the words “fair” and “right.” He sought to convince Congress and the public that “federal spending should not rise any faster than the paychecks of American families” (State of the Union, 2003).
Bush’s tax proposal reignited the classic debate over the proper role of government in a $10 trillion economy. Nearly a century ago the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1913) enabled the government to legally redistribute wealth under a law code touted at the time as just and fair. The amendment accomplished this goal through direct taxation on income. Proponents of the income tax defined justice in terms of forced compliance that would level society and create social equality. Opponents of the income tax saw it as theft by statute — a confiscation of wages earned through the effort of hard work. Both sides understood something: Government policies have a far-reaching influence, for good or ill, on society. To impose a policy on the wages of workers — rich or poor — was a new level of intrusion that had only been used thus far in U.S. history for national emergencies such as the Civil War. Such an action could not help but have a dramatic effect on the country’s future.
A theological conundrum still surrounds the definition and use of the words justice and virtue as applied to taxation. Both words have religious and political meaning. Defining these words, therefore, becomes the critical issue. Private ideas that emerge into public policies spring from worldviews grounded in some semblance of truth. The start determines the finish, and careful attention always should be given to the genesis of any idea. Taxation is no exception. While competing interests work to dictate the definition of a just tax, past differences form present debate.
Modern tax policy presupposes certain truths about human beings. As innately sinful creatures, those individuals entrusted with governmental power must be checked by processes preventing them from authorizing a system of suffocation and tyranny through arbitrary and excessive taxation. Combining federal, state and local requirements, taxes now consume a large share of the national economy, and the fact that government now reaches into virtually every area of life should signal that perhaps the current tax code should be reexamined. Chief Justice John Marshall aptly stated in 1819, “the power to tax involves the power to destroy.”
Ecclesiastes gives notice that power is often on the side of oppressors who arbitrarily use coercive tactics to legitimize vice (Eccles. 4:1). The Hebrews were forbidden from perverting justice by showing partiality or favoritism (Leviticus 19:15). Jesus denounced the religious establishment for what was clearly an unjust use of power both to tax and influence behavior through discriminatory practices (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:12-17). Among the first fruits of Zacchaeus’ conversion was his willingness to return money obtained through excessive taxation (Luke 19:1-8).
Taxes, when viewed under Scripture’s guidance, are laden with theological significance. Understanding this, the framers of the Constitution crafted principles for a moral fiscal code. Prohibiting direct taxation of income blocked off many blind alleys of escape for those who might later seek to use the law as a means for private gain at public expense. With the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, an inevitable expansion of government has taken place, and with it, a certain shaping of the nation’s soul. Government is now seen more as a savior and less as a servant. The federal bureaucracy is so large and the tax code so complicated that even the likes of Albert Einstein once declared, “the hardest thing in the world to understand is the federal income tax.”
As the debate on the tax bill moves from committee to the floor of Congress, the church should watch and listen for the number of times the words justice, fairness and equity appear in amendments, speeches and television commercials. The use of these words will signal various understandings of justice that should be carefully evaluated. The Bible gives no prescription for a definitive tax rate, but the lower, the better. For the American republic depends on the stern virtues of a citizenry who define justice in terms of honest labor, thrift, deferred gratification and self-denial — all of which characterize a biblical worldview. When the government becomes an agent of interference with these virtues to the point that these attitudes are undermined through excessive taxation, then justice, by definition, will be theft by legal means.
Douglas Baker is a writer who lives and works in Washington, D.C.