Yesterday evening a reader of my blog from Facebook asked a question about the biblical standard of taxation. Though I have many friends and associates who are vocal supporters of various anti-tax movements, I do not myself tend to participate vocally in such discussions, largely out of a refusal to make war on the poor as so many would wish to do. Not having the wish to enforce biblical tax reform from the top down, leading to untold suffering and death when government is forcibly cut down to its proper size, I would rather strive for a bottom-up cultural reformation by which the institutions of family, church and local community take upon themselves their proper responsibilities before the civil governments on the state and national level are cut down in side. I agree with the ends of my libertarian-minded friends of a smaller and less intrusive government, but I disagree strongly with their means on moral grounds due to their apparent lack of concern for the fate of those who currently depend on government aid.
Having made my position to the means by which we should shrink government, let us briefly examine some of the main expenditures for nations and states and then examine where the biblical responsibility for such matters truly lies. Let us remember that if we wish to shrink government, we must be willing to uphold our responsibilities, and that the rise of government was the result, not the cause, of those responsibilities not being met within their proper spheres. In doing so we will of course demonstrate that the Bible speaks to such matters of public policy as taxation.
One of the foundations of the rise of civil governments is their statistical data, based on numbering and counting people in order to apportion spoils and create political districts. The Bible itself required a head tax to be paid in order for a census to be valid. This head tax was a regressive tax, a half shekel for every male of fighting age (above twenty), which cost a single day’s labor for an agricultural worker and seemed to signify the equality of all Israel under God (see Matthew 17:24-27). Equality of a small payment between rich and poor was a sign of the law not being a respecter of persons. Likewise, it would appear that for a census to be valid in the eyes of God, it would seem to require a small and equal head tax on the part of all adult male citizens or heads or all heads of households.
A huge source of government expenditures is the military. Deuteronomy 17:16 forbids the “multiplying of horses,” which means that godly governments are to avoid engaging in arms races or in relying on military technology for their superiority. Godly nations are to rely on God for their strength, not on their tanks and airplanes and missiles. Clearly, the world’s nations have a lot to do before they meet the biblical standard for military behavior, but it is important to note that one of the biggest ways to keep taxation low is to avoid aggressive warfare and the expensive development and pursuit of advanced technology. A nation that seeks honorable peace and its self defense need not devote hundreds of billions of dollars per year to military efforts.
Though people who dislike high taxes often complain about social welfare, or government aid to the destitute, corporate welfare is a far larger expenditure than social welfare, and far less often criticized by those who wish to shrink government to its proper levels. The Bible does not speak directly about corporate welfare, though, as the linked article shows (http://gbgm-umc.org/Response/articles/corporate_welfare.html) the concept itself of corrupt governments seeking to exploit the poor to serve the wealthy, was a common phenomenon nearly universally condemned by the Bible’s prophets and Jesus Christ Himself. If it is improper and unconstitutional to aid the poor, it is vastly more corrupt to make the public subsidize private profit.
There is a revealing chapter of scripture concerning the response to exploitative government in 1 Kings 12. Kings of old (like Solomon) often spent taxpayer money building themselves palaces and fortresses and glorious cities, and modern nations are no different. Most nations have some sort of taxpayer funded palace (whether a literal one like Versailles or Buckingham Palace or a metaphorical one like the White House or Casa Rosada). Many nations have prominent and expensive fortresses like the Kremlin built for the glory and protection of kings and presidents. It should be noted that the Bible condemns such expenditures, as the Bible directly forbids leaders from amassing wives (or mistresses, for a harem) or gold and silver (or any kind of luxury good like a palace) for themselves (Deuteronomy 17:17). Not that anyone listens, though rejection of the biblical standard can sometimes be fatal (1 Kings 12:18).
Another area of public expenditure that is entirely improper is the massive payments for imprisoning criminals. This whole subject has drawn excellent books, but I only wish to examine the two biggest elements of the problems of these expenditures. First, there is the matter of the death penalty. The Bible has the death penalty for a wide variety of sins, including adultery (Leviticus 20:10), murder (Exodus 21:12-14), rape (Deuteronomy 22:24-26), incest (Leviticus 18:6-18), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), homosexual acts (Leviticus 20:13), and a whole host of other crimes. To do so now would probably require the death penalty on a majority of people in our society, but if there is a cultural shift towards greater obedience to God the biblical death penalty in due time may be restored without requiring the destruction of our people, if we are so fortunate. Additionally, a lot of crimes such as theft required restitution to the victim, possibly through sale into indentured servitude (Exodus 22:3, Ephesians 4:28) rather than a spurious paying of a debt to society through imprisonment. In other words, victims were to receive payment for the crimes done to them and criminals were to learn the price of sin. Even fornication had a price (50 shekels, discussed earlier in my entry on “The Price of Honor: An Application of Exodus 22:16-17”), to be paid to the “victim,” the father of the young woman, whose family honor and reputation were harmed. In neither the case of death penalty or restitution, though, was there to be the rampant jailing of criminals and their removal from productive labor.
Having briefly discussed expenditures that the Bible forbids in general, let us now discuss some government expenditures that are improper only because they are done in the wrong sphere, rather than being wrong to spend money on at all. A major expenditure is that of education, for the local, state, and national government. However, education is itself a responsibility of the family (Proverbs 22:6). It was the responsibility of fathers and mothers to teach their children (Deuteronomy 6:7-9), not the responsibility of the state. Nonetheless, a cultural commitment as a whole to education, as the Bible commands, ought to lead to that responsibility being taken seriously. Additionally, when there are difficulties on the family level itself, the Bible, as we will see in other matters, allows such problems to be handled on a local or congregational level, where the circumstances of the people in question are known and where generosity is commanded by God.
Among the most expensive and most threatening expenditures to our future well-being as a nation is the health care and social security income spent on the elderly. As our society grows older (because people have fewer and fewer children), such expenditures become more and more onerous. The Bible does command caring for the elderly, though it is first a responsibility of the family. After all, if a family can provide for their own and refuses to, they are considered worse than unbelievers, but if there are elderly who do not have immediate family to provide for them the congregation is to take on that responsibility (1 Timothy 5:3-16). It is to be remembered that the entire office of deacon was created in the early church because of the contentiousness over such “social security” payments to the elderly (Acts 6:1-7).
Welfare and Workfare
Those welfare is considered to be among the most illegitimate expenditures of civil government, the Bible shows a very great concern with the well-being of the poor, much more so than most would-be tax reformers, certainly. Landowners were forbidden from fully exploiting their fields, commanded to leave the corners of their fields for the poor (who owned no land of their own) to glean food so that they may live and not starve (Leviticus 23:22). The biblical model is more of workfare than welfare, as gleaning was certainly difficult work (Ruth 2:1-7), though it provided the opportunity for a godly person to show generosity without causing shame or embarrassment (Ruth 2:15-20), similar to the way in which we all must work out our own salvation diligently (Philippians 2:12) while God generously and providentially supplies what we lack. We are at any rate forbidden from making war on the poor, as concern for the needy is frequently mentioned in scripture (http://home.snu.edu/~hculbert/poor.htm notes more than 100 passages preaching concern for the poor or condemning the exploitation of the poor). Even if social welfare programs ought not to be done on the national government level, it is an oft-repeated command to do so on the personal, family, congregational, and community levels.
Biblical Rates of Taxation
Properly speaking, the Bible considers a taxation rate by the government of even a tithe (1 Samuel 8:17) as exploitative, though the fact that the Bible’s tithing requirements for the poor and landless (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) at the third and sixth year of every seven year cycle (2.8% or so per year) would fulfill part of the current tax burden, and the 10% tithe for the church would also be used in part to pay for the social welfare requirements for the indigent elderly. The proper functions of civil government, though, would require a tax burden of less than 10%, though, in a godly government properly limited to the biblical standard.
In conclusion, let us review some of the difficulties of examining the subject of biblical taxation. For one, there is the need to understand what responsibilities civil governments possess and which duties are to be fulfilled by other spheres of government, like family, congregation, and local community. For another, there is the need to take a bottom-up approach of conversion to and understanding of the biblical standard preceding enforcement so as to behave mercifully and compassionately rather than harshly to those (the poor) who are likely to suffer greatly if God’s law is forced from the top down without the prior building of proper institutions. A just biblical standard of civil government can only be maintained if all people and institutions accept and uphold their own responsibilities and do not seek to shirk them or pass them off to the government, as has been done in the past. If we can handle our responsibilities on the local level, we need not fear a leviathan government over us.