Thanks to the efforts of the new governor of Alabama, Bob Riley, taxpayers in that state are facing the largest tax increase in their history. Most of the debate over the issue has centered on the division of tax liability: taxes will be raised on the middle class, the wealthy, and corporations, and reduced on low-income families. The overall amount of taxation will increase substantially. Riley has defended his tax increase with explicit references to the Bible, arguing that the commands in Scripture to defend and provide for the poor justify taxing the wealthy more heavily.
One of the principal backers of the plan is a University of Alabama law professor named Susan Pace Hamill. (Alabama’s state universities, it might be added, stand to gain from the increased tax revenues.) Hamill has devoted a great deal of time to developing the argument for a progressive tax system from the Bible. “God,” she says, “…requires that safety nets be created to allow poor and powerless persons a minimum opportunity to meet their basic needs and improve their lives. Certain rights to harvest from the land of others and secure ownership of their own land…are among specific examples in the Bible….”1 The “right to harvest from the land of others” is from the gleaning laws of Leviticus 19:9-10 and Deuteronomy 24:19-21 as well as Deuteronomy 23:24, 25. Clearly, property rights are not absolute in the individual, as humanistic libertarians argue. Yet it is inappropriate to use these passages to support state wealth-transfer schemes.
One major error here — and it is common among Christian socialists — is to make a logical leap from the Biblical requirement of charity to the assertion that the civil government should coerce wealth from some to give to others. It cannot be inferred from the passages permitting a person to glean or snack on another’s crops that the state must seize the corners of a man’s field if he is reluctant to obey the command. It would be as objectionable for the state to involve itself here as it would be for the state to penalize those who fail to tithe.
Charity is required of believers. This is made very clear in the Bible. Yet until a person voluntarily transfers property to another, it remains his property. No one else has title to that property. This is made clear in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, in Acts 5. Ananias and Sapphira, wanting to appear generous, brought a part of the proceeds of a sale to the apostles while claiming that it was the entire sale price. Peter reminded Ananias (v. 5) that the possession was his before the sale, and Ananias was free to do what he wished with the sale price. The practice of the early church (Acts 5:32-37) was based on charity, not coercion.
We are required as believers to make transfers of our wealth to those who are in need. A poor individual may therefore expect assistance from individuals and the church, but that person may not reach into my wallet and take money under the notion that the expectation translates into an absolute property right in any of my possessions. (Neither may that person enlist the civil magistrate to reach into my pocket for him.) The gleaning laws permitted a poor person to harvest what another person had passed over in voluntary cooperation with the moral law. They granted a right that was conditional upon certain behavior by the field owner — behavior that could not be coerced by the civil magistrate.
A related problem, common among Christian statists, is the twisting of the term “justice.” Justice means giving each person his due. If George steals from Sally, then justice requires returning the stolen property to Sally. When Christian statists use the term “social justice,” they regard the “due” of the poorer individual as including the possessions of the wealthier individual. This allows them to co-opt Biblical passages requiring us to “do justice” (e.g., Micah 6:8) and claim Scriptural support for the expansion of the state’s welfare programs. Apart from the other problems with state intervention mentioned earlier, we can also see that the state’s welfare programs do not meet the Biblical requirements for a just distribution of assistance. State assistance programs are not conditional, as Biblical charity is (see, e.g., 1 Timothy 5:3-16). Can welfare programs that flagrantly violate this principle of just charity be considered just?
Hamill argues repeatedly that the Alabama tax code does not now provide each person with a “minimum opportunity to seek a better life.” Evidently, this is intended to mean some level of wealth without which a person would be trapped in poverty. If the minimum is not met, what then? Whose fault is it? Does the poor individual gain the right to the possessions of those who have more than the minimum?
Many Christian socialists believe that the wealthy must have “done something” to the poor to accrue their wealth. Certainly this is sometimes the case, and passages such as James 5:1-6 condemn the crimes of the wealthy against the poor. These rich men were defrauding workers of agreed-upon wages and murdering the innocent. Yet it is far more common to see wealth created by serving the poor. The Industrial Revolution was in fact characterized by creation of goods expressly for the poor — inexpensive clothing, food, transportation, and more. The way to wealth was to provide what the poor needed at low cost. As John D. Rockefeller wrote in 1885, “We must ever remember we are refining oil for the poor man and he must have it cheap and good.” A poor individual enters into a voluntary exchange for the same reason that a rich individual enters into the same transaction. Both are made better off by trade. Penalizing the wealthy person for creating these opportunities for exchange, through taxes, will hurt the poor as well.
Alabama’s tax increase advocates complain about the inequality of the tax structure in that state. But why must this be resolved by increasing taxes on the wealthy and reducing taxes on the poor, rather than cutting government spending and reducing taxes on the poor? Hamill is unwilling to consider the possibility, for this would mean that the state would end up cutting welfare expenditures while the individuals, private organizations, and churches take over the relief of the poor. To her, it is quite simple: “Any legitimate effort that truly addresses these vast injustices against the poorest Alabamians and their children must require wealthier Alabamians…to pay more taxes.”
This September, Alabama voters will have a chance to decide on Riley’s tax plan. In my view, Christians who favor charity, liberty, and justice should fervently pray that the plan is voted down.
- Timothy D. Terrell
Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.