Friday, December 28, 2007


Are tax laws “biblical”?

The New York Times headline is provocative: Professor Cites Bible in Faulting Tax Policies. The blurb in the Atom feed also piqued my curiosity.

The work of a professor at the University of Alabama Law School has prompted some other scholars to scour religious texts to explore the moral basis of tax and spending policies.

My first thought was, “Yeah, right. Let’s try to fit one more bit of modern society into a millennia-old fanciful storybook.”

Professor Susan Pace Hamill teaches at the University of Alabama Law School and “holds a degree in divinity from a conservative evangelical seminary” (to which my first thought was, “A degree in what? And how does that qualify her for anything?”; but to continue on that path would be a significant digression, so let’s stay on track here).

Professor Hamill asserted that 18 states seriously violate biblical principles in the way they tax and spend. She calls Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas “the sinful six” because they require the poor to pay a much larger share of their income than the rich while doing little to help the poor improve their lot.
Professor Hamill’s point is that the bible represents “the moral compass chosen by most Americans”, and so it makes sense to compare public policy with that “moral compass”, and see how it measures up.

OK, this seems as good a place as any to point out that we generally “seriously violate biblical principles” all over the place, by not keeping slaves, not beating disrespectful children to death, and other sorts of things like that. Of course, there are those who think that more’s the pity with regard to those too, but, well, we generally consider them to be right nutters.

In other words, it should surprise no one that public policy, made recently and by legislators with many yokes of oxen to gore, does not match some biblical “ideal”, which if you looked at it at all closely wouldn’t turn out to be ideal anyway. We’ve tossed out a load of things that we’d consider barbaric in today’s light. We’ve eschewed plenty of things that, while they still exist in our morality, don’t have a place in our system of laws. And we’ve made some mistakes along the way, of which the tax laws she cites might be examples.

And then she jumps right off the deep end, with the fallacy that we’re amoral without religion to keep us in line:

“The Bible commands that the law promote justice because human beings are not good enough to promote justice individually on their own,” she said. “To assume that voluntary charity will raise enough revenues to meet this standard is to deny the sin of greed.”
Bull. Shit.

There are greedy people, indeed. There are also robbers and murderers and child molesters. But most of us are none of those. Even if we stipulate that there’s some aspect of greed in all of us, most of us still, as individual human beings, have enough of a moral foundation to do what’s right most of the time, and to take a part in helping people. Some of us get the motivation for that from religion, and some of us do not. But I don’t think for a moment that if religion were out of the picture, we’d round up all the homeless and push them into the East River.

I’m often puzzled that the New York Times gives ink to this sort of junk.

Oops. I just did too.

1 comment:

Maggie said...

I had read this article as well, but I interpreted this statement differently: "human beings are not good enough to promote justice individually on their own."

That was in regard to greed. I interpreted it this way: I'm not selling my house and walking around in old clothes and buying only necessities so that I can use all the rest of my earnings to bring less advantaged people up to the same quality of life. I wouldn't necessarily call it "greed," it could be ignorance or it could be that I look around and see that everybody else's standard of living where I live is roughly equivalent to mine, it could also be that helping the poor seems hopeless, and why should I do it if nobody else is doing it? I think it's better if the government collects a little extra resources from those of us who can afford to pay and uses it to help those who need help.

This article was referencing Old Testament justice, right? My understanding is that Jesus taught that God will take care of all of us, and we can't try to help the poor because there will always be poor -- maybe I'm interpreting all of this wrong, but that's my understanding from the bits of the bible that I've read. (Don't think about where your food or clothes are coming from, I believe he says in the Sermon on the Mount. If this is what he taught, I've known a lot of very Christian people, although I have another name for it.)

And I do think the whole thing's silly, or I think it's fine if somebody wants to sit down and look for a biblical precedent for tax policies, as long as she's not seriously trying to tell us that this should be the basis for our tax policies because there's any inherent divinity or law in what she's found. However, if she's suggesting we spend more on the poor and that rich people get taxed a higher percentage, and she's aiming it at rich people and it changes a few wealthy minds, well, then, whatever works.