When it comes to fairness and ethics in the 21st century, people have different ideas about what is right and moral. This disagreement–or difference in the application of morality–is the foundation, I believe, for engaging in the serious discussion of fiscal policy and the divide between government and Middle America. In our post-modern world, where selfishness reigns supreme, there is seemingly scant interest in what is fair for you; what is fair for me is the primary motivation. Oftentimes me is government. Or me is those who depend on government for their income. Any hardship that falls on you after they are satisfied is your problem. I firmly believe any fruitful conversation about these issues needs to embrace a biblical framework.
In speaking to economics issues, I want to specifically address taxes, budgets, and free markets. All get considerable treatment in the scriptures. Jesus spoke on monetary issues more often than he did heaven and hell. Thus, I think we can see the importance of fiscal responsibility within a Judeo-Christian—or biblical—worldview. We might be surprised to see that the Bible has much to say about taxes, budgeting, and free markets (financial freedom)–and these lessons are applicable to our political discussions.
Article I, Section 8, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government power to levy and collect taxes. Our government most certainly—legally speaking—was empowered to do so by those representatives elected by the people and individual states who ratified the Constitution. Is there an obligation to pay?
When Jesus was asked if it was lawful to support a secular government via paying taxes, Jesus said it was: “And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him” (Mark 12:17, KJV). The concept was repeated by Paul the Apostle in Romans 13:7a, “Render therefore to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom is due…(KJV).” Yes. We are obligated to pay taxes.
However, the power of compulsory taxation is not a power to be abused simply because we are obligated. The question government must ask concerning taxes should be “We have the power to institute a tax for fill-in-the-blank purpose, but should we?” Sound moral ethics must define the “should” portion of the question. Conflicts in ideology muddy the issue. Nearly all agree that taxes should be applied to national defense, infrastructure we all use, and common interests like community safety.
But what about other things? Should taxes be used to cover the fiscal mistakes of the irresponsible (Wall Street bailouts, Congressional overspending, etc.)? Should taxes be used to support those unwilling to work? Again, individual ethics will distinguish between ‘unable’ and ‘unwilling.’ Should taxes be used to fund issues which violate the moral conscience of a taxpayer, i.e. abortion, building casinos, or stem cell research?
Budget is both a noun and a verb. I think that’s an important concept to grasp. Budget, the noun, is defined as “an itemized summary of probable expenditures for a given period” (American Heritage Dictionary). Budget, the verb, is defined as “to plan in advance for the expenditure” (American Heritage). The Bible has much to say about this—but I am sure no politician wants to read it.
“For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish” (Luke 14:28-30, KJV).
“Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds. For riches are not for ever…” (Proverbs 27:23-24a, KJV).
These verses teach us that responsible budgeting means ensuring the money is there before you financially commit to a project. The Bible looks down upon trusting in money you do not have (see also I Tim. 6:17). Since Congress has the “power of the purse,” it also has the responsibility to budget accordingly.
Poor budgeting leads to debt (Proverbs 22:7) while good budgeting leads to surplus (Proverbs 13:11). Sustained economic growth is the by-product of responsible budgeting. If confiscatory compulsory taxation is the government’s answer to irresponsible budgeting, citizens seemingly have a right to charge the government with theft, do they not?
The Bible encourages ownership of property and goods. Job owned property (Job 1:3), Abraham and Lot owned property (Gen. 13:1-11), and Jacob owned property (Gen. 31:18), along with many others. So, the Bible does not condemn private ownership of land. Thus, it can be implied that if I, as a private owner of property, wish to sell what I have to another, I may do so. In fact, the Bible indicates this as well:
Leviticus—an Old Testament legal ethics book—reads “And if thou sell ought unto thy neighbour, or buyest ought of thy neighbour’s hand, ye shall not oppress one another” (25:15, KJV). There is no mention here of a government intermediary brokering the deal, or taking a piece of the “action.” There is only the divine reminder that God has an interest in us dealing with each other fairly. Let’s look further.
Deuteronomy—another Old Testament legal ethics book—reminds the Jews, “Meddle not with them; for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as a foot breadth; because I have given mount Seir unto Esau for a possession. Ye shall buy meat of them for money, that ye may eat; and ye shall also buy water of them for money, that ye may drink.”
There are a couple of solid principles here: 1) God recognizes the private ownership of land and property and 2) expects the Jews to not only purchase from one another, but to do so honestly. In other words, you do not overcharge a patron for something based on the urgency or importance of the item. You do not charge a starving man twice as much for food because he is desperate; there is an expectation of responsible ownership and charity. It peeves me that government places such high tax on gasoline because they know the citizens will pay it, or the taxation of food. Government has no business making itself a 3rd person in what should be a two-person transaction. Government did not produce the food and will not consume the food. Thus, what is government’s interest in that free market exchange of goods between consenting parties?
Let us be cautious about believing what we are told, especially those things that are meant to play on our emotions. Look at the following example:
“Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein” (John 12:6-7).
The ointment was Mary’s to give and the Lord’s to receive. Judas, feigning concern for the greater good, demands to know why he was not given the ointment to sell and distribute as he saw fit. His concern was not noble, it was theft. That is a valuable example to follow when we listen to our elected officials. Begin to ask yourselves if government’s interest in your earnings is more about what is “in their bag,” and how they can redistribute it to solidify their power,then it is about concern for their constituents. It will change the way you view government, I promise you.
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