Taxes for Alms? Or for Crosses?

In claiming during his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday that he wishes to tax the rich because that is what Jesus would do, President Obama demonstrated he is equally confused on the teachings of Jesus, as he is with history and economics:

The rich should pay more not only because “I actually think that is going to make economic sense, but for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.’”

© Spartacus (1960)

Unfortunately for the President’s strategy, Jesus did not say “Ye shall take from unto whom much has been given and give unto whom much has not been given.” Jesus did proclaim, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” And earlier in the passage on the Law that Mr. Obama also cited, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” Jesus also said, “Thou shalt not steal.”

Thus, Jesus’s proclamations are individual mandates—exhortations for how we are to live—and he time and again taught and demonstrated care for the poor to be chief among these. But it is extremely unlikely he would have considered taxes as the means to this noble end.

The other authority President Obama likes to cite in support of his desire to raise taxes is Warren Buffet. Yet Mr. Buffett empirically demonstrates his own judgement of what helps the poor—and taxes apparently are not it. While publicly speaking out for higher current and estate taxes, Mr. Buffett shields his own current and future wealth from taxes through generous donations to the Gates Foundation, and further spearheads a vigorous campaign for other billionaires to similarly shield their estates from taxes by pledging their fortunes to non-profits. Clearly, Mr. Buffett believes that voluntary, non-profit efforts better serve the world’s poor and suffering than do tax-payer funded anti-poverty programs.

And in this, Mr. Buffett is absolutely correct. Government anti-poverty programs have resulted only in a massive explosion of the numbers in poverty, as well as its duration, with multiple generations now caught in the “War on Poverty” trap—with gigantic disincentives for emancipation from such programs, and enormous barriers to entry to the middle class for the poor. From a dysfunctional and fraudulent education system, to minimum wage and labor regulations that destroy entry-level positions for gaining work experience, to substantial payments in exchange for which the recipient is forced to continue demonstrating dependence, the poor are well and truly “always with us,” in numbers greater than ever.

That higher taxes were what Jesus meant as “required” of those to whom much has been given is also historically nonsensical. Tax collectors are repeatedly among those most excoriated in the Bible, and Rome’s tax receipts were felt primarily in the effects of Roman legions engaged in repressing dissent against the empire—their favored means of deterring rebellion frequent and massive public displays of crucifixions. As the most famous victim of this “most wretched of deaths,” Jesus is thus an unlikely spokesman in favor of the means of financing it.

Similarly, the vast majority of both current taxes and those Mr. Obama hopes to raise with increased rates go towards the massive apparatus engaged in programs that harm humanity, at home and abroad, including torture, bombing, and less direct means of impoverishing and immiserating masses. (The list is far too extensive to enumerate here, and I commend you to the work of Robert Higgs and others.)

It’s thus hard to credit that Jesus would speak in favor of taxation today any more than he did (not) during his time on earth.

In the one recorded instance of Jesus himself facing a tax demand, he devised a creative solution for complying with the letter of the (earthly) law:

And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute?

He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?

Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free.

Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.

One can but hope President Obama doesn’t latch onto this story as justification for an inflationary monetary policy.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Chairman and Chief Executive of the Independent Institute.
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