Obamacare and the Task of Responsible Opposition, Pt. 2: Democracy at Work?

(See Pt. 1 here and Pt. 3 here.)

The biggest objection I received to my invocation of Hooker on Obamacare and the government shutdown, unsurprisingly, was that these statements of his could not take into account the particular Constitutional structures of the United States.  He wrote in an age and in a constitutional setting where there really was very little recourse if you didn’t like the law—it was the Queen’s way or the highway, so to speak.  Sure, there was a Parliament through whom elected representatives made decisions on behalf of the body politic, but its power was limited, and its claim to meaningfully represent the people was fairly tenuous by our modern standards.  The right and wrong current debate in the United States Congress could not, of course, be adjudicated by standards from 16th-century England, but only by standards applicable in 21st-century America—including, above all, the Constitution.  So the objection went.

Of course, I was well aware of the anachronism of the post, which I sought to humorously highlight in its title.  I do not think, however, that the appeal to the American constitutional system affects my core point in invoking Hooker; for, as I have sought to highlight in the previous installment, this concerned the rhetoric and attitude behind current Republican obstructionism, rather than its mechanism per se.  It is quite possible to stay within the letter of the law in the means of political opposition used, without in any way maintaining an attitude of respectful obedience toward the law.  Indeed, it is my contention that the forms in which this objection has been voiced simply reinforces the fundamental problem of political and societal breakdown that I wanted to highlight in my post.

I have been told that using such measures as a government shutdown or potential debt default as bargaining chips to pass legislation is simply “democracy at work,” and that the “power of the purse” is a “political weapon” that the Constitution “granted to the House to be employed as it was found to be necessary.”  Of course, debates over to what extent the current crisis is unprecedented or routine have become a prominent part of the partisan back-and-forth over the past week.  I do not feel historically-qualified to resolve them entirely, although I have become reasonably convinced of the following conclusions:

(1) there is considerable precedent for using government shutdowns as leverage for resolving policy disputes, even if the current situation is uncharacteristic by virtue of the sheer boldness of the Republican demands, which, requiring as they did the overturn of such a signature and significant piece of legislation, could not really be considered as a good-faith negotiating position

(2) there has been considerable precedent of negotiating against the backdrop of an impending debt-ceiling, in which the possibility of default loomed as an implicit threat above the heads of both parties, but the current situation is largely distinctive inasmuch as Republicans have turned this implicit threat into an explicit ultimatum, inasmuch as their core demand (the repeal of Obamacare) is essentially extraneous to the budget debate itself, and inasmuch as their demands were so exorbitant that they could never conceivably be attained by ordinary political means.  (For more on this, see the interaction between Jonathan Chait and Ross Douthat here, here, here, and here).

So commentators on the left are unfair to treat all of this as wholly unprecedented political terrorism.  However, that does not mean that it is reasonable to describe all of this simply as business as usual, or “democracy at work.” Read More

Obamacare in Perspective

[EDIT FOR CLARIFICATION: A lot of people are being directed to this as a response to Wilson’s recent “Sermon to the Government and Legislature of Idaho.”  In fact, it was written and posted before that sermon.  However, many of the concerns voiced here certainly apply (along with additional ones) to what was said there.]

Let me begin with a few (big) caveats.  I’ve been out of the country for three years now.  That provides some helpful perspective, I hope, but it also means I’m pretty ignorant.  Way back three years ago, when the original healthcare battles were being fought, I paid a good deal of attention, but never read up in detail on the final bill, which seemed to me to be a very poor piece of legislation, a compromise that combined the worst elements of both sides.  Since then, I’ve turned a blind eye to the continued bickering, protesting, anathematizing, and so on that has continued to dog “Obamacare.”  I mostly ignored all the lead-up to the Supreme Court decision, and I’ve read very little on the details of that decision.  I’m basically glad John Roberts did what he did, if only because I felt like the whole brawl needed a referee to step in and say “Time out.  Let’s not do anything rash in the heat of the moment.”

So, if you want to lob rotten tomatoes at me, I understand.  But as a few folks really encouraged me to post these thoughts, I’ll go ahead and stick my neck out there anyway.  In any case, the important questions here are at the level of theo-political principles, not the particular details of Obamacare.

Among Christians, perhaps particularly Reformed Christians, one is likely to hear these days that this is the last straw.  Our government has crossed the line.  It is the Leviathan, the Beast now.  It has thrown out of the window “biblical principles of limited government,” making itself out to be infinite, to be God, to be Savior. Christians have a duty to resist it now, in some form or other (whatever that means…).  If we aren’t going to stand up for “biblical principles of limited government,” then who is?  Needless to say, I think this is a deeply misguided line of attack.  


For one thing, if it’s really so black and white, and so serious, then what do these statements say about the tens of millions of American Christians who support something like Obamacare?  Or the scores (maybe hundreds) of millions of Christians worldwide who support universal health care?  For another, if these biblical principles of limited government are so obvious, could we at least hear a frank admission from most of their advocates that they have only become obvious to Christians quite recently.  We could pick examples from the 4th century or the 19th, but let’s just stick with the Reformation, since I know that best, and that’s when all our greatest heroes lived, right?  Calvin’s Geneva—really limited government, right?  Ha!  It would be hard to think of a more meddlesome commonwealth!  Almost every aspect of the citizens’ lives—religious, economic, entertainment, apparel—were closely regulated.  “Oh, but that was by the church, so it was OK.” (People will really say that, you know.)  Well, not really, no—just check out my recent post on the politics of Geneva.  How about Martin Bucer, author of that great Biblical treatise on government, On the Kingdom of Christ.  If he published that book during the Cold War, he probably would’ve been imprisoned as a Soviet propagandist.  Bucer’s Christian magistrate has his hands in everything—agricultural legislation, suppressing trade of luxury goods, education, church-building, welfare, etc., etc.  

Now, we’re perfectly free to say, “Well yes, the Reformers were a bit totalitarian in their view of the Christian prince’s scope of responsibility, but we have since learned better, and we have the Bible verses to prove it.”  But if men so zealous for fidelity to Scripture in every area of life saw no contradiction between what we now would call “command economies” and the Bible, this should at least temper the zeal of those who think that the plain teaching of Scripture is at stake.


But let’s turn now to ask what this plain teaching of Scripture is.  The only possible guidance one can get out of the New Testament is Romans 13:4, which only helps you if (as a remarkable number of otherwise intelligent people have done) you take it as providing a complete description of the legitimate scope of governmental activity. Is universal healthcare a way of executing wrath on the evildoer?  Doesn’t look like it, so obviously it’s not legitimate—so the argument goes.  In the Old Testament, libertarians must face the inconvenient fact that Exodus through Deuteronomy seems to offer an incredibly meddlesome law code, complete with shocking infringements on private property like the gleaning and jubilee laws.  Of course, the ready response at this point is that these are “laws” only in the moral sense, which God’s people, as individuals, are responsible before him to obey, but they aren’t civil laws, so it’s OK.  Having done a good bit of work in this area, I have little hesitation in saying that this is anachronistic to the point of incoherence.  

Ah, but then we come to 1 Samuel 8, a favorite passage among the monarchomachs, which portrays various kinds of governmental overreach as a divine judgment upon the people.  Indeed, our modern-day Christian libertarians are eager to point out vs. 15 and 17, where Samuel tells the people the appalling prediction that this new king will tax 1/10th of their produce.  Well, there you have it, we are told.  Tax rates of 10% and over are unbiblical.  But one might just as well complain that we have police forces, complex legal institutions, separation of powers in our government, standing armies, and pay our taxes in cash, not grain—all contrary to ancient Israel.  The simple fact is that a more complex society demands a more complex (and more expensive) government structure.  In any case, it’s worth noting that Scripture itself appears to recognize this, praising expansions of administration under godly kings—Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, Josiah. The godly kings are involved in all kinds of stuff—religious reform, economic reform, judicial reform, major building projects, military expansion, etc.—and they’re praised for it.  It’s not so much the scope of royal power per se that seems to the problem, but the use of it. The problem with the wicked kings is that they used the great scope of their power for wicked ends.

To be sure, in Scripture, we are given certain key principles of “limited government.”  Above all, the principle that God stands above and behind all governments, it is He who raises them up and casts them down, it is to Him that they are accountable.  Governments cannot therefore seek to usurp his place.  They cannot claim powers that are only his.  They can not claim dominion over the whole world, or over human hearts.  They cannot claim to define good and evil; rather, they are bound to the moral law he has established, and will be judged by Him if they violate it.  While certainly not explicit in Scripture (all the attempts of 17th-century republicans notwithstanding!) we can also certainly develop from Scripture they idea that it is good for government to find ways to incorporate the consent of the governed.  Indeed, we could continue along such lines, attempting to extrapolate reasonable principles from Scripture as to what governments ought to do and not to do.  But already, we have moved beyond clear biblical principles (the violation of which is rebellion against God) into the realm of prudential reasoning. 


If we’re looking for a list of enumerated powers, some very clear limits on the sorts of things government can legitimately take responsibility for, I’m afraid the US Constitution is where you’ll have to look, not the Bible.  Christians today who claim about the ungodly expansion of government tend to confuse these two—the generic Biblical limits on government (don’t usurp the place of God)—with the concrete American constitutional limits on government.  We seem to think that if a government transgresses these latter, it has claimed freedom from all bounds, has claimed equality with God.  In particular, we are told that the judicial decision last week constituted a claim that the US government has a prerogative “without limit.”  Really?  Did John Roberts yesterday just certify that the US government has sovereignty over any territory on earth it desires to occupy?  Did John Roberts just certify that the US government can tell you what you’re allowed to read? which church to attend?  which God to believe in?  Hardly.  Of course, there is no doubt that the US government, by its sheer scale and pervasive wickedness, has bestial proclivities, a tendency to make itself into an idol which must be served, to make its own glorification the end of its existence.

But where will we draw the limit, if we abandon the enumerated powers of a strictly construed Constitution?  If we don’t draw the line in the sand here, then where will it stop?  There are no criteria, we are told.  But this is to assume that the only criteria we have to work with are neat, concretely defined little checkboxes: national defense? Check.  Police service? Check. Regulate interstate commerce? Check. Issue drivers licenses? Check. Define the meaning of marriage? Check. Ban abortion? Check. 

The fact is, a great many nations of the world get by just fine without the kind of written limit that we are asking for.  The idea of a Constitution with enumerated powers is by no means a ubiquitous one.  Britain has no such thing.  Britain relies on a slowly developing common law tradition, in which precedent, popular consent and the principles of natural equity serve as limits upon the legitimate scope of government action.  Of course, I suppose most of the Christian Right, would have few qualms about dismissing much of the rest of the world, including Britain, as totalitarian.  But this is just a combination of naïveté and hubris, or else depends upon the possession of a reliable concrete standard for defining what counts as totalitarian.  And in any case, ultimately, the US too must fall back on these kinds of limits. If nothing else, this controversy is proof that a constitution with enumerated powers is insufficient.  There is too much room for disagreement about how much these powers may be stretched, and even how much of a straitjacket a 220-year-old Constitution should be.  Ultimately, while the Constitution provides certain limits on the scope of our government’s powers, legal precedent, popular consent, and the sense of natural equity play a bigger role.


But, aside from the Constitution, do we have no standard for determining the just limits of government?  What do Scripture and natural law have to tell us?  A good two kingdoms theology  will warn us against the danger of seeking for detailed guidance on matters pertaining to the civil kingdom in Scripture.  Even where Scripture does give detailed guidance, it is the nature of such matters is to be variable according to time and circumstance, so there is no a priori guarantee that the guidance still applies (e.g., the 1 Sam. 8 taxation question above).  What does necessarily still apply (the “equity” of the law) does so because it belongs to the natural law, with which Scripture is “fraught,” according to Hooker.  The general principles of Scripture and the natural law will coincide in helping us see that certain things governments might try to do are intrinsically beyond their God-given limits.  So, although it is somewhat question-begging, we can of course start by saying that government oversteps its limits if it ever commands us to act contrary to the moral law, such as ordering its citizens into a blatantly unjust war, or requiring doctors to prescribe abortifacients, or requiring ministers to marry gay couples.  Of course, such situations may require a good deal of discernment, and most cases are not so obvious.  Natural law will also require that government abide by principles of justice, commutative and distributive.  These too require discernment, and it is not always clear what belongs to the fundamental moral law and what are mere changeable positive laws of Scripture; thankfully, the Christian tradition of moral theology has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for us on this point.   Most importantly, we can lay down, on the basis of a good two kingdoms theology, that government must never seek to intrude itself upon the realm of belief or to idolatrously claim religious devotion (though again, it requires a great deal of work to cash out what constitutes such violations and what does not).

In any case, though, natural law does not function well as a detailed set of prescriptions, or even a set of deductive principles from which we may arrive, a priori, at a detailed set of prescriptions.  That is not the sort of thing it is, since it reveals itself in prudential reasoning in ever-changing circumstances which pose ever-new demands.  Rather, it functions best as a means of testing, a posteriori, certain proposed actions, and seeking to discern whether they violate fundamental norms—in other words, much more in the manner of a common law tradition than an attempt to establish enumerated powers.  So we do have means of determining the just limits to government, but they are no silver bullet or infallible answer key; they require a great deal of attention to particular needs and constraints.


So, finally, to come back to Obamacare, what might such limits have to say to this particular question?  Has some fundamental line been crossed, now that the government can “coerce us to buy something”?  Well, hardly.  Although I haven’t read the opinion, I think Roberts was quite right in his basic view of the situation.  To describe the individual mandate as a market transaction that you were required to engage in was the Obama administration’s attempt to compromise with the market model they were confronted with.  In most health care systems, it is quite clear that the government is ensuring the provision of a service, and requiring you to pay for it in some way or another—in other words, taxing you for it.  

Now, you can try to be a consistent anarchist and insist that all taxation is theft, but if not, you’re going to have to grant that we already accept any number of “coerced purchases” through taxation.  We pay, through our taxes, for defence from enemies and from criminals, for the provision of justice at the courts, for the maintenance of a stable currency, for government safety inspections in various industries, for a transportation network, for weather measurement and forecasting, for public parks for disaster management and response, etc. (just to pick a few items that even arch-conservatives are unlikely to object to, though you never know these days).  Of course, I have argued before, and will continue to argue, that it’s really misguided to think of such taxation in terms of coercion—or rather, it is only coercive if you first choose to think of it as such.  But in any case, is there something special about healthcare that makes it categorically inappropriate for us to be taxed for the provision of, whereas it is perfectly fine to tax us for the provision of firefighters?  In both cases, the reasoning is, “Some unforeseen peril or harm may suddenly come upon a citizen, which he does not have the means to rescue himself from on his own. As part of ensuring that we, as a society, take care of one another in our need, we tax citizens to provide the means to protect and care for them in their need.”  Indeed, it seems rather easier to justify taxation for healthcare than taxation for transportation, for instance.  Now, none of this is to say that universal public healthcare is necessarily a good idea, and certainly not that the particular ugly hybrid enacted in the US is a good idea.  It may be poorly-conceived in any number of ways.  But this is quite different from saying it is a grave injustice, a mark of rebellion against God, etc. 

When we want to ask whether government has become tyranny, the chief question to be asked is whether it is seeking to serve the common good of its people, or whether it has turned aside to serve the private good of the governors.  The tyrant has classically been identified as the one who turns on his own people, plundering them for his own private gain (to be sure, there are ideological tyrants, like Hitler, who oppress for the sake of some perverse higher end—but is that really what we’re dealing with?).  This is the problem with Tea Party-type cries of “tyranny.”  Where are the millions and billions that Obama is stealing from the American people to fill his own bank account?  Actually, he, and almost all other government officials, make considerably less than most private sector executives.  “Oh, well it’s not money, of course,” we’re told, “it’s the quest for power for power’s sake.”  Well maybe, in the case of some people.  But in general, most people who advocate universal healthcare do so on the basis of genuinely trying to serve the common good.  They may certainly be going about it in the wrong way, but that doesn’t make them tyrants.  


To show the ways in which Obamacare is flawed, we cannot point to some cut-and-dried Bible verse, or some blindingly obvious principle of justice.  We will have to resort to detailed arguments and analyses, to the much more difficult but more rewarding task of persuasion, to show the ways in which justice and the common good are undermined, rather than advanced.  And we will have to live with the fact that some Christians of good will may continue to disagree with us.  And wherever there is legitimate room for disagreement about what the common good requires, then we are not talking about an issue of conscience on which we are bound “to obey God rather than men.”  Many are loudly declaring that Christians need to stand up and resist this evil; otherwise, we are obeying men rather than God. The implication, of course, is that the tens of millions of Christians who disagree with them on this (within the US alone) are in rebellion against God.  Really?  Are we willing to go that far?    No, it seems quite clear to me that what we are differing about is a question of the best pursuit of natural goods within the civil kingdom, a matter in which Scripture and the natural law will inform us but may not lead us to any one certain conclusion.  That being the case, we are certainly free to continue to argue our case, but we are not free, it seems to me, to disobey our rulers.  “Our judgments we are bound in this case to suspend,” as Hooker would tell us on such a matter—obeying the law even as we critique it.  


An intriguing passage from the fascinating (and deeply troubling) book Merchants of Doubt, about which much more soon to come:

“Cornucopians hold to a blind faith in technology that isn’t borne out by the historical evidence.  We call it ‘technofideism.’

Why do they hold this belief when history shows it to be untrue? Again we turn to Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, where he claimed that “the great advances of civilization, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government.” To historians of technology, this would be laughable had it not been written (five years after Sputnik) by one of the most influential economists of the second half of the twentieth century. 

The most important technology of the industrial age was the ability to produce parts that were perfectly identical and interchangeable. Blacksmiths and carpenters couldn’t do it; in fact, humans can’t do it routinely in any profession. Only machines can. It was the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Department that developed this ability to have machines make parts for other machines, spending nearly fifty years on this effort—an inconceivable period of research for a private corporation in the nineteenth century. Army Ordnance wanted guns that could be repaired easily on or near a battlefield by switching out the parts. Once the basic technology to do this—machine tools, as we know them today—was invented, it spread rapidly through the American economy. Despite efforts to prevent it, it soon spread to Europe and Japan, as well. Markets spread the technology of machine tools throughout the world, but markets did not create it. Centralized government, in the form of the U.S. Army, was the inventor of the modern machine age.

Machine tools are not the exception that proves the rule; there are many other cases of government-financed technology that were commercialized and redounded to the benefit of society. Even while Friedman was writing his soon-to-be-famous book, digital computers were beginning to find uses beyond the U.S. government’s weapons systems, for which they were originally developed. Private enterprise transformed that technology into something that could be used and afforded by the masses, but the U.S. government made it possible in the first place. The U.S. government also played a major role in the development of Silicon Valley. In recent years, something we now all depend on—the Internet, originally ARPANET—was developed as a complex collaboration of universities, government agencies, and industry, funded largely by the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was expanded and developed into the Internet by the government support provided by the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991, promoted by then-senator Al Gore.

In other cases, new technologies were invented by individual or corporate entrepreneurs, but it was government action or support that transformed them into commercially viable technologies; airplanes and transistors come to mind. (Transistors were explicitly promoted by the U.S. government when they realized that Minutemen missiles needed onboard rather than remote controls, and vacuum tubes would not suffice.) Still other technologies were invented by individuals but were spread through government policy. Electricity was extended beyond the major cities by a federal loan-guarantee program during the Great Depression. The U.S. interstate highway system, which arguably created postwar America as we know it, was the brainchild of President Dwight Eisenhower, who recognized the role it could play both in the U.S. economy and in national defense; it became the model for similar highway systems around the globe. And nuclear power, which may help us out of the global warming conundrum, was a by-product of the technology that launched the Cold War: the atomic bomb. The relationship between technology, innovation, and economic and political systems is varied and complex. It cannot be reduced to a simple article of faith about the virtues of a free market.” 

Leviathan or Puppet?

One of the favorite rhetorical weapons of the Right is to point to the sheer page count of federal legislation, particularly the Federal Tax Code.  They are especially fond of pointing out that the tax code is longer than the Bible, though there seems to be considerable haziness on the precise margin.  This is often presented as damning evidence of the overgrown power of the federal government, a sprawling, all-consuming monster that has its tentacles in everything.  Of course, no one would deny that there is a lot of truth to this picture.

But reading Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens, it occurred to me that another interpretation is possible.  Perhaps the sheer length of US tax regulations is more a sign of impotence than omnipotence.  Think about it.  

In a nation with a strong, respected, generally-accepted authority (perhaps a mere hypothetical), laws ought to be able to be fairly concise.  The law can say “Thou shalt not do X,” (where X is a fairly clear and generally-accepted concept), without too much further elaboration, and can generally accept that people will by and large try not to do X.  But suppose people feel disinclined to obey; they will start saying, “So what counts as X anyway?” Or, “They won’t be able to convict me of X if I just do it this way…”  To cope with this loss of authority, this lack of concern for the spirit of the law, the law will have to become ever more complex and detailed, trying to plug every hole in the dam.  We might suggest the principle, “Where words are many, authority is probably absent.”  Of course, this becomes a vicious cycle, since the increased regulation simply provides further incentive to try to dodge the law and search for loopholes.  

Treasure Islands suggests that this is exactly what has happened with our tax codes.  Eager to avoid taxes, companies and wealthy individuals used accounting tricks and offshore tax havens to get off scot-free, and governments responded with ever more complex tax codes to catch the fleeing money, usually with only very short-term success.  Even worse are those cases where the complexity and absurd length of the regulations is a result of lobbying, so that governments are not merely struggling to maintain control but have capitulated entirely, allowing corporations to all but write the tax codes for them.  

It’s for this reason that, while sympathetic in principle with a dramatically slimmed-down tax code, I have so little patience for the gimmicky proposals that get trotted out every election cycle by the GOP, such as Herman Cain’s absurd “9-9-9” plan.  “We can get the tax code down to just a few pages and still bring in just as much revenue!”  For how long?  A week?  The current code started out at just a few pages too, and you can guarantee that as long as multinational corporations and wealthy individuals remain as powerful, mobile, and creative as they now are, that any tax code that wants any slice of their money will have to grow like kudzu just to keep up.  

Taxation and Christian Ethics, Pt. 2: Paying Up

From the passages discussed in Part 1, we can glean several principles about our responsibility to pay our taxes, and about the extent to which it is legitimate to try to minimize our tax-paying through legal loopholes, etc.  Here’s a first attempt to think through those principles, and how they might apply concretely.  

1. We shouldn’t care

For himself, the Christian shouldn’t be bothered about paying taxes.  This is chiefly because the Christian shouldn’t be bothered about money in general.  “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth” (Mt. 6:19-34; Lk. 12:13-34); “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  We are certainly not to seek after wealth as a good in itself–that much is obvious enough.  But nor are we to seek after it unduly as a means to meet our needs, for we are to have faith that God will provide–interestingly, it is what we might call legitimate prudence, rather than miserly greed, that is primarily being targeted in both the Matthew 6 and Luke 12 passages.  This does not mean, of course, that we are to indulge in sloth and apathy; it means we are to work diligently in faith, without fear, and it means that if we have enough for our needs, we will be content.  If someone demands money from us, then we will have no reason to make a fuss about it, because we don’t need it.  Of course, this raises the objection, “What if we do *need* it?  What if the government is in fact levying very oppressive taxes on very poor people?”  Well, actually, it kinda was in the Palestine of Jesus’s day; and Jesus still calls on us to trust and pay.  I imagine that there could very well be exceptions, however; but as our own tax systems are far less oppressive, considering our disposable income, it hardly seems like a relevant objection in modern America.


 2. It isn’t ours

It’s also important to remember that the money isn’t ours to begin with.  People will immediately raise objections to the first principle based on “good stewardship.”  Ok, fine.  But what does stewardship mean?  Taking care of what is someone else’s, in this case, God’s.  Now, if God demands it from us in some form or another (say, by putting over us a magistrate who demands it), then we can’t very well protest on the basis of good stewardship.  “No, God, we can’t give this up, like you’re asking us to, because we have to keep it safe for you.”  Ha!  

Indeed, more to the point, on whose behalf are we exercising our stewardship?  For God?  That’s silly–God doesn’t need the stuff!  “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”  God gives it to us to exercise stewardship over it for the sake of those who need it.   Why does God give me the things that I have?  To use for the advancement of his kingdom, which will include any number of things, but will mostly boil down to using it for the help of my neighbor.  (This doesn’t mean there’s never any basis for enjoying it myself.  If God has given me more than enough, and I’m using the surplus to help advance his kingdom and care for those around me who need it, and there’s still surplus, then by all means enjoy it, and be thankful!)  Now, this raises a couple of points that have ramifications for the current question.  For instance, it raises the question of whether tax-paying is a legitimate means of helping the needs of my neighbor.  I think it is, but before addressing this, another issue must be cleared out of the way.


 3. Legitimacy isn’t relevant

In view of the foregoing points, a common issue that is raised in this discussion (indeed, the chief issue) melts away as irrelevant–the issue of legitimacy.  Generally, the question of taxation is posed in these terms: The government has a right to take a certain amount from you, and everything else, you have a right to keep.  Therefore, you have an obligation to pay the part they have a right to, and no more.  If they demand more than they have a right to, then in principle, you don’t have to pay, though you don’t really want to get put in jail.  So, by all means, look for legal loopholes, to avoid paying more than you have to.

This paradigm is immensely unhelpful on a number of levels.  For one thing, it simply embroils us in endess and heated political disputes which seek to determine how much the government does and does not have a right to.  This would seem a very difficult question to resolve in abstract terms, and even more so to determine clearly in particular circumstances.  So it doesn’t really solve the problem, and any answer it gives us is one that is hardly theological.  More seriously, it represents a “rights” paradigm that should be excluded ipso facto for the Christian by the fact that “we are not our own.”  We do not even possess ourselves, much less our earthly possessions.  We are possessed by Christ, and all that we have is at his service.  If the government takes more than they ought to, then, it is not we who are robbed, but Christ, and he is more than capable of taking care of himself.  Likewise, we might say that the government does not have “rights” so that we “owe” them anything in an absolute sense.  We all stand before God, and are accountable only to him.  “The sons are free.”  However, we express this freedom in love and service to all.  The sons pay their taxes not because the government constrains them, but because the love of Christ constrains them, and because they are free, in any case, from bondage to their money.  It has no hold over them, so why not give it up? 

To decide whether or not we ought to pay taxes, then, it is not really relevant whether or not the government demands “their fair share,” whatever that might be.  Perhaps the tax rate should only be 20%, but it’s 50%.  Well, can you afford to pay 50%?  Then shut up and pay up.  This, I have suggested is the point of Romans 13.  No doubt the Roman government was extraordinarily unjust with their taxes.  But how does the Christian confront injustice?  Like Christ, by giving himself up on behalf of others.

(Now, I should add that this does not, of course, preclude any form of speaking up against injustice and oppression.  It may be unhelpful to try to pinpoint a “legitimate” amount of taxes the government can demand, but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to recognize an exorbitant and harmful demand.  And there are godly ways to oppose this–at least, one would hope so!  I’ll try to touch on this in the third post–Tax Protesting.)


4. Charity is the rule

Now, this “on behalf of others” then leads us to the crucial point.  The Christian is to use their financial resources for the sake of others.  This is the controlling principle.  So, what if I’m planning to give 30% of my income to charity, and the government comes along and demands that 30%?  

Well, the principle that comes in here (one I’ve recently been focusing on in my Reformation research) is this: we are not bound to civil laws, except insofar as failure to obey is a sin against charity.  Now, first, the law itself may be an expression of charity, and so failure to obey it will be ipso facto a sin against charity.  Although we are inclined to be highly skeptical of the value of our laws, and can easily list off dozens of examples of bad laws, the fact is that most of our laws, at any rate in a modern Western country, do considerably more good than harm.  Despite all the wicked and inefficient things in the US budget, I would be willing to hazard that a majority of our tax money then does actually do some very good things (even if one wanted to argue that the same money might hypothetically do even more good if controlled by another entity).  And I would submit that it is our duty to give the benefit of the doubt, assuming the law is an expression of charity, and happily paying up, except where there is clear reason to think otherwise.


And what if there is?  Well, it’s still possible that disobeying will be a sin against charity.  I can think of at least three ways: a) because other good people think the law is good, and your disobedience would look evil to them, and would thus be a source of offence; b) because you get thrown into prison or something, which is probably not good for anybody; if the law is downright wicked, it may be worth it, but usually not; c) because a bad order is often better than no order at all, and while the taxes may be bad, a failure to pay them will be disruptive in a harmful way.  

One or all of these, presumably, is probably in view in Romans 13.  The taxes were themselves bad, both by virtue of demanding too much from poor people, and from the fact that the Roman government used this tax money for some very wicked things.  Despite all this, Paul says pay. (Brief excursus: this, in my view, is enough to refute the regular arguments that we shouldn’t pay taxes that will go to support abortion (as the right will object) or to support wicked wars (as the left will object).  While we are by all means to oppose such things, tax resistance does not seem to be the right way to do so, at least in the ordinary course of events.  And it seems clear that we do not incur guilt by forking over the money that is used for such things.)  To fail to pay would have been a failure of the Christian charity that Paul calls for here–it would look bad in the eyes of their neighbors and their rulers, even if it did not call down needless persecution on them, which it may have done; perhaps also he knew that the attitude of the Roman Christians was such that any disobedience on their part would not have been rightly motivated.


But this does not prove that Paul’s command would apply in every circumstance.  What if, for instance, your sister had just died and left her three children for you to care for and feed, and along comes the tax man, and you simply can’t afford to pay him?  Well then, you would do as charity demanded in this situation–not pay–at least, not beyond what you were able.  Obviously an extreme example.  In such a case, you would be legitimate in refusing payment even if somehow it did cause offence–the urgent need of another human being that you were in a position to relieve could take precedence over the tax demand, so that you ought first to look for legal ways to minimize your payment, and if necessary illegal ways.  Now, it’s important to be careful here.  Because there are always urgent needs of other human beings.  Can I say I’m not going to pay my taxes this year because there are desperately hungry people in Haiti who need that money instead?  Well, I suppose there would be some moral integrity in this position if I really did give every penny I could spare to these desperate people, and lived an ascetic life myself; but few people are going to do that.  At any rate, I think a good sense of vocation will come to our rescue here–you’re not called upon to shirk demands that God has put right in front of you–the laws of your country–for demands thousands of miles away.   

And, to come back to my little parenthetical excursus above, you may have noticed that I said “at least in the ordinary course of events.”  Might there be times when tax resistance is legitimate because of the wicked cause the money is going to?  I think so.  Imagine if in 1400, the English king came along and said, “I have to levy a huge additional tax to finance an expedition into France, so I can kill fellow Christians simply to increase my domain.”  (You know, hypothetically–as if such a thing could ever happen!)  I think Christians could say, “Heck no.  We will not be party to such wickedness!”  Of course, I think that this ought to, as much as possible, be a corporate action, something church leaders could agree on, instead of just individuals taking it upon themselves.  Likewise, if the US gov’t came along and said, “We need to raise an additional $10 billion to fund Planned Parenthood this year, and we’re going to do it by taxing such-and-such.”  In such a case, by all means mount a concerted resistance to paying taxes on such-and-such.  Of course, I still wouldn’t say that you are required to do so, and would be sinning ipso facto by paying the tax.  It may prove unrealistic to resist the tax.  But if it was doable, then I would say it would be legitimate.  The problem is that most taxes are not like this, and if one is not given the opportunity to selectively opt out of the downright wicked bits of the tax, then one is not given license to start resisting the whole thing.

So, assuming such extreme circumstances aren’t in place, then what?  Well, then, you could only avoid taxes if it were not a source of offence or harm–possibly.  Here’s the bar one would have to meet: IF (1) a tax were in itself bad–unjustly demanded, wickedly used, whatever–and (2) you wanted to put the tax money toward another use that was clearly for the benefit of others, not simply for yourself; and (3) you could do so–avoid paying the unjust or harmful tax–without causing disruption, getting yourself in trouble, causing others to stumble or being a bad example to others with less pure motives, THEN it seems to me you would be justified in avoiding the tax.  Now, the way I’ve put it, this would conceivably include even tax evasion (which is illegal) rather than mere tax avoidance (which is legal), if you were certain that you could get away with the evasion and thus avoid violating condition three.  But I’d be very hesitant to go there in practice; at any rate, it seems quite unlikely you could be sufficiently certain, so you’d have to have a really darn good reason for it.  On the whole, this is quite a high bar to meet, and the capacity for self-deception is high.  If Christian love is our guide, in any case, we will not go in with an attitude of looking at a checklist to try to justify exploiting tax loopholes…rather, we would only go in that direction if love was otherwise driving us toward it by putting other more urgent demands before us.  


So much for paying.  But can we pay up scrupulously and fully and still protest the injustice, the inefficiency, the idiocy of our taxes?  In a final post, I’ll try to explore this question a bit.