The moral arguments to raise taxes

The budget deadlock in Washington this weekend has as a part of its root cause a pledge by many Republicans in Congress to never vote in favor of legislation that would raise taxes. Part of their reasoning is the claim that lowering taxes will stimulate the economy and provide greater revenues. Part of their reasoning is that people have the right to their money and any attempt to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor is un-American.

But looking at the question of raising taxes on the wealthier Americans to provide additional services for poorer one as a moral question leads to some interesting conclusions. There’s a common consensus in both Catholic theological traditions as well as American Puritanism that refusing to give to someone in need is immoral.

Frank Kirkpatrick traces the threads in a post on Huffpost Religion:

“[…] In discussing what we owe to our neighbors, Aquinas argued that on the side of the giver we must provide to those in need those goods which we hold over and above what is necessary to maintain those who are dependent upon us and our household. In short, we have no right to goods which are not needed to support our station in life when others are in need. In such situations their need trumps our superfluities. Aquinas even argued that it was morally justified for a man to steal bread to feed his starving family if the one holding the bread refused to give it voluntarily. Aquinas, it must be admitted, assumed a hierarchical ordering of society in which kings and monarchs had a right to a station in life somewhat higher than that of the peasant or serf. But the basic principle was unaltered: when people are in need, those who are able from their storehouses or superfluous wealth to meet that need are morally obligated to do so.

A contemporary offshoot of Aquinas’ teaching on superfluity, adjusted to meet the realities of modern day capitalism, is the moral notion of the “preferential option for the poor,” found for example in the 1986 U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter, “Economic Justice for All.” What this phrase means, quite simply, is that public policy and business choices must always be guided by what is best for the poor, to have the economic system serve their needs before it serves the superfluities or excess desires of the wealthy.

The same idea found in Aquinas and contemporary Catholic social teaching was reflected in a seminal document in American Protestant history, “A Model of Christian Charity,” preached as a sermon by John Winthrop to the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts in 1630. Winthrop also admitted that God established societies in which there would be economic differences between rich and poor (no equalizing Marxism here), but like Aquinas he insisted that these differences must work for the common good, so that the rich and mighty should not “eat up the poor”. He went on to admit, that human sin being what it is, or catastrophes being what they were, there will come a time,”

More here.

There’s no reason to expect that this is going to have any major part in the deliberations on Capital Hill this weekend.

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Category : The Lead

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  1. Michael Russell

    Long before Newt took out his “Contract on America” freeing the predators to pillage without restraint under the guise of job creation, there was a Social Contract that reduced the freedom of the rich and powerful to pillage while reducing the freedom of the masses to rise up and eat them. The State was made the sovereign individual and the State, not the Market, managed the social contract.

    Today the predators think that they are somehow insulated from the consequences of destroying this social contract and all notions of having responsibility for the Common Good. And while the common good might well press all people to strive to be productive and not dependent, it does not do so by cutting off those who are not capable of being productive agents: elders, children, the sick and inform. The Common Good requires that the strong and able protect and nurture those who are incapable.

    Christianity has a deep theological seating in the common good, read St. Paul or Jesus. So for the predators to affect a Christian demeanor while espousing Ayn Rand’s ethic of selfishness is a huge perversion of the faith.

    In the short term the consequences will fall hardest on those who are truly in need, children and elders, the sick and disabled. Since they cannot well represent themselves we have an obligation to do so. In the slightly longer term as everyone’s well being is reduced with a fresh tumble of the market and higher interest rates, perhaps the vast middle that voted for this ethic of selfishness will get a clue.

    Just as an aside, holding all deal hostage to the passing of a Constitutional Amendment to balance the budget is extortion and hardly the way to go about considering something of such gravity. No doubt they want it passed in their form with a super majority required for raising taxes.

    This is junk yard politics…

  2. James Mackay

    Matthew 25.37-46 comes to mind.

  3. Alas, the debt limit needs raising not to help anyone but to continue killing people. That we would cut back on helping to continue killing is a sad fact. “everything is on the table” means all helpful programs but NOT the Defense “Budget” nor various politicos’ private projects nor the teats for the well-off. “I tremble that God is just.”

  4. Ttollerton

    I very much look forward to the next article in this series, which will likely be entitled, “The Moral Arguments to Not Raise Taxes”.

    I would imagine the piece would include the following points:

    – Spending money you do not have is not a “moral” way to go through life.

    – The fact that when you GIVE people something through entitlements over long periods of time, the more reliant upon it they become and less inclined to work for it.

    – Robbing Peter to pay Paul, always ensures the support of Paul

    I’m sure the future article will document all of these points. And that is why I love the Episcopal Cafe…because it is a fair-minded, thoughtful, and unpolitical publication.

    Oh, and one more thing: Aquinas is not God. Thus, stealing, for Christians, regardless of the intention, is morally WRONG, not morally right.

  5. Michael Russell

    Nothing at all wrong about being political. The debt is a function of 8 years of incurring bills while not ensuring the revenue to pay for them. The GOP inherited a balanced budget and a surplus and then bunged it up with two wars, insufficient taxation to pay for them, and a 700 billion dollar give away to their financial friends as they swept out of office.

    It is the height of hypocrisy to posture that they are the fiscally responsible folks when it was their policies of neglect with respect to regulating financial markets set off this recession.

    @Ttollerton: I am totally with you on balancing the budget and living within our means, that is how we manage our parish. I totally agree with not spreading dependency, but some people are actually dependent. I do believe that people should pay for what they want in the form of government, but cannot simply wipe away existing obligations. I believe that the wealthy have more to lose than the poor. 15% of Whites and 35% of African Americans have zero to negative net worth, so much less needing protection. Ironically it is the wealthy who utilize the stock market who are disproportionately affected by the predatory practices of some financiers. I remain amazed that it is not the coupon cutters who are raising a stink about the lack of financial regulation.

    Please explain to me the social value of a widening rift between haves and have nots. It has never proven beneficial in the past and unless we idealize China’s sub-subsistence manufacturing wage level, I suggest we need to better balance the distribution of wealth.

  6. Grace Burson

    How on earth is Social Security encouraging people not to work?? You only receive Social Security if you’ve PAID INTO the system over time, through your WORK. The reason it’s called an “entitlement” is because people are ENTITLED to it because they’ve EARNED it.

  7. Rod Gillis

    “Oh, and one more thing: Aquinas is not God. Thus, stealing, for Christians, regardless of the intention, is morally WRONG, not morally right.” (Posted by Ttollerton).

    No indeed, St. T.A. is not God, but he is highly logical and analytical. More so than the contention above, I find.

    The right to private property is a qualified right. Stealing bread to feed a starving child, for example, is morally justified, indeed quite likely an “ought”, a moral imperative.

  8. tgflux

    @Ttollerton: if St Thomas Aquinas ain’t God, how much LESS so is (the atheist) Ayn Rand?

    If it’s easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle than the rich to get into the Kingdom of God, do you think Jesus meant “…so rich people, hide your money in tax shelters! Leave it to your heirs, free of a ‘Death Tax'”?

    Or was he talking about {Quelle Horror!} redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor?

    JC Fisher

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