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