The answer is no. Now let’s explain.
Doug Wilson has published an opinion that “taxation can be done right,” by which he means there is legitimate taxation according to the Bible. While I esteem much of Rev. Wilson, and there is tremendous overlap between us in general, I disagree with this sentiment, and I think it is important for the Christian’s overall vision of the future. I offer this intramural essay.
Doug makes a distinction between taxation that is without biblical warrant and taxation with biblical warrant, and which we should therefore accept as normative for society. While we would largely agree on the first category, it is the second where I dissent. Doug writes,
We know that taxation can be done right because the Bible talks about paying taxes to the one to whom it is due (Rom. 13:7). These are taxes that we owe, and are not to be considered theft at all. We should no more chafe at paying our legitimate taxes than we do paying our bill for satellite television.
None of this, however, is to justify taxation in general. Ideally, there would be none, and public services would be much more like private services, if not in fact private services. . . . There is no biblical law regarding any taxation for civil government. This leads me to believe there should be none.
I am now more resolved in that belief than I was over two years ago when I first wrote it.
But Doug gives a Scriptural basis. What of that? While I certainly recognize the Scripture he references to support his concept of “legitimate taxes” which we cannot consider theft at all, I don’t agree on its import. In my view, there is simply no biblical warrant for the state to tax its citizens, period. The only warrant in Scripture is to endure taxation, generally, when it exists.
Trying to draw a biblically authoritative distinction between what is legitimate and illegitimate taxation creates the problem. Does Scripture give clear lines for these two categories as prescriptions for law in society? More to the point, where Scripture—we might say “God’s Law”—addresses civil government, does it make such distinction? In his essay, Doug shares this foundation: he says the standard to which we must look for answers to this question is “the law of God.” We are on good and shared footing here.
By this standard, Doug finds three “basic criteria” in which God’s law supports “legitimate taxes.” Of the three, I think the first is the only one that ultimately matters. I will take them in reverse order and end with the most important.
Doug writes, “Third, the taxes must be lawful and in accordance with the established constitution of the people. Arbitary and capricious government, when the constitution outlaws arbitrary and capricous government is hypocritical.” But what if the established constitution itself gives too much taxing power? I would argue that arbitrary and capricious government is wrong all the time even when the Constitution does not outlaw it. As I have demonstrated elsewhere, our Constitution gives virtually unlimited power to Congress to tax us—and it has used it liberally. The “Antifederalist” critics of the Constitution pinpointed this problem early—and they were right. I would venture to argue that, constitutionally, every tax we have today is perfectly legitimate. So this criteria doesn’t really help us much, and really is moot unless.
Doug also sees a second criterion: “Second, the taxes need to be levied, in the main, so that the rulers can perform the functions that God requires them to perform. Coercion is a big deal, and so the government must only be allowed to exercise it when they have express warrant for what they are doing.”
The problem with this is in the question it raises: Where do we find that for which the government only has “express warrant”? Don’t get me wrong, I love the criterion in general, but we need an authority above the government to decree its boundaries or else the government will do the deciding for itself. And lo and behold, by this standard, the government always seems to have its own express warrant.
I know Doug would agree that we must find such express warrants in Scripture. Scripture gives express warrant for civil government to perform certain tasks, and it is for these, and only these, tasks that the government should be allowed to collect taxes. Fair enough. But this argument is self-refuting. Why?
Because God’s Law nowhere gives the civil government “express warrant” to collect taxes. Whatever other functions it may be said to have, this is not one of them, and thus from our shared biblical standard, its hands are tied.
Indeed, therefore, the assumption that “taxes need to be levied, in the main, so that the rulers can perform the functions that God requires them to perform” is nowhere expressly warranted in Scripture. Those who perform civil offices and civil functions must have been expected to be funded in some other way under biblical law.
Of course, this also raises the question of what, exactly, we mean by “warrant.” I mean that the system of society blueprinted by biblical law nowhere authorizes the civil government to impose taxation. I mean that there must be an express command in biblical law for the civil government to have any legitimate power in that area. And it does not give such a command.
This gets us to the first and most important criterio. Doug writes, “First, the level of taxation must not rival God (1 Sam. 8:15). God claims a tithe, and if that is all God needs, and if God is a jealous God, then we ought to see any attempt on the part of civil government to go past ten percent as an aspiration to Deity.”
While I certainly reject the state’s claims to divinity whether explicit or implicit, and while I have made similar reference to 1 Samuel 8 myself on several occasions, it is simply a mistake to give this passage the weight of biblical warrant—and would certainly be a mistake to give it the weight of express command of biblical law—as normative for society.
First, 1 Samuel 8 is part of a historical narrative—not an imperative, not normative law. Second, it was not the norm for society in general, but was a special case of judgment that would come upon Israel for setting up a monarchy like pagan nations. If we are to construe anything as normative from this passage, it is that when we find a society under taxation, we can understand that as judgment from God for failing to live up to His law. We can understand that as Christians embracing paganism instead of freedom.
And while it is illustrative to some degree to compare this tyrannical king’s “tithe” against that of God’s and to conclude from this that he would be setting himself up as a rival God, it is more crucial to remember the rest of the context. God said that the mere act of demanding such a king was a rejection of Him already. Such a king did not need to go on to perform any of the acts of tyranny described of him in order for him to be considered a rival to God—he was by his very existence as such a king already a rival to God. Any government or law acting outside the express command of God is of the same nature already: a rival replacement of God.
Thus, any taxation outside of that same standard must be judged as complicit in the crime. It need not go past or even reach ten percent in order to be considered “an aspiration to deity.” Any law besides His already is such an aspiration.
For this same reason, we should understand Paul’s comments in Romans 13:7 as descriptive and not prescriptive, not normative, in regard to civil taxation in itself. Paul tells us to pay taxes to whom taxes are due, but this is not to legitimize Caesar’s claims to what is due. Only God’s law can do that. Paul’s teaching is, then, merely a biblical warrant for the wisdom of enduring taxation in some circumstances, not for the establishment and maintenance of the taxation in itself.
Elsewhere, for example, Christ instructed us to turn the other cheek when smitten, or when forced to go a mile, go two. Neither of these is to give biblical warrant to the violence or the coercion. In fact, Christ prefaces these examples by saying they are “evil.” But we are called, to some extent, to endure them. In light of biblical law’s absolute silence in regard to normative civil taxation, we ought to view it in basically the same category: it is an evil, but one which we are called, in most circumstances, to endure.
But this certainly does not preclude us from speaking out against it, or from working to end it. I think we ought to do so with utter vigor and passion. But how shall we proceed? Certainly not by attempts at tax evasion or revolution. But we do need to start with a complete revisioning of society without taxation. We must start with the premise that freedom under God’s Law means nothing less than a society without taxation. Don’t even worry about the PR of such a campaign at first: Christians must simply reconstruct the vision of a truly free society for themselves. Then we can worry about selling it in society, or even merely reconstructing small local societies on our own.
Then we build upon that vision, addressing the toughest questions: how do we provide vital services in such a society? Schools, roads, bridges, utilities, fire and police services, etc. As difficult you may think it is to begin answer those questions, it is hardly impossible (as so many would have you believe). Once you simply remove the taxation card off the table, you will be surprised at the creativity and power of the human mind to solve the basic issues of social life.
With just this mental exercise, you will also realize very quickly that revisioning a world without taxation necessarily entails revisioning the world of civil government and social theory in general. When you begin to remove all of the roles it plays in our lives today, and to strip it down to only those tasks which have express command in biblical law, you will begin to realize what freedom really is. You will see a world largely free of the Congresses and Executives which plague our land—yet which we have been conditioned to uphold as the greatest bastions of freedom in human history. Such a vision may seem frightening to some people; but its goal is liberation from the bondage of man. Freedom is indeed frightening in that way—mainly because we have for too long trusted in horses and chariots, in Sauls and Caesars, rather than God.
And once we reach this mental point, we can begin to fashion free alternatives to the slavish, thieving, and socialistic institutions of the modern state: in education, welfare, civil government, markets, defense, courts, and so much more. We simply need to get our little minds outside the box in which we’ve been stuffed. And once our minds are set free, and free indeed, it won’t be long before our butts want to follow. Maybe that’s what really frightens people—knowing that modern state might want to try to start kicking.