Christian Taxation

December 16, 2003 | 35 comments
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We have been interviewing candidates for a position as tax professor, but here is a question that I haven’t dared to ask any of them: So, how do you feel about reforming the tax code to accord with moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics? If you haven’t heard, this is the premise of Professor Susan Pace Hamill’s still-controversial proposal, published last year in the Alabama Law Review.

Hamill begins her article by quoting Matthew 25:45 (NIV) — “”I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” She describes Alabama’s tax system, showing that sales and income taxes are highly regressive, and property taxes are very low. She then argues that Alabama’s low property taxes disable the state and local governments from providing essential services to the poor, such as education. In the introduction, she states:

Alabama’s citizens, especially those of faith, who are empowered by virtue of that faith to live according to moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics, have a moral responsibility to affirmatively exercise their constitutional rights and support comprehensive tax reform in order to eliminate the vast amount of injustice created by Alabama’s tax structure. When voting, all Alabamians have a moral duty to carefully consider whether candidates seeking public office plan to support a plan for tax reform that addresses these injustices. However, by virtue of possessing more education, wealth, or status than the average Alabamian, some Alabamians have a greater moral responsibility to foster tax reform by seeking to educate others and to challenge positions taken by those distorting the truth for their own self interest. Additionally, Alabama’s elected members of the House and the Senate, and the Governor of Alabama, by virtue of their direct access to the legislative process, have an even greater moral duty to work towards securing a fair and just tax structure for all Alabamians, even when pressured by special interests groups who, for their own self interest, seek to maintain the status quo. And finally, as ministers of God’s word, Alabama’s religious leaders have the greatest moral responsibility to faithfully preach the word that the injustices perpetuated by Alabama’s tax structure are immoral and cannot be defended under any reasonable interpretation of Judeo-Christian ethics, and therefore individuals claiming to be part of the People of God can no longer complacently tolerate Alabama’s tax structure as it currently operates.

This line of argument twists me in knots. On the one hand, I believe strongly that government policy should not overly burden the poor. I agree with Hamill that such policies are fundamentally immoral. (“Sins of commission.”) On the other hand, Hamill’s line of reasoning may imply an affirmative obligation on the part of government to aid the poor in this way or that. (“Sins of omission.”) My objection is not that I am reluctant to aid the poor. Instead, my objection relates to comparative institutional analysis: I believe that government is not a very good provider of charitable services when compared to private groups, particularly churches.

There is some evidence that government activity in poverty programs reduces individual and church initiatives. In my view, it certainly reduces the felt need for charitable work by individuals. Government welfare is distant, while Church welfare can be personal (when I am involved in administering it).

Moreover, the Church Welfare Program was built on the idea that we could do it better than civil government. So, the Mormon view on this seems directly opposed to Hamill’s call for more government intervention. Instead, we would call for government to scale back and provide more room for the Church. Right? (He writes with law professor’s grin …)

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35 Responses to Christian Taxation

  1. brayden on December 16, 2003 at 1:23 am

    True, Mormons do welfare programs better than the government can. But that’s partly because we have fewer needs in our church compared to the totality of needs that exist in our nation. In my ward, a fairly demographically heterogeneous ward, the bishop is almost overburdened with welfare needs. We run a welfare deficit – spending more than we bring in via fast offerings. How would it be if our bishop was meant to serve the entire non-member population living within ward boundaries? Utterly overwhelming.

    Another problem with administering faith based welfare programs is that many needy people do not ascribe to any particular denomination or congregation and requiring them to find their local parish in order to receive financial help is a logistical nightmare. Not impossible but the search costs for individuals increase greatly as decentralization of the system increases. Search costs cut into earning power.

    The biggest problem of all though is that church welfare systems (ours included) don’t offer the kinds of welfare services that needy people so often need. Take my family for example. I’m a student who has a reasonable stipend, and my wife works 30 hours a week so that she can have health insurance and earn enough to buy the necessities. Our children though are uninsured. We can’t afford the insurance offered by either of our employers and private insurance is even worse. We can either keep them uninsured and just take them to the county hospital ER when they’re really sick or we can turn to the state’s insurance program for uninsured children. Because we love our children and want them to be healthy, we choose the latter.

    If the church offered a children’s health plan, we’d certainly jump on board, but they do not. I’m not sure about this, but I think that a majority of state welfare costs go to health care programs. This is where a lot our tax dollars are spent – helping needy children and elderly people get the medical care they need.

  2. Jim on December 16, 2003 at 1:54 am

    Gordon, though I see the dangers about which you are concerned, I don’t see why an argument for tax reform–in this case the reform of a particularly regressive state tax system–would imply any particular kind of welfare program. Thus, though I think Brayden’s point, that there are some welfare programs that it appears only the state is in a position to administer, is an interesting one, I don’t see it as relevant to the Pace Hamill’s argument.

  3. Dave on December 16, 2003 at 4:32 am

    Gordon,

    I suppose the Christian approach to tax policy should start with “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” This suggests keeping the Judeo-Christian ethic and tax-oriented social policy analysis separate. However, to the extent one’s ethics inform one’s policy preferences, progressive taxation seems like the right emphasis.

    Closer to home, I would note that tithing is regressive, at least in the US where itemizers can deduct charitable contributions. And of course the Mormon superrich pay a much lower percentage of their overall wealth increase if they don’t self-assess on capital gains (whether realized or unrealized). For example, how many California LDS homeowners pay tithing on the dizzying appreciation of their personal residence, or 10% of their eventual gain on sale? I’m guessing not too many.

    Thus in actual practice, Mormon tithing policy is something like “the more you make, the less you pay as a percentage of your income.” It’s only lower income non-itemizers who pay a full 10%, and the richer you get the lower the percentage goes. I can’t believe this is unknown to those in the COB (they get excellent finanical advice), and since nothing is done or said to address this inequity, the logical conclusion is they approve of regressive incidence. No squeezing through the eye of the needle stuff here–you can drive a fully-equipped Hummer through our front door.

  4. Gordon on December 16, 2003 at 10:04 am

    Quick response to Jim: I see your point. The line between tax reform and welfare is not direct. But Hamill makes the link. Her guiding principle is that society should treat the poor better (OK, that’s pretty simplistic, but I think you get the drift). That means not only refraining from harming the poor, but also affirmatively assisting them. Admittedly, the distinction between commission and omission is not always clear, but I reject the notion that people who oppose the expansion of the welfare state are uncharitable (an argument I have heard so often). Stated another way, I don’t think that Judeo-Christian ethics has much to say about the size of the welfare state.

    Dave makes some nice points about the regressive nature of tithing. Having just sold a home, I assumed that we were supposed to pay tithing on the increase. And we did. Perhaps I should move to California and request a refund? ;-)

  5. brayden on December 16, 2003 at 10:52 am

    Let’s put aside the question of whether it is uncharitable to oppose the welfare state, since we’re all likely to have different opinions on that. I think all might agree though that children and non-working elderly should have some form of health care. Is it charitable to deny dependents proper health care? I think that is a better, more focused question.

    I personally do not think it is. Our society should strive to protect those who have no means to acquire basic needs (like proper health care) for themselves. That said, can a regressive tax system properly fund state health care systems for the needy? I think the answer is no. Most states that attempt to do this get a lot of funding from the federal government. Without that aid, the state’s are wholly unprepared to administer an adequate health services program. States with excessive tax breaks for the wealthy are essentially free-riding on the progressive tax structure at the federal level.

    My main point is that regressive tax structures do not provide adequate resources for the most basic of all welfare services. If this is true, by association, regressive tax structures are uncharitable.

  6. Kaimi on December 16, 2003 at 11:03 am

    I will have to read the article, it sounds very interesting. The idea that the scriptures command us to treat the poor better is certainly not new. It is also an idea that many LDS members like to limit or qualify, as it goes against the (less scripturally robust) idea of the protestant work ethic. For that matter, schools of thought like the Catholic offshoot of Liberation Theology are premised on the idea that the poor deserve precedence over the rich. There is certainly more than one way to view the scriptural mandates about the poor.

  7. Logan on December 16, 2003 at 11:04 am

    I would disagree with Dave that tithing is regressive in practice. Keep in mind that from an economic point of view, the figure of a person’s “income” is an illusion. If you make $100,000 a year, what that really means is that it costs your employer that much to employ you (and that doesn’t even include the tax incidence that falls on your employer directly). The money that contributes to your consumption, saving, standard of living, etc., is much lower.

    Because of the progressive tax structure in the US, the more a person makes, the greater the difference between what he or she is paid and what he or she actually receives. If a person in New York (where I live) has an income of $200,000 per year (I don’t know if that’s what you mean by “superrich”), they’d be lucky to bring home half that, or $100,000. The (largely) accepted practice of paying tithing on one’s gross income would mean that this person pays $20,000, or %20 of real income. It would take a great number of itemized deductions and untithed capital gains to bring the effective rate of tithing down to %10 or below.

    If your point is that wealthy people are more likely to be dishonest in their tithe-paying, that’s beyond the scope of pure economics (which is what I know), but I’m skeptical of that, too. From the wealthy members of the church that I know personally, my personal judgment of their integrity is that it is at least comparable to that of the poorer members. Are there wealthy people who are dishonest in their tithing? Sure. But are there poorer people who do the same thing? You better believe it (I’m quite certain that there are many people in my ward in the Bronx who pay less than a full tithe).

  8. Gordon on December 16, 2003 at 11:09 am

    Brayden, I think I might reason this a bit differently. In my view, regressive tax structures are unfair because the poorest members of society are asked to bear a disproportionate burden. Regardless of what programs the tax revenues support.

    As for the question of welfare services and health care, you seem to assume that if the government exits this activity, a void will be created and will persist. My belief is that charitable institutions (not just our Church, but many churches and other charities) would fill the void. Moreover, I think they might do a better job of it than the government traditionally has done. Not perfect, but better.

  9. Nate on December 16, 2003 at 11:34 am

    Actually there was an article a while back by a duo of economists studying the way in which Mormons described income for tithing purposes. (Note: this is obviously a different question than whether or not they actually pay tithing on the income.) I think that it was in the Review of Economics. What they found was that most Mormons thought that you should pay tithing on capital gains. The one exception (which Dave hit on) is the appreciation in home value. Capital gains also present a tricky issue of realization, and it is not clear if the home appreciation exemption was an issue of realization or income definition. If a Rich-Spiritually-Stunted-California-Mormon (RSSCM) purchases a home that appreciates, sells the home, rolls the proceeds into another home, holds the home for twenty years and then sells the home and pays tithing on the whole amount of the appreciation, have they robbed the Lord? Obiviously, tithing-deferral can make a big difference in terms of real economic costs. Should the RSSCM pay tithing not only on the appreciated value of the home, but also on the imputed interest gained on the appreciation? Or should we assume that some imputed interest income is included in the appreciation of the home?

  10. Nate on December 16, 2003 at 11:46 am

    Gordon: It warms the libertarian cockles of my heart to hear you calling for a cut back in the state to make room for churches. However, I am, alas, skeptical. Having dealt with the very intense welfare needs of some of my hometeachees, I think that there are certain problems that the Church is not very well equipped to deal with. For example, insurance against catastrophic health expenses cannot, I think, be done very well through the Church. I don’t think it is done very well through even private insurance. Even those with “good” insurance will hit their life-time caps fairly quickly if they have a catastrophic event. (My wife has done a lot of work with quadrapelegics and traumatic brain injuries. The costs associated with such problems are astronomical. She worked for one set of quadrapelegic brothers who easily went through $20,000 of medical care expenses a month.) I am not a big fan of nationalized health care, but it seems that there are certain kinds of risks where the state is probably the best insurer.

    Furthermore, I think that most of the incentive problems that plague state run welfare systems also plague Church welfare. The problem, as I see it, is that we have an ex post moral duty to respond to poverty with charity, but this ex post response creates all sorts of moral hazards that can have really bad ex ante incentive effects. As near as I can tell, this is an inescapable problem. For example, I have worked with a family on Church welfare where the parent used the supplemental income provided by the church to (sort of) pay for living expenses for her and her children, and then took her own income to increase purchases of drugs. The result was the church charity did nothing to raise the standard of living of the family and instead acted as a subsidy for drug use. This is precisely the sort of dysfunction that led to “The End of Welfare as We Know It.” I am not saying that it is the kind of dysfunction that justifies indifference. I am just saying that moral hazard remains, regardless of who provides the service.

  11. brayden on December 16, 2003 at 12:02 pm

    Gordon, I’m not sure why you think that private (either non-profit or for-profit) businesses could provide health care for the needy better than the state can. Economists often point to two advantages the state has over private companies in relation to health care provision: 1. The state is so large that it can effectively set its own price for all health services. The government can almost always underbid private providers. Those lower costs of provision result in lower costs to the consumers of health care, whether they be recepients or charitable donors. Essentially, big health care is more cost-efficient. 2. Most private providers will get into the business to create a profit. The risks of health-provision are so great that non-profits have strong incentives to allow someone else to take care of this part of “charitable” work. Because for-profits are in the business to get a profit, the profit margin is translated to the customers or charitable donors in higher prices.

    Keep in mind, I’m not arguing for universalized health care; my argument only applies to health care for the needy.

  12. Russell Arben Fox on December 16, 2003 at 12:37 pm

    I was very touched and persuaded by Professor Hamill’s article when I first read it some time ago. I think she is fundamentally correct about a great deal–but then, I am already quite sympathetic to attempts to instantiate an ethic of care (in the form of health insurance, jobs programs, poverty relief and so forth) through collective institutions like the state, though obviously not all such attempts are equally wise and/or applicable in all circumstances. It’s great food for thought, and I would love to see its arguments taken up and further explored by other evangelical Christians. (Mainstream Protestantism in America, outside movements like the Salvation Army, has not been a leader in social justice arguments, unlike Roman Catholicism–and, in our more communitarian moments, Mormonism.)

    Two quick points. One, I hate to think about tithing in terms of taxation, because of course it IS regressive: 10% is proportionately a much more painful sacrifice for someone trying to pay a food bill on $25,000 a year than for someone who makes $100k+ a year and is thinking that they ought to get a bigger boat. Far better to treat it as a covenant, essentially unrelated to the “works” of the church. Two, Hamill’s article actually had great impact on a recent debate in the state of Alabama, during which a conservative Republican governor used Christian arguments much like hers to promote a reform in the state’s tax code. It was a brave and noble effort, and went down in flames. The American Prospect had a good article the role of Hamill’s argument in the debate here (http://www.prospect.org/webfeatures/2003/08/wilkinson-f-08-28.html); I blogged a bit on the referendum and the aftermath here (http://philosophenweg.blogspot.com/2003_09_01_philosophenweg_archive.html#106252301777459900) and here (http://philosophenweg.blogspot.com/2003_09_01_philosophenweg_archive.html#106321538461052867). The comments by Gregg Easterbrook whom I link to are, I think, particularly interesting.

  13. Nate on December 16, 2003 at 12:51 pm

    During my first year of law school, I regular attended a Torah study group hosted by a visiting Jewish professor. It was a lot of fun.

    We discussed passages from the Pentatuach discussing the finacing of the construction of the tabranacle. Each person was required to donate a fixed sum. Of course, this is even MORE regressive than tithing. The professor pointed out that the regressivity of this method had troubled the rabbi’s and they had saved the text by arguing that equal contributions meant that all Israel could claim equal ownership in the project. The purpose of the regressive, poll-tax approach was thus to prevent the rich from claiming a greater interest in the Tabranacle.

  14. Logan on December 16, 2003 at 1:23 pm

    Russell,

    When I say that tithing is not regressive, I simply mean that as income increases, I’m not sure that percentage of income paid as tithing decreases. It may or may not be “proportionately a much more painful sacrifice for someone trying to pay a food bill on $25,000 a year than for someone who makes $100k+ a year and is thinking that they ought to get a bigger boat” (depending an a host of other variables). But that’s a different issue. If someone could somehow find a way to give everyone an equally burdensome rate, I’m certain they would win the Nobel Prize.

    When economists talk about progressive/regressive/flat tax (or tithing) rates, they are only referring to the rates. A sales tax on food, for example, is regressive because rich and poor people spend similar absolute amounts of money on food, and as such poor people are taxed on a greater proportion of their income.

  15. Matt Evans on December 16, 2003 at 3:03 pm

    Everyone here has been far too lenient toward’s Hamill’s thesis — her understanding of Christianity is abysmal.

    It’s conceivable that Christianity requires people earning X dollars per year to donate Y percent of their income to the poor. It’s inconceivable that Christianity urges us to use the threat of force against those who fail to do so. The state puts people who don’t pay their assigned taxes in jail.

    And her response to Christ in Matthew 25 is to say, “Don’t blame me, I voted for policies that would have forced the rich to pay for bureaucratic programs that would have fed you”!?

    Hamill’s socialist argument masquerading in Christian language is the same claptrap that J. Reuben Clark and Heber Grant warned us about.

    No moral imperative within Christianity justifies using force to get others to give to the poor. If Hammill were simultaneously advocating a voluntary tax system, her idea would have merit.

    But she’s not, and it doesn’t.

  16. Logan on December 16, 2003 at 3:08 pm

    Matt, thank you for saying that.

    I’m glad someone else did, because I was struggling to find a good way to do it without coming across as too mean-spirited. I already worry that I’ve been a little too argumentative on this thread (for which I apologize).

    But I completely agree.

  17. Gordon on December 16, 2003 at 3:12 pm

    Thank you, Matt. Well said.

  18. Russell Arben Fox on December 16, 2003 at 3:26 pm

    “No moral imperative within Christianity justifies using force to get others to give to the poor.”

    Similarly, no moral imperative within Christianity justifies using force to get others to refrain from theft, or to take out their garbage, or not expose themselves publicly, or, oh, say, a million other things. If only our legal system and political associations could be entirely voluntary, without any thought of saction and any concept of duty, obligation, common goods or collectivity! Then freedom and charity would rule.

    Sorry for the sarcasm, Matt; my head was ringing from the clash of libertarian and communitarian perspectives. All I can say is that we apparently have profoundly different understandings of what “force” is. I don’t see it as automatically present in something as plainly rooted in communal necessities (and, one would hope, civic deliberation) as a tax code, which any Christian (I would assume) would rather not have be burdensome to the poor. I take it you think otherwise (about the possibility that a tax code can reflect common virtuous purposes, that is).

  19. clark on December 16, 2003 at 3:34 pm

    Actually libertarianism and communitarianism can mix. There actually are libertarian socialists out there. (I’m not too familiar with the details of their beliefs but have talked to them and been recommended books) I’d add that I think from a Mormon perspective on the City of Enoch that a libertarian communitarianism seems a rather common position, if an unlikely reality given our sinful natures.

  20. Nate on December 16, 2003 at 3:43 pm

    Matt, Logan, and Gordon: I didn’t understand the argument to be that the state should take taxes so as to provide services to the poor as a kind of Christian charity. Rather, I took the criticism to be that the state funds ALL of its functions using a tax code that was shockingly regressive. Why is it a shocking misunderstanding of Christianity to say that even a minimalist state ought not to be financed by “grinding the faces of the poor.”

    IOW, the claim that Christian charity requires forced redistribution from rich to needy is different than the claim that the Leviathan should not be disproportionately financed on the backs of poor.

  21. Matt Evans on December 16, 2003 at 4:31 pm

    Hi Russell,

    The scriptures contain many instances of the law’s use to prevent sins of commission, which would include theft and indecency. There aren’t scriptural parallels for using the threat of force to compel concern for the poor.

    Hi Nate,

    State programs don’t have to be overtly redistributive to be fully redistributive. If the state requires Group A to finance the libraries and roads, but grants Groups A and B equal access to the libraries and roads, the state has redistributed wealth from Group A to Group B.

    Also, I think you’ve modified Hamill’s argument. She believes that PROPORTIONATE taxation is un-Christian. She believes that a flat tax rate that mirrors tithing is unethical. It’s hard for me to take seriously the argument that God’s flat rate formula for tithing is un-Christian.

  22. Logan on December 16, 2003 at 5:11 pm

    Well Nate,

    For me, there are at least two main problems with regressive taxation. One is that it seems based on the idea that “rich people” can better “afford” taxes. What is forgotten is two other things about wealthy people: (1) they’re generally the ones whose time and skills are valued most by society, which is why they’re paid more, and (2) they can most afford to quit working if tax rates are too burdensome, which means that society loses out on something that they were obviously willing to pay for. When this happens, society loses out on transactions that are mutually beneficial and which increase the overall standard of living in society. This can happen when the poor are overtaxed, too, by all means. I’m just saying that “grinding the faces of the rich” is also possible and harmful.

    The other reason is that progressive taxation is harmful for all classes of society, including the poor. What it does is discourage social mobility by disincenting the accumulation of wealth. As people climb the wealth ladder, more and more of their income is taken from them, making it harder and harder to keep increasing. This is not a problem for people who already have great amounts of money — they can live off what they already have, and not what they earn from day to day. It only serves to make it harder for poorer people to improve their lives. What’s worse is when inflation (especially high inflation) is mixed in with progressive taxation. Then there is an artificial “bracket creep” that increases the tax burden on people who haven’t even increased their earning, which can be devastating.

    In a nutshell (maybe a large nutshell?), those are the problems with progressive taxation as I see it. I don’t know if these sorts of issues and intricacies are within the intended scope of this blog, but I’m happy to talk more about them (or we could move the discussion to another forum, as well).

  23. Nate on December 16, 2003 at 5:44 pm

    Logan,

    If you assume (quite reasonably) that people have a diminishing marginal utility for wealth, it follows that if you want an income tax scheme that is neutral as to private decisions (ie doesn’t create incentives not to produce or to over produce) then it seems you want a slighly progressive tax scheme. If my first dollar worth more to me than my second dollar which is worth more than my third and so on, then it seem that a flat tax would, in practice, create the greatest disincentives on the front end (ie on the first dollars I earn) rather than on the back end (ie the last dollars I earn). Thus, I think that your mode of analysis leads in exactly the opposite direction from where you think it is going. In short, if your first dollar of taxes hurts more than your last dollar of taxes and we want our tax code to be neutral as to your incentive to accumulate wealth, we want to tax your first dollar of income at a lower rate than your last dollar of income so that the cost in terms of real utility is the same.

    It does not follow from this insight (diminishing marginal utility for money –> progressive taxation) that the current tax scheme is a good idea. We might want higher or lower taxes, we might want steeper or more gradual progressivity. And, of coruse, this insight tells us nothing about the issue of various tax incentives — e.g., favorable treatment of capital gains, home mortgage deductions, charitable deductions, etc.

  24. Logan on December 16, 2003 at 5:59 pm

    Nate,

    I can see that you’re going to make me dig out some old books and articles for this one (actually, the idea is kind of exciting). Unfortunately, I have a final exam in a couple hours that I’m studying for, so I’ll get back to you in the morning.

  25. Kaimi on December 16, 2003 at 7:59 pm

    Nate (or others who have more historical background than I) — was the law of consecration ever enforced by force or by law?

  26. clark on December 16, 2003 at 8:29 pm

    I suppose that depends upon what you mean by force of law. Remember that there wasn’t *a* law of consecration. That was the principle and there were many different kinds of communitarian experiments both in Joseph’s time and in Utah.

    I’d certainly say that force was involved in a lot of the economic programs, but not all. But one should hasten to add that you could leave (although you would not get your property back)

  27. Matt Evans on December 16, 2003 at 11:32 pm

    Clark and Kaimi,

    I can assure you that if the policy of the church at one time had been to jail, wield swords, or otherwise threaten with force those who failed to offer their property for the benefit of others, you would have heard that story by now.

    Most importantly, regarding the topic at hand, the story would not be presented as evidence of the early church’s superior commitment to Christian ethics.

    No one was threatened with jail time for refusing to join an order. Once they volunteered their property to the collective, by contract, it was no longer theirs.

    As Heber Grant and J.R. Clark repeatedly insisted when intellectuals tried to equate communism with the United Order, the orders were predicated on voluntary submission, not revolution and force.

  28. Clark Goble on December 17, 2003 at 1:54 am

    Matt, I think that’s all I’m saying. When you were in (some of) the economic systems, your property wasn’t yours. If you decided to argue this point you would be prevented from getting what you thought was your property. That is generally what we mean by force and law.

    That whole communities were not forced to enter a economic system against their will seems clear. That the rising generation of children perhaps saw things differently also must be taken into consideration.

  29. Russell Arben Fox on December 17, 2003 at 9:42 am

    Matt,

    “I can assure you that if the policy of the church at one time had been to jail, wield swords, or otherwise threaten with force those who failed to offer their property for the benefit of others, you would have heard that story by now.”

    To which I respond: what Clark said. As I wrote up above, I think we have profoundly different views (presumably arising from our basic perspectives regarding rival claims of the individual and the community) about what constitutes “force.” Were the United Orders “voluntary”? Well, yes: you could leave (but you couldn’t take your property with you, even if it was yours beforehand). But then again, no: it was a commandment, after all, and part of the common consent of the church, and administered by the bishop (not the democratically elected city council). Similarly, would Hammill’s plan depend on “force”? Well, yes: you’d go to jail if you didn’t pay your taxes. But then again, no: that plan presumably would have been instituted through public deliberation (Governor Riley of Alabama was pushing a referendum, not changing the tax cose by fiat), and do you really consider the enforcement of every single law that you didn’t personally vote for to be “coercion”?

    There is broad continuum here, one which modifies one’s concerns about “force,” once it is admitted that there are other measurements besides the individual’s standing.

  30. Nate on December 17, 2003 at 11:23 am

    Kaimi,

    Depends on what you mean by the force of law. All of the various versions of the law of consecreation tried to take a legal form. I.e. you were to legally deed property, etc. etc. When folks wanted to back out of the United Order they requested their property back. When the church wouldn’t give it (or more often when the church had already given it to someone else), they sued. Generally the church lost the suits. The problem is that during joseph’s lifetime the church didn’t have a legal identity, so I think that mostly joseph smith got sued. The fact of the matter is that we don’t know much about this. My understanding is that until recently we weren’t really aware of how much litigation there was surrouding the church in joseph’s time. Furthermore, I don’t think that the Mormon historians have been all that interested. As you can imagine, their eyes probably start to glaze over when they read the records of 19th century real estate litigation. Joseph Smith’s legal papers are currently being prepared for publication, and it will be very interesting to see if they tell us anything else about the legal status of the early law of consecration.

    Matt is wrong that people were never criminally punished for violations of the law of consecration. In Winter Quarter’s the High Council exercised civil authority, which included the right to publically whip people. At that point the Saints were operating under some kind of scheme of economic cooperation, and I believ that infractions were criminally punished. I believe that the same was true in Great Salt Lake City in the first year or two of its existence.

    In Utah the various United Orders were given a corporate status. However, I know that these corporations frequently found themselves in litigation, and I think that there was one case involving the Brigham City cooperative that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

  31. Grasshopper on December 17, 2003 at 1:53 pm

    We also have the cautionary tale of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5…

  32. Matt Evans on December 17, 2003 at 3:14 pm

    Hi Everyone,

    I believe everyone has been arguing against a straw man. I didn’t suggest that once someone contractually obligates themselves to the law of consecration that they shouldn’t be held to the terms of the contract. I don’t mind that they were whipped for violating norms they’d pledged not to violate, so long as they knew the possible punishments at the time they made the contract.

    It’s the voluntary nature of entering into the contract that makes the law of consecration different. J. R. Clark, McKay and Benson would not have spent several decades worrying about families voluntarily joining communities pledged to help one another. It was the use of the state’s police power (or the fist of the revolution) to force people into the system that offends liberty, and offended the prophets.

    As to Russell’s concerns, I don’t have a complaint with God commanding people to help each other, I have a problem with people using the police power (swords, guns, jails) to get people to help each other. And yes, all laws that are enforced by the police power are coercive, regardless of the process by which they are enacted. There are scriptural bases for some uses of coercion (murder, adultery, theft) but not for others (conversion, care of the poor, wealth redistribution).

    As to Clark’s question about the rising generation, I can’t imagine that children weren’t given the option to join or not join. It would seem strange indeed if the church could force you to join the religious order, but couldn’t force you to join the religion.

  33. Adam Greenwood on December 17, 2003 at 11:49 pm

    Matt,
    You and I ought to have a discussion some time.
    We both have been pretty heavy crusaders for using the power of the state to set moral norms. I refer you to our opposition to gay marriage and sodomy. Although we aren’t necessarily advocating busting into every living room in America, a public norm that is enforced against too public violations can be a good idea. And in many ways this is a Christian argument, since it is the gospel that shows us that homosexual acts are wrong.

    So why doesn’t the same hold true for uncharitable acts? Hamill may be dead wrong about Christianity requiring a welfare state, but what’s wrong with some uses of force to punish people who are too conspicuously consuming and very uncharitable. Or progressive tax rates to as a Christian measure to inculcate the truth that to whom much is given much is expected?

  34. Logan on December 18, 2003 at 4:02 pm

    I don’t know if anyone still reads this thread, but here is my promised response to Nate (I’ve tried to distill the specific “progressive taxation” sub-thread from this post on my own blog where this comment is cross-posted http://bobandlogan.blogspot.com/2003_12_01_bobandlogan_archive.html#107177307228843068 ):

    Discussing economics can be difficult because it is so complex. It’s hard to determine precisely how each factor individually affects the whole, and conclusions are extremely hard to verify empirically. So although there are many things to consider, I will try to keep the present discussion focused narrowly on this one topic: progressive income tax rates.

    First of all, Nate, it is true that there is a diminishing marginal utility of wealth. A person’s second $100 million dollars increases their utility a lot less than their first. But keep in mind that we’re talking about taxing income, not wealth. For any two people with the same income, taxing them at the same income tax rate hurts the poorer of the two.

    Next, you make an assumption with which I cannot agree: “. . . if you want an income tax scheme that is neutral as to private decisions (ie doesn’t create incentives not to produce or to over produce) . . .” Every tax is an incentive not to produce. In the case of income taxes, it drives a wedge between the income paid to an individual and the income received. If the employer and employee could agree on a wage between those two figures, both would be better off than they currently are. On the margin, employment must decrease, as some employers that would be willing to hire for the inbewteen wage but not more will refuse to hire (and vice versa).

    I also don’t see how it is possible to “over produce.” How can workers (to use our current example) be too productive? All it would do is increase profits, and thus wages, and thus living standards. The only thing lost when people produce more is leisure time, which people naturally stop trading for money when the utility reaches an equilibrium. If everyone increases productivity to the point of “flooding the market,” then it will be less valuable to employers, and hence rewarded less. It will decrease on the margin. If there is no such thing as over producing, I can see no reason that we don’t want to encourage people to work as much as they want to.

    Economists do sometimes talk about the economy “overheating,” but that refers to pro-cyclical forces that drive up inflation during prosperous times and act as stubling blocks to economic recovery during recession, and not to individual decisions of trading leisure time for income potential.

    But although over production isn’t one of those forces, regressive taxation can be pro-cyclical. During times of economic growth, more taxes are collected since more people are receiving higher incomes and paying taxes on their greater income. Riskier high income professions (eg, day traders, dot-com executives) are successful, and provide plenty of tax revenue (encouraging politicians to spend it). During economic downturns, those high paying risky professions are the first to go (risky jobs must have a “risk premium” that compensates for their volitility, otherwise the job isn’t worth it go into). Also, more resources are spent avoiding taxes (effectively “wasting” them as far as benefit to society), and people with wealth are less inclined to invest their money in riskier ventures (such as poor people starting business). The progressive tax structure that depended on revenue from higher earners (either those with risky jobs who are put out of business or those who are wealthy and can afford to wait for better times before investing extra time, energy, and capital) now brings in much less revenue than was projected, bringing with it defecits just when money is needed most for public spending.

    It seems that progressive tax structures are designed to “punish” the prosperous. But that is not the same thing as “helping” the poor.

  35. Logan on December 19, 2003 at 8:41 am

    *the first sentence in the next-to-last paragraph should read:

    “But although over production isn’t one of those forces, progressive taxation . . .”