A strain of popular Mormon thought appears to hold that a significant message derived from the story of King Noah is that taxes in excess of 20% are per se immoral, and drawing whatever inevitable conclusion follows from the current U.S. marginal tax rates. [fn1] It’s a fair application, I guess, of Nephi’s apply-the-scriptures-to-ourselves philosophy.
Still, I can’t believe that this is Mormon’s, or, for that matter, God’s, purpose in relating this story. If it is, it’s a relatively sloppily-delivered point: for the most part, the rate of tax is irrelevant. [fn2] The rate only has relevance in relation to the base (that is, the set of things that are subject to the tax). Think about which tax would be more burdensome to you: (a) 35% of your income, less amounts you invest and save, or (b) 20% of your entire income (or, for some of you, (c) 15% of your net worth)? It’s not clear until we know your income and how much you invest and save, but there is the possibility that the higher marginal rate of tax will cost you less money.
Mormon, however, neglected to let us know what the tax base was. He just tells us that Noah “laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed.” [fn3] So was Noah’s tax a property tax? an income tax? a consumption tax? a value-added tax? Did it tax their imputed income? Could they deduct their charitable contributions? (It looks like some sort of wealth tax to me, although even if I’m right, there’s no indication of its frequency or whether it taxes assets that have already been taxed, or a whole host of other relevant issues.) If Mormon’s point was that at some level, taxes become burdensome, and that a just society shouldn’t impose burdensome taxes, it would be helpful if he gave us more details.
I don’t mean to suggest that the fact that Mormon neglected to let us know the details of King Noah’s tax means he was not a good man, a good historian, or even a good prophet. But there is nothing in his writing or in the rest of scripture that suggests Mormon had any particular interest in or knowledge of tax policy. And this is why I don’t think Mormon’s point was that a 20% rate of tax is per se burdensome. Instead, he was using the concept of a burdensome tax as one of a series of details to help teach something else.
At this point, it seems fair, per Grant Hardy, to step back and look at why Mormon included the details he chose to include. [fn4] Hardy believes that Mormon is generally constrained by the facts of history, but organizes his narratives to provide aesthetically interesting, if didactic, accounts of history. Ultimately, though, he wants to increase his readers’ faith. [fn5]
Hardy points out that, in some cases, Mormon uses contrastive series, in which one group succeeds because of their own hard work, but another succeeds, and more spectacularly, as a result of miraculous intervention. [fn 6] But that’s not the only contrastive series that Mormon plays with. Mormon seems very explicitly to be contrasting King Noah with King Benjamin. The stories are adjacent to one another, and many details line up nicely. For example:
|King Benjamin||King Noah|
|Father||Omni 1:12: Mosiah: leaves land of Nephi, finds Zarahemla||Mosiah 9: Zeniff: leads a group from Zarahemla to reclaim land of Nephi|
|Taxes||Mosiah 2:14: I labored with mine own hands that ye not be laden with taxes [fn7]||Mosiah 11:3: 20 percent tax|
|Commandments||Mosiah 2:13: I haven’t suffered that you commit sin||Mosiah 11:2: Caused his people to commit sin|
|Work||Mosiah 2:14: labored with my own hands||Mosiah 11:6: supported in their laziness|
|Principal desire||Mosiah 2:20-21: whole soul in praising||Mosiah 11:14: heart upon riches|
|Self-image||Mosiah 2:25: less than the dust of the earth||Mosiah 11:14: Boast in their own strength|
|Priests||6:3: appointed priests to teach||11:5: consecrated new prideful priests|
|Prophecy||3:2: receives the words of an angel. Basically, he’s a prophet||11:28: wants to kill the prophet|
At almost every step, King Benjamin and King Noah faced the same external decisions and challenges. But Benjamin, the good king, makes one series of decisions, while Noah makes another. Mormon seems to be using the juxtaposition to present a stark example of choices gone wrong.
(As a side note, it looks to me like Mormon isn’t only creating a contrast between Noah and Benjamin; he also subtly engages in a dialogue with the Brass Plates. My Jewish Study Bible tells me that 1 Sam. 8-12 are schizophrenic toward the idea of a king, with chapters 8, 10:17-27, and 12 thinking negatively toward kingship, while the other chapters think positively of a king. In Chapter 8, though, Samuel warns the Israelites of what a king will do to them. Among the litany of horrors is that “[h]e will take a tenth part of your grain and vintage and give it to his eunuchs and courtiers.” [fn8] But Noah is twice as bad–he takes a fifth part and gives it to his wives and concubines, his priests, their wives, and their concubines. So not only is King Noah bad as compared to King Benjamin: he’s objectively twice as bad as the king of which Samuel warned.)
[fn1] The links all come from the first page of a Google search for “king noah burdensome taxes.” I assume that, if I were to go to the next page of results or were to vary my search terms, I could link a whole lot more like-minded analysis.
[fn2] This may not be entirely true: there appears to be some credible evidence that corporations respond to marginal tax rates, not effective tax rates, in deciding in which country they should invest their capital. See here; but see here for a slightly more cautious view. I suspect, however, that the multinational allocation of capital wasn’t a particularly pressing issue back in Book of Mormon times; moreover, I’m pretty confident that regulating and taxing multinational corporations wasn’t in the top, say, two or three goals Mormon had as he included these stories.
[fn3] Mosiah 11:3.
[fn4] Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide 9 (2010) (“[C]hoices were made by someone as to what to include and what to omit, and how to represent characters and situations.”).
[fn5] Id. at 91-92.
[fn6] Id. at 166.
[fn7] Note that King Benjamin doesn’t say that he didn’t impose taxes; moreover, he doesn’t tell us what his virtuous level of taxation was, or what the tax base was, or any other details about the taxes that his regime may have imposed. Another reason to believe that Mormon’s inclusion of taxes was meant, not to make a tax policy point, but to provide a contrast.
[fn8] 1 Sam. 8:15.