Sunday, February 26, 2012

Reaping What We Sow

"Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." — Luke 6:38

During my formative years we were proud to be citizens of the nation that had conquered Germany, ending the slaughter of innocent people and saving the world from a fascist state notable for imperialism abroad and deadly secret police in the homeland. Movies like The Great Escape, TV shows like Combat and Twelve O'Clock High, and the miniseries Holocaust reminded us constantly of the evils of the Nazis. We were also reminded of Nazi Germany as we read George Orwell's masterful Nineteen Eighty-Four. We knew that what it described was possible because we already had the telecommunications technology, though it wasn't being used by the government to spy on us. But whenever anyone in authority used power for evil purposes, we would respond as on cue, "Hey, man, is this 1984?"

(Those really in the know knew that the Soviet Union was almost a literal fulfillment of Orwell's "prophecy," but most of the media and education establishment were socialists of one stripe or another, so it wasn't polite to point that out. I was totally fooled myself, even though I read a few books by Christians who had been persecuted by the Communists.)

Add Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth into the mix, and we considered ourselves on our guard against the rise of any totalitarian police state in the good old USA.

Unfortunately, Wile E. Coyote had already run past the edge of the cliff. He just hadn't looked down yet.

In 1953, the CIA overthrew Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had nationalized Iran's oil industry, and replaced him with Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had fled for his life for fear of the supporters of nationalization. One reinstalled, the Shah was friendly to US interests, so for twenty-six years, the US overlooked his autocracy, specifically the use of his secret police force, SAVAK, to arrest, detain, torture, and kill his opponents.1

Consider for a moment what a secret police force is. By secret is meant that no one knows the identity of the agents; no one can say, "My neighbor is a member of the secret police," because no one, not even their spouses, knows who they are.

Targets are chosen in secret, so no one knows who the next target is. And as time goes on, targets can be chosen at the whim not only of the chief of state, but also by those in the secret police apparatus. At first targets might be only those who pose a threat to the regime, but eventually they include those against whom those sufficiently powerful have personal vendettas.

In a police state, once a victim has been detained, he has no recourse to courts (not that having such would do him any good), and his friends and family have no way of knowing what has happened to him, where he is, or when or if he will be released. To top it off, the longer he is detained and the more he learns about the system that has detained him, the less likely he is to be released, because he now knows the secrets of the system, which depends most of all on secrecy.

During those days I was never taught to question the legitimacy of supporting the Shah, not even by my fellow evangelicals. It was only when an article in Sojourners, a left-wing magazine whose view of Scripture I soon found suspect, described the situation that I even knew it existed, so secret were the Shah's secret police. I had heard much about the persecution of Christians in Communist countries, but, child of the media that I was, I had never realized that the taxes I sent to Uncle Sam went to preserving governments we would never tolerate in the US.

Make that past tense. We would never have tolerated them in the days between the Holocaust and 1984, but the evangelical church is celebrating the creation of one in our day.

The presidency of George W. Bush was supported by no one more than the evangelical community. I remember receiving e-mail forwards celebrating that man's godliness. Now there was reason to be glad his Democratic opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry, were not president, but there's a difference between being grateful for the absence of a greater evil and celebrating a positive good, and these were celebrations, not expressions of relief.

During the Bush presidency, one of his functionaries, John Yoo, became notorious in constitutionalist circles because of his work to establish the legitimacy (i.e., lawfulness) of what he termed "the unitary executive": he believed that because the nation was at war (the War on Terror), the president needed to be essentially a king, with powers to declare war, and to detain, torture, and execute "enemies of the nation" at will.

That the next president might be a Democrat fazed evangelical Bush supporters not at all, and indeed they cheered when Obama expanded the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan. They cheered louder when he killed Osama bin Laden instead of capturing him and plying him for information about the terrorists who supposedly threaten our existence, and they cheered even louder when he killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, without establishing his guilt of any crime.

So in the US we now are ruled by an autocrat with life-or-death powers over US citizens, just like the Shah of Iran.

Except the Shah didn't have a practically unlimited budget. He was the autocrat of a third-rate country, and though he had resources enough to gain international notoriety for his oppression of his enemies, he was nowhere near omnipotent, as his dethronement proves.

Uncle Sam, in contrast, is nearly omnipotent, the embodiment of the Yuletide hymn, "He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good, . . . ."

Our electronic communications are now all monitored. Soon we will have spy drones in the sky able to track all our movements. Every motor vehicle will be required to carry a GPS that will allow the authorities to track position, speed, and seatbelt usage. As people lose their jobs and homes, revenue from conventional taxes and even from "sin taxes" on such things as tobacco and alcohol will fall, to be replaced by "taxation by citation": if "sinners" are fair game but unable to provide the desired revenue, certainly "lawbreakers"—e.g., speeders and those who don't buckle their seat belts—can expect to be forced to shoulder the load to relieve the tax burden on the law abiding.

The doctrine of American Exceptionalism teaches that the US is the one nation in the world that can be trusted with a totalitarian government; the US government would never become like Nazi Germany, the Shah's Iran, or the Oceania of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But the Bible says that all have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of God, all have hearts that are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked beyond comprehension. There is every biblical reason to believe that the tyranny of Nazi Germany and the Shah's regime awaits us, as does their ignominious end.

Worse, the disdain we used to heap on German Christians for going along with Hitler will be aimed at us by those who watch us fall. And don't think there won't be many who will work with holy—perhaps even "Christian"—zeal to help us fall the way our "greatest generation" helped Nazi Germany fall about the ears of the Evangelicals who helped build it.


1 Nothing in this post should be construed as support for Mosaddegh. Suffice it to say he was a politician, and I have every reason to believe that as such he extorted money and other concessions from productive people and used them for the benefit of those connected to him. My focus is the system that we assented to and supported with our tax money.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Yet Another Reason Government Can Never Be Moral

If government were a moral institution, there would be a moral way to fund it. Government establishes and maintains itself by taxes—an agency funded by voluntary donations would not be government—so for it to exist, it needs to tax, and to exist morally it need to tax morally. We would expect, then, that a moral system of taxation would exist, and further that this system would either be described in the Bible or be easily discerned from nature.

Alas for even the best-intentioned statists, such a system is not to be found. Income taxes, import duties, sales taxes, and inheritance taxes all cannot avoid being immoral, and this is true even if we grant the premise that taxation, the extortion of money under threat of greater violence, is moral to begin with.

Let's begin with the flat income tax, probably the most popular form of taxation among conservatives, who think, and rightly so, that it is fairer than the current graduated income tax with its complicated assessment and deduction system. While a flat tax with no deductions would involve less preparation work than today's abomination, and it would not discourage people from advancing into higher tax brackets, it would still not be fair or just. Here's why.

Ben and Mal work at the same job and receive the same hourly wage, and outside of work they like to play with their kids (they each have two) and go to movies. The salient difference is that while Mal works a forty-hour week, Ben works a sixty, all at the same hourly rate. So Ben's yearly earnings are half again what Mal's are. To the degree that income is the measure of richness, Ben is half again as rich as Mal.

If they both spend X percent of their income on food and shelter, and Y percent on their transportation, and put Z precent into savings, that leaves them both with W percent for discretionary spending. On that basis, we can assume that Ben's car, house, diet, and clothes are half again as good as Mal's, and his bank account is half again as large.

This is because neither is penalized by the grocer, the theater owner, or the clothier for their work habits.

When Ben goes to the store, he pays a shekel for a bag of potatoes and another for a bag of tomatoes. When he takes his family to the theater, he pays a shekel per seat. When he buys a shirt, he pays a shekel. Mal also pays a shekel for a bag of potatoes, a bag of tomatoes, a seat at the theater, and a shirt.

But look what happens at tax time: Ben's flat income tax is half again Mal's, though they both pay T percent.

Why is this unjust? They both net their hourly rate minus T percent per hour. Surely that's an improvment over a graduated tax, which would make Ben's hourly earnings less than Mal's if his increased earnings put him into a higher tax bracket. And doesn't the Bible's tax, the tithe, work exactly the same way?

These are valid arguments, but let's take a step back.

Ben has already spent more time at work than Mal. This not only means that Mal has twenty more hours a week to go to movies and play with his kids, it also means that Ben has, assuming both of them are engaged in worthwhile endeavors, already contributed half again as much to the well-being of his neighbors as Mal has. So if you're going to argue that Ben should "contribute more" or "give back" to society simply because he has more money, I would have to ask how much more he needs to give: he has already given half again as much time, as well as the goods or services he has rendered. To make him pay half again as much for his "stay out of jail permit" makes no more sense than charging him half again as much for a shirt. (And, of course, he could always refuse to buy the shirt; he doesn't have the same option with his tax bill.)

As for the tithe principle, God can ask for the tithe because, first, all property is his to begin with: "The earth and everything in it are the Lord's" (Ps 24:1). The tithe is what he requires from his subjects as acknowledgment of his sovereignty: "A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD" (Lev 27:30).

Unlike government, for which taxes are its lifeblood, God has no need of the tithe: "If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?" (Ps 50:12-13). He can claim a "flat tax" because the wealth came from him in the first place. So even a flat tax is an assertion of sovereignty; note the flat tax mentioned in this malediction against the Israelite apotates who preferred godless monarchy to godly anarchy: "[The king you are asking for] will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day" (1 Sam 8:15-18). They wanted someone other than God to assert sovereignty over them, and the king's tithe would be a symbol that they had gotten their wish.

Unless you also believe that the government is the ultimate source and owner of all wealth, you need something besides the tithe to base your claim on.

So what about per capita taxes and sales taxes?

One of the arguments for a graduated income tax is that per capita taxes are regressive, forcing the Mals of the world to part with a greater percentage of their incomes than the Bens, and the less Mal earns at his job the harder the per capita tax hits him. For that reason I would have to agree that per capita taxes are unfair: they impact the poor more than the rich. That leaves sales taxes and import duties, but as you've probably already realized, both are simply an income tax in disguise, paid by the merchant rather than by the employee, and the same moral problem remains: the more goods and services the merchant provides, the more he is penalized at tax time.

"God's work done God's way will never lack God's support," the old missionary saw goes. If we can trust the Holy Spirit to guide his people, we can say with confidence "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid": he will move his people to contribute voluntarily to a community that meets our need for protection from enemies near and far, and that provides for the needy in a just and fair way. We don't need a tax-fed system to "shepherd"—that is, coerce—us.

If you're looking around and thinking that's crazy, there's no way God would take the Christians you can see and build such a community, I would suggest that that's because either there is no Holy Spirit or those you are looking at aren't listening to him. Maybe they're too busy trying to protect, defend, and enlarge an inherently immoral system.