Tuesday, October 23, 2007

In praise of... taxation

    Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.       - Romans 13.7

Thank God for taxes
Taxation: as inevitable as death, and usually about as welcome. Both major parties in Australia have promised large tax cuts at the start of their respective campaigns, and the electorate rejoices in its new-found wealth.

But before joining the celebration, spare a thought for the cost of these cuts. Taxation is a good thing. "Taxes are the price we pay for civilisation", according to US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The creation and enjoyment of wealth is not possible without stable society, which, in a world riddled with mistrust, requires effective government, and thus taxation. The government is not stealing "your" money; it is creating the conditions of possibility for an effective economic system at all. It makes no sense to speak of the money you would have had if the government did not levy taxes.

Ethicist Peter Singer considers a hypothetical corporation producing automobiles:

...the corporation could not make its cars without a legal system that fosters and protects mining rights, private ownership of land, an accepted currency, systems of transport, the production and sale of energy, the existence of an educated labour force, corporate oversight, the protection of patents and the prevention of monopolies, judicial resolution of disputes, national defence and the protection of trading routes. Even if it could make them, without security and at least a moderate degree of prosperity, few people would buy them. In other words, without taxes, and the system of regulation that could not exist without taxes, the corporation would not be able to pay [its employees] and if, somehow, [they] did get paid, the money would be of little value because [they] could not be secure in [their] ownership of anything [they] bought with it.

Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has estimated the proportion of income in wealthy countries that is the result of social capital - including technology and organisational and governmental skills - rather than individual effort. Given the enormous differences betrween average incomes in rich and poor countries that cannot be explained by differences in effort, he suggests that social capital is probably responsible for at least 90 percent of income in wealthy coutries like the United State.

- Peter Singer, The President of Good and Evil, 16-17.

Of course, there is such a thing as intolerably high taxation, which ends up detracting from the common good. And of course, there are no guarantees of efficiency, especially when governments value re-election over public service. Nevertheless, taxes are fundamentally a blessing towards the common good, for which we ought to give thanks. Let us praise what is good.
Eight points for the country in the picture. Or twelve for the building, a national seat of government. But please don't guess both.


Jonathan said...

The Reichstag.

Anonymous said...

My grandfather had an interesting take on economics. While my grandfather didn't live to see Ronald Reagan as president, my father referred to what my grandfather believed in as "trickle up economics".

My grandfather owned a furniture store. He supported social assistance programs because people who received that assistance shopped at other stores in the neighborhood. The owners of those shops then came to my grandfather and spent money on furniture or they went to other shops in the area and those owners came to my grandfather's shop.

Matthew Moffitt said...

Berlin, Germany.

nico said...

at last, a voice of reason! i was so disappointed when labor didn't counter howard and costello's tax plan with exactly this argument last week. i'm sad that the australian social ethic seems to have disintegrated to the point where we forget that the common good is far more valuable than a fatter wallet...

psychodougie said...

i think seinfeld did a schtick on tax - i think he said he liked paying taxes.

i agree. i too enjoy paying taxes. it makes me glad to be able to play my small part in trying to make the system more equitable.

i often quote my friends who were welfare recipients due to their circumstances. they then started working, paying heaps of tax.

it's give and take.
and of course, 2 Corinthians 9:7
"... God loves a cheerful giver."
so if you don't like paying taxes, and they aren't unreasonable, we need to pray for hearts that want to pay tax to support the social good.
i reckon.

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

The need for the government to produce goods and services, and thus the need to tax, is an indication that the free market cannot address everything in modern society efficiently

Mind you, Communism didn't do well either, mainly because they invested money in the wrong things and produced inefficiency.

Anonymous said...

interesting comment from 'one salient oversight' - makes me wonder: is there any particular economic system (and type of government, while we're at it, although I suspect some form of democracy, as a starting point, wins hands down) that conforms best with a Christian worldview? Perhaps, all economic models can be 'Christianised' or perhaps we've never seen one that would please God to any great extent? Lots of possibilities, and I've not read a single thing in this area, so can anyone point me to some good reads, or throw up an opinion for me?

I must say, I enjoy the living standards that come from living in a first world market economy, but often wonder whether socialism is a more defensible economic system from a Christian point of view (Paul's words, borrowed by Marx, come to mind -- you know, 'from each according to ability, to each according to need'). I'm way out of my depth, but one thing I wonder is whether the free market economic system is the worst system going, except for all the the other ones tried (to twist Churchill's pithy take on democracy). And perhaps that's the case because of our fallen situation. To put it glibly, I wonder whether a free market system is the best option for a world of sinners (to some extent it harnesses personal greed to get a better overall material result for everyone -- equity considerations then become an overlay issue, and we can most certainly celebrate progressive tax systems), and perhaps some form of socialism would be the best system in the hypothetical case of a fully sanctified citizenry. Perhaps (now we're potentially heading into eschatological territory, I guess)- some sort of middle ground has to be worked out in our present situation?

I have a feeling I'm being horribly naiive. Can anyone give me a quick sketch on what people who actually know what they're talking about have said on this issue?

[adam powell]

byron smith said...

Adam - great questions and a huge topic. Perhaps the best thing I've read on this area would be Ways of Judgment by Oliver O'Donovan, though others might have further suggestions.

And for a recent discussion of a related topic, see this post and the extensive comments on it (I'm not endorsing the post, just suggesting it as a possible place to discover some conflicting opinions on these matters).

byron smith said...

Jonathan - twelve points.

Moffitt - eight.

Miranda said...

thanks Byron -- lots of interesting ideas on that blog thread you linked. My head's spinning, but in a good way. I'll scribble that book suggestion into my don't-forget-this list. Ta

byron smith said...

UK ≠ US: people like paying taxes and don't consider it theft. Precisely the opposite.

byron smith said...

Thomas Paine (1737-1809), US founding father, noted that everything "beyond what a man's own hands produce" came to him from society, and therefore "he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came."

byron smith said...

TAI: Is Australia a high tax country?