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April 16, 2010

Since a few people have told me they appreciated the stuff I’ve been posting on taxation and theft here, I thought I’d post just a bit more from the Facebook discussion--the text below was in reply to a section of a large rebuttal someone wrote up there, but it should basically make sense on its own.  Also, since it’s that time of the year again, and the Tea Partiers were out in force yesterday, I recall my first little essay on this whole business, which I wrote last Tax Day, and you can find here.


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You then make a statement that my problem is that I “blur the concepts of necessary taxes and redistributive taxes....Taxes for the common defense fall in the first category, taxes for the redistributive principle fall in the second.”  Yes, it is precisely my point to blur these categories.  Why are taxes paid for defense necessary?  Well, they’re not absolutely necessary, but we generally think that they’re important for the preservation of society.  In an economy characterized by dangerous inequality and serious poverty, one might argue that redistributive taxes are just as necessary for the preservation of society.  Moreover, many taxes are “redistributive” in the sense of benefiting some more than others, including taxes for the “common” defense, as I argued in the original post and in my comments after the first post.
Then you extol the virtues of voluntary giving.  Great--let’s have more of that.  If the Church can motivate people to give voluntarily, and care for the poor, then let it do so, and the government will have no reason to get involved.  I remember reading about some 19th-century Scotch Presbyterian who organized such an effective and generous church system of poor relief that the local government was able to vastly scale back their welfare program.  But if the Church is failing, she can hardly complain when other institutions try to pick up the slack.  A couple quibbles with what you said in this paragraph, “None of these services were based on an enforced-tax or upon a social principle of wealth distribution”--neither of those is strictly true; in many nations in Christendom at various times, the tithe was enforced, whether or not it should’ve been; second, in the early Church, church charity was based upon “a social principle of wealth distribution”--many of the Church Fathers called explicitly for the rich to sell all their excess and give the proceeds to the Church for it to distribute equitably, Acts 4 style.  Also, you say, “Nor did the apostles, church fathers, or any others enforce any such standard, but leave it with the conscience.”  Well, it depends what you mean by that; the Church Fathers may have “left it with the conscience” but they raked consciences over the coals regularly on this subject, so you can’t quite characterize it as a hands-off approach.
At this point you move on to make some (to put it charitably) rather ignorant and snarky comments about Popes Pius XI and John Paul II.  If you don’t agree with them, fine, but I think you need to respect them, and the great body of teaching they represent.  I don’t know enough about Pius XI to defend him specifically (but I doubt you know enough about him to attack him specifically) but John Paul II was, by all counts, a very holy man and a noble leader, who devoted himself to the good of the Church, so far as he understood it, and the cause of the oppressed.  The Catholic Church in the past few decades has put Protestants (especially conservative ones) to shame when it comes to defending the cause of the poor, and sacrificing much for them, so let’s not throw around charges of “hypocrisy.” 
Your reading of Pius XI’s quote here was particularly odd.  Pius said, “[the state] does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and rushing to its own destruction.”  You seem to have a problem with the last clause, somehow reading it as if Pius was against “material things.”  What Pius says here seems self-evidently true--that the private possession of goods, in itself a good thing, will, if unrestrained, cause intolerable evils and eventually its own destruction.  Wasn’t it the Apostle James who said “The love of money is the root of all evil”?  Private property is a dangerous thing, because private owners can easily fall into selfishness and greed, and, unless restrained by laws, destroy others in their greed.  There’s no opposition to material things here, just the cold hard truth about human nature.
Then you tell me all this stuff from Richard Bonney’s book.  I appreciate all the extra information, but I’m not sure exactly which parts are relevant to the matter at hand.  Yes, taxes are higher now than historically; yes, Rome had a very oppressive tax system, particularly oppressive because it disproportionately afflicted the poor--it was if anything a reverse redistribution at times, as some of your own citations show.  Indeed, you cite Basil the Great calling for the poor to be exempted from taxes--this sounds like what conservatives would decry as a redistributive system--everyone receiving the benefits of government, though only some people pay for them!  
This line jumped out at me: “In the past, as Brad points out, other Christians have failed to realize the full Biblical principle of private property”--OK, so here we have at least a concession that our modern teaching on this matter is not the Early Church’s teaching.  Good.  I do not think that we have to adopt the Early Church’s teaching on this matter wholesale; but my point is that we must acknowledge that some of our claims on this subject (e.g., redistribution=theft) run contrary to their attitudes, and that should cause us to be rather more modest in our claims.
A bit later, you point out that “Nowhere in Chrysostom’s explanation of taxation is any theory about the State providing for the poor to accomplish wealth redistribution or equity, or any other socialist idea.”  To be sure.  Chrysostom wanted the Church to handle all that redistribution--he was thoroughly socialist, actually, but he wanted an ecclesial, not a state socialism.  What I want people to realize though is that the reason no one back then envisioned the state involved in redistribution was because the state had not yet been Christianized.  When the State did increasingly get in the business of supporting the poor, taxing the rich, providing free education and healthcare, etc., the people who were the driving forces behind this were Christians, trying to fulfill gospel mandates in the political sphere.  A pre-Christian state would not be likely to think of redistributing to the poor; for a Christian state, such began to seem like a mandate.  I don’t mean to say that this was the right conclusion to reach--that these socializing Christians had the right idea, but it’s important for us to understand the genealogy of this development.  That’s why, for instance, I cite Martin Bucer, who encouraged aggressive intervention by the civil authorities to protect the poor and control the rich.  But you just breezed over Bucer, surprising, since as a Protestant, he would seem to be the most significant figure to you.
Now, you say some things about Aquinas.  For one, you say that Aquinas is a shaky source because he used Aristotle.  Ah!  But do you not realize that his use of Aristotle in his teaching on property is to moderate the radical stance of the early Church Fathers?  In other words, he uses Aristotle to establish a much more pro-private-property stance than that of the earlier tradition.  So it doesn’t work for you to say, “Oh, we can’t trust his negative attitude toward private property, since he was using Aristotle.”  Now, to be sure, Finnis attempts to make explicit what is merely implicit in Aquinas--or perhaps, to construct an argument out of building blocks that are in Aquinas, and we cannot be sure how much Aquinas would agree with his claims for redistributive taxation (for Aquinas, the Church would’ve been the most natural institution to be handling such things, not the state).  My point though is that the building blocks are there in Aquinas--Finnis isn’t just cooking things up out of thin air; and we as modern Christians need to reckon with Aquinas’s tremendously influential teaching here.
I’m impressed that you consulted Finnis’s book for your rebuttal, and would admire your thoroughness, but I think you were not sufficiently attentive on the subject of superflua.  It is a bit more complicated than this.  I’m running out of time right now, so I will just post the notes and quotes I had taken a few weeks ago on this section of Finnis:
There is a threefold distinction in Thomas between “(a) resources one needs for the very survival of oneself and one’s dependants, (b) resources one needs in order to fulfil one’s responsibilities for the support and education of one’s relatives and household, for maintaining one’s business or profession or other vocation, for launching one’s children in such ways of life, for paying one’s debts, and other such genuine responsibilities, and (c) resources which are left over {superflua} after one has made reasonable provision for both type (a) ‘absolute necessity’ and type (b) ‘relative necessity {necessitas conditionata}.  Then Aquinas’ theorem is twofold: (I) everything one has is ‘held as common (or in common)’ in the sense that it is morally available, as a matter of right and justice, to anyone who needs it to survive; (2) one’s superflua are all ‘held as common’, in the sense that one has a duty of justice to dispose of them for the benefit of the poor.”
I: those in life-threatening need can take whatever will relieve that need, and “this entitlement overrides anyone else’s otherwise legitimate title or property right.” II: Furthermore, if I am aware of someone in such strict need [go take a look at II-II q. 71 a. Ic], and there is no other who is available to provide it, I have a “duty of strict justice (not merely ‘charity’)” to help them, not merely out of my superflua, but out of what I use for relative necessity....when no one is in extreme necessity, property-owners may keep their property “just as far as their type (b) need to maintain themselves (with their dependants) in the form of life which they have reasonably adopted.”  All superflua should then be made available to those who lack the resources for their type b) needs.  “The poor have a natural right that the whole of this residuum be distributed in their favour.”  
In other words, your claim that Aquinas says that we are only responsible to give what is left over after we have tended to all reasonable needs and responsibilities is oversimplistic--that is only true if you know of no one in extreme necessity, and quite possibly that is true for most of us (though in an era of globalization, the question can be asked how far our responsibility extends to global neighbors).  Plus, I do not, I’m afraid, share your rosy reading of Christian America: “Now, that rather sounds to me like how most Christians today live – we pay for our expenses, and tithe, and give of what was left over to the church, to family, to friends, to mission work, and other things. Most people do not have much, if any, ‘superflua’ in this sense. After all, if you’re saving up for a house to provide for your family, that clearly falls under the necessities of life. If you’re saving up for a new car because the one you have is suffering, that’s clearly providing for your family, and in my case, providing for my livelihood since I drive to the businesses I meet with.”  My experience of Christian America (and I do not in any way exclude myself from this indictment) is that we convince ourselves that we “need” any number of little luxuries--a new article of clothing every couple weeks, several cups of coffee a day, an iPhone, a flat-screen TV, a rather large house, a rather nice car, a generous supply of junk food, etc.--and then, if all that is covered, we might reach into our pockets and call ourselves generous.  This is not an easy teaching, and I don’t pretend that it is; it’s given me a great deal of pause and hard thinking over the past few months.  

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