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 …)