The bishops and tax policy: Missing not just the big picture but God’s picture?
Tax reform has been a big issue in the United States for the past few decades, and the particulars of the current administration’s tax package are currently being hotly debated across the land. Adding to the debate on October 25th, Bishop Frank J. Dewane, chair of the US bishops’ domestic policy committee, outlined the moral priorities for tax law in a letter to Congress.
The enumerated moral priorities are these:
- Caring for the poor
- Strengthening families
- Maintaining progressive tax rates
- Providing adequate revenue for the common good
- Avoiding cuts in poverty programs
- Offering incentives for charitable giving
What strikes me most about this list of priorities is how little inspiration it draws from “outside the box”. Certainly, these are all moral objectives for tax policy, and I have no great quarrel with the order in which they are presented, But one could easily look at these priorities and say: “OK, so Bishop Dewane likes the US tax code just the way it is.” On the one hand, the priorities are so broad as to give almost no practical guidance at all. On the other, they fail to address more significant issues relating to taxation and government in the United States, issues which ensure that huge amounts of tax revenue, regardless of the general purposes, will be very badly used.
I am not one of those who wants to jump on each individual exemption or credit as if that is the key to moral tax law. Many pro-family people (may God bless them all) are already upset about the possible elimination of a tax credit for those who adopt a child. But bogging down on such miniscule points simply highlights the meta-problems of tax law in the United States, such as the fact that its incredible complexity stems in large part from satisfying a variety of particular interests.
Adoption is good, but it is also rare, extraordinarily expensive, and mostly affects children living outside the United States. Tax breaks are rarely going to determine the outcome. But if tax policy can help one particular class of persons to do something good, why not any number of others? To what extent is this the purpose of tax law?
Outside the Box
To play Devil’s advocate on the broad points, I will simply ask a series of questions designed to highlight just how enclosed within “the box” (or standard cultural way of viewing things) our bishops so typically tend to be. Taking each point in turn:
1. Caring for the poor: Does government’s “caring for the poor” help the poor grow toward greater self-reliance, especially within their families and communities, or does it create and sustain a dependent class? Does government provision for the poor in general advance or retard the willingness of communities at all levels to take care of their own in more effective and more personal ways? How does omnipresent government affect the general perception of the need for a citizenry that worships God and organizes itself into churches to do God’s will?
2. Strengthening families: How does government today define the family, and what does it mean for government to “strengthen” the family? Does it make sense to encourage this so broadly in today’s secular culture? Will the purpose of strengthening the family through tax policy be invariably undercut by other laws which destroy the proper understanding of the family, consistently and even convulsively weakening the social order?
3. Maintaining progressive tax rates: Are the rewards of progressive tax rates worth the costs? How much time, energy, and money do those at most socio-economic levels put into minimizing their tax level? To what degree does a rising tide of wealthy entrepreneurs lift all boats? More broadly, are complex tax laws worth the cost of a specialized class of professionals to deal with them, not to mention the cost of a huge number of required government employees?
4. Providing adequate revenue for the common good: By “common good”, of course, is meant “government programs and services”. To what degree do government programs and services, especially at the Federal level, actually enhance the common good in ways commensurate with their costs (or in comparison with the ways in which the same programs diminish the common good)? How many vital, successful and irreplaceable services can be enumerated beyond necessary basics such as law enforcement, national defense, and disaster relief? Does our government (or the American voters as a group) even know what the common good is?
5. Avoiding cuts in poverty programs: Given retirement programs, medical programs, and poverty programs, what large areas of the Federal budget would our bishops actually believe to be open to substantive cuts? What about our constant—and extraordinarily destructive—mortgaging of the future through excessive Federal spending? But enough: This heading is mostly a repeat: See item 1.
6. Offering incentives for charitable giving: As President of Trinity Communications, I have a vested interest in this one. On the other hand, would this be necessary if government got out of the business of reconstructing society, reduced its costs, and deregulated a great many things so that we might more easily and effectively work together to spiritually and materially help our neighbors?
Finally, does excessive reliance on government actually undermine the common good? Is there something fundamentally wrong with a social order in which one in every six persons is a government employee? What about the sheer economic weight of that figure?
Mirus’ First Political Law: The cost for government to do anything is always at least four times the cost of accomplishing the same thing in other ways. Reasons? (1) Government lacks incentives to be efficient; (2) Taxes pay for the salaries of government employees, who by their nature do not typically contribute to the development of greater prosperity; (3) The revenue-collection mechanisms are extraordinarily expensive, and also paid for by taxes; (4) Retention and expansion of government programs are seldom determined by their success or failure; (5) Waste and fraud are always rampant in government programs and services; (6) Add your own additional reasons here.
What is being debated in Congress is the “Unified Framework for Fixing Our Broken Tax Code”. I have tried to raise just a few of the many questions that suggest this “fixing” may well be impossible without breaking the box in which our tax code so snugly fits. These questions also suggests that, when it comes to society and culture, the American bishops have a long way to go before they can see how things might look outside the American cultural box—I mean how things might look to God.
Bishop Dewane’s priorities are not unreasonable. But they may well be irrelevant, if we really do need to look outward, and especially upward, in order to effect positive change.
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