The morality of taxes

Although the United States flirted with an income tax during the Civil War and a few times thereafter, it became a permanent fixture in government finances only after 1913, when the nation adopted the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

In 1913, so goes one story, someone suggested that a cap of 3 percent be included in the amendment. In other words, the income tax rate could never exceed 3 percent of personal or corporate income. Supposedly, one senator laughed. Congress would never legislate a tax rate that high! 

Of course, over the years, the rate, and various qualifications, have varied as Congress has tried to balance the federal books and meet public needs. 

Oddly, the morality of taxation rarely seems to be discussed, even in Catholic academic circles. Even some catechisms almost ignore it, which is surprising because taxes affect everyone and are so vital to the national life. If morality and taxes are mentioned in the same breath, most of the time the Gospel text “Render to Caesar ... ” (Mt 22, Mk 12, Lk 20) is cited, and that is that. 

Actually, rendering to Caesar is just the beginning of any moral discussion. The moral argument used in 1913 in favor of the federal income tax was not that citizens should give a gift to the government or fund preferred government services, but that everyone pays, on the basis of what is earned, for the intangible benefits that contribute to personal income, such as domestic tranquility, the vigor of commerce, the rule of law and so on. 

This principle is not always remembered, and when tax rates have been raised to give the government the funds required for national defense, for instance, or to provide other generally desired services, most people usually accept them. 

Catholic theology, clearly presented by a series of popes, adds another dimension. Governments and organized societies have the moral obligation to provide for persons who somehow are in need. 

What is need? Traditional Catholic theology has its definition. It means those things that are required for a person to live as human beings. It does not depend on what a person has or produces, but that everyone is a child of God, created in God’s image and likeness. 

Therefore, everybody should just take it easy, and the government must provide for them? No. Another moral principle is that everyone is responsible for his or her sustenance, but if something beyond his or her control gets in the way, either by personal misfortune or more general problems, such as emanating from in society, public authority cannot simply ignore anyone in need. 

What about someone unwilling to work? Strange as it may sound in our capitalistic, strongly Calvinistic culture, Luke 10 has a lesson. The Good Samaritan cared for the victim of highway robbers, asking no questions. Did the victim fight back? Did he foolishly travel a route along which thieves operated? Did he flaunt wealth, so as to attract robbery? Who knows? The Good Samaritan helped. 

Government finances will be widely discussed in the weeks and months ahead. They should be. This summer’s events made quite clear that public finances are a major problem for America these days. 

As this needed debate comes and likely intensifies, Church leaders undoubtedly will publicly call for policies that keep the needy in mind. They will be resting their arguments on teachings as old as the Gospels, ultimately drawn from nothing less than the belief that each human being is God’s priceless creature. 

Issues of government spending will be very complex, frustratingly so, but classic Catholic moral principles pertain. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.