Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tax Policy Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics

Contrary to Dennis Prager, many people have no problem drawing the somewhat socialistic implications of these two ancient religions. C. S. Lewis in his Mere Christianity admitted that a truly Christian society would be more socialist society. Now, we have a detailed article (hat-tip Andrew Sullivan) that claims to be "An Evaluation of Federal Tax Policy Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics." The article was written by Susan Pace Hamill of the University of Alabama School of Law. From the abstract:
This article severely criticizes the Bush Administration's tax policies under the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics. I first document that Judeo-Christian ethics is the most relevant moral analysis for tax policy because almost eighty percent of Americans and well over ninety percent of the Congress, including President Bush, claim to adhere to the Christian or Jewish faiths. I also show that evaluating federal tax policy under Judeo-Christian principles not only passes constitutional muster but is also appropriate under the norms of a democracy. I then provide a complete theological framework that can be applied to any tax policy structure. Using sources that include leading Evangelical and other Protestant scholars, Papal Encyclicals and Jewish scholars, I prove that tax policy structures meeting the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics must raise adequate revenues that not only cover the needs of the minimum state but also ensure that all citizens have a reasonable opportunity to reach their potential. Among other things, reasonable opportunity requires adequate education, healthcare, job training and housing. Using these theological sources, I also establish that flat and consumption tax regimes which shift a large part of the burden to the middle classes are immoral. Consequently, Judeo-Christian based tax policy requires the tax burden to be allocated under a moderately progressive regime.
So far so good. I have never accepted that Judeo-Christian values lead to laissez-faire capitalism. However, Hamill manages to reach this bizarre conclusion:
Using a wealth of sources, I then establish that the moral values driving the Bush Administration's tax policy decisions reflect objectivist ethics, a form of atheism that exalts individual property rights over all other moral considerations.
Certainly, I would like to hope that Objectivism is influencing the President but judging by his actions the influence has, at best, been surface deep. The fact that the President is hesitant to raise taxes is certainly commendable (though I would say that Ayn Rand was hardly the first American to call taxation evil -- this used to be a far more mainstream position). But his many other positions are hardly consonant with what Objectivists would like to see done. Nevertheless, the article includes a mostly surprisingly reasonable summary of Objectivism:
Objectivist ethics views human beings as independent agents and deems each person acting in his or her own rational self-interest as the only avenue to reach moral correctness. Because individual autonomy and right of each person to be able to personally benefit from their efforts in the free market are valued above all other considerations, objectivist ethics unequivocally epitomizes the “leave us alone” philosophy of Grover Norquist and his coalition, which includes the Bush Administration and therefore it is reasonable to assume also includes President
Bush himself.

When morally evaluating legal and economic structures, the principles of objectivist ethics state that in order to avoid discouraging personally autonomy, government functions beyond what is needed to protect each individual’s life, liberty and private property should ideally be eliminated. Because taxation is considered a restraint impinging on the personal autonomy and right of every individual to enjoy the profits from his or her success, the ideal tax policy under objectivist ethics would raise only enough tax revenues to cover the needs of the minimum state and would make the payment of all taxes completely voluntary. Opportunities such as education would be available only in the private free market economy and minimum safety nets providing subsistence and healthcare for the poor and elderly would only be covered by voluntary charitable contributions. In that proponents of objectivist ethics recognize that on a practical level their ideals cannot be fully achieved, they politically advocate cutting all government expenditures beyond the needs of the minimum state as much as possible while substantially reducing the tax burden of the wealthiest individuals and businesses by adopting a flat/consumption tax model. The moral conversation surrounding President Bush’s first term tax cuts, and, the long term goals of taking those trends further towards a flat model squarely reflects the values of objectivist ethics.

Objectivist ethics represents a form of atheism because the human person is substituted for a supreme deity. Within the framework of objectivist ethics individuals owe no moral obligations to endure greater sacrifices for anyone else’s benefit because only each individual’s own self-interest has any moral relevance. Human beings acting in their long term self-interest are considered the sole source of all wealth, and, through the strength of their own rationality are viewed as capable of acting morally without God’s grace or God’s standards of justice as a guide. By providing moral justification for legal structures, such as tax policy, that minimize and seek to eliminate the moral obligations owed to God and therefore to all others in the community, objectivist ethics presents a monumental stumbling block for all Christians and Jews enjoying greater levels of wealth and power than the average person.

Aside from Hamill's frustrating refusal to tread Objectivist as a proper noun, one senses that Hamill has not tried to understand anything beyond Objectivist ethics, which she thinks encompasses the whole philosophy. The reasons for the atheism in Objectivsm are not derived from ethical considerations but for far more fundamental metaphysical and epistemological reasons. The article gives Ayn Rand a lot of credit in influencing the views of today's Conservatives, and certainly some of that is true but really, as far as laissez-faire is concerned, it has a long history in the United States with many supporters particularly in the 19th century. And even in the 20th, given the inconsistency of Bush's own support for capitalism, it's clear that he is far more influenced by moderate, compromising voices than the radicals for capitalism. In the end he is no more influenced by Ayn Rand than Hillary Clinton purportedly is. As Andrew Sullivan states "the Randians could do better" -- and when the time comes, when the culture is ready, we will.

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