On January 24, The Denver Post published a story by Electa Draper titled, “Psalm 1040: Prof urges a fairer tax.” The teaser line states, “Government, she says, fails to follow the Scriptures’ lead in helping the poor and the kids.” The story reviews the ideas of “Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama law professor with credentials in taxes and theology.” It begins:
How would Jesus tax?
It wouldn’t be the way Colorado, the 49 other states and the federal government do it, says Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama law professor with credentials in taxes and theology.
Despite Scripture principles, state and federal tax systems burden the poor and relieve the rich, she says.
Jesus paid taxes, told followers to give the government its due, broke bread with tax collectors and chose one, Matthew, to be an apostle, according to the New Testament.
This story is odd for a couple of reasons.
First, it is an advocacy piece masquerading as a news story. Why isn’t this on the editorial pages? Notably, Draper does not interview a single religious critic of Hamill’s thesis. (While many religious conservatives would agree to reduce taxes for the poor, they would not agree to raise taxes on others.) Surely there is no shortage of religious conservatives in this state. Nor does Draper interview a non-religious leftist, or a non-religious advocate of low taxes. Does The Denver Post’s news side really see its proper role as advocating particular religious doctrines?
Second, the story is old. It contains no news “hook.” Moreover, it is derivative. For example, on August 1, 2006, the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal published a similar story by Jeff Hawkes titled, “Who Would Jesus Tax?” Draper’s story discusses taxes generally and sites some figures about Colorado, but it is not based on any Colorado-specific event or personality. Why is this news?
Hamill’s thesis is essentially egalitarianism draped in religious cloth.
Nevertheless, Hamill does make an interesting point:
Among Colorado’s offenses is that the state makes its lowest-earning 20 percent of the population pay 9.9 percent of their income in taxes, while the top 1 percent of wealthy Coloradans pay 6.1 percent of their income.
“The poor and middle class pay almost four times the tax, proportionately, that the rich people pay in Colorado,” Hamill said.
Apparently, Hamill’s figure of “four times” is based on the fact that the middle class vastly outnumber the rich. I’ll accept her figures at face value, unless someone can point to an error in them.
I don’t think anybody would argue that the poor should pay a greater percent of their income in taxes than the wealthy pay. For example, in 2004 I wrote:
I have a simple proposal that should gain bi-partisan support… Exempt everyone making less than $20,000 per year from nearly all taxes.
If you make less than $20,000 in a calendar year, after expenses, I propose you don’t have to file income taxes at all. The burden of proof then lies with tax collectors to prove you earned more than that. You don’t have to pay federal or state income tax. If you’re in retail sales, you don’t have to collect state or local sales tax. If you own property, you don’t have to pay property tax.
You also don’t have to pay Social Security tax. Why should a poor working family be forced to pay a retired millionaire to play golf in Hawaii?
However, I did not propose taxing others at a higher rate: “I would favor reducing government spending by the amount lost in tax revenues.” Indeed, I would lower taxes on everyone, across the board. But my position does not depend on any religious doctrine: it depends upon a theory of individual rights, rooted in the objective requirements of human life. (For one source of empirical support for the view that economic liberty brings prosperity, see The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.)
But which is the more faithful interpretation of Christianity? That of religious conservatives, who at times support free markets and low taxes, or that of religious egalitarians? As Paul Hsieh reviews, the religious right increasingly adopts the welfare agenda of the left. What defines the religious right is not a commitment to free markets — far from it — but rather a commitment to more political controls over our personal lives.