The issue of Sojourners for May 31, 2006 includes an essay by Jim Wallis: “To Protect the Common Good.”
As usual, he does two things in this article: (1) he invokes the prophets of Israel in support of the politics of plunder; (2) he fails to cite any passage from the Bible justifying his latest call for the politics of plunder. This two-fold strategy marks his entire career.
According to the biblical prophets, the greatest moral offense of poverty is the inequality that often lies behind it. When poverty abounds and the wealthy refuse to share their prosperity, God gets mad.
Inequality is basic to all of life: in skills, wisdom, dedication, physical attractiveness, and every other area of human existence. This includes wealth. God promised the Israelites great wealth and blessings if they obeyed His law (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). He promised them poverty and cursings if they disobeyed His law (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). Notice that the list of cursings is much longer than the list of blessings. This is also true of the parallel passage in Leviticus 26.
The Old Testament prophets called the nation and occasionally other nations (e.g., Nineveh) to obey God’s law.
God’s law of inheritance under the Mosaic Covenant was clear: The inheritance was divided up into equal portions, with one more portion than sons. The eldest son then was to be given a double portion (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). There is not a single verse in the Bible, Old Testament or New Testament, that authorizes the civil government to take any fraction of this inheritance.
If the congressional leadership has its way, American inequality is about to take a giant step forward with their efforts to destroy or gut the estate tax — an effective measure to combat inequality that has been working for 100 years.
It is over the past hundred years that the civil governments of the world have imposed graduated income taxes and death taxes, yet inequality remains.
More than this: The distribution of wealth remains in Vilfredo Pareto’s famous 20/80 distribution, a relationship that he wrote about in 1897. It applied to every nation that he examined. No nation since then has deviated more than a few percentage points from this wealth distribution, irrespective of its politics or its tax structure.
It is unwise to propose solutions for problems — if they are problems — whose causes are not known. It is even more unwise to propose political solutions, for all politics rests on force.
Sometimes, there are public policy choices that simply make no moral sense. When a nation is at war, when deficits are rising at record rates, and when everyone knows that even more budget cuts are coming that will directly and negatively impact the nation’s poorest families and children, you don’t give more tax breaks to the super-rich.
Notice that he refers to “tax breaks” when Congress is merely proposing the repeal of a tax that has no biblical basis. In Wallis’s statist ethical system, when the civil government steals from one group in order to pay off a particular political constituency, thereby defying biblical law, and then politicians repent of this evil, proposing the abolition of this theft, Wallis refers to this as granting a “tax break.”
Wallis’ view of democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting to decide what to have for dinner.
But that is exactly what the administration and the Republican leadership are strenuously trying to do. And with the latest Census Bureau income and poverty report showing that the poverty rate has gone up for the fourth straight year, the moral offense is compounded. There are 37 million Americans now living below the poverty line, 4 million more than in 2001. That includes 13 million children.
If there are 37 million Americans living below the poverty line, and there are 290 million Americans, that means that under 13% are in poverty. This poverty includes food stamps, free education, free emergency medical care (emergency rooms in hospitals), and other tax-funded subsidies.
So why are George Bush, the Republican leadership, and some Democrats on Capitol Hill pushing so hard to completely repeal or substantially gut the estate tax? It’s been in place for nearly 100 years, is a substantial source of government revenue, and has been a major catalyst to charitable giving (including to faith-based organizations, something the administration claims to support).
Wait a minute! You mean that a policy that has failed to provide the income equality that the prophets did not promote or recommend should be extended? Why is Jim Wallis committed to policies that fail to work as they say they should work after a century of experimentation?
A repeal of the estate tax will cost an estimated 1 trillion dollars in federal revenue over the next 10 years (that’s right, 1 trillion), substantially increase the deficit, dramatically diminish the resources available to help low-income families escape poverty, and further increase the pressure on the budget from the high cost of war. The only thing the repeal of the estate tax will accomplish is to make sure the wealthiest of Americans will bear no sacrifices during war-time belt tightening and tough decision making but, rather, will reap a windfall of benefit and be the only Americans who do.
Laws against theft cost thieves untold billions annually. Is this an argument against laws punishing theft?
The moral issue is simple to state: Any legislation that allows an agency that is not authorized by biblical law to inherit wealth from a dead man’s estate is a form of legalized theft. When politicians at long last see that the policy is a form of theft, and seek to repeal the legislation, Jim Wallis wails about what this repeal will cost the agency of theft.
Repeal supporters have cleverly changed the language of the debate by calling the estate tax “the death tax” and claiming that it mostly affects family farmers and small businesses who are unable to pass their farms and businesses along to their children. That is simply not true.
The estate tax is a tax on a man’s estate because he dies. It is a death tax, as surely as life insurance is death insurance.
To put it less delicately, they are lying to cover up the fact that the estate tax mostly affects their richest friends. The tax affects only the wealthiest half of 1 percent of Americans — estates with a net value of more than $2 million ($4 million for couples).
So, ethics is a question of whose ox is gored, to use a Mosaic concept (Exodus 21:35). He reduces civil law to issues of whose friends are involved. He does not acknowledge the binding principle of the rule of law, which Moses announced in Exodus 12:49. “One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and to the stranger that sojourneth among you.”
That is exactly what this tax was supposed to do when it was introduced in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican, remember) to counter the European practice of passing on enormous wealth from generation to generation, thereby encouraging aristocracy.
So, after 100 years, it failed. I get it. It failed because we need even more violation of the law of inheritance. Right?
The more American idea was to ask those who have benefited enormously by accident of birth to contribute back to the common good and expand opportunity for all. Many wealthy people, such as Bill Gates Sr. and Warren Buffett, agree and vigorously support the estate tax. But that American ideal is now under attack by a political leadership which seems anxious to restore an American aristocracy.
Accident of birth — my, what a concept! And here I thought that God is sovereign over all things. But, no, apparently He isn’t. There are accidents in life, and God has supposedly granted to politicians the lawful authority to overcome them by passing coercive legislation that discriminates against one group in favor of another. The Bible has a law against this practice.
Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honour the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour (Leviticus 19:15). Here is Jim Wallis’ conclusion:
Those who want to retain the estate tax are willing to reform it to make sure that family farmers and small business people are not adversely affected and to ensure that the tax — let’s call it a “common good tax” — is focused where it was intended, on those who have benefited so much from the opportunities of America.
Let’s not call it the common good. Let’s call it what it is: political plunder.
In a very real sense, the estate tax is a repayment for the public services and infrastructure that enable wealth creation — our transportation system of highways, bridges, and airports; our legal and educational systems; and many other investments we make in our society. It is only right that having benefited so much from the opportunities of America, the wealthiest should be obligated to return some of their good fortune to expand the opportunities of other Americans (maybe we should call the estate tax “the opportunity tax”).
Ah, yes: good fortune. That must be another aspect of accident of birth. Odd; I don’t recall these concepts in the Bible. Perhaps Mr. Walls can go into greater detail about this in some future essay.
Then again, perhaps not.
The Bible mandates the tithe for churches: a 10% flat tax. The prophet/judge Samuel identified as tyrannical any ruler who would seek to extract as much as the tithe (I Samuel 8:15, 17). Conclusion: Jim Wallis promotes tyranny on a massive scale. He wants higher taxes, yet the various levels of civil government already extract at least 40% of taxpayers’ income.
Is this the America that we want?
It is the America Mosaic law and its New Covenant modifications mandate. If it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for me.
One whose top policy priority is to make the rich richer while abandoning the most needed efforts to reduce poverty and protect the common good? That, in particular, was the original purpose of the estate tax, initiated by different kind of Republican president who was committed to the equality of opportunity for every American.
Teddy Roosevelt was a political Progressive, meaning a statist, and he was a lover of war, which also expended the Federal government. Yet Jim Wallis rests his ethical case on that man’s moral vision.
It is time for Democrats, moderate Republicans, and people of good social conscience across the county to draw a line in the sand against this administration’s radical policies to redistribute wealth from the bottom and middle to the top of American society.
Jim Wallis draws several lines in the sand each year. Here are some recent examples:
Congress pays no attention. Then he draws another line in the sand.
It’s time for a moral resistance to such unbalanced social policies and the place to begin is to defeat the dangerous and disingenuous effort to destroy the estate tax. In the name of social conscience, fiscal responsibility, equality of opportunity, protecting our communities, and the very idea of a “common good,” it’s time for the moral center of American public opinion to say “enough.” The repeal of the estate tax would literally be an attack upon the common good and it must not succeed. Instead, we need policies that would create better and more balanced national priorities.
As I love to say, include me out.
June 7, 2006
Gary North [send him mail] responds to Jim Wallis on a regular basis. He is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.