A Higher Authority on Taxes

Wall Street Journal
Written by:
Rabbi Daniel Lapin

Rabbi Lapin is president of Toward Tradition,
a Mercer Island, Washington-based organization
dedicated to advancing Judeo-Christian values,
and rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center, Venice, CA.

Pundits are arguing about the impact of the president's newly approved tax package.  As a rabbi, I look to a higher authority.  The plan won't work because it contradicts specific and timeless principles expressed in the Bible.

The plan's excessive rates, its indifference to resistance by the "rich" and its emphasis on punitive inheritance taxes all fly in the face of the wisdom contained in ancient texts revered by tens of millions of Jews and Christians alike.  These texts are relevant today because the ideologies that the Bible frowns upon inevitably turn out to be poor public policy.

The Old Testament is filled with references to taxation, beginning with the story of Joseph and Pharaoh in Genesis 41.

Bewildered by his disturbing dreams, Pharaoh unsuccessfully seeks explanation from his courtiers.  Then his butler remembers Joseph the Hebrew, who have been unjustly imprisoned.  Upon his release, Joseph interprets the king's dreams to be God's forewarning of seven years of plenty, to be followed by seven years of famine.  In Genesis 41:34, Joseph recommends taxing the Egyptian economy during its forthcoming seven years of plenty:  "Let Pharaoh appoint officers over the land and collect up a fifth part during the seven years of plenty."

That an outsider's recommendation to tax an entire country should please the monarch stretches credibility.  That his subjects also found this recommendation pleasing can only mean one thing:  The tax rate they were anticipating, reports Talmudic tradition, was considerably higher than Joseph's 20%.

Not only ere Pharaoh's subjects relieved, but the thought of being able to retain 80% of the fruits of their labors threw them into their work with renewed enthusiasm and energy.  This tax plan invigorated the Egyptians and, as one would expect, their economy thrived.  Genesis 41:47 confirms that "the earth brought forth by heaps."

Incidentally, this biblical perspective on tax rates of 20% conforms almost precisely to the "High Rates, Low Rates -- Same Yield" graph printed on these pages several times during the summer's budget debate.  The graph shows that Americans are willing to yield up to 20% of their aggregate labors for the common good.  In other words, Americans engineered their affairs so as to have paid the same percentage of their income in taxes as the Egyptians did 3,500 years ago.

Jewish law, though, derives the limits of the king's right to tax from the prophet Samuel's dire warning of what will befall Israel should the Israelites persist in their perverse desire for a king.  According to I Samuel 8:15, "And her [the king] will take one-tenth of your seed and of your vineyards . . . he will take a tenth of your sheep and you will become his servants . . . and you shall cry out on that day because of the king that you have chosen -- and the Lord will not hear you."

Evidently, even the cruel scenario depicted by Samuel could not envision a legitimate king claiming more than 10% of his own people's produce.  A king would impose higher taxes only upon his conquered enemies.

Sure enough, in Joshua 17:13, the idea is put forth that heavy taxation is to be imposed only upon people for whom you do not care much: When the children of Israel became strong, they put the Canaanites under taxation, but it did not utterly drive them out."  In other words, although it may offend our modern sensibilities, Scripture advises us to tax heavily only those people whose departure from our country would be welcomed.  Failure to heed this ancient advice, we are told, could result in revolution.

"Whereas my father did burden you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke," recklessly proclaimed King Solomon's son Rehoboam, as he raised tax rates (I Kings 12:11).  Verse 18 reports that Rehoboam then sent Adoram, the tax collector, to make good on his threat:  "And all Israel stoned him with stones, so that he died . . thus did Israel rebel against the house of David."  This revolt, which was supported by the prophets and therefore justified by Jewish law, was not against the king's right to tax, but rather against the excessiveness of the tax burden.

The Clinton administration's increase in the inheritance tax also goes against biblical exhortation.  Numbers 36:8 insists "the children of Israel shall enjoy, each man, the inheritance of his fathers."  People will invent, labor and create tirelessly if they know that in so doing they are bettering the lives of their children and grandchildren.  Referring to the daughters of Zelfohad, in Numbers 27:7, the Lord said, "thou shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass to them."

Finally, consider Proverbs 12:24.  It declares that "the hands of the diligent shall produce wealth but the lazy will be subject to taxation."  According to the 11th century sage, Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaki, these words warn that excessive taxation hinders productivity and comes to pass only through the laziness and indifference of citizens who decline to resist the oppression.  In other words, resisting a government's instinct to tax requires vigilance and energy.  As the prophet Samuel warned, if we fail to exert the necessary vigilance and energy, we shall have only ourselves to blame for the consequences.

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