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The Christian View of the Income Tax: Theonomist vs. Liberal

Gary North, noted “Christian Reconstructionist” has just published a scholarly rebuttal to a tax article by liberal Christian Susan Hamill (see here from Taxprof). This is cute, and I am glad it got published. It’s an example of how policy scholarship does have to depend on underlying ethical principles, and religious ones are just as much in need of good scholarship as atheistic ones. Economists like me generally assume the goal is to maximize consumer plus producer surplus, perhaps with finger on the thumb for equality. In our tax papers, we don’t try to justify that. North and Hamill are starting with the assumption that we want to obey Jesus Christ, which is equally legitimate (and debatable, in the literal sense of the word).

What makes this especially interesting is that North and Hamill are political opposites, and she wants to use religion without being linked to people like him. North pins her to the wall on this:

“She says that the Bible offers us a blueprint for civil law. “The Holy Bible contains the blueprint establishing the standards of justice under the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics. The foundation of the biblical blueprint defining justice is the creation account in the Book of Genesis, which reveals God to be the only supreme being and the sole creator of all humankind in his image.” Let me say, I greatly appreciate her invocation of this word. I edited a ten-volume set in 1986-87 called the Biblical Blueprint Series. I wrote four of them. My book on economics in the series, Inherit the Earth, begins with the book of Genesis.

But here is her problem. It is a major problem. I am a theocrat. I am known as a theocrat. I am reviled as a theocrat. And at the heart of my position is an affirmation of the Bible as the source of social, political, and economic blueprints. Yet in her 2013 article, she denies being a theocrat. She denies it for 58 pages. This is very curious. …

If the Bible offers a blueprint for taxation, as she says it does, and she then calls on Christians to vote for politicians who will create tax laws to implement this blueprint, then her strategy is the same as my strategy. She and I are debating only over the judicial content of the blueprint, not the strategy itself.”

It looks to me as if both of them are trying to read more into Christianity than it really has to say about tax policy, but that doesn’t make the attempt uninteresting, and it makes it more interesting for non-Christians, who will find some of their favorite arguments in Christian disguise.

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  1. June 27th, 2013 at 22:29 | #1

    I was using consumer plus producer surplus as a synonym for the dollar value of general welfare— surplus is what people look at in partial equilibrium analysis, but it doesn’t really make a difference for most things.

    You shouldn’t be put off by calculus. Equations are just approximations. Calculus makes solving problems like maximizing profit by choice of the prices of the 5 products your company sells much easier than if you used integer programming because you can’t charge in less than penny units, and arrives at an almost identical answer, much more precise in any case than the estimate you have to make of the profit function.

  2. Luke Lea
    June 26th, 2013 at 12:35 | #2

    Why is the goal to maximize consumer and producer surplus as opposed to the general welfare of this and succeeding generations? I guess I’ll have to brush up on the concept of consumer (and producer surplus)? For whatever reason — because I’m not a professional economist? — I can never get them to stick in my mind even though I’ve been reading the literature of economics all my adult life (50 years). I even thought about going into economics when I was at Reed College. I liked Samuelson’s textbook and was strong in mathematics (got an A in Ledley’s modern algebra class, which was more than Arthur Ogus got; and was even a rival of Nick Katz’s at Johns Hopkins before I transferred to Reed. But when I saw how math was actually being used in economics at the gradual level (I peaked at Samuelson’s Foundations) I said to myself, “Uh-oh, this is not right.” There were no measurable, well-defined, continuous functional relationships between the variables like there are in physics. To employ calculus was therefore a spurious exercise, except in the imaginary world of perfect competition where you pretend these relationships exist. I would have to surrender my integrity, I felt,if I were to spend my life doing that. What interested me was the logic and art of economics as a moral science, the object of which was to discover policy that would tend to increase the welfare of this and succeeding generations under the circumstances of the world we actually live in. So I became an amateur instead.

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