Taxing the will to give

With increasing regularity, leaders of the National Democratic Party are seeking support for their economic agenda in, of all places, the Bible. Failed presidential candidate John Kerry, for example, persists in appealing to the New Testament book of James. "Faith without works is dead," he intones, suggesting that "works" here includes the works of lawmakers as they spend other people's money.
In like manner, Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, is wont to quote the teaching of Jesus that "[i]nasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." According to Pelosi, doing unto the least means raising more taxes for entitlement programs.
Even DNC Chairman Howard Dean, who kicked off President Bush's second term with the outburst "I hate Republicans," more recently accused the ones he hates of violating the biblical command to "love thy neighbor as thyself." He believes Republicans commit this sin by resisting efforts to enlarge the tender—loving federal bureaucracy.
Leaving aside speculation about motives, one thing is clear. Democratic leaders, by citing scripture in their condemnation of fiscal conservatives, have acknowledged the Bible as a relevant authority in matters of public policy. It is only fair, therefore, to consider the liberal economic agenda in light of the same authority.
The passages selected by liberals invariably relate to God's love for those in material need. Missing from their understanding, however, is any appreciation of God's primary emphasis on the spiritual needs of the giver, and potential giver. Indeed, the Bible—quoting Democrats seem utterly unacquainted this central theme of the Bible.
Jesus, who freely sacrificed his own life to save others, said, "it is more blessed to give than to receive." The teaching reflects Christ's deep knowledge of the human need to love and be loved through free—will giving.
Paying taxes, of course, is not a gift. It is required under penalty of law. The payment of taxes confers on the payer none of the spiritual blessings that flow from charity. With respect to the billions of dollars conscripted to fund entitlement programs, the government actually precludes the possibility of the "more blessed[ness]" promised by Christ.
It is not simply a matter of reducing the income available to potential givers. Welfare, including the welfare for the middle class known as Social Security, also taxes the purpose and the incentives for voluntary giving. When retirement is financed with money taken from the wages of strangers, and when aging parents are systematically relegated to state—funded nursing homes, a child's incentive to honor his parents with personal resources is greatly diminished, as are, of course, the resources themselves.
The government dole taxes not only income but also the impetus of neighbors, the church and other charities to lend a hand to unemployed individuals in their midst. Entitlements thus interfere with familial relationships and, contrary to Dean's invective, dampen the impulse to love one's neighbor. Though we might wish this truth to be self—evident, that love cannot be legislated, it has been lost in the haze of our addiction to entitlements. Voluntary sacrifice, made on behalf of someone in need, is, like Shakespeare's quality of mercy, "twice blest." It blesses the one who receives and, even more so, the one who gives.
But entitlements, and the impassive spirits they arouse, diminish a good part of both of these blessings. By depleting the impetus and the purpose for voluntary sacrifice, the welfare state ultimately imposes a tax on the greater blessings that, according to Christ, flow from free—will giving.
Fiscal conservatives have explained many of the burdens of welfare, burdens on individual freedom; on the economy; on beneficiaries themselves. Despite the unassailable logic, and perhaps because of it, these arguments also contribute to the stereotype of conservatives as uncompassionate. Even the argument that entitlements visit harm on those they are designed to help, while demonstrably true, has not helped conservatives shed their reputation for being penurious and mean.
Largely unarticulated, however, is the way the entitlement system serves to obviate individual good will. Misguided government efforts to constrain the quality of mercy have a chilling effect on charity, resulting in an increasingly uncompassionate society.
The absurd implied premise of the Bible—quoting liberals is that bigger government is a way to "love thy neighbor." In fact, government programs encourage a life profoundly centered on self, and make us increasingly spectators to the plight of our neighbors.
The incongruity between big government theology and the teachings of the Bible is thus readily apparent. Entitlements place primary importance on material needs. Christ teaches his followers to "seek ye first the kingdom of God ... and all these things [food, clothing, etc.] will be added unto you."
Whereas the Biblical standard requires the gift of faith, welfare subsists on fears that voluntary giving alone would be insufficient. Welfare proponents also worry about the unfairness of voluntary giving, as many choose not to give. The God of the Bible satisfies material and spiritual needs simultaneously, by conferring blessings on those who give voluntarily and sacrificially.
Christ's vision is indeed radical, as radical today as it was in the ancient world, and liberals might sincerely reject his doctrine as a basis for public policy. But intellectual honesty would require leaders of the contemporary left to admit that the Christian faith is incompatible with the ideology behind entitlement programs.
Roger Banks is an attorney and writer in Washington, D.C. E—mail: