The Biblical Case for Limited Government and Low Taxes

Liberalism, generally, favors a bigger government and higher taxes to pay for it, while conservatives advocate moving in the opposite direction: limited government and low taxes.

Let's face it.  The government since FDR's New Deal has gotten bigger.  LBJ instituted the Great Society.  (I want my Game Show Government, no matter the cost!)  By now conservatives would say Uncle Sam is morbidly obese.  But liberalism is still winning, and liberals claim the moral high ground.

But do they have the right to it?

Not if we follow what the Bible recommends.

I have to admit from the outset that I get nervous about applying the economic and political specifics of the Bible to the modern era.  But maybe we can draw general principles from the ancient theocracy of the Old Testament, which eventually evolved (or devolved) into a royal theocracy.

Of course, we don't -- nor should we -- live in a theocracy.  So let's proceed with caution as we look at the Bible.

The main principle here in this article is one that goes wrong: from simplicity to complexity.  We need to reverse the process.

From Simplicity

As for political power, Deuteronomy 17:16-20 reads:

16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself ... he must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. 18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law ... and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his brothers[.]

So the king must not accumulate large amounts of gold and silver, he is to follow the law, and he must not consider himself better than his fellow citizens.  Lean and simple.

As for the flow of the material resources, we don't need to go into the details about taxes and tithes and offerings in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).  And I'm certainly not advocating going back to the Old Testament specifics on those policies.

Instead, as we notice that the resources flowed to a centralized place (the tabernacle), we just need to look at the same principle of simplicity.

There are three tithes (a tithe is a tenth) commanded in the Torah.  Numbers 18:20-32 provides the tithe for Levites and priests: "It is your wages for your work in the tent of meeting" (v. 31).  Second, the ancient Hebrews could bring their tithes, either in kind or in silver, and buy what they needed after they got to the tabernacle and celebrated the harvest.  They could have a feast on their own tithe in God's presence (Deuteronomy 14:22-27).  Third, every three years, they were to set a tenth of their produce for the Levites who lived in their towns but were not allowed to have land to farm.  This tithe was also for the poor and helpless and foreigners (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).

Next, the ancient Hebrews were to "redeem" their lives because God redeemed them out of Egypt (Exodus 30:11-16).  This yearly payment, a kind of tax, was to go to the temple.  In Jesus' day, the temple tax was two drachmas, or about two days' wages of a day laborer (Matthew 17:24-27).  That's low.  Incidentally, Jesus paid that tax.

Finally, the people were required to bring sacrificial animals to the tabernacle (Leviticus 1:1-7:21).  The well-to-do brought more expensive animals, while the poor could bring in less expensive ones or even grain in some sacrifices (Leviticus 5:7-13).  The priests and Levites could share in some of the offerings, as their provision for food.

We don't need to calculate how much these tithes and tax and offerings would cost today (one tithe was eaten by the giver, so how do you calculate that?).  These laws were given in an agrarian society, which followed the rhythms of the harvests and animal reproduction.

The main point is that the Torah, which sets the standard, was reasonable, requiring low "payments" flowing to the central tabernacle.  Lean and simple.

To Complexity

Later in Israel's history, the people rejected God as king and insisted on a human king.  Samuel the prophet, leading them in this transition, forewarns them that future kings would become oppressive.

Samuel predicts:

11 He said, "This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day." (1 Samuel 8:11-18)

So the king will take the harvests, turn the people into laborers, conscript them into the military, and make their own servants work for him.  Becoming slaves of sorts to the centralized government, the people will cry out for relief.

We are far from the simplicity laid out in Deuteronomy 17:16-20.

Solomon fits the description of a king who broke the basic rules.

1 Kings 10:16-18, 21-25 says:

16 King Solomon made two hundred large shields of hammered gold; six hundred bekas of gold went into each shield. 17 He also made three hundred small shields of hammered gold, with three minas of gold in each shield. The king put them in the Palace of the Forest of Lebanon.

18 Then the king made a great throne inlaid with ivory and overlaid with fine gold. ... 21 All King Solomon's goblets were gold, and all the household articles in the Palace of the Forest of Lebanon were pure gold. Nothing was made of silver, because silver was considered of little value in Solomon's days. 22 The king had a fleet of trading ships at sea along with the ships of Hiram. Once every three years it returned, carrying gold, silver and ivory, and apes and baboons.

23 King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth. 24 The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart. 25 Year after year, everyone who came brought a gift - articles of silver and gold, robes, weapons and spices, and horses and mules.

One positive picture from this long passage is that Solomon traded with other nations, and Israel enjoyed general prosperity.  Yet the resources flowed directly back to Jerusalem and the king.

The dominant impression from this passage is what can best be described (anachronistically) as a command economy.  That is, the central government accumulates and wields a lot of power and wealth, all of which is concentrated in Jerusalem and managed by a burgeoning bureaucracy, described earlier in 1 Kings 9:22-23.  And to pay for this bureaucracy, assessments and duties and taxes in kind and metals increased.

Monarchs do that sort of thing.  Should we?

And so it came to pass the people revolted.

After Solomon died, his son Rehoboam ascended to the throne.  Would he carry on his father's oppressive policies or lighten the burdens?  The people were crying out for relief, just as Samuel had predicted.  Unfortunately, the new king tightened things up.  1 Kings 12:14 says, "My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier[.]"

Thus, Israel split into two kingdoms, north and south, because of high taxes, an oppressive bureaucracy, and centralized power.  We are far from Deuteronomy 17:16-20.

The American Context

We don't have to -- nor should we -- apply the particulars of the Old Testament.  We're not a theocracy or monarchy, and we shouldn't bring back a tithe-tax.

Instead, it is obvious that we have followed the same destructive path away from liberating simplicity, and we're rushing pell-mell toward oppressive complexity.  We're already there.

A command economy and high and countless taxes and a huge bureaucracy were not the aim of our Founders, who often scoured the Greek, Roman, and biblical authors for principles about what to do and what not to do.

A command economy barges into the private sector to dictate, for example, to segments of the auto industry, which now needs more billions, or to command mortgage companies and force them to lend to the poor, though the poor cannot afford to pay them back. 

Therefore, an executive is misguided when he seeks higher taxes on job-creators, while the tax rates are high already compared to those in other nations; when he wields a lot of power on his own, rising above the law and bypassing Congress; and when he walks with his chin held higher than his "subjects," as he gazes out over the horizon at no one in particular.

Today, many conservatives have reached the sane conclusion that a 15-plus-trillion-dollar debt is immoral.  George Bush let himself get co-opted by a Democrat-controlled House and Senate in 2006, and that's when things went downhill.  However, things got worse in 2008 -- and much, much worse for the next four fiscal years -- because the Obama administration added five trillion (a record) to the debt.  A debt that matches or exceeds our national income (GDP) is oppressive and destroys prosperity and freedom.

Further, heavy-handed regulations that have grown decade by decade, all exerted by a central bureaucracy, are bad for everyone but the central planners.  The irony?  We have to pay for the overregulation of our freedoms.

The Constitution is small, while the U.S. Code has grown over the decades.  Think of the tax code managed by the IRS, another huge bureaucracy.  Who can penetrate its labyrinth and come out alive?  The tax code has become oppressively complicated.

Do we need to discuss 2,000-plus-page ObamaCare, which has 21 ticking tax bombs built into it, creates a huge bureaucracy, and limits personal freedom?  Not to mention we can't afford already existing Medicare and Medicaid?


Generally, the left teaches that we need a big government to implement social and economic justice (as leftists define the terms).  However, when the government grows, freedom is restricted.  There's an inverse relationship between a big and powerful government and individual freedom, by definition.

The Bible teaches the opposite of a morbidly obese government.  Therefore, the left no longer occupies the high ground, and the right no longer has to cede it.

Proverbs 13:22 says: "A good man leaves an inheritance for his children's children."

What kind of national inheritance are we leaving to the next generations?  We're leaving them nothing but oppressive burdens.  How sad!  How immoral!

You've heard of the Greatest Generation?  Well, we're the Irresponsible Generation.

We need to get back to a simple, lean, and reasonable government and low taxes.

That's the moral high ground.

James M. Arlandson, Ph.D. has written a book: Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity.  He has recently completed a series on The Sword in Early Christianity and Islam.  He is currently finishing up a series on shariah, posted at

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