In a letter written in 1789, Benjamin Franklin observed that the new American constitution seemed destined for permanency but also noted that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Taxation, in one form or another, has been a feature of civilized life for 5,000 years or more and shows no sign of disappearing. No doubt complaints about the fairness of taxation are just as old.
My objective is to consider questions of justice with regard to taxation through the lens of the Catholic social tradition. By identifying some of the foundational concepts of the Church’s social teaching and applying them to the subject of taxation, we can draw a few conclusions about what the tradition teaches us—and does not teach us—about the levying of taxes.
What the Tradition teaches us
...individuals and families have a natural right to own property privately.
First, the Catholic social tradition teaches us that, as images of God, the natural flourishing of human persons consists in the full exercise of our capacities to reason well, to act for the good, and to participate in civic friendship. As a consequence, the common good of society consists in those conditions that would make it possible for each and every person in the community to flourish. It does not and cannot consist in making individuals passive recipients of the material requirements of a decent life. The state can assist us in becoming self-reliant and self-determining—as social beings, not as isolated individuals—but it cannot do this for us or to us. As a result, the state must respect a very large zone of social life, a rich assemblage of families and associations that it may nurture but ought not to control. This acts as a natural limit on state activity and on the need for tax revenues.
Second, the Catholic social tradition teaches us that individuals and families have a natural right to own property privately. It is in recognizing this right that the Catholic social tradition reveals one of its most distinctive features: the emphasis on the family as the foundational element of society. The wealth of a society is an aggregate measure, for the most part, of wealth owned privately by individuals and families; it is not the possession of the state. Nevertheless, the state has a claim on some amount of private property in order to perform its proper functions, and it claims this amount through laws levying taxes.
Third, the Catholic social tradition teaches us that members of a society have a duty to support the common good in various ways, not least by peacefully paying just taxes. Members of a society have a duty in justice to support the common good. This abstract duty is made concrete by just laws enacted by legitimate civil authority. Unless there is an unambiguous demonstration to the contrary, individuals are obliged, in justice, to regard tax laws as just and to obey in letter and spirit.
Fourth, the Catholic social tradition teaches us that the burden of taxation should be proportioned to the ability of individuals and households to pay. For the most part, just taxation will take into account the ability of individuals and families to bear the burden demanded. This principle encourages some degree of progressivity in taxation, especially where the object of taxation is income. It is less clear that the tradition holds that the wealthy (however that is defined) must be required to pay a disproportionately higher rate of tax than the majority of the population. Furthermore, the thrust of the tradition is in favor of lower rather than higher levels of taxation so that individuals and families retain more of their money and can more effectively serve their communities through acts of charity and generosity.
Fifth, the Catholic social tradition teaches us that the people of particular nations are free to make determinations about what operations to delegate to government and what forms of taxation, consistent with natural justice, the community will employ to collect revenue. There is, in other words, no perfect form of taxation, no ideal level of taxation, no object of taxation that is ruled out in principle.
What the Tradition does not teach us
First, the Catholic social tradition does not teach us that all social issues should be addressed through government action. The tradition understands society to be a much larger association than the state. The state has a role to play in supporting the health and integrity of the society but so do the family and a rich collection of intermediate associations. Communities are free to delegate functions to the state but the Church has long been cautious about delegating too much. It recognizes the importance of the intermediate bodies, not only in terms of their efficiency and their proximity to the problems but also in terms of the importance to individuals of the exercise of charity. Whatever government may do, however dedicated and professional its employees, it cannot substitute for charity nor can Christians hire it out.
Our experience in history is that the more powerful organs have a tendency to absorb the functions of those smaller and less powerful.
Second, the Catholic social tradition does not teach us that larger, more comprehensive government is to be preferred. In many respects, the Church has been careful about supporting the growth of government, often justifying government intervention in cases of crisis but warning that the intervention ought to cease when the crisis is resolved. All of this is a reflection of the Church’s concern with subsidiarity, which requires respect for the proper functions of the various organs of society. Our experience in history is that the more powerful organs have a tendency to absorb the functions of those smaller and less powerful.
Third, the Catholic social tradition does not teach us that wealth ought to be redistributed through taxation. The key is to embrace the concept of vocation. That is, every person is called to make some contribution to the community, to serve some purpose. One of the functions of the Church is persistently to remind people of their duties to society. To use taxation as a vehicle for distribution, however, is to neglect this dimension. That the wealthy have resources is one thing; what they do with their resources is quite another—and is really the important thing. For the Church, the goal is not to equalize wealth in society but to encourage that wealth be used—generally by private initiative—for the common good.
Fourth, the Catholic social tradition does not teach us that the needs of the poor take priority over all other items in government budgets. To be sure, care for the poor is an inescapable Christian duty, but the impact of budgets on the poor is not the only moral measure to be employed. Every dollar of a government budget that we spend on the poor is a dollar not spent on education, infrastructure, policing, public health, or some other critical function. The Catholic social tradition requires the state to support the common good as a whole; it does not require the state to subordinate all functional areas to any single issue—even the situation of the poor. Furthermore, the public definition of poverty tends to be in terms of sufficiency of material resources, and government programs are geared toward addressing insufficiencies. But, as St. Teresa of Calcutta reminded us, the most terrible anguish is not physical poverty or material deprivation—though this in itself can be a very bad thing—it is the anguish of not being wanted; of being rejected, neglected, and forgotten; of being alone. Given their nature, government programs, regardless of their size, cannot address this dimension of poverty. In a free society, citizens, at their best, freely attend to needs in their own communities and are supported in doing this when taxation is light enough to allow them to bring their own resources to bear.
Tax policies and tax levies are an unavoidable part of civilized life. The social tradition of the Church emphasizes the duty of citizens to support their government as well as the duties of civil authorities to govern wisely and to respect the ownership rights of individuals and families. The goal in all of this is the promotion of the common good, which requires prudence and balance. This is not easy to achieve and to sustain—but it is worth the struggle.
Excerpted and adapted from Justice in Taxation, the latest volume in Acton’s Christian Social Thought Series.