Holy Crap

Ben Carson thinks our tax system should be based on the Bible. He clearly hasn’t read it very closely.

Ben Carson and the Ten Commandments.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson recently proposed a tax system “based on tithing, because I think God is a pretty fair guy.” The basic idea is that people would pay a set percent of their income in taxes, and most of the federal tax code’s current deductions and loopholes would be closed. Carson suggests that such a system is inherently fair and simple, and he’s tasked Thomas Rustici, an economics professor at George Mason University, with working out the details. During Wednesday night’s debate among the Republican primary candidates in Boulder, Colorado, Carson noted that his ideal rate might not be the biblically mandated 10 percent, but something closer to 15 percent.

Looking to the Bible for guidance on tax policy raises a host of questions, not the least of which is whether we should be turning to an ancient document to design a secular tax system for our modern world. For the sake of argument, however, let’s accept that we should look to the Bible. That leaves us with the more concrete questions of just what the Bible says about tax fairness and tithing, and whether a tax system based on tithing would be the panacea that Carson suggests. The answer is almost certainly no.

The Bible actually refers to a number of different taxes or tax-like practices that are divinely inspired, including the temple tax, the agricultural tithe, and nonagricultural tithing, the practice of giving 10 percent of one’s income to the poor. Each of these reflects a different conception of fairness. For instance, the temple tax, described in the Book of Exodus and mentioned several more times in the Old and New Testaments, requires each male over the age of 20 to pay a half-shekel, regardless of wealth or income. In contrast, tithes, described in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, impose a flat rate, such that each person pays a proportional amount of his or her income. In fact, the Bible refers to two tithes, one to be given to the Levites, temple servants who were excluded from the division of land in Israel, and one either to be given to the poor or taken to Jerusalem and consumed, depending on where in the Hebrews’ seven-year cycle one was. Ezra the Priest took the tithe away from the Levites when they refused to return to Jerusalem to help build the Second Temple, providing a lesson, perhaps, to a candidate like Carson, that our modern-day welfare recipients shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds them.

So which practice accurately reflects God’s notion of fairness? And how do we know that God had fairness in mind when determining the rates for these practices? The temple tax was tied to communal prayer in which each individual atoned for his soul by making payment. Contributing the same amount reflects the notion that we are all equal before God. It can also conduct a census—counting the annual contributions tells you how many people there are.

The fixed rate of the agricultural tithe may reflect the fact that tithes were paid in-kind—that is, in actual produce, not in the money value of that produce. They also had to be separated out before the food could be eaten, which typically meant in the fields. Under such circumstances, progressive rates, in which the wealthier pay at greater rates than the poor, were simply unworkable. First, one would probably need to create different rate structures for different crops. For lightweight crops, the threshold for moving from 10 percent to 15 percent, as Carson suggested, might make sense once farmers had harvested 100 pounds, while a 200 pound threshold might make sense for heavier crops. Second, the accounting necessary to implement a progressive system would have been quite difficult, especially out in the fields. A proportionate tithe made sense because farmers could simply set aside every 10th basket, regardless of the crop or the basket’s size or shape.

The fact is that biblical taxes were religious obligations inextricably linked to their religious purposes, such as supporting the temple attendants and feeding the poor. They were never intended to be a model for a modern, secular tax system.

But let us assume for the moment that Carson has correctly determined that the agricultural tithe reflects the divine notion of tax fairness, even if it does not dictate the actual rate. We must also ignore the fact that the agricultural tithe only applied to agriculture, which would limit our tax to farmers. I’m fairly certain Carson doesn’t mean to do that. Instead, he claims that we should all pay the same percentage, even if it means that the wealthy pay more than the poor. At least it’s less than they would pay under a progressive tax.

The practice of tithing from nonagricultural income might be the better model, but even here there are problems. This practice is described in the Bible—think Jacob vowing to tithe after dreaming about the ladder full of angels—and was developed in the Mishnah and Talmud, works from the third and sixth centuries that record and elaborate upon purported additional instructions Moses received on Mount Sinai. Early religious authorities struggled with the question of just how much charity one should do and concluded, based on Jacob’s example, that one should set aside 10 percent of one’s income to help the poor. But it wasn’t that simple. Those who actually needed charity were relieved of the obligation, and those with little to give were asked to give something less than 10 percent. However, those with significant assets were actually asked to give more, up to 20 percent of their assets. Thus, far from being a flat tax, as Carson suggests, this practice was actually progressive in nature.

When the U.S. income tax was proposed more than 100 years ago, its proponents sold it as a much simpler alternative to the then-current system of excise taxes and import duties. We know how that turned out. The reality is that modern tax systems must account for the myriad ways in which people spend and earn money. They often contain complex provisions designed to promote social policies, such as home ownership and economic growth. Finally, they must anticipate the ways in which taxpayers will order their affairs so as to escape as much tax as possible. And if that weren’t enough, they are stuck between the Scylla of political lobbying and the Charybdis of partisan politics. No wonder the tax code reads as if it were written in Hungarian, Google-translated into Mandarin, and then translated again into English—and no wonder Carson would prefer to scrap it and try something more biblical.

But would a tax system based on tithes really be easy to administer? I certainly don’t mean to defend our current tax system, on which almost anything would be an improvement. However, the idea that tithing is simple is at best misguided. Assuming for the moment that the rate is set at 10 percent, the question is 10 percent of what? Let’s start with agricultural tithing. The Bible requires farmers to tithe 10 percent of (1) the produce (2) of the fields (3) of Israel. At first glance, this seems straightforward, but religious scholars have struggled with questions about all three of these terms. What constitutes a field? Is a courtyard a field for purposes of the tithe? How about a root cellar, if your onions start to sprout? What constitutes produce? Is hemp produce subject to the tithe? Finally, what constitutes Israel? The borders changed both in ancient and modern times. And what should one do with a tree that grows in Jordan but shoots a branch over Israeli airspace? Entire sections of the Mishnah and Talmud are devoted to trying to flesh out this simple command.

The problem becomes significantly more complex when dealing with nonagricultural tithing. In determining how much to give, people need to determine their income. Should they be allowed to deduct meals? Should they include gifts in income? If they purchase an asset, may they deduct the cost immediately, must they wait until they sell the asset, or should they be allowed to depreciate the cost over time? What about money earned overseas or in corporate form? Defining income raises a host of difficult questions that can significantly complicate any tax system, regardless of the rate structure.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but while Carson’s tax plan may be divinely inspired, the devil is in the details.