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Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Livingston Presents Religious Perspectives on Progressive and Flat Taxation Today at UCLA

Ucla_law_logo_jpg_2Maliving_1 Michael A. Livingston (Rutgers - Camden) presents Rendering Unto Caesar:  Religious Perspectives on Progressive and Flat Taxation today at UCLA as part of its Tax Policy and Public Finance Workshop Series, moderated by Eric Zolt & Victor Fleischer.  Here is part of the Conclusion:

The first conclusion is the undeveloped and non-specific character of most religious commentary on progressive taxation and tax policy, generally. As compared to rather extensive materials on (say) aid to poor families, the treatment of AIDS victims and so forth, materials on tax policy tend to be rather generic in nature, limited to a general inclination for or against income redistribution together with the inevitable call for protection of the charitable deduction....

A second conclusion concerns the surprising consistency/overlap between superficially opposing religious viewpoints. While liberals not surprisingly support progressive taxation, and conservatives are understandably more skeptical, both share several normative critiques of the existing tax system. In particular, both liberal and conservative commentators support a tax system that is simple (as opposed to what all regard as the current excessive complexity); horizontally equitable (as opposed to what all perceive to be the current capriciousness or unfairness); and supportive of families and working people, although they surely disagree about how exactly to accomplish this....

The previous conclusion suggests a third, broader insight about organized religion and its role in public policy debates. The concern about religious participation in politics results, in part, from a fear that appeals to faith will displace appeals to reason: that is, that people who believe their positions to be supported by God will attempt to impose them unilaterally upon others and (at the same time) be impervious to opposing argument and hence unwilling to compromise. Religion and politics, it is asserted do not mix; and the former is best left entirely in the private sphere.

In the tax area, at least, these fears appear to be overstated. While tracing their positions back to Biblical verses or at very least to Biblical principles, the various denominations tend to develop these ideas in a manner—interpretation, argument, the weighing of different sources and the effect of changed circumstances—not especially different from methods used by secular scholars in applying secular texts. This is true, not because the authors lack confidence in the divine origin of the texts, but because the texts simply do not address modern political and economic problems in any kind of detail. The process thus inevitable involves reasoning by extension and analogy in a manner that will surely be familiar to anyone who has survived (suffered through?) a course in statutory interpretation or constitutional law. This is especially true of the Protestant tradition, in which different churches (or even individuals) have historically been free to interpret the same materials in radically different ways. The Catholic and Jewish traditions, or at least there American versions, face a similar challenge. Indeed, many of the techniques now used to parse statutes and the constitution were originally developed by religious exegesists, a fact of which I have constantly been reminded in writing this article.

It may be that taxation, because of its technical nature and the absence of specific Biblical guidance, is atypical in this regard, and that a debate on abortion or gay rights would lead to shriller arguments and less room for compromise. It may also be that religions are, so to speak, on “good behavior” in multi-denominational America and that, given a higher degree of religious concentration or political control, they would impose their views much more openly. All that can be said, based upon this survey, is that neither the most fervent hopes for spiritually inspired answers to social problems nor the darkest fears of religiously imposed solutions appear justified. At bottom, priests, rabbis and ministers are searching for answers from inexact guideposts in pretty much the same way as the rest of us. They have simply been doing it longer.

Update: Vic Fleischer (UCLA) reviews the talk here.

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