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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Nothing left to covet

Comparing Commandments 8 and 10

Issue: "On the rails," Oct. 9, 2010

In all the discussion about tax breaks for the rich, two fairly simple facts are really all you need to know.

Fact No. 1 is that only 3 percent of all the taxpayers in the United States pay more in income taxes than the other 97 percent combined. Fact No. 2 is that even if you taxed that 3 percent of our population at a rate of 100 percent of their income, you wouldn't produce enough additional revenue to cover the deficits our federal government is now incurring each year.

There's a lot more, of course, you might learn and know about taxes. But keep these first two facts in mind as you try to process the big debate between those, on the one hand, who want to extend tax breaks enacted by the Bush administration in 2003 and those, on the other hand, who say it's time to end those tax breaks and make rich people pay more of their "fair share."

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Wealthy as our nation is-and even in its current economic funk it is incredibly rich-it isn't wealthy enough to do everything we have committed to. We've run up to their limit a suitcase full of national credit cards, and now find there's no way to make the monthly payments. So we do what comes most naturally in such a desperate situation. We covet.

We glance to the right and to the left and we see a few folks who, from the looks of things, have more of this world's goods than we do. At first, we simply muse how much easier life would be if we just had a little more of what they already have. Then we start thinking: Maybe it's my right to have what they have. And the Tenth Commandment looks increasingly frayed with every new government wealth-transfer program.

I've heard from a number of WORLD readers who refer to this as theft, which involves the Eighth Commandment. That, I think, goes too far. A thief has no right to take what belongs to someone else. If a government, though, has an inherent right to tax its citizens, who can say at what point such taxation constitutes taking something to which it is not entitled? Jesus told us to give to Caesar what is Caesar's. At which marginal tax rate does Caesar's right end? A 32 percent tax rate might strike me as destructively high for the national good-but I'm not sure I can call it theft. A Christian in a thoroughly socialist nation is still biblically obligated to pay his taxes fully and honestly.

But there's no such ambiguity about coveting. And especially so when the politicians who call for higher taxes on the rich explicitly structure their argument on a blatant encouragement of envy and class covetousness. I wish President Barack Obama and his whole staff had had to memorize as children what my parents taught me from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, whose 81st question earned this answer: "The Tenth Commandment forbids all discontentment with our own estate, envying or grieving at the good of our neighbor, and all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his." Try hanging that on the wall of every room where government tax policy is discussed and established.

See, God has structured and ordered things so that coveting is an unusually unproductive exercise. We sit and stew all day and wish we were as rich as our neighbor-and at the end of the day, even if the tax law gets changed so that rich people have to pay 40 percent of their income instead of just 30 percent, the coveters end up with virtually none of that difference.

That's why I started with the two simple facts of our current tax structure. We've gotten to the point that it doesn't matter much anymore how we change things. All the taxpayers together haven't got enough money now to change the fact that we've spent ourselves into oblivion. There's not a whole lot left to covet.

Not even if we change the rates to 100 percent.
Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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