Purpose and approach of the book

Why does the institution of taxation occupy a precarious place in our societies, seemingly suspended between its potential to redistribute resources and its status as a necessary evil? In other words, why is taxation held out as the means for achieving greater social equity while it is, at the same time, under constant pressure to limit itself for the sake of economic productivity? Why, to put the question succinctly, is tax policy driven by the competing principles of equity and efficiency? That is the question this book is designed to answer—but to answer in a particular way. The approach of this project is both historical and conceptual. It is an excavation of theological commitments throughout the history of Christianity in the West that have formed and shaped taxation as we know it and, thus, that help to explain the ambiguous nature of our conceptions of taxation.

Thus, beneath the central question—why tax law is suspended between different guiding principles—lies a more specific question: why does taxation serve an adjunct role in legal systems, functioning as the means of achieving redistributive justice while other areas of law protect private property and foster the production of wealth? Christian theology' has had much to say about property rights and wealth as moral categories. This work offers a contribution to what historian Jennifer Hole calls “economic ethics,” i.e., studies of the “moral evaluation” of contemporary economic practices.1 The subject matter of economic ethics, according to Hole, centers on the struggle in Christian thought over the category’ of wealth, and more specifically, the tension between acquiring wealth and the ideals of poverty exemplified by' Jesus’ life.2

This book, therefore, treats the categories of contemporary' tax theory' as inherited from earlier political, legal, and economic commitments that were infused with theological concepts. The categories remain even though evacuated of their original theological content.3 In this respect, the present project follows the example of the theologian E. Clinton Gardner, who, quoting Harold J. Berman, writes:

The secular and increasingly' global context of present-day' law precludes the possibility of return to the legal systems of the past. Nevertheless, a study' of the tradition is an essential preparation for the constructive task which lies ahead. . . . Such a study reveals the distinctive character of modern Western law. . . . Today, however, secular law, bereft of its original foundation, is left “suspended, so to speak, in mid-air.”4

Taxation, by its very' nature, calls for “theological” input, as the economist Henry' Simons noted.5 Although Simons may' have meant “theological” metaphorically, the term is suggestive; and this project accepts the invitation to excavate the theology' or theologies that direct taxation toward a redistributive goal not readily explicable by' most prevailing theories of tax equity.

The material that follows is necessarily' presented historically, but its objective is not merely' to increase the historical understanding of theological reflections on taxation. The following chapters draw on political, social, and economic developments, but the overall approach of the book is based in theological ethics.6 The material refers at times to the influence that ideas had on economic legislation and the impact that law and politics had on theology, but it is chiefly concerned with examining the ideas of theologians.7 Its primary' method is to examine texts in selected theological traditions.8 It is, in other words, a theoretical study with sociocultural features. The impact of theological and philosophical ideas on legislation and on attitudes of the people is hard to gauge. The chapters that follow, however, are informed by the belief that ideas are often criticisms of, and reactions to, social, economic, and political circumstances.9 Moreover, these criticisms and reactions can, and sometimes do, influence actions and decisions.10 At the very' least, theologians throughout the history' of the Christian church have liberated categories and vocabularies that made sense of, and allowed people to articulate, changing social and economic circumstances.11

Though it aspires to none of the magnificence of Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle, this book is influenced by' the ease with which Brown interweaves political, economic, and social currents with the ideas of “elite” thinkers—Ambrose and Augustine foremost among them. Anticipating the challenge that his chosen authors are not wholly' representative of the thinking of average people in the later centuries of the Roman Empire, Brown writes that “[i]n matters of religion—and especially in the study' of major religious movements such as the formation of the Christian churches—the word ‘elite’ can be misleading.” He continues:

It invites us to assume an absence of contact between leading minds and the wider body of opinion and practice that surrounds them. This is a false assumption. I prefer the judgment of Louis Gernet, writing on Greek religion in the classical period: “An elite does not invent. It renders explicit what many' others think.”12

This work also proceeds in accord with that judgment.

This is a work of political theology' and philosophy' and, as such, bridges the gap between past and present. It follows the methodological perspective that

Richard Tuck sets out in the preface to his Philosophy and Government 1572-1651, according to which one must be a historian to understand political philosophers (and theologians) of any period, depicting “the character of the actual life which these theorists were leading, and the specific political questions which engaged their attention.” At the same time, however, a work of political philosophy must make “a contribution to our understanding of how people might cope with broadly similar issues in our own time.”13 Tuck suggests, correctly, that the differences between past and present are not as great as we often think. “[T]he better our historical sense of what those [past political] conflicts were,” he writes, “the more often they seem to resemble modern ones.”14

American work on political economy has tended to proceed ahistorically. This is a mistake, according to Susan Strange, and the present work follows Strange’s advice in inquiring into the <:««■>'« of today’s consequences.15 Strange argues that any economic arrangement that affects “systems of production, exchange and distribution, and the mix of values reflected therein” necessarily results from “human decisions.” We must, therefore, “peer behind the curtain of passing time into what went before.”16

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