Ben Carson’s Flat Tax Gets the Bible Wrong

Presidential hopeful Ben Carson’s claim that his flat tax proposal is based on biblical tithing is a “radical oversimplification in a number of ways,” says a tax lawyer and expert on the tithing concepts described in the Old Testament.

Adam Chodorow, a professor of law at Arizona State University, has written extensively on whether flat tax proposals that purport to be based on the biblical system of tithing accurately reflect the systems described in the text—and, significantly, rabbinical interpretation of those texts.

“To compare the tithe to taxes is deeply fraught, because this was not a secular tax system,” Chodorow said in an interview. Tithing, which Chodorow said took several different forms in biblical times, was a religious obligation, not legal requirement imposed by the government. (There was, in fact, no government.) Biblical tithing, in other words, is not adaptable to the modern secular state.

Carson, though, confidently claimed his flat tax idea, derived from the Bible, is workable in 21st century America. When asked by Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace yesterday about his 10 percent flat tax proposal, Carson said:

Well, I like the idea of a proportional tax. That way you pay according to your ability. And I got that idea, quite frankly, from the Bible, tithing. You make $10 billion a year, you pay $1 billion. You make $10 a year, you pay $1. You get the same rights. That’s pretty darn fair, if you ask me.

Now, some people say it’s not fair because, you know, the poor people can’t afford to pay that dollar. That’s very condescending. You know, I grew up very poor. I experienced every economic level. And I can tell you poor people have pride, too. And they don’t want to be just taken care of.

And also, if everybody is paying, it makes it very difficult for these politicians to come along and raise taxes. It’s easy to raise it on 1 percent or 2 percent or 5 percent. It’s very difficult to raise it on 100 percent.

Chodorow identified several ways in which Carson misreads the biblical text. First, tithing was a religious obligation, developed to support religious authorities as well as the poor, not a tax imposed to fund governmental functions. In the Fox News interview, Carson suggests that poor people were not the beneficiaries of the tithe (just as he believes poor people should not receive assistance from the government), but rather part of a system in which they were treated equally with the more affluent.

Second, tithing was never actually a flat 10 percent. Contrary to Carson’s claim that the 10 percent figure applied without exception, shared equally because everyone paid the same proportion of their wealth, Jewish religious authorities created a progressive system based on a person’s wealth, said Chodorow. “At least in the Jewish tradition—and of course this is a Jewish practice that the Christians took over and ignored much of the marginalia about what it really meant—tithing was not a flat 10 percent, at least in the ancient Jewish world. It was a range of giving. That would undermine some of what Mr. Carson is saying.”

In the Bible, said Chodorow, farmers were obligated to tithe 10 percent of their yield to religious authorities—to the priests and t0 the Levites who maintained the Temple—as well as to the poor. In one example of the various ways tithing was required, Chodorow said that after returning to Israel from the Babylonian exile, the Levites were given no land, thus people with agricultural land were thus obligated to provide for them. Because there were no standard weights and measures, the 10 percent was arrived at more loosely, for example, every tenth container of produce was to be delivered to the Temple. Again, this flexibility undermines Carson’s claim to base his proposal on a uniform, biblical system.

In the non-agricultural context, tzedakah, a mitzvah, or commandment, in Judaism, is the concept of tithing most recognizable to modern-day Christians, including Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons. But again, that’s “a very fuzzy concept,” said Chodorow. “It doesn’t say 10 percent and no more.”

It gets even “more complicated” for Carson, said Chodorow, because “there are a range of taxes in the Bible, each employing a different allocation measure, suggesting a different equitable idea.” The first tax in the Bible, he said, was a Temple tax, a half shekel per person to build the Tabernacle. Yet later, the Talmud documents a spirited debate about how one would allocate the cost of building a wall. The rabbis came up with a system now known as the benefit theory of taxation—that people pay based on how much they would benefit from the service. That theory, though, has been dismissed in modern times because of the impossibility of determining such an allocation.

Chodorow said that he was “deeply troubled” by the idea that a system developed thousands of years ago could be perceived as one that is “divinely ordained for all time and for all societies.”

Rather than be true—if that’s possible—to biblical tithing, Carson actually neglects other biblical concepts of fairness and justice. Chodorow pointed to Luke 21:1-4, where Jesus says that the widow who gave two mites to the Temple had done more than a rich person giving more. There, Jesus “is basically saying we should be examining a tax system based on its impact on people, not on some abstract notion of sameness or fairness,” he said. “Anytime you decrease reduce the tax on the rich, you have to increase it on the poor, and is that a just society?”

  • RobertSeattle

    Ben, “Fair” does not mean the same thing as “equal.”

  • Alencon

    I’m all for simplifying the tax code but a flat 10% tax strikes me as ridiculous. What is it about the simple concept that regressive taxes, like flat sales taxes and flat income taxes, are inherently unfair that conservatives don’t seem to comprehend? Didn’t any of these folks take economics?

    Or is it that they understand they’re unfair but they just don’t care?

  • seashell

    Ben Carson bases his views of evolution on the Bible and gets those wrong, too. All before breakfast.

  • Frank

    Proportional pay-in is the most egalitarian of systems. You can’t get any fairer than that. You can add an exemption at the poverty line to protect the very poor. I do think they need to adjust how they calculate poverty however.

  • Murmur1

    Sarah, I disagree with you on one point. There WAS a government in Israel of Old Testament times, and it was the same as the religious establishment. The country was a theocracy. The Law was given by Jehovah, and the priests were the judges. People were punished for disobeying the law. There were military forces that represented the Israelite nation. The tithe supported the political as well as the religious establishment. The U.S. is like the Israelite nation in that we have rule of law — in our case the Constitution. However, since all the citizens do not belong to the same religion, our law is (or should be) secular.

    As a liberal, I think a fundamental difference between me and my conservative fellow citizens is that I believe the government of the U. S., in protecting our Constitutional rights, has responsibilities beyond protecting us against foreign aggressors and protecting property rights. It has the responsibility of protecting the weaker residents of this country against the stronger ones. Partly, this is because of our capitalist economic system, which does not have the built-in re-allocations of the Old Testament law, such as: allowing the poor to glean in the fields, supporting widows and orphans, marrying your relative’s widowed wife, forgiving debts every seven years, prohibiting excessive interest on debts, and so on.

    I support government medical care because I believe individuals and families are in at least as much danger to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness from disease as we are from foreign aggressors. I believe in public schools that teach critical thinking skills as well as the three R’s, history, economics, and government, because a democratic republic needs educated citizens who can make good decisions. I believe that government should protect the common environment we all must share — the air, the water, the forests, the soil — from those who would abuse them to make a quick profit. The founders of the country may not have foreseen the increase in population that makes all these government functions even more important now than they were 200+ years ago.

    These beliefs are aside from my Christian religious beliefs. And if I tithe to God through my church, I still need to pay taxes to support the positive contributions of the national, state, and local governments, whether it’s a flat tax or a regressive tax. I’d favor a flat tax, but I don’t think it’s ever going to happen, because I don’t think the rich will let it happen.

  • conjurehealing

    …why does he not believe that poor people should not get government assistance? Is it because their support should come from the community? Didn’t the Puritans already cover this thing with their model of Christian charity? What if one doesn’t use the bible or biblical principles? I am trying to understand this, I really am.

  • Jim Reed

    He’s a Republican. They want to cut every program that assists poor people because they are the party of the rich.

  • apotropoxy

    They like it because it enforces the notion of the wealthy being the elect and the poor deserving their misery.

  • GeniusPhx

    The puritans lost the lotto in Britain (didn’t become the established religion) so they came here and tried to create their theocracies here. If you didn’t convert they made you leave the colony or they executed you. Puritans and Catholics held inquisitions and killed ppl by the thousands for their beliefs, (including native Indians).

    Republicans want to go back those times. When Reagan spoke of the shining ‘city on a hill’ he was referring to the Puritans take over of Boston and the killing of non puritans.

  • We do need to acknowledge that poor people and women were not citizens under the founders’ system. They were property- (including slaves) owning White men, and they designed a system for themselves.

  • Actually, the first tax reported in the Bible was in the Pharaonic theocracy, devised by the Hebrew Joseph in the 7 fat/7 lean cattle dream interpretation, and later, of course, administered by Joseph for Pharaoh. Farmers were required to deposit a portion of their produce in Pharaoh’s barns, whence it could be sold back to the people in the lean years.

  • conjurehealing

    In all seriousness you are saying that he actually thinks all Americans should become Christians or live according to those principles? The latter would be possible but I think the Constitution prohibits this?

  • conjurehealing

    I understand this but he is running also as a Christian conservative and I wonder what they would do with the poor…

  • Jim Reed

    That would have to be decided later. At this stage they are working out what they have to say to secure the Evangelical vote.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Apparently Carson does not know that a Jewish and religiously based flat tax could also mean we need to invoke the “year of Jubilee”,
    when all the land must be returned to the original owner every 50 (?) years, regardless of any loans and debts. Maybe he would want to rethink that one again.

  • GeniusPhx

    before the constitution it was convert, leave, or die. they are saying our govt should be enforcing christian law, just like 9 of 13 colonies did. back then non christians (different sects of it for different colonies) would not have the right to own property, vote, etc. they wanted them gone. It isn’t the majority view of all christians but the ones in power are going that direction.

    the constitution prohibits govt from establishing a religion (should be neutral on religion) but supreme ct decisions have chipped away at that with Greece and Hobby Lobby.

    http://crooksandliars.com/2015/01/rick-santorum-thinks-idea-separation
    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history-archaeology/Americas-True-History-of-Religious-Tolerance.html#
    http://www.politicususa.com/2015/02/25/57-republicans-dismantle-constitution-christianity-national-religion.html

  • Jennifer P

    When I heard Carson speak on this it seemed to me that he was offering the tithe example as an idea that could work on the national and local stages. I didn’t see him calling for a religious tithe. He also didn’t limit it to 10%. A flat tax is very easy to collect and the costs of collecting it (i.e., the cost of the IRS) would be much cheaper.

  • Jennifer P

    Progressive tax rates are unfair. They penalize those who work hard and earn more. They discourage people from working hard. Why on earth would someone work all the overtime they can if it is only going to result in them being pushed into a higher tax bracket?

    Ask someone on the left what the moral justification is for taking a person who works hard and makes more a higher rate than someone who makes less. The typical response is based not on moral fairness, but upon the perceived need of the government.

    Sales taxes are not regressive. Wealthy people spend more than poor people and thus pay more in taxes. Likewise with income taxes. Wealthy people earn more and pay more than those who make less.

  • DKeane123

    Empirically, many of the countries with progressive taxes have some of the wealthiest citizenry.

    To say a 8% sales tax doesn’t hurt someone with an income of $20,000 per year more than someone that makes $200,000 is quite obviously false. The former may be having problems with basic needs like affording basic food and shelter, the latter is not (and isn’t even “rich”).

    Also your term “works hard” implies that the rich are somehow working “harder” and the poor are that way because they are lazy or somehow undeserving.

    Being upwardly mobile in tax brackets is truly a caviar problem.

  • Red 2

    There are a couple of things right off the bat in here that are completely wrong. The first is that in ancient Hebrew society there was no government, and the second is that the religious body was a separate entity. In ancient Hebrew society they absolutely did have a government and the religous authority was an integral part of it. And so a tithe may have been a religious obligation, but the religious authority was a large part of the societal leadership of the community which in essence makes the religious tithe the same as a state tax.

    One thing the article does have right is that the tithe was not a holy obligation. God didn’t ordain that people should pay 10%. That was a man made mandate like much of the Old Testament Laws. The only “divine” laws in the Old Testament are the Ten Commandments of which tithing is not one.

    There are certainly many advantages and disadvantages to the concept of a flat tax. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with using your cultural, religous, or ideological background to help in the decision making process for how you would act as a chief executive. However, if you’re going to critique someone’s proposed ideas at least do so honestly.

  • Alencon

    People who earn more benefit more from public services and thus should pay a larger share of the upkeep.

    Progressive taxation is based upon the perceived need of society. A society that has increasing economic disparity is not, and cannot be, a free society. Reference the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

    I might point out that working hard is no guarantee of wealth. I make a lot more money than many people that work a lot harder than I do. But I have two things they don’t. (1) Talents that companies are willing to pay a lot for and (2) the intelligence and education to effectively apply those talents. I’ve also never known progressive taxation to deter anyone from making more money.

    Sales taxes are regressive in that the percentage of income spent for the same items is higher for people who earn less. Yes people who spend more pay more sales tax but they also receive more or better goods and services in return.

  • conjurehealing

    I don’t understand. The book of Numbers is full of rules from God ordaining obligations of offerings and sacrifices. There are divine laws in the Old Testament that pertain to paying 10 percent or even more.

  • phatkhat

    The very hardest working people in the US are making minimum wage (or less). Sad but true. The days are long gone (if they ever really existed) when people could rise by dint of hard work. Upward mobility for those in the bottom tier has been stagnant or reversing for decades.

  • Ricardo Hotatio

    Thanks Sarah, for your insight, I wholeheartedly agree with you. Except for this incredible misjudgement on the part of Carson, he would make a brilliant president. I hope and pray that Carson recognises his error in time, otherwise it would jeopardy the only chance left for a real economic recovery.

  • Aaron-Kelly Catt

    Every seven years. /