Dim View of Taxation in The Book of Mormon

The following article is my own opinion, and in no way represents the official doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Some in the religious community view spiritual texts most pertinent to the spiritual realm rather than the social, emotional, or political (I am among the number). Some may even oppose their application to non-religious applications. I would not consider myself one of these individuals. My reasoning for “secular” use of spiritual texts goes like this: God has given us a brain to at least nominally comprehend spirituality, especially spiritual writings, like the Bible, Tao Te Ching, etc. Hence, it is wholly appropriate, or at least consistent, to use the God-given rational faculty to comprehend and interpret spiritual writings. Of course the assumption here is that the rational faculty can be used in many different valid ways to interpret scripture.

Being a Mormon and a recent libertarian convert, I find myself re-examining a lifetime of religious teachings and concepts in a libertarian light. The Book of Mormon is rich with application for me, including the corruption of power, justification of war in self-defense only, benefit of the market economy, etc.

Taxation is particularly harshly spoken of. Most practicing Mormons view these as complicated references, not directly applicable to our current socio-political scenario. I grant that as a possibility, but I find the consistent condemnation quite striking. Very little positive is said regarding taxation.

Many today may say taxation is a necessary evil. I also grant that a possibility (supposing a state is necessary), but I reserve the right to have ideals about how a government (if it exists) should finance itself, and certainly how it should not finance itself.

With that preface, there are primarily four explicit examples referring to taxation (I won’t get into implicit examples here). The wicked king Noah, for instance, “Did not keep the commandments of God, but he did walk after the desires of his own heart…[he did] that which was abominable in the sight of the Lord (Mosiah 11:2).” For those not familiar with Mormonism, you can plug in any of the traditional Biblical injunctions here (Thou shalt not commit adultery, kill, etc.), for that is very much the tenor. The politically relevant statements come next (but remember this is right after mentioning his wickedness): “He laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed.” Gold, silver, grain, flocks, etc. are mentioned here. Horror of horrors! A 20% income tax! No tarrifs, excise taxes, or other revenue streams are mentioned, incidentally, so this appears to be the only source of income. What did he do with these taxes? “All this he did to support himself, and his wives and his concubines…Thus they were supported in their laziness, and in their idolatry, and in their whoredoms, by the taxes which king Noah had put upon the people.” Expensive public works projects are also mentioned (a palace, a couple of towers, etc.) and the buildings are described as “Elegant and spacious (Mosiah 11:8).” Sounds familiar.

What happened to King Noah? Hubris, unrighteousness, and rejecting a prophet lead to military defeat of his people (via invasion) and king Noah’s death by fire at the hands of his people.

As a result of the invasion, the former subjects of king Noah were subjected to even more burdensome taxes from their captors. This time, the price was “one half of all they possessed” (Mosiah 19:22). The taxes were this time used to pay guards to keep them from leaving. King Noah’s son, king Limhi (considerably more righteous than his father), lamented over this tax burden: “Is not this grievous to be borne? And is not this, our affliction, great?” (Mosiah 7:22) These tax burdens were a direct consequence of wickedness. This increase in taxation was directly linked to an increase in bondage.

Now I am not intimating our high tax burden is the result of a wicked nation (though there may be some validity to the idea that a rejection of traditional Christian faith or some aspect thereof may be linked to the whole-hearted embrace of the welfare-warfare state). I am trying to indicate that high taxation is considered extremely negatively, and is analogous to (or part of) slavery, of being in bondage.

At another point in time and another place, and among another people, another wicked king levied heavy taxes. His name was Riplakish, and we are told “[He] did not do that which was right in the sight of the Lord, for he did have many wives and concubines, and did lay that upon men’s shoulders which was grievous to be borne; yea, he did tax them with heavy taxes; and with the taxes he did build many spacious buildings. And he did erect him an exceedingly beautiful throne; and he did build many prisons, and whoso was not able to pay taxes he did cast into prison; and he did cause that they should labor continually for their support; and whoso refused to labor he did cause to be put to death. Wherefore he did obtain all his fine work, yea, even his fine gold he did cause to be refined in prison; and all manner of fine workmanship he did cause to be wrought in prison…[And] the people did rise up in rebellion against him” (Ether 10:5-8). Violent conflict bookended this reign, as it does much of Book of Mormon history. But that (the perpetuity of war) is another story.

There is a positive example of a virtuous leader who levied no taxes at all. He is a great Book of Mormon model of leadership. Consider his words to those he “ruled”, given at the end of his life: “[I] have not sought gold nor silver nor any manner of riches of you…[I] have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, that ye should not be laden with taxes, and that there should nothing come upon you which was grievous to be borne–and of all these things which I have spoken, ye yourselves are witnesses this day” (Mosiah 2:14).

I consider this a high model of civic virtue: a king who appropriated no taxes from his subjects, even working beside them in the fields for his sustenance. Granted, this was the exception rather than the rule. But at least it indicates the possibility of someone having authority over another group of individuals and not succumbing to the temptations and corruptions related to power.

In summary, though the Book of Mormon paints an ugly picture of taxation (consistent with our views), hope is given that there are some who would not abuse (or who would abuse less) authority over others. Ron Paul, in my estimation, is one such individual. May he win the 2008 Presidential campaign, that the great leviathan may have a true opponent!

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Filed under Book of Mormon, Libertarian, Mormonism

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