May God keep the taxman…far away from us!

May God keep the taxman…far away from us!

In the song “Tradition,” when Tevye introduces the Anatevka villagers, there is this exchange:

Nahum the Beggar: Alms for the poor, alms for the poor.

Lazar Wolf: Here, Reb Nahum, is one kopek.

Nahum: One kopek? Last week you gave me two kopeks.

Lazar: I had a bad week.

Nahum: So, if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?

To me, this exchange is the distillation of what is going on in many states right now.

In the role of Lazar Wolf we have new governors, sometimes accompanied by new legislatures, facing debt and budgetary obligations that are exceeding the states’ ability to pay. They are having a “bad week.”

In the role of Nahum the Beggar are the public sector unions which, despite the states’ bad week, are asking, “Why should I suffer?” Co-cast in the role of Nahum are beneficiaries of entitlement programs and other government largesse.

Co-cast in the role of Lazar are the taxpayers of the states. Their bad week is manifold. First, many are out of work or underemployed. The nation’s unemployment rate is high and in some states the unemployment rate is higher than the nation’s. Some are never going to be employed again, due to changing economic conditions. (The official unemployment rate doesn’t even include the chronically unemployed who have stopped looking for work.)

Taxpayers, many of whom have not seen an increase in real wages in a while, are being asked to pick up an increasing tax burden to finance ever-increasing state and federal debt, entitlement programs, and the salaries and benefits of public sector employees. This has led to a taxpayers’ revolt, which changed the political spectrum in the 2010 elections.

I am not going to discuss public sector collective bargaining rights, although the topic is tempting. However, as a believer in a free market system, I believe that workers should be permitted to organize and bargain collectively. The rest is for another time.

That said, let’s return to Nahum and Lazar.

I am not a halachic scholar. However, I have been looking for a halachic answer to the question, “Is a person obligated to give money, although the person’s own financial condition and ability to meet personal obligations will suffer?” In other words, am I obligated to impoverish myself for the betterment of another?

I am not talking about tzedaka to widows, orphans, the temporarily poor, or the sick. However, in this regard, it is important to note that the Rambam’s lowest level of charity is one who gives to the poor unwillingly. How would this be accomplished? Simple, through taxes, a form of economic coercion.

The framers of the Constitution knew the power of taxation, which was left to the states until the 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913. In the 1819 Supreme Court case McCulloch v. Maryland, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote “the power to tax involves the power to destroy.”

The halachic starting point seems to be the sage Samuel’s statement dina de-malchuta dina (“the law of the land is the law”). Where the principle applies, a requirement of secular law becomes a halachic obligation as well. This applies to taxes.

The economist and Jewish scholar Meir Tamari, writing about “The Challenge of Wealth” on, notes citizens of a town may force each other to pay for the public costs. However, such taxes require the consent of the taxpayers, either through a consensus or a majority vote of the taxpayers or their representatives. The taxes could not be confiscatory, so that only wealth that yielded income could be taxed. The risk to the entrepreneurs involved was also a consideration of tax rates.

Regarding the legitimacy of a tax and dina de-malchuta dina, Tamari says the principle does not apply to one who rules against the will of his people. Taxes may not be discriminatory or imposed capriciously, and it must be clear that there is no evidence of robbery in the way the taxes are imposed or collected. Where these conditions are not met, there is no obligation to pay taxes, which are considered then as a form of robbery.

Looking at the 2010 elections — and the 2009 gubernatorial election in New Jersey — the electorate has spoken for lower taxes and reducing the state debt. To continue old practices would be ruling against the will of the people, invalidating dina de-malchuta dina.

Additionally, the heavy reliance on property taxes for municipal and school financing, at least on residential property, would seem to go against two halachic prohibitions: confiscatory taxation and taxing wealth that yields no income.

Public sector employees are not charity cases within the meaning of tzedaka; however, I believe the views of Tamari can be applied to the current debate.

But I am still looking for an answer to my question. Any one want to help?

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