How big would the government’s budget be in a Christian theocracy?
I have never seen anyone attempt to answer this question…
[If you want to skip right to the answer, then click here. You will be surprised. Then come back and read how I got there.]
The federal government is expecting to spend $4.2 trillion in 2017, though it will only collect $3.6 trillion in revenue. This means the remaining $600 billion will have to be gotten through loans: selling Treasury debt.
In the fiscal year 2016, the federal government collected $3.3 trillion in revenue and spent $3.9 trillion. The bulk of the revenue came from
- income taxes ($1.5 trillion)
- FICA taxes ($1.1 trillion); and
- corporate income taxes ($300 billion)
The rest ($306 billion) came from “other taxes and duties.”
How would these numbers be different if the government was constrained by Biblical principles? How much money could it spend if we lived in a Christian theocracy?
I think there’s a general understanding that the federal government would be smaller, but just how much smaller? Can we put a dollar amount on it?
That’s what I’ve attempted to do in this article.
First, I say “Christian theocracy” because that agitates almost everybody. Nobody wants to be subject to the “tyranny” of a Christian theocracy, what with its stoning of children and everything (though it’s ok to kill them in modern society before they exit the womb). Most people who violently react when they hear “Christian theocracy” really don’t want curious listeners to do much listening. “DANGER AHEAD! Turn back now!”
But danger for whom?
Second, we need to extract at least two other principles from Scripture to rest our calculation on:
- How much tax revenue is a civil government allowed to collect?
- How is the tax revenue distributed throughout the various levels of government?
The first is pretty straightforward, but the second requires a little more reasoning to put together. So let’s start with the first, then move to the second.
THE LIMIT ON TAXATION
The principle of the tithe forms the basis of the solution. God requires a tithe from everybody. It is what liberals would call a “regressive” flat tax: 10% of your income, rich and poor alike, with no exemptions. God does not distinguish from rich or poor (Lev. 19:15), and he expects us to carry that principle of justice throughout everything we do.
God, as the original creator, is the owner of the entire creation (Ps. 50:10). It is within his rights to demand a 100% payment from us. But He’s generous because He lets us keep 90% of the fruits of our labors. He only requires 10% to build his kingdom on earth. And that forms the upper bound on what a legitimate government can collect.
Samuel made this as clear as daylight when warning the Israelites what would happen if God granted them a king, which they were begging for:
He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots….He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants….He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.” (1 Sam. 8:10-18)
Therefore, the upper limit on biblical taxation is 10%. God requires a tithe, and any human government that demands the same as, or more, than that is declaring themselves to be a god of their own making. In Joseph’s Egypt under Pharaoh, as a judgment upon the nation, Pharaoh collected 20%. This was doubly tyrannical. It was as if Pharaoh were declaring himself both God and King, and therefore entitled to both portions (Gen. 47:26).
The bottom line is that righteous government would extract less than 10% of its citizens’ productivity, but we’ll use 10% to make the math easy. It shouldn’t be more than that, but it could be less.
THE FLOW OF GOVERNMENT REVENUE
The next question is, How do we apply this upper bound to the government? There are at least three levels of government in the United States:
- Local (county)
Do all three levels get to tax us at 10%? That would mean that we would have 30% taken from our output. Samuel said only 10% would be taken from our output by a tyrannical king, who does not tolerate rival jurisdictions existing within his own. All levels of government are his. Therefore, I conclude that the various levels of government must share the ten percent.
Our current system allows the federal government to levy an income tax directly on every individual’s revenue. It also taxes corporate profits. But the federal government is very far away from us. We live and act locally. The local government closest to us is county government at the minimum.
Any direct taxation ought to be done at the closest point between the individual and the government levying the tax. This means direct taxation ought to occur at the local level. (I’m assuming for simplicity that a direct income tax is biblical. That’s debatable.)
Then, as each level of government is further removed from the people, it should only be allowed to tax the level of government directly underneath it. That means the state government taxes the local governments, and the federal government taxes the state governments.
JUST LIKE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
This way, the tax revenue flows upward, but in increasingly smaller amounts.
There is support for this from the Old Testament. This was the payment structure in the Old Covenant. The Levites didn’t serve only at the temple or the tabernacle, but were dispersed throughout the cities, too. They served the locals directly. God appointed them a tithe on the output of (almost) all the land because they did not receive a landed inheritance like the other tribes did. The tithe to the Levites was a judicial arrangement paid for their sacramental service at the temple. Only the Levites could conduct the various animal sacrifices. This was their exclusive monopoly. But they also served as judges in trials and judged cases of leprosy.
That’s why the Levites collected the tithe directly from the people — where their influence and service was most strongly felt. There were 48 Levitical cities dispersed throughout the nation that could act as convenient collection points for the tithe of the land (Num. 35:7).
The Levites collected God’s tithe from the people throughout the nation, but then the Levites gave a tithe of their tithe to the Aaronic Priethood that did serve directly at the temple: ten percent of ten percent (Num. 18:26; Neh. 10:38).
The structure of Old Testament civil government is similar. Jethro told Moses that Israel was to have a system of bottom-up appeals courts. The hard cases were appealed to a higher jurisdiction (Ex. 18:13-26). At the top of this appeals court system was the equivalent of the Supreme Court: Moses, who was in direct consultation with God. Moses possessed special knowledge and could solve the hardest cases, but he lacked the resources to hear them all.
Therefore, most disputes were expected to be solved at the bottom levels, so that’s where most of the resources would need to go. Only a few cases would make it all the way to the top. This is how the judicial system in the US works. There are approximately 300,000 civil case filings in the US district courts every year, but only about 80 cases are heard by the Supreme Court each year.
TALLYING THE REVENUE
Now, all that’s left is to tally the potential taxable revenue and run the numbers.
- Total personal income in the United States is about $13 trillion.
- Total corporate profits are about $2 trillion.
- Altogether, then, the total taxable revenue is about $15 trillion.
Local governments would collect a total of $15 trillion x 0.1 = $1.5 trillion, distributed across 3,007 counties. That’s roughly $50 million per county, per year. Not evenly distributed, of course, but on average.
State governments would then collect ten percent of that, or $150 billion. Averaged across 50 states, that’s $3 billion per state.
So finally, the federal government would then collect ten percent of that:
$150 billion x 0.1 = $15 billion a year.
Therefore, at the current budget level of $4 trillion per year, the federal government would need to shrink by 99.6% of its present size to be reduced to what the Bible would consider the upper limits on the size of central government.
With a federal budget this small, everyone’s ox would be gored.
Social Security? With a trillion dollars in expected payouts in 2017, it’s long gone. And Medicare, with its $600 billion in annual spending (and growing)? Gone.
“Defense” department war spending, which weighs in at approximately $600 billion? Jettisoned.
And what about university spending? The federal government, using money taken from taxpayers, distributed more than $70 billion to the universities in 2013. Twenty-four billion was in the form of research grants, and $31 billion came in the form of Pell grants. All that? Gone.
The Department of Education, with its $70 billion in expenses, would be eviscerated, too.
And the $50 billion spy budget that funds the NSA, CIA, FBI, and everything else? Deleted.
So what would be left?
Believe it or not, we could fund the entire judicial branch of Federal government. It wants $7 billion in 2017. No doubt that could be trimmed, and would be once the rest of the federal government was gutted. But when you read the Bible, you see that providing a justice system is the civil government’s primary function. Moses established the bottom-up appeals court system in Exodus 18 for settling disputes in accordance with Biblical law, and Paul spoke of the civil government as God’s agency of vengeance against law-breakers in Romans 13.
A small portion of the budget would need to be spent on national defense. Not a standing army, but defense technologies to protect the citizens from incoming military threats from hostile nations.
Truly, the central government would be staffed with a skeleton crew of resources that would provide the most important functions that it has been designed to execute.
This article barely scratches the surface of this topic. There is room to argue over methods of taxation, which would change the final federal budget, though only slightly. The fact that there are multiple levels of government existing at the “local” level implies that something like a flat sales tax may be more appropriate for distributing revenue to the various jurisdictions.
But if the principle of lower jurisdictions making payments to higher jurisdictions holds true as it does within the priesthood, then the federal government’s budget will always be heavily restricted. Increasing the tax revenue at the local level by $3 trillion will only increase the federal budget by $30 billion.
We may disagree over what services get cut and which stay. We may disagree over the effects of a smaller federal government.
But I think it’s clear that the size of government would be severely reduced compared to its present levels. Arguments over what role the federal government should have in various affairs would be automatically curtailed because of the inherent limitations placed on its budget.
With such a drastic reduction in budget, the influence of the federal government would vanish throughout the entire nation. It would retreat into the shadows .
There’d be no more alarming letters from the IRS pinching you for a few thousand dollars they think you owe them. There’d be no more government snoopers eavesdropping on our cell phone conversations and storing copies of all Internet transaction in massive data centers built in the desert.
The universities would suffer a major loss in revenue, so they’d have to begin offering services to different markets to recoup their losses. Fewer people, lacking Pell grant support, would attend college, period. That means fewer people saddled with crippling student debt.
The bureaucratic, administrative state would probably disappear. The tyranny imposed on individuals through organizations like the EPA would stop.
With so little influence and so little payoff for the victors, interest in national politics would fade. There would be a much smaller pile of loot to divvy up among the players. It would rarely matter to most Americans what decisions Congress or the President made. Their decisions would rarely affect our lives. Their limited budget would prevent them from focusing on much more than providing the basic services they are charged with.
This leads to the question of influence. What sources of influence would arise to fill the void left behind? That’s an interesting question that deserves its own article.
The Bible restrains the ability of civil government to centralize power. A federal government restrained by biblical principles would put the big-government pundits and planners out of business.