In the latter days, we are spending a lot of time talking about taxes. One of the least discussed messages of the Scriptures is that taxes are seen as mostly negative. Taxes are almost always used by tyrants to build up themselves and large central governments that burden the people.
The best-known example is the Lord’s warning to the people regarding moving from a system of judges (small, local government) to a system of kings (large, central government). You can read about it 1 Samuel 8. Samuel gives a long speech warning the people that a king (ie, central government) will take away their crops, their herds and even their family members, who will be forced to join the king’s army. Samuel ends by saying: “and you shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.”
The Book of Mormon has an equally stark comparison: good King Benjamin and evil King Noah.
King Benjamin comes first, and he comes at a particularly interesting time in the Book of Mormon. The hundreds of years from Nephi’s day (6th century BC) to Benjamin’s days (2nd century BC) are summarized in a few pages. Mormon chooses Benjamin’s words and deeds as especially inspiring and structures his record about focusing on them. Benjamin asks that all the people be gathered in one place because he has a significant message to deliver to them.
The first point, and I think this bears emphasis here, is that Benjamin is righteous because of his personal actions and his Christ-like love of the poor. Benjamin exhorts us all to give to the poor, and he reminds his people that he worked right along side them. The man was certainly not an idler, nor did he love money.
But he also points out that one of his greatest deeds was that he did not force people to pay taxes.
Mosiah 2:14: And even I, myself, have labored with mine own hands that I might serve you, and 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.
We often hold up Benjamin as an example of service — when you are in service of your fellow man, you are in service of your God — but we often forget that one of the greater signs of service is not taking property from people but instead allowing them to keep what they have earned with their own labor. We can encourage them to voluntarily give to others who are going through rough times, but we should not forcibly take from them.
Benjamin and his son Mosiah ushered in an era of righteous kings, who worked along the people and did their best to build up the kingdom of God.
But just a few chapters later, we see an example of a particularly odious king. I Mosiah chapter 11 we read: King Noah “did not keep the commandments of God, but he did walk after the desires of his own heart. And he had many wives and concubines. And he did cause his people to commit sin, and do that which was abominable in the sight of the Lord.”
How did Noah finance his evil deeds? “He laid a tax of one fifth of all they possessed, a fifth part of their gold and their silver.” (Mosiah 11:3) He used the money to pay for his wives and concubines.
Mosiah 11:6: Yea, and thus they were supported in their laziness, and in their idolatry, and in their whoredoms, by the taxes which king Noah had put upon his people; thus did the people labor exceedingly to support iniquity.
The contrast could not be more clear. King Benjamin was good at least in part because he did not tax his people. King Noah was evil at least in part because he did. On the one hand, people labored to help others, to give voluntarily, to create a just kingdom. On the other, the people were forced to labor to “support iniquity.”
The scripture’s treatment of taxes may help guide us in our day.