Sunday, March 02, 2008

dinah demalkhuta dinah

Among Orthodox Jews there is a consensus that government is a necessary institution, and which is legitimated by our religion. Furthermore, leading rabbis often urge that it is an obligation upon each and every eligible citizen to register and vote, for the purpose of having "our voice" heard loud and clear, in order to acquire via political means our fair share of the loot which we ought have coming to our neighborhoods maintenance and pet causes[1].

The Jewish principle which justifies and legitimizes governmental terrorism is known as 'dinah de'malkhuta dinah', which literally translates to "the law of the kingdom is the law". Most laymen are familiar with this halachic maxim, and a overwhelming majority of them take it as gospel, without understanding its applicable parameters, and make even less effort to understand the underlying principle.

A short while ago, I came across the sugya (section) in the tractate Nedarim on pages 27b-28a which discusses cases in which one is permitted to falsely declare a neder, a vow forswearing the benefit from either an activity, an object, or from a person. The three cases where one is permitted to falsely swear is to a brigand, a murderer, and a tax collector. [The purpose of the neder would be to bolster another false claim that the property they are looking to loot either belongs to the temple, or to the royalty which will dissuade them from taking it.]

In those three cases, it is permissible to make such a vow to forswear the benefit of his wife and children if he were to be lying about the ownership of the goods in question, which is of course the truth of the matter.

The commentators ask, and in regard to the tax collector, isn't the collector fulfilling a legitimate role to raise taxes for the king based on the principle of dinah de'malkhuta dinah? (Henceforth shortened to DND) So why is one permitted to lie, and on top of that to declare a false vow?

The commentators come up with an answer along the line that if taxes are not being collected equitably from the population, one is permitted to protect his property from that excessive plundering[2].

In any case, where did the commentators come up with this concept of DND?

To some commentators, DND isn't a groundbreaking rule of unique halachic origin, but one simply based upon the principle of ownership. To them, the power to tax derives from the fact the that the sovereign is the landlord, and by that right can demand payment allowing you on his land. Exactly how he comes to own the kingdom isn't discussed, but this explanation will at least frame the boundaries of what DND would entail, contrary to the all-encompassing principle some would have you believe.

Other commentators disagree and instead would like to base DND upon a social compact of sorts, that people are effectively giving their consent to abide by the law of the land by choosing to settle in that certain region. Perhaps this is a more fashionable explanation to the democratically minded who like to think that they live in a contract society, but excuse me if I feel that it's a horrid justification for democracy in search of a halachic source.

The one thing that the commentators are in agreement is to the extent which DND would require of the individual in regards to compliance with positive law. In short, it is limited to 'roads and taxes' which is to say that one is obligated to pay the tolls to use the roads and bridges, and to pay the taxes of their respective jurisdictions. Other than those two categories, a person is permitted to follow the mandates of positive law, but is in no way obligated to. Furthermore, any positive law which to fulfill would necessitate a violation of Torah laws is forbidden.

Most people I know are either unaware of these facts, or simply would like to forget them. To them, DND says what they want it to say so that they can go on accepting the statist quo in their sheeplike existence. To myself, DND does not sanction grand larceny to the tune of 25%-39% tax brackets, even as I acknowledge that yes, there are some lunatics out there who would defend a 150% income tax in the name of DND. The one thing I truly wish to accomplish with this post is to stop the bandying about of DND as a halachic principle justifying any absurdity one can dream up.

[1] Thankfully the pet causes I'm talking about are not local tennis and swimming instruction, or banal theater productions, but causes such as senior citizen foster care, food pantry programs, etc. This is no way forgives the original sin of robbery-via-taxation, but hopefully it can be viewed as a lessor evil in light of the thick-thin prism of dialectical-libertarianism.

[2] What makes the taxes inequitable in this case according to the commentators is that the tax collector is trying to burden the rich with the bulk of the taxes. It's not yet clear to me if their distaste was with a proportional or a graduated (progressive) tax rate or perhaps either one, but I think that anything other than a poll (head) tax was considered an odious tax, one which permits the victim to not tell the truth or to take upon vows which he does not intend to keep.

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