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Calvin Coolidge, Excessive Taxation, and the Moral Economy

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Below is an excerpt from a 1925 Washington Post editorial on President Calvin Coolidge’s Inaugural Address. The comments speak directly to the moral arguments Coolidge was making for a free economy. It is the kind of moral thinking about markets and taxes we desperately need today from our national leaders.

The excerpt comes from an excellent book, The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election by Garland S. Tucker, III.

Few persons, probably, have considered economy and taxation moral issues. But Mr. Coolidge so considers them, and his observations give a fresh impression of the intensity of his feeling on this subject. He holds that economy, in connection with tax reduction and tax reform, involves the principle of conservation of national resources. A nation that dissipates its resources falls into moral decay. Extravagance lengthens the hours and diminishes the rewards of labor. “I favor the policy of economy,” says Mr. Coolidge, “not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people” [emphasis added]. He would protect those who toil by preventing the waste of the fruits of their labor. The burden of taxation is excessive. It makes life more meager, and falls hardest upon the poor. The United States is fortunate above other nations in the opportunity to economize. It is at peace and business activity has been restored. “The collection of any taxes which are not absolutely required, which do not beyond reasonable doubt contribute to the public welfare is only a species of legalized larceny,” is Mr. Coolidge’s vigorously expressed conclusion on the subject of economy.

It’s a logical, simple, and a deeply moral message. Some might call it common sense. Our times and the economic peril we face clearly calls for a commitment to reducing government spending and our tax burden. It has fallen on deaf ears in Washington and much of America. Coolidge’s words resonate today because it is the cure for our fiscal cliff and the ailing economy. And as Coolidge understood so well, it is the moral thing to do.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.


  • Coolidge’s message is great — but the Catholic Church, in calling for “social justice”, is calling for using gov’t force to take from the innocent rich, in order to help the “relatively” poor.

    As Calvin says, this “is only a species of legalized larceny”. Gov’t theft from the innocent. Supported by the Church.
    Church support for this immorality is the basis of the financial crisis of excess gov’t spending. As long as there are rich who can, in theory, be taxed, there will be politicians promising to increase the taxes for “free benefits” to combat social injustice.

    But being born to poor parents is unlucky, even unfair, but not unjust. Injustice is only when moral agents act contrary to justice, first. The fuzzy concept of social justice fails to identify the unjust actions, and the agents who chose those actions. Without this, claiming the existence of poverty is manifestly unjust results in the desire to punish the rich, both innocent and guilty alike.

    Thou shalt not steal.

    When churches advocate that the gov’t steals for the poor, the morality becomes rotten. Instead, the churches should advocate for higher levels of tax credits to charities (like 50% tax credits), who can then help the most needy without further gov’t bureaucrats (usually quite overpaid).

    • As a Catholic theology teacher I’d distinguish between the “social justice movement” in many modern American Catholic circles and the Church’s official teachings on social justice. The Church has most decidedly NOT called for “using gov’t force to take from the innocent rich in order to help the relatively poor”. There is a large contingent of people who identify as Catholic who do support gov’t redistribution. They do so in ignorance or defiance of the actual Church teachings on the matter.

      If you read the official documents of the church (see especially those of Vatican II), you find a great respect for private property rights (indeed they are defended as necessary for moral development of the individual and society), and condemnation of communism/socialism.

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