The Book of Mormon speaks about the tax policies of five leaders. Two of them worked to minimize taxes on their people, while the other three imposed exorbitant taxes on their people, with predictably catastrophic results.
- King Benjamin reported to his people at the end of his life that he had labored with his 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” (Mosiah 2:14). Note that to be “laden” is to be heavily burdened. Benjamin cared about his people and did what he could to keep their tax burden low.
- Following in the footsteps of his father (Mosiah 6:6), King Mosiah also earned the admiration of his people for his beneficent policies. He was not “a tyrant who was seeking for gain” and had therefore “not exacted riches of them.” The people “did esteem him more than any other man,” because they knew that he could have taken advantage of his position as king and enriched himself at their expense. But he had not done that (Mosiah 29:40). Incidentally, he knew that he had too much power, which is why he proposed to the people a system of judges with checks and balances. Even though he and his father had behaved honorably, he knew that an unscrupulous person in their position could wreak havoc. He knew this partly because of…
- King Noah. A man named Zeniff had led a group of Nephites to establish a colony among the Lamanites. When his son, Noah, became king, he made life miserable for his people. “He laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed” (Mosiah 11:3), which sounds like 20% of their assets, not just their income. What did he use this money for? “To support himself, and his wives and his concubines; and also his priests, and their wives and their concubines” (Mosiah 11:4). And the people could plainly see that he was not contributing to their prosperity as they were contributing to his. The outcome was predictable: Noah lost the loyalty of his people, and an insurrection cost him his life.
- The people of King Noah then fell into bondage. The Lamanite king easily conquered their city and imposed a “tribute” of 50% of their income (Mosiah 7:22). Note that this money was not used to benefit the people but only to benefit their captors. The new king, Limhi, told Ammon, a messenger sent by King Mosiah, that this tribute was “grievous to be borne” (Mosiah 7:15). Ammon agreed and helped them devise a plan to escape their captors (Mosiah 22:1).
- Many years earlier, a king named Riplakish made the same mistake King Noah would later make. He overstepped his authority as king and learned that there was a limit to his authority. According to Moroni, Riplakish “did lay that upon men’s shoulders which was grievous to be borne; yea, he did tax them with heavy taxes.” What did he use those taxes for? He built “spacious buildings.” He erected “an exceedingly beautiful throne” for himself. And he built prisons to hold the people who were unable to pay taxes. Not a good strategy. After enduring this hardship for forty-two years, “the people did rise up in rebellion against him.” Riplakish was killed, and his descendants were banished (Ether 10:5-8).
I think these passages teach a simple lesson: leaders have been entrusted with power. Act unselfishly and with restraint, and the people you lead will love and respect you. Abuse your authority, and your leadership will become unsustainable. Any of us in a leadership position would do well to learn this lesson. There are so many ways that we “tax” the people we lead: implementing policies, requiring them to attend meetings, and making assignments. Many of these are essential, and make the organization more effective. However, we would be wise to be as conscientious as King Benjamin and King Mosiah about cost of these activities and ensure that we are not imposing an undue burden on the people we lead.
Today, in my leadership roles, I will strive to minimize the “taxes” I impose on people. I will strive to minimize the burden my leadership places on them and to ensure that any “taxes” I impose serve the interests of the organization, not my own selfish interests.