Recent studies of well-being have often drawn attention to the apparent benefits of a ‘spiritual’ dimension to life. In this comment, Rutherford Card. Johnson of the University of Minnesota, argues that charitable behaviour, rooted in a sense of mutual obligation, is a real alternative to the ‘tax more’ / ‘provide less’ approach to funding social services.
The inadequacy of government services and social programmes is a matter of frequent comment. The solutions that appear to receive the most attention are fiscal in nature. On the right, there is one form or another of laissez-faire policy and trickle-down theory. On the left, there is a mantra of increased taxation. Britain lags behind Continental Europe in the overall tax rate, and the United States is even lower. The general attitude of the public regarding the specific type, scope, and necessity of government services and programmes varies between countries — sometimes wildly so. Likewise, the attitudes of the public towards being taxed and towards government stewardship of that money is geographically diverse.
A fiscal solution, however, will not only not satisfy everyone, it is unlikely to be successful, no matter what form it takes. What must be fixed is the underlying problem that brought society to its present state. From the great unity of the Second World War and the post-war years to the present, there has been a change. Socialism has been growing, and with it, secularism. Secularist principles have slowly eroded religious sentiment in the populations of the UK, the USA, and Continental Europe and those sentiments were what had bred social responsibility and spurred action. Accompanying government policies have all but neutered the ability of many religious organisations to fulfill their mission of charity and service to those in need. In the United States, for example, some Catholic orphanages have closed due to changes in government policy — and those who suffered were the children.
Why does any of this matter for taxes? The relevance is because the earlier, more religious society tended overall to feel an obligation to help others. A large army of clergy and lay workers visited the sick, tended to the poor, and helped prisoners, both during and after incarceration. They provided health care and education, regardless of who the beneficiary was. Many private organisations did likewise. The Boy Scouts, for example, promoted the idea of helping those in need as part of ‘doing a good turn daily’. Would Lord Baden-Powell today even recognise the Britain he so long served?
Secularism, far from its promises of liberation, inherently breeds selfishness. It is unfortunately true that not all religious people do the right thing always, but then they are humans like anyone else. Secularism, however, removes any sense of personal responsibility to a higher power by seeking to strip individuals of their religious identity or at the very least to suppress it to the point that is has no bearing in their personal decision-making processes. Socialism takes matters a step further and casts the state as the central and ultimate authority, the ultimate arbiter of ‘goodness’ and the dispenser of all benefits to those it deems worthy. Yet, to provide more and more services, the government, having taking the ability to help others away from the populace and civic organisations, and having raised generations of people to believe that the moral principles that helped make their society great are now wrong, must raise taxes or else lower quality and quantity. It is a manufactured problem with the government established as the solution to the very problem it created. Even the emblem of the RES, the bee, promotes decentralisation. The emblem also speaks to the benefits of self-interest to society — and self-interest need not be selfishness.
A government cannot so easily legislate morality. Taxing people more and more, may very well provide more money for government services and social programmes (pacé Laffer), but it will not inherently make people support those services or feel good about their taxes going to provide them. And, why is taxation and spending inherently the best approach or the one and necessary solution to failing social services? A government is not a for-profit entity. It does not necessarily seek the most efficient allocation of resources. Rather, to help society, let the people and the civic organisations keep more of their money. It is not a ‘trickle-down’ theory, but one of decentralisation of charitable and humanitarian services to those who have local, first-hand knowledge of the needs of those around them — those who do not turn a blind eye to their neighbours. Of course, for that to be successful, people and organisations that are keeping more of their resources must want it to work. They must have drive and passion. The 1940s had a strong undercurrent of moral imperative flowing beneath them. There was a marked sense of sacrifice. In the interim, secularism has replaced that great spirit with empty selfishness. What is needed is for the governments of Britain, the Commonwealth, the EU and the United States to empower religious and civic organisations once again to do what they once did best. Above all, the very soul of the nation must be renewed, taken from secularism to spirit, from socialism to distributed capitalism, from selfishness to efficient self-interest. It is high principles that drive social welfare, not the other way around. The drive to help others must come and can only come from within and cannot be forced through taxation and inefficient central management. A sound and lasting solution to the underlying problem is needed rather than more superficial fiscal bandages to an ailing system.