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Viewpoint: Drive to help must come from within

By Rutherford Cardinal Johnson

Much conversation and debate has existed in recent times about the inadequacy of government services and social programs. The solutions that appear to receive the most attention are fiscal in nature. It is laissez-faire policy and trickle-down theory on the right vs. a mantra of increased taxation on the left. The United States tax rate is lower than Britain and the European Union. Public attitudes regarding taxation and use of that money varies between countries — sometimes dramatically.

A fiscal solution will not only not satisfy everyone, it is not likely to be successful. The underlying problem that brought society to the present precipice must be fixed. The great unity of the Second World War has disappeared. Whether one approves or not, socialism has been growing. Religiousness has slowly been eroded in the populations of the USA, Britain and the European Union. Religiousness bred social responsibility and spurred action. Accompanying government policies have all but neutered the ability of many religious organizations to provide charitable service to those in need.

Why does this matter to taxation? A more religious society tended 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. They provided health care and education, regardless of the beneficiary. Many private organizations did likewise.

Secularism arguably breeds selfishness. It is unfortunately true that not all religious people do the right thing always, but they are humans like anyone else. Secularism, however, removes any sense of personal responsibility to a higher power by suppressing individuals' religious identity so it does not influence their personal decision-making processes. Socialism takes matters a step further, placing the state as the ultimate authority, the ultimate arbiter of "goodness" and the dispenser of all benefits to those it deems worthy. To provide more services, the government, having taking the ability to help others away from the populace and civic organizations, 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. Indeed, there are definite benefits of self-interest to society — but self-interest need not be selfishness.

A government cannot so easily legislate morality. Increasing tax revenue may very well provide more money for government services and social programs, but it will not inherently make the people support those services or feel good about their money going to provide them. And, why is taxation and spending inherently the best approach 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 organizations keep more of their money. It is not a "trickle-down" theory, but one of decentralization 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 neighbors. For that to be successful, the people and organizations retaining more of their money through lower taxes must want it to work. World War II and the post-war years had an undercurrent of a moral imperative, carrying people forward in service. In the interim, secularism has replaced that great spirit with empty selfishness. What is needed is for the governments of the United States, Great Britain and the Commonwealth, and the European Union to empower religious and civic organizations 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 from within and cannot be forced through taxation and inefficient central management. A sound, lasting solution to the underlying problem is needed — not superficial fiscal bandages.

Rutherford Cardinal Johnson, Ph.D., is a cleric, author, and economist teaching economics and international business at the University of Minnesota Crookston.