Posts tagged with: Political philosophy

Blog author: jballor
Monday, October 10, 2016
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taxesLast week, before the most recent news about Donald Trump and the current US presidential campaign burst onto the scene, Think Christian ran a short reflection of mine on the question of taxation. As I argue, “There is no duty to pay anything other than what we owe in taxes. But whatever we do owe we must pay in good conscience and out of a spirit of justice.”

If you spend any time on the internet reading about political liberty, you are likely to come across the formula, “Taxation is theft.” The picture the Apostle Paul paints is rather different. The point of departure for my thoughts on taxation is his instruction: “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes.”

So the moral status of taxation as such doesn’t seem to be problematic. But as I note in the piece, the question of implementation is different and much more complex. Just because taxation isn’t in itself theft, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t forms or levels of taxation that cannot devolve to that level.

Leo XIII, in his encyclical Rerum Novarum, considers appropriate taxation. He warns of the necessity “that a man’s means be not drained and exhausted by excessive taxation.” He continues,

The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether. The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair. (47)

As with so many questions of political economy, the issue turns on the question, “Who decides?” What Paul and Leo make clear, however, is that there is a divine standard of justice to which those who require and those who pay taxes must both adhere.

Brooks-2x1500We continue to see the expansion of freedom and the economic prosperity around the world. And yet, despite having enjoyed such freedom and its fruits for centuries, the West is stuck in a crisis of moral imagination.

For all of its blessings, modernity has led many of us to pair our comfort and prosperity with a secular, naturalistic ethos, relishing in our own strength and designs and trusting in the power of reason to drive our ethics.

The result is a uniquely moralistic moral vacuum, a “liberal paradox,” as Gaylen Byker calls it — “a hunger for meaning and values in an age of freedom and plenty.”

In the past, American prosperity has been buoyed by the strength of its institutions: religious, civil, political, economic, and otherwise. But as writers such as Yuval Levin and Charles Murray have aptly outlined, the religious and institutional vibrancy that Alexis de Tocqueville once hailed appears to be dwindling, making the space between individual and state increasingly thin.

The revival and restoration of religious and civic life is essential if we hope to cultivate a free and virtuous society, occurring across spheres and sectors, from the family to business, from the church to political institutions.

Given the increasing attacks on religious liberty, Christian colleges and universities are standing particularly tall, even as they endure some of the highest heat. In a recent talk for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, David Brooks demonstrates the cultural importance of retaining that liberty, explaining how his recent experiences with Christian educational institutions have affirmed their role in weaving (or re-weaving) the fabric of American life. (Read his full remarks here.) (more…)

A portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of The Clark.

A portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy of The Clark.

In a recent article titled “George Washington’s Constitutional Morality,” Samuel Gregg explores the views of the first President on the founding principles and guiding influences of the United States. Gregg identifies three key elements of Washington’s political wishes for the new nation:

Washington identified a distinct set of ideas that he thought should shape what he and others called an “Empire of Liberty”—classical republicanism, eighteenth-century English and Scottish Enlightenment thought, and “above all” Revelation.

Washington, like many of the Founders, had a great deal of admiration for Greek and Roman philosophers and statesmen. In drawing from “Greco-Roman concepts of morality,” he emphasized the importance of good citizenship and virtue in public service. Comments Gregg:

The prevalence of civic virtue among politicians and citizens doesn’t of course guarantee society’s liberty. Nonetheless, Washington clearly doubted whether a republic awash in vice could endure.

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School of Athens by Raphael

School of Athens by Raphael

In considering issues of political economy today, it is always prudent to refer to wisdom from the past.  The American Enterprise Institute’s recent publication “Economic Freedom and Human Flourishing: Perspectives from Political Philosophy” is a collection of essays that analyzes the thought of several prominent philosophers on the connection between the title’s two subjects. Many of the quotes below, pulled from six of the nine essays, challenge foundational aspects of classical liberalism and the value of the free market. As Yuval Levin comments at the end of his essay on Edmund Burke, markets can enable human flourishing, but they do not do so perfectly, “And it is precisely the friends of markets who should be most willing to acknowledge that, and to seek for ways to address it…for the sake of liberty and human flourishing.” (more…)

sharing“There are solid grounds for believing that the first Christian believers practiced a form of communism and usufruct [i.e., the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance],” wrote Peter Marshall in Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. As evidence Marshall cites the second chapter of the book of Acts:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Acts 2:44-47, ESV)

Marshall is (mostly) correct. The early Christians did engage in a form of voluntary usufruct and wealth redistribution. Since then, many Christians have asked why we don’t follow that sort of proto-communist model today. If the economic system was good enough for the apostles, why isn’t it good enough for modern society?

A hint at why the system is not longer used is found in the verse that immediately follows the passage cited above:

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"In the Beginning" artist Mako Fujimura

“In the Beginning”
artist Mako Fujimura

The hubby and I were watching TV when a commercial for Fiji Water came on. The voiceover expounded all the wonderful features of this water, and then said something about it being “untouched by man.”

I turned to my husband and said, “Did I hear that right? ‘Untouched by man?'” He nodded.

Indeed, that’s the selling point for this water:

On a remote Pacific island 1600 miles from the nearest continent, equatorial trade winds purify the clouds that begin FIJI’s Water journey through one of the world’s last virgin ecosystems. As the tropical rains fall on a pristine rain forest, it filters through layers of volcanic rock, slowly gathering the natural minerals and electrolytes that give FIJI Water its soft, smooth taste. The water collects in a natural artesian aquifer,  deep below the earth’s surface, shielded from external elements by confining layers of rock. Natural pressure forces the water towards the earth’s surface, where it’s bottled at the source, untouched by man until you unscrew the cap. [emphasis mine]

First, let’s all agree that this is heavy-handed prose for water. Second, the folks at Fiji seem to think they are doing something not only extraordinary, but revolutionary. Sorry to tell you, folks: you’re doing something people have been doing since, well, as long as people have been around: getting water out of a well.

Now back to the “untouched by man” thing. Why is this a selling point? Why is something touched by a human being bad? (more…)

rockwell religionChuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship and BreakPoint, spoke in a 2009 Breakpoint broadcast about religious liberty. His words apply even more today.

Allow me to make a very direct statement. I believe it is time for the Church in this country to stand up for religious freedom.

Especially over the course of the last few years, we have seen repeated efforts — in the courts, in state legislatures, in Congress and on Pennsylvania Avenue — to erode what has been called the first freedom: religious liberty. (more…)