Jordan Ballor looks at the bipartisan lack of discipline in Washington on debt and spending, and the effect on future generations. “Christians, whose citizenship is ultimately not of this world and whose identity and perspective must likewise be eternal and transcendent, should not let our viewpoints be determined by the tyranny of the short-term,” he writes. “If we continue the current course of American politics, the fiscal cliff will end up being nothing more than a bump in the road toward the cultural, economic and political bankrupting of America.” The full text of his essay follows. The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
This week I wrote about the dignity of paying taxes (among other ways of contributing to social flourishing). But as we know, not all taxes are created equal. Indeed, as Antony Davies and James Harrigan write this week at US News, “Politicians are in the business of buying votes with tax breaks and sweetheart deals for their preferred constituencies, and they have to offset these deals by taxing disfavored constituencies at increased rates. The longer this game is played, the more convoluted the tax code becomes.”
As I argued previously at Capital Commentary, this amounts to a kind of back door social engineering (as well as playing favorites, picking winners, and so on). The fundamental purpose of taxation is not to buy votes and give preference to lobbies and special constituencies. Instead, as I write, “The point of taxation is to raise funds to enable the government to fulfill its moral, political, and social responsibilities.” Such a view is ultimately at odds with a Utilitarian theory, which considers taxation to be a tool rather used “to maximize overall well-being in society.” Matthew Weinzierl argues for greater attention to a theory of Equal Sacrifice, which on Weinzierl’s account “assumes individuals have the first claim to their output, and that they voluntarily agree to form societies that collect taxes in order to purchase public goods.”
Writing on The American Spectator website, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at the strange notion of European fiscal “austerity” even as more old continent economies veer toward the abyss. Is America far behind?
Needless to say, Greece is Europe’s poster child for reform-failure. Throughout 2011, the Greek parliament passed reforms that diminished regulations that applied to many professions in the economy’s service sector. But as two Wall Street Journal journalists demonstrated one year later, “despite the change in the law, the change never became reality. Many professions remain under the control of professional guilds that uphold old turf rules, fix prices and restrict opportunities for newcomers.” In the words of one frustrated advisor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “Even when the Greek Parliament passes laws, nothing changes.”
Politics helps explain many governments’ aversion to reform. Proposals for substantial deregulation generates opposition from groups ranging from businesses who benefit from an absence of competition, union officials who fear losing their middle-man role, to bureaucrats whose jobs would be rendered irrelevant by liberalization. The rather meek measures that Europeans call austerity have already provoked voter backlashes against most of its implementers. Not surprisingly, many governments calculate that pursuing serious economic reform will result in ever-greater electoral punishment.
In any event, America presently has little to boast about in this area. States such as Wisconsin have successfully implemented change and are starting to see the benefits. But there’s also fiscal basket-cases such as (surprise, surprise) California and Illinois that continue burying themselves under a mountain of debt and regulations.
Read “Why Austerity Isn’t Enough” by Samuel Gregg on The American Spectator.
Would dissolving the European common currency, as proposed by the French free-market economist and entrepreneur Charles Gave in his book Libéral mais non coupable (“Liberal But Not Guilty”) free the Old Continent to stand upright on its financial feet again? Or would dissolving the currency drastically end the European project altogether, as some pro-Euro technocrats in Brussels fear?
Charles Gave, the chairman of the investment firm GaveKal, (and whose lecture I listened to at a 2011 Acton Conference Family Enterprise, Market Economies, and Poverty in Rome), offers an excellent economic policy analysis in answering these urgent questions. However, as you will read below, the European side of the financial crisis cannot be fixed in purely economic terms.
In his chapter “Europe: A Turtle on its Back”, Gave says that the EU’s already slow-moving economic tortoise is now in a worse position while laying flat on its back – its shell “heavily weighed down by a systemic debt trap” whose origins are found in keeping the common currency afloat at all costs.
Gave believes that the only way to get the turtle walking upright again would be lighten its load by effectively dissolving the heavily debt-tied euro and restoring national currencies to pre-1999 monetary standards. In Gave’s opinion, a restoration of national currencies across the Eurozone would force member states to return to a culture of self-reliance, that is to say, to count more on their own national fiscal and monetary means and standards.
The positive effect would also mean abandoning the quasi-idolatrous ways in which Europeans go to save their common currency while closing a blind eye to less responsible member states’ reckless spending.
Gave’s criticism of local/national responsibilities and the very origins of debt raise deeper questions about the cause of the European debt and monetary crises, but it is far from offering a more complete picture of the problem.
Europe does indeed face huge monetary challenges. Having a common currency while permitting euro-members to violate mutually-agreed debt limits was always a recipe for disaster. Greece could happily splurge on adding tens of thousands of public sector workers to the government’s payroll and financing Chicago-esque patronage politics, while Portugal built dozens of now-idle, often half-finished soccer stadiums. Why? Because everyone knew if things went bad, then preserving the euro (a ‘sacred cow’ for Europe’s political class) from the impact of nations’ defaulting meant that heavyweights like Germany would go to considerable lengths to try and prevent a currency-meltdown.
Yet this amounts to only a partial — and therefore inadequate — explanation of Europe’s present disarray…[It] can’t disguise the truth that there’s something even more fundamental driving Europe’s economic crisis.
From the beginning, post-war Social Democracy’s goal … was to use the state to realize as much economic security and equality as possible, without resorting to the outright collectivization pursued by the comrades in the East. In policy-terms, that meant extensive regulation, legal privileges for trade unions, “free” healthcare, subsidies and special breaks for politically-connected businesses, ever-growing social security programs, and legions of national and EU public sector workers to “manage” the regulatory-welfare state…with little-to-no experience of the private sector.
None of this was cost-free. It was financed by punishing taxation and, particularly in recent years, public and private debt. In terms of outcomes, it has produced some of the developed world’s worst long-term unemployment rates, steadily-declining productivity, and risk-averse private sectors.
In sum, the idolatrous preservation of a European common currency and the ensuing “debt trap” and “domino default” which Gave articulates in his book is more fully understood when we link the European financial crisis to a crisis of Christianity — a faith which makes challenging demands on practicing members’ moral interrelationships, levels of risk aversion, and practical ways in which they care for fellow citizens and see their moral duties relation to their neighbor and society.
Christianity, as defined so well by the Catholic Church’s teachings on subsidiarity, demands that social problems must be first solved at the individual, local level. Only if the local and personal proves insufficient should the problem to be taken to higher levels, with the state as the means of last resort.
Subsidiarity – a guiding principle to all responsible Christians – helps limit public debt by relegating moral duties first and foremost to the private sphere. Subsidiarity is a check against forms of collectivization and the expensive public costs involved. When too much of the moral duty is placed on the state, public costs grow and debt is possible. When it is not, the state’s welfare machine is tends to shut down.
In conclusion, if it is true that the vast majority of Europeans no longer practice their Christian faith or take their charitable duties very seriously, one can rightly doubt how easily it will be them to free themselves from the weight of unsustainable debt (see also Sam Gregg’s ALS lecture below on this topic). If non-practicing Europeans tend to pass on more of their individual moral responsibilities to the state for the welfare of the elderly, sick and need people of society, it ends up being a costly delegation of Christian freedom and responsibility. In economic consequences, this makes the EU a fertile ground for a systemic debt traps and precarious monetary crises.
Kishore Jayabalan, the Acton Institute’s Rome office director, was interviewed by the Zenit news agency in an article titled, “Is Taxing the Church a Real Solution for Italy?” In the article, Jayabalan discusses the history of the Italian state and its imposition of property taxes on the Roman Catholic Church’s land holdings, residences and non-profit businesses.
Sometimes in the past, particularly under Napoleonic rule and before the Lateran Pacts, the institution of property tax was often a subject of state persecution of the Church in economic terms. Mr. Jayabalan answers critical questions about the reasons behind Italy’s evolving (or rather “revolving”) fiscal policies and historic land expropriations to the Church’s detriment.
The Church has traditionally been exempt from paying ICI [property tax] on non-commercial entities because they serve a social purpose. The old law actually exempted entitles that were ‘predominantly’ non-commercial. The new law exempts simply non-commercial entities, so there will be some re-defining of what is non-commercial or not by the Italian Ministry of the Economy. Jewish, Muslim, and other religious, and for that matter secular, non-profits were also ICI-exempt, so this was not a case of special pleading for the Catholic Church in Italy, even though Catholic institutions dwarf the others numerically…
Of course this is not the first time the Church has been muscled out of land. Napoleon’s massive cash taxes upon his conquest of Italy were designed to force noble families (generally with very close ties to the Church) out of their lands and titles. Napoleon spared the Church the niceties of taxes, choosing to simply expropriate the property. The unification of Italy as well saw Church lands, art and lives lost as the new nation was formed. But even this was nothing new. After all Nero had blamed the Christians for a fire he set to clear some land in downtown Rome, so in the end Sts. Peter and Paul and 900 other Christians were killed for a real estate deal.
To read Jayabalan’s full interview, go here.
Much has been made already about President Obama’s comments yesterday at the National Prayer Breakfast concerning the Christian faith’s teachings about social responsibility. During his time at the breakfast, the president opined that getting rid of tax breaks for wealthy Americans amounted to a Christian obligation:
In a time when many folks are struggling and at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income or young people with student loans or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually thinks that’s going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’ teaching that, from to whom much is given, much shall be required.
As Breanne Howe has pointed out (HT: The Transom), the text itself has to do with the basic idea of stewardship (the best resource for exploring the truly biblical conception of stewardship in its fullness is the NIV Stewardship Study Bible). I do think Howe draws a bit too sharply the lines between obligations and giving, as she writes, “Giving out of obligation is not truly giving, it’s merely following the rules.” There’s a complex relationship between legal requirements, moral obligations, and Christian gratitude that can’t be summed up by simply juxtaposing Christian charitable giving and government taxation.
But at the same time, paying your taxes can’t be simply conflated with meeting Christian social obligations, either. Christians are to pay taxes, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that Christian social responsibility is reducible to paying taxes.
More problematic, perhaps, is this latter identification, with our responsibilities before God being transferred to our responsibilities to government. If the president can use a text like Luke 12:48 to argue for progressive taxation, then what kind of tax policy should we implement on the basis of Luke 19:24-26?
Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’
“‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’
“He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
It’s too easy and sometimes irresistibly tempting to move directly from the text of Scripture to the text of legislation.
Prooftexting for the purpose of political posturing does violence to the Scriptures and damages our public discourse. That might be the most important political lesson arising from yesterday’s breakfast.