Friday, 19 September 2008

Means vs ends: the bishops on tax cuts

Social Justice Sunday is coming up (September 28) and to mark the occasion the Australian Bishop's Conference have released a statement entitled A Rich Young Nation: Affluence and Poverty in Australia.

A lot of it is harmless or even useful: a warning against consumerism for example.

But here is the problem. Rather than just articulating the principles of Church teaching, it tackles the means to achieve these ends. And in doing so, treads on highly debatable, highly political ground. Take this paragraph for example:

" This is reflected in attitudes to taxation. Many people feel that increased taxes will threaten their quality of life. [And that is surely true!] Additionally, because many who are relatively well off regard themselves as struggling, they can feel entitled to demand significant financial assistance from government in the form of benefits or tax cuts. [First, poverty is relative. We all judge what we have and haven't got by comparison to those around us not some abstract standard. And secondly, there is surely a big difference between increased benefits and tax cuts, not least in their economic effects! Conflating the two is misleading.] It remains a concern that electoral pressure to promise massive tax cuts can restrict a government’s ability to fund social services adequately and meet properly the real needs of the community..." [And this statement is the real problem - because the answer doesn't have to be that government should do it all! This is a political question, a matter of economic debate, not something bishops should be pronouncing on.]

Now I, like the bishops, agree that growing income inequality in Australia is a worry. I actually agree with them that this is a role where the Government can and should act (though not necessarily with a massive spending programme).

But I don't think they should be the ones saying so!

The Church's role is surely to teach us that our duty is to help the poor, to articulate the principles that underpin our faith. It is right for them to point out that there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

But it is surely not right for them to attempt to dictate the particular means of achieving the end where the appropriate policy instruments are not at all clear cut, and most especially on issues that go to the very core of the political divide, and on which the bishops have no particular expertise.

This is the sort of thing that undermines the bishops' authority when they speak out on the things that really are within their area of competency.

5 comments:

Cardinal Pole said...

"First, poverty is relative. We all judge what we have and haven't got by comparison to those around us not some abstract standard."

Really? I don't! Surely so long as one has two or three meals a day, a roof over one's head and some clothes, one can't be considered poor?

The big problem with the document, as with most 'social justice' rhetoric, is that it confuses justice and charity. (See my blog for a bit more on this.) Yet wasn't one of the themes of Deus Caritas Est that even in a just society there will still be a need for works of charity (correct me if I'm wrong)?

Terra said...

I agree that charity is needed even in a just society - people get ill, have accidents etc and need each others support.

But the bishops are surely right to suggest that poverty is in part about the ability to participate fully in society, not just material wants.

We don't just live as isolated individuals - we are (or should be) part of a community, a people, a nation.

If the roof over your head is a car, a hovel, or one room shared with several other people, then I think you are poor. If you are living in a slum area with few or no communal facilities, jobs, or educatinal opportunities, I think you are poor.

If the meals you have access to include no fresh vegetables or fruit because prices are too high - as is the case in many aboriginal communities - then I think you are poor.

And if you have no little or no access to education, no possibility of getting a job, knowing what is happening in society, etc then I think you are poor.

The issue is what we do about it - getting the balance between personal and family responsibility, individual action, charitable organisations, and government.

Cardinal Pole said...

"But the bishops are surely right to suggest that poverty is in part about the ability to participate fully in society, not just material wants."

I think there is another confusion in terms here. The common good might be about the ability of all society's members to participate in society, but all we seem to get on the matter of poverty is evasion and imprecision.

Terra said...

Pole, I'm not talking about the common good here - participation of all (or more likely in my view!) may not be in the nterests of the common good.

I'm talking about a definition of poverty which has several dimensions, most importantly:
. material - the physical commodities needed to sustain life to a reasonable standard (and what reasonable is has changed over time);
.spiritual (access to knowledge of the faith and ability to practice it. Again this is relative - a person who has access only to the NO is poorer than smeone who has access to the TLM in my view; while access to a daily sung TLM would be riches indeed!); and
.social (access to the social life and amentities of the community/society/country/world in which we live).

Cardinal Pole said...

"participation of all (or more likely in my view!) may not be in the nterests of the common good."

Agreed, but that does not appear to be what one reads in, for instance, the Compendium of the Catechism.

I agree as to the spiritual and material dimensions of poverty (though obviously the secular State won't involve itself in the spiritual one), but the social dimension just seems to me to be so vague as to be unhelpful, especially since it is very much relative.