Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Trust and social justice

All human beings should have access to sufficient food, drinking water, shelter, clothing and medicine. They should also be protected from crime or enemy attack and given adequate education. After thousands of years of spiritual evolution most would agree.

Throughout history charities have cared for the poor and sick on a local basis. Today rapid transport and communication plus the division of labour and trading of goods and labour on a geographically large scale, both within and across borders, has led to the modern nation state in which government is centralised and its large population no longer lives in small, stable communities.

To ensure that the less privileged citizens of a modern country are decently supported in an efficient way the task of doing this has to be done on a specialised basis – like most tasks in today’s world, from rubbish recycling to skilled metal working, from garden landscaping to architecture. This means setting up a nationwide, or at least large regional, force of tax professionals to collect taxes at a level decided in parliament (or by whoever is in charge, if there is no parliament) and a nationwide or regional system for distributing wealth to those in need.

This amounts to a kind of state charity, although a proportion of the tax revenue is also spent on infrastructure and defence.

Unfortunately, the process of collecting and distributing wealth is complex and impersonal. There is no obvious connection between the donor (the tax payer) and the recipient of charity, or between the tax payer and the bureaucrats who collect and distribute the obligatory donations. The only way it can work is if people accept laws passed in parliament etc. and trust that the administrators will implement these laws efficiently, fairly and without corruption. The lower the level of trust the more rules and regulations have to be erected and a whole layer of bureaucracy is needed to enforce them, which leads to further mistrust because tax payers think their money is being wasted on bureaucrats instead of being directed to the needy. A vicious circle: less trust leads to more bureaucracy leads to even less trust leads to even more bureaucracy leads to....

 For the system to work efficiently there has to be trust. Tax payers have to believe that the officials will work with reasonable competence and not enrich themselves with the money collected. If trust breaks down then it becomes difficult to collect taxes and the poor go hungry or have nowhere to live or receive no education. In addition, infrastructure and defence suffer, crime escalates. This in turn affects businesses and industry in general, causing unemployment. The nation goes downhill.

As a reader of Christian Aid News I am aware of the recent campaign to prevent international companies, especially those trading in the developing world, from dodging taxes. They estimate that US$ 160 billion is lost annually by this tax dodging. This means less money for the third world countries to spend on education, social security, infrastructure, police, the justice system and rescue from natural disasters.

This again raises the question of trust. It is widely perceived that tax money in the developing world is squandered on corrupt officials. It is not surprising that the companies concerned are not put under any pressure by their shareholders or customers  to pay the legally determined taxes. Neither do the directors themselves feel a moral obligation to these impoverished people trapped in a corrupt nation that has not gone through the Enlightenment, a process which took hold in Protestant  Europe  with the invention of the printing press and the questioning of authority, both clerical and secular.

Unfortunately, with the removal of the spiritual aspect of the Enlightenment and a partial descent into postmodernism, the western world may be moving in the same direction, because the sacredness of truth and morality upon which trust is based are being eroded. See  What is truth?
For social justice trust is more important than the particular welfare system adopted . In much of the developing world the idea of trusting large corporate bodies that deal with tax collection or revenue distribution is foreign. This stumbling block must be overcome. Moreover, the west (formerly known as Christendom) must ensure that its own spiritual belief in a divine source of right and wrong is not washed away in befuddled humanism. Modern scholarship, information technology and the web give us the potential to revisit the time and place when the godhead chose to intervene in human history 2000 years ago. This process has already started and a new Reformation is beginning as theologians, philosophers and lay people try to make sense of that stupendous event in the light of what has been discovered.

Not only social justice and trust depends on reinventing and reinvigorating the sacred message of the gospels. Civilisation itself cannot survive without this and, notwithstanding the past wrong doings of sinful people in the church, or perhaps because of these, the religious institutions must take a lead.

author, 2077 AD (being revised)

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