Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reacting to Political Rhetoric, Part 2b

So, having spoken to the theological issues related to this political commonplace of "your money," let me speak to social issues. Ignoring for the purpose of argument any claim of God's universal ownership does make the argument a bit harder. It doesn't make it impossible, just less simple.

Let me begin with my argument about that obnoxious sentence, "Government isn't the solution; it's the problem." As I've written, this is a false dichotomy, because in fact we are the government, at least to the extent we don't abdicate it. By the same token, to say, "It's not the Government's money; it's your money," is to embrace the same false dichotomy. What money we have is money our Government has printed. What money our Government has with which to do business is money from us, through our participation as taxpayers. What priorities our Government has for that business are those we have directed by our participation as voters (yes, perhaps all to often we vote for the persons; but each election they do tell us what their priorities will be). So, there is an inherent connection between "the Government's money" and "our money."

That is one of the consequences of the concept of "commonwealth." While a few states even designate themselves as "commonwealths," I don't think most folks think about why, or about what the word actually means. It means, really, that we're all in this together, politically and, critically, economically. We are sufficiently connected economically to describe and discuss this wealth that we participate in in common.

This isn't some kind of denial of private property (although one could argue that in the theological discussion). It is, rather, denial of any pretense or illusion of self-sufficiency. There are very few (and, as our society becomes more urban and suburban, fewer all the time) who we might consider self-sufficient without support from the larger society. We may talk about rugged individualism; but left to our own devices most of us would be in real trouble.

There are numerous examples of how we live in a commonwealth, but let me give just a few. I attended public schools, from the first grade through my Bachelor's. It's true that my parents paid taxes toward those costs, and we paid tuition toward my BA. However, there's no way those taxes and tuition paid the costs of my education - not even what might be called my "fair share." My seminary was a private school (that might be obvious, but perhaps not to everyone), and the tuition was much higher; but there was still no way it covered my portion of the seminary's expenses. I had to depend on the resources of others, folks who neither knew nor cared whether I got an education.

Another example is that all of us use roads that we haven’t necessarily paid our fair share of. There have in history been private roads, paid for by tolls; but they’re few and far between now. We do pay highway taxes under various titles: gas taxes, commercial user fees, license fees, etc. However, we’re not paying as individuals anything like the full expense. Moreover, since much highway funding is federal, folks in the less-settled western states are paying for highways serving the more-settled east – highways they’re not likely to ever use themselves.

The reason we support these things is that they’re good for the economy as a whole, and good for society as a whole. We benefit individually from things we support because they’re valuable generally. My kids are adults now, and live far away, but I have no regret about supporting with my taxes local public schools. I benefit and will benefit for some time to come. After all, studies have shown that those with more education are less likely to end up in prison (and those who while in prison get further education are less likely to return). And, as I age, I know that I will need the next generation of physicians, nurses, therapists, and pharmacists – not to mention the next generation of engineers, mechanics, teachers, and others. Where can I expect them to come from, if they’re not prepared and educated in schools? Where can I expect them to come from, if I don’t support those schools, even though my own kids aren’t in them? I need commerce to continue. How can I expect that to continue if I don’t support the infrastructure, even of components I won’t personally see? Highways and schools and any number of other government-funded programs were established by others, and paid for by many others, and I have benefited far beyond my own contribution. Don’t I have some responsibility to continue to support such programs?

This web of institutional and economic relationships and connections describe my responsibility. They describe the commonwealth in which we live – the degree to which we hold wealth in common, to which “my” wealth is dependent on the activities of others. Therefore, even if I have some claim to private property, I have some accountability within those relationships and connections to make my contribution not only for my individual good but also for public good. This is even more true of “government’s” money, since we are the government. I have responsibility for how I participate politically and economically, responsibility not just for how it benefits me for how it benefits society generally. So, for those social and political reasons, I find it disingenuous to make this falsely hard division between “your” money or “our” money or “government’s” money.

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