Tag Archives: governments

The Pope, the Archbishop and Me

Despite our allegedly highly secular society, the inauguration this week of both a pope and an archbishop have attracted immense interest. Both men seem to embody a sense of spirituality for which the human heart hungers, even if some aspects of religious doctrine stretch credulity. Both patriarchs have shown a commendable concern for the poor.

However, there are two very different (but not mutually exclusive) ways in which concern for the poor can be put into effect – a private way and a public way. The first of these is to exalt people to make greater private donations to the poor. This practice is well enshrined in Islam where the faithful are required to donate one tenth of their post-tax income. But what should we make of religious pressure on governments to spend more money? The Archbishop of Canterbury has already applied such pressure and I’m not yet sure of the Pope’s stance on this issue. However, there are both philosophical and technical questions to be asked about the role of the church in fiscal policy. The philosophical issue concerns generosity with other people’s money. In fact, governments cannot be generous; only taxpayers can. For this reason, I am quite comfortable with the Church suggesting that taxpayers might select a high tax government but I’m uncomfortable with the use of the pulpit to instruct governments to spend more money than they were mandated to spend. My second objection is a technical one concerning the effect of fiscal policy on the alleviation of poverty. While religious leaders have a role in determining what objectives we should seek, they do not have special expertise in how to achieve those objectives. At some point, excessive government spending might be ‘the road to serfdom’1, not the way out of it. For example, if we want to know where the Laffer curve2 has its peak we should ask an economist, not a priest.

References

1. von Hayek F. The Road to Serfdom. 1st ed. UK. Routledge Press; 1944.

2. Fullerton D. The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics Online. http://www.dictionaryofeconomics.com/article?id=pde2008_L000015 (accessed 22 March 2013).

Despite our allegedly highly secular society, the inauguration this week of both a pope and an archbishop have attracted immense interest. Both men seem to embody a sense of spirituality for which the human heart hungers, even if some aspects of religious doctrine stretch credulity. Both patriarchs have shown a commendable concern for the poor.

However, there are two very different (but not mutually exclusive) ways in which concern for the poor can be put into effect – a private way and a public way. The first of these is to exalt people to make greater private donations to the poor. This practice is well enshrined in Islam where the faithful are required to donate one tenth of their post-tax income. But what should we make of religious pressure on governments to spend more money? The Archbishop of Canterbury has already applied such pressure and I’m not yet sure of the Pope’s stance on this issue. However, there are both philosophical and technical questions to be asked about the role of the church in fiscal policy. The philosophical issue concerns generosity with other people’s money. In fact, governments cannot be generous; only taxpayers can. For this reason, I am quite comfortable with the Church suggesting that taxpayers might select a high tax government but I’m uncomfortable with the use of the pulpit to instruct governments to spend more money than they were mandated to spend. My second objection is a technical one concerning the effect of fiscal policy on the alleviation of poverty. While religious leaders have a role in determining what objectives we should seek, they do not have special expertise in how to achieve those objectives. At some point, excessive government spending might be ‘the road to serfdom’, not the way out of it. For example, if we want to know where the Laffer curve2 has its peak we should ask an economist, not a priest.