One of the defining differences between conservative and liberal politics has to do with the role of government in addressing the increasing gap between rich and poor, and the variety of social problems that stem from it. Those of the Left want direct help for the poor through welfare payments, whilst the Right considers it important to provide the poor with motivation and opportunity to work to improve their lot in life. The left seeks redistribution of wealth through taxation, which tends toward socialism, while the Right wants to lower the tax burden of the entrepreneurs in a ‘free’ market in order to create more jobs for the poor.
The Right stresses individual responsibility and freedom, and the Left emphasises the role of the society and our responsibility for each other. Jesus was big on both of these, and because of this, the current extreme polarisation between the two sides may be inappropriate, unhelpful and unnecessary. Left meets Right here.
A proper role of government is to to give all people a chance to be all they can be. Both conservative and liberal will agree on this, so let it be the starting point. If the government is able to protect the freedoms of all, and create a society in which everyone has an equal chance at happiness and prosperity, then the practical differences between Left and Right will diminish.
The first and foremost task of government will be to determine how to deal with the kind of luck over which we have no influence whatsoever – the kind we are born with – and to protect the weak (or unlucky) from the depredations of the strong (lucky). This is necessary in order to create the equal opportunity that everyone acknowledges should be available to all.
Should we have a society in which the luck of birth is entrenched or should we create a society which does its best to even out the playing field? I use the ‘playing field’ analogy because it is one of those essential parts of the ideal ‘free’ market. There are many problems a free market can fix very efficiently, but there are also problems it creates, particularly when it is more free for some than for others.
In order for this to happen, it is necessary to work from both ends, those who are born with the proverbial ‘silver spoon’ and those who are born behind the proverbial ‘8-ball.’ The writers of the American Declaration of Independence wanted to guarantee for all people the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I can imagine those who wrote the Australian Constitution would have found these goals congenial, and would have wanted to create the structures where these rights can prosper, both in serving the people (where corporate action assists them on issues that are not able to be handled individually) and by protecting these inalienable rights from interference by those who would want to deny them to others.
If one is born to successful parents, the odds are that this person will grow up in a good neighbourhood, with positive influences from parents and friends, and a genetic makeup that includes the genes for intelligence, physical health or other native qualities that helped his/her parents succeed, such as sporting prowess or good looks or artistic talent. This person will also live in a good school district, so a good education will provide a good start, and as his/her parents are successful, there might be a nice pool of capital to provide a start in business or at least remove the need to start life in a financial hole. Should this person be allowed to maintain an advantage over others simply because of his good (but dumb) luck? Not if the playing field is to be level.
On the other side of town from our lucky person, born at the same time to an impoverished, mentally-challenged, drug-addicted single mother living in the slums, is a person with the gene for cystic fibrosis. Maybe this person can indeed make something of life, but from a starting point of ill-health, possibly low-intelligence, without a good education, and probably in debt without hope of any inheritance, chances are ‘Buckley’s or none.’ Does the government refrain from helping this person? Not if the playing field is to be level.
And we haven’t even left town in our little example. How about the disparity in birth between the starving infant in, say, Sudan, and Rory John Gates (Bill’s youngest)?
So when the playing field is levelled, and not until it is, I will join with the Coalition in championing a reduction in income tax so that people can keep what they’ve earned. In fact, let’s get rid of personal income tax altogether and replace it with an excess wealth tax (on assets over a set large amount) and a huge tax on inheritances (because ‘silver spoons’ are not earned or deserved), and use the money to create a good starting base for those born unlucky, which will include all of those things necessary to foster their chances for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, such as nourishment, health care, education, a safe environment, cultural opportunities and mentoring.
If all people can all have a reasonably equal start, freed from the luck of birth, then those that don’t succeed will have only themselves to blame, and society will not have to feel responsible for them (although there will still be those who cannot escape bad luck such as disability and illness). The money that is spent to help children is like the money with which one buys a house; it is not money ‘spent;’ rather, it is money invested. After all, the primary resource for any society is its people. People are at their best and most productive when they are educated, healthy and happy, so surely a major role of government is to help people be the best they can be, if for no other reason than to make the society strong.