Canadians elected a new government last month and this month saw a new federal budget. There shouldn't have been any surprises, as the Conservatives won their majority on the promise of deficit reduction and low taxes.
One way to evaluate the budget is simply to ask if the governing party actually did what it promised to do. Christians might pose a deeper reflection: Does this budget deliver for those in need, while responsibly and fairly sharing the burden?
A key part of answering this latter question is to raise the (unavoidable, but often controversial) question of taxes and tax fairness.
What would fair taxation look like?
Two years ago I discussed taxes in the office of a first-time Conservative MP, a practising and devout Catholic. His point of view was that people have the right to "their own" money, and that any form of taxation was essentially "coercion," where government usurped the right to take whatever portion of your income it preferred.
This way of thinking, of course, lead to his inescapable conclusion that whatever government taxes least, governs best. This ideology is much closer to a libertarian perspective than that of Catholic social teaching.
In the documents of the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes, 30) we read: "The obligations of justice and love are fulfilled only if each person, contributing to the common good, according to his own abilities and the needs of others, also promotes and assists the public and private institutions dedicated to bettering the conditions of human life."
Recent documents from Citizens for Public Justice provide an ecumenical vision to the concept of taxation. (See: CPJ_backgrounder_on_taxation.pdf.)
Why not look upon taxes as our contribution to the common good, allowing society to undertake activities that no individual could afford to offer our families if we acted alone? Pooling our resources has helped societies to procure services and build necessary infrastructure in more cost-effective and efficient ways.
We might also link the concept of taxes to citizenship. As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society."
Paying taxes can make citizens feel more invested in the decisions of government, encouraging us to participate in setting the directions and rising to the challenges of civic life — especially to demand change when necessary.
Taxes can also be an important method for income redistribution (if the tax system is progressive).
Recent studies of the wealthy economies of the globe, like Pickett and Wilkinson's The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, convincingly demonstrate that the most unequal societies have worse health outcomes, higher rates of drug use, incarceration and even teenage birth rates, as well as a host of other problems.
Since free market economies create huge gaps between rich and poor, and since, in Canada, we have allowed this gap to expand ferociously, we need a fair tax system to restore some semblance of balance and equality — for the benefit of us all.
The Globe and Mail reported on May 31 that compensation paid to the CEOs at Canada's 100 largest companies increased by 13 per cent in 2010. Not too many readers will see their (already substantially lower) incomes increase accordingly.
We would do well to keep in mind that Canada, unlike the U.S., does not have a higher tax bracket for the highest earners.
Our tax system has to be fair in order to receive wide-ranging support. One way to develop thinking about fair taxation is to reflect upon the biblical concept that what we have is not ours, but rather a gift from God. This should make us more open to sharing, and more convinced of the need to build the commonwealth.
In Luke 12.48 we read: "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded."
Whenever Canadians stop to think of the many societal benefits that their taxes provide — such as health care, food safety regulation and education, among so many others — we tend to value these benefits more. And all people tend to protect and develop that which we value.
To learn more about this expanded vision of civic participation, and to engage in the conversation about taxes, please visit the website of a new organization, Canadians for Tax Fairness www.taxfairness.ca.
Consider signing their online petition and engaging in this important discussion for this, and future generations of Canadian society.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)