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Religion, Government, and Civil Society Font Size: 
By Arnold Kling : BIO| 21 Feb 2020
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In public schools, which do you think is right?

(a) teaching students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, including the words "under God"

(b) teaching students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, without the words "under God"

I say, "Neither." With or without the words "under God," the Pledge of Allegiance feels to me like a prayer. It's a fairly nice prayer, and I have no problem with having it taught in private schools. I have no problem praying for my country -- such a prayer is included in the standard weekly service at my synagogue. But government institutions ought not to be telling people how to pray.

If we define religion broadly to include anything that involves prayers, ethical precepts, and moral codes, can we rely on the American Civil Liberties Union to maintain the first amendment separation between church and state? What sort of rules or boundaries can be drawn to ensure that public schools serve only to educate, not to proselytize? How do we draw the line?

As far as I can tell, there is no way to draw the line between church and state in public schools. To me, the only way to separate church and state in schooling is to have private schools. Getting government out of the schooling business would return schooling to the realm of civil society, where values and ethics may be taught without inhibition.

The religion of the public school system tends to be a mixture of environmentalism, political correctness, and worship of big government. Many private schools preach the same thing, so perhaps little would change if we had a system of all private education. However, if there is any chance that students might delve more deeply into issues of ethics and social problems, it would be in a setting that is not constrained by government bureaucracy.

Civil Societarian

My recent "Request for Ideological Comment" drew a number of helpful responses (I am still planning an essay on those). Some of them made me realize that I tend to put myself on the defensive when I say that I am libertarian. So I want to try a new label.

Call me a Civil Societarian. I strongly support the institutions of civil society. These include families, corporations, religious groups, private schools, charities, trade associations, and the other peaceful, voluntary collective organizations that promote our individual and collective well-being.

The stereotypical libertarian might cite Ayn Rand and exalt the independent individual. Instead, a civil societarian would cite Alexis de Tocqueville, and his observation that "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations." These voluntary associations are what a civil societarian sees as the key to civilization.

Government may contribute to civil society, but it also intrudes on it (see the essay on Group Power). As an economist, I am keenly aware that government interference with markets tends to weaken them. Even the most well-intended interventions often have adverse consequences.

But the challenge that government poses to civil society goes beyond economics. When we treat government as a parent, we weaken the family. When we worship government, we overpower other religions. When we look to government every time there is a problem, we undermine those who have independent, creative solutions. Katrina-ravaged New Orleans was let down by its Democratic mayor, its Democratic governor, and its Republican President. It was not let down by private-sector volunteers.

Social Service Vouchers, Charitable Tax Credits

Marvin Olasky, a mild-mannered journalism professor who tried (apparently without success) to shape "compassionate conservatism," proposes two ideas that would help channel government spending back into civil society. One idea is a social service voucher. The other is a charitable tax credit. They are interesting concepts, although they are not without pitfalls.

The idea of a social service voucher is to give poor people a choice about where to obtain drug rehabilitation, social work, counseling, or other services. Instead of the government acting as monopoly supplier, the poor would receive vouchers which they could take to any private organization that offers suitable services. This would empower the poor to choose what services to obtain. Like any consumer, the voucher recipient could essentially fire providers who are ineffective and only give business to those who genuinely meet their needs.

(As I write this, I wish we had "snow plow vouchers." One of my neighbors hired a private snowplow to clear the ice blocks pushed in front of his driveway by the government road "service," and we have negotiated with the plow operator to do the same for our driveway. If a private vendor had done to us what the government road crews did, we would have fired that vendor by now.)

A question about vouchers concerns regulation. With no regulation at all, the voucher simply becomes a cash transfer that can be spent on anything. Once we assume that government regulation will be involved, how heavy-handed will it be? Will government not allow drug rehabilitation programs that accept voucher funds to use explicitly Christian teachings as part of their method?

Another idea is a charitable tax credit. Today, when the affluent give to charity, they receive a tax deduction. When the poor contribute to charity, they get no benefit. If instead the poor were given a tax credit (one that they can receive even if they pay no taxes), they would be just as rewarded as the rich for donating to charity. The poor might be more likely to give money to hands-on charities that solve problems in their neighborhoods than to make their donations to Harvard or some other upscale beneficiary.

Of course, a tax credit has an opportunity cost. Either other taxes have to be raised or government spending has to be reduced in order to finance a tax credit for charitable contributions.

I would like to see more charity and fewer entitlements. This may be particularly important for health care going forward. If people treat health care as a government entitlement, then there is nothing to stop them from obtaining unnecessary medical procedures, apart from the discomfort and inconvenience involved. (Discomfort and inconvenience are real costs, which ought to be added to the costs that providers charge and then compared with benefits in order to make sure that the latter are higher). We see the consequences in our current Medicare system, where the evidence of wasteful overuse of services and the expenditures on futile care are significant.

Charities are unlikely to give dollar-for-dollar reimbursements for health care expenses. More likely, a charity would give an ill person a lump sum that reflects how the illness affects the person's life, both in terms of medical expenses and in other ways. Recipients would turn around and spend some of this money on health care services, but they would be conscious of the cost as they did so. (See "Five Big Questions About Health Care.")

Church and State

"In my view people will believe in the transcendent no matter what. An attempt to erect society without transcendence leads to the worship of the state."
-- Tyler Cowen (note that Alex Tabarrok writes the original post, and Cowen is making a comment)

Cowen is affirming the views of Deirdre McCloskey, who wrote,

"Characterizing humans as Prudent Only, or even as prudent and just, with love of others, will not do. People also have identities (faith), and projects (hope), for which they need courage and temperance, those self-disciplining virtues, and they all have some version of transcendent love—for God, the traditional object, though as I say science or humanity or the revolution or the environment or art have provided modern substitutes."

I was in the audience when McCloskey gave her lecture. In fact, I was sitting right next to Tyler Cowen, who was proofreading a manuscript as he listened. Like Cowen, I found her persuasive.

McCloskey says that "Faith is the virtue of identity and rootedness." My secular, liberal friends clearly derive much of their identity and their rootedness from their political faith. I do not begrudge their having a political faith. I just wish they had chosen more wisely. Civil Societarianism is a better faith than a faith in the evil of George Bush, in the need to punish the rich, and in the virtue of any well-intended government program.

If McCloskey is correct, then there is an element of theocracy in any political belief. We have no choice but to live under a theocracy, but some theocracies are worse than others.

One of the most frightening aspects of radical Islam is its version of theocracy. Fortunately, the Muslims I know are Americanized. In America, every religion is a minority religion, and everyone understands that we do not want government by sharia.

Liberals worry that religious conservatives will impose a Christian theocracy. That threat is both obvious and far-fetched. Instead, I wish that liberals could recognize the dangers that their own religion poses to civil society. Price controls on pharmaceuticals would represent a much more serious war on science than denial of funds for embryonic stem cell research (although I personally would not oppose such government funding).

We need to love something larger than ourselves. Many people love God. Perhaps civil societarians can love our ideal of a civil society. I am happy to love the flag and the republic for which it stands. Just not in public schools.

Arnold Kling is author of Learning Economics and Crisis of Abundance.

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