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The National Housing Development Fund (II): Corruption and its Sources

In Part I of this article, we briefly reviewed the National Housing Development Fund (NHDF), its history, and some objections to it. Some quarters oppose the housing levy because they suspect it is a mechanism the national government desires to use to usurp power from the county governments. However, the county governments have little power to usurp. The fear that the government will mismanage the NHDF is more significant and better founded, yet it still falls short of the essence of the matter in question. Taxation serves as an appropriate entry point.

Taxation is a compulsory contribution to state revenue imposed by a government. One of the chief problems with contemporary taxation is the word “state” in that definition. From this point on, I will write it as “State”, beginning with a capital letter, for clarity.

When we think about our relationship with a State, we do not tend to see ourselves as living in a modern State. Instead, we tend to see ourselves as living in societies and within or under a State. The distinction between State and society seems self-evident to many of us, at least in its general outlines. A society is a group of people living under the political rule of a State; a State is a centralized, administrative, political organization that holds a monopoly on legitimate violence within a definite territorial boundary.[1] The State would include the branches of government and the numerous public offices that serve administrative functions, as well as the police and military. In this definition of a State, the emphasized words are critical. The notion of political rule that the idea of a State implies is one to which the monopoly on coercive force is central as a characteristic and, consequently, as an aim. Quite simply, a powerless State is not a State. To exist, a State requires a monopoly on coercive force, the capacity to enforce commands to act or not to act. The State exists to restrict individuals and societies from visiting violence upon each other. Such violence could only occur if the aims of these individuals and societies contradicted each other – but a harmony of purposes is not the State’s concern.

From this, three pertinent consequences arise for how we tend to understand ourselves as a political community.

In the first place, the State-society distinction outlined above means that, as a subject of the State, no person or society can have a purpose that is truly good, regardless of that person or society’s subjective intentions.[2] This is not to say that every person living within the territory under the jurisdiction of a State is malicious. The point here turns rather on the State’s subversion, even if unwittingly committed, of what goodness is.

As we have already said, the purpose of the State is restrictive. The State exists to enable individuals and societies to pursue their aims to the extent possible. We think of individuals as inhabiting “spheres of immunity”, islands of freedom that no other may infringe upon. As the maxim goes, “My freedom ends where yours begins,” or even more briefly, “You do you. Cheza kama wewe.” Aside from this rider, the State so understood has no competence to say what people should aim for as subjects of the State, that is, what the common good is. Therefore, no one person may validly proclaim his vision of the good to be universally applicable to every subject of the State. To take a ludicrous example, he is certainly free to say that a meal without ugali is immoral for everyone, regardless of their beliefs (or, to take a weightier example, that “Christ is the answer” for everyone). Nonetheless, purely because of its structure and regardless of the intentions of those who constitute the State, the State reduces this claim to a mere opinion, to one of many possible exercises of choice that its subjects may make. Whatever a person affirms privately, the State cannot affirm publicly in its laws as valid for everyone. Private belief cannot receive public endorsement, or else it infringes on the freedoms of others. Of course, if a vast majority of people share the same private belief, there will certainly be many visible signs of it: street preachers, the proliferation of churches, words from Sacred Scripture on the windows of matatus, etc. However, in a modern State, these signs are signs of a private belief, valid not because it is true, but because it is what people under the jurisdiction of a State have decided to do with their freedom. Article 8 of the Constitution is commonly interpreted as a brief statement of this position: “There shall be no State religion.”

Thus, goodness is separated from truth, and it ceases to be goodness. If something is true, then it must be true for everyone – otherwise, it simply is not true. If something is truly good, then its goodness must be true for everyone. Otherwise, it is not good. Instead, it is just the imposition by one person of his choice on his fellow citizens, with or without their consent. Every action is fundamentally selfish, fundamentally self-interested – even selfless actions. To the extent that one accepts the jurisdiction of a modern State, he finds himself in this woeful situation.

This brings us to the second consequence for our self-understanding as a political community: the false distinction between the public and the private.[3] In a modern State, the State has responsibility for what pertains to everyone, for what is “public”. Individuals and societies, on the other hand, occupy the so-called “private sphere”. Because the private is, at its foundation, nothing but a mere exercise of choice that one must keep entirely to oneself or else impose on others (with or without their consent), the private is essentially egotistic while the public, which belongs to the State, is understood to be social and beneficent.

Unfortunately, what we call the State comprises individual persons: members of Parliament and the Executive, judicial officers, members of the civil service, the police service, and the military. Like all individuals in a modern State, their actions are fundamentally egotistic. We must reiterate that this is the case regardless of their intentions to the extent that they accept the jurisdiction of a modern State. Moreover, the split between the public and the private strongly encourages egotism in the private sphere, in the actions of individuals, viewing such egotism not only as morally permissible, but as inevitable, and even the sensible thing to do.

Here, we see the third consequence for our self-understanding as a political community: the false distinction between interest and service.[4] In a modern State, it seems utopic to say that there can be an interest in serving, let alone that service is what is most in our interest because it enriches us most.

In a modern State, desire is seen as selfish, and altruism is seen as empty of desire. Many people, for example, speak of performing selfless acts because they “feel good”. Just as many question whether that makes selfless actions cease to be selfless. If I enjoy giving money to a stranger, am I doing it only for the sake of that stranger? Isn’t my action at least a bit selfish? The fact that we ask such a question signals our confusion. To truly desire anything at all is to see it as being truly good, truly worthwhile, as having true worth.[5] To affirm this worth in our actions, to respond to this worth, takes the form of service. It is in service, so understood, that we attain what we desire; it is in service that we experience joy.

But in a modern State, there is a tendency to shun service as cold, joyless, and contrary to our desires (although this is far from the truth!) Since service is thought to pertain to the public sphere, and since the public sphere comprises individuals, it is no wonder if the individuals who form the State appropriate institutions and resources for selfish aims. Of course, these resources include the compulsory contributions to state revenue that we call taxes. Not only are the contributions likely to be diverted to the self-aggrandizement of a few, but the contributions demanded are likely to be unjust and burdensome. This is precisely what we observe beneath the uproar over the raft of tax hikes and introductions, including the National Development Housing Fund.[6]

The third and final part of this article will briefly overview some of these tax hikes and introductions and explain in more detail how they are unjust and burdensome.

[1] The author owes the notion of how we view ourselves in a modern State to Mark Shiffman’s analysis of the lived experience of people in different forms of political community. See Shiffman, M. (2022, November 4-5). Phenomenology of the Modern State [presentation]. The Common Good and the Political Order: On the Church’s Responsibility for the World (Conference), Washington, D.C.

[2] The argument of this section comes largely from D.C. Schindler: Schindler, D.C. (2019). The Politics of the Real: The Church Between Liberalism and Integralism. New Polity Press: Steubenville, Ohio.

[3] The argument of this section draws much inspiration from Rafael Alvira Domiguez: Dominguez, R. A. (2 June 1998). “Sobre el origen estructural de la corrupción” [“On the structural origin of corruption”]. Foro de Empresarios de Valladolid [Valladolid Business Forum], pp. 51-57.

[4] See Schindler, D.C. (2006). “The Redemption of Eros: Philosophical Reflections on Benedict XVI’s First Encyclical”. 33 Communio 3, pp. 375-399; and Dominguez, R. A. (2 June 1998). “Sobre el origen estructural de la corrupción” [“On the structural origin of corruption”]. Foro de Empresarios de Valladolid [Valladolid Business Forum], pp. 51-57.

[5] An extended argument for this claim can be found in Nyiha, A. (2021, June 22). “Hope and the Meaning of Life in Sauti Sol – Part 2”. The AfroDiscourse (blog).

[6] James McFie argues that the current high taxes (not to mention innumerable permits and requests for bribes) are seriously detrimental to Kenya’s manufacturing sector and employment rate. Referring to politicians and higher-income earners, he says succinctly: “We are living beyond our means as a country.” See Latiff, E. (2023, July 19). The problem with Kenya’s economy is stealing. (Interview with Dr. James McFie.) Spice FM.

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