The ongoing debate over federal taxation is a reflection of an unfortunate loss of vision by the so-called leadership of the United States. Politicians, especially those in office today, speak about tax cuts as though they were some form of entitlement. In truth, they represent an abandonment of an American commitment to noble ideals. Unwilling to sacrifice for a progressive world, a self-centered society has transformed fiscal policy into a search for “what’s in it for me.”

The true leaders of American history have been individuals with visions of national greatness. Washington aimed to develop a spirit of nationhood that would transcend state or regional loyalty. In the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson transformed a small coastal country into a continental power. Lincoln saw the Civil War as an opportunity for America to experience a new birth of freedom.

Both Republicans and Democrats have attained their most memorable success when they looked beyond the expectations of their constituents in order to explore new possibilities for greatness. We remember Theodore Roosevelt for his work in conservation, or Eisenhower for the creation of an interstate highway system, or Reagan for his stern challenge to Soviet hegemony. The dream of a New Deal for all Americans became the lasting legacy of Franklin Roosevelt. Likewise, Americans would be captivated by Kennedy’s proposal to place a man on the moon.

Has the United States become so mature that it has no need for bold initiatives? Has our nation so fulfilled its essential mission that it can now place itself into a holding pattern? To the contrary, America as never before has a need to dream of dreams that have yet to be fulfilled.

Consider just a few of the possibilities for progress that scream for our attention: a truly universal system of health care; a massively aggressive program of research to solve the most unsolvable of medical problems; the development of new energy sources with minimized environmental risk; an energy policy that will eliminate our dependence on foreign oil and its restraint of foreign policy prerogatives; investments in education; new missions into the solar system and the stars beyond.

Never before has America possessed its current financial ability to embark upon new initiatives for progress. Rather than identify the great priorities that will become a legacy of the current generation, governmental leaders have instead begun a debate over schemes to withdraw from social leadership.

In managing the nation’s recent budget surpluses — which were certainly a reality before Sept. 11 — our most esteemed leaders can choose from among three alternatives. Ideally, the United States might commit resources to noble ventures for the betterment of humankind. Alternatively, for officials lacking either sufficient imagination or the ability to forge consensus, a reduction of accumulated debt would enhance America’s ability to embark upon noble endeavors at a future time. The third but least desirable alternative is one now most in vogue, namely to return our nation’s financial resources to presumptively worthy taxpayers.

The purpose of government is to act collectively for the common good. No matter how noble a taxpayer’s intentions may be, his or her individual tax refund will be too meager to meaningfully impact any societal need. By redirecting the shared surplus of our national budget, however, Americans collectively possess an opportunity to effect change.

The United States should remember the lesson of its experiences with veteran affairs. Prior to World War II, our nation used cash bonuses as an expression of its appreciation for military service. Thus, in 1932, a “Bonus Army” of unemployed veterans arrived in Washington to demand an appropriation for an early cash distribution. Any such payments could provide only a short-term benefit. For the veterans of World War II, however, the United States provided not mere palliatives, but rather opportunities. These included opportunities for education under the GI Bill, and opportunities for home ownership with the assistance of VA Mortgages.

History confirms the distinct advantage of a commitment of resources to honorable objectives, as opposed to a purposeless return of money to the public. This is not to say that in appropriate instances, a tax reduction might not serve as a much needed stimulus for the economy. But far different it is to return money merely because a surplus exists, without any attempt to dream of better alternatives.

The current tax debate serves to highlight a trend toward self-centeredness and greed. Will America commit its resources to our collective progress, or to a fulfillment of individual desires? This same question finds manifestation in countless other issues of policy. Are we to accept responsibility for global warming? Should economic policies aim only to advance our own prosperity, or should we express even the slightest of concern for the welfare of the weak and powerless people of the world? Do we choose to live only for today? Should trade become a vehicle for political reform, or is it to be only a device for the accumulation of wealth?

Perhaps of greatest concern is whether we have lost the ability even to ask these questions. Have we become so enamored with personal wealth that we fail to explore the possibility of new visions for tomorrow?

Craig Bucki is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.