"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Christian Socialist, Meet Christian Libertarian

Jim Wallis gets a lot of mileage out of being the evangelical with a social conscience. In other words, he votes Democrat most of the time. Certain other top-drawer evangelicals swing that way, too, reflecting what I think is usually fear of being labeled a member of the "ignorant" and "non-compassionate" right. The question is, how correct is Wallis in his inclination to lean left? Is he more biblically-correct in his pro-life, but economically statist positions?

Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute does a nice job of addressing the question in his latest for American Spectator. Here's a representative clip from the review of one of Wallis' books:

WALLIS PRESENTS HIS VISION as a fourth option to conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. In his view it "follows from the prophetic religious tradition." In sum, "it is traditional or conservative on issues of family values, sexual integrity, and personal responsibility, while being very progressive, populist, or even radical on issues like poverty and racial justice. It affirms good stewardship of the earth and its resources, supports gender equality, and is more internationally minded than nationalist."

One can make good prudential policy arguments on behalf of all of these positions. But while God says much about people's relationship to him and each other, he says very little about when people should coerce each other -- that is, what government should do. And this failure to distinguish personal moral imperatives from prudential political concerns places him squarely where he does not want to be: standing between Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

Perhaps no where is this more evident than Wallis's reflexive rejection of "tax cuts for the rich." However, the money is not a "public good" to be spent either on government projects or gifts for the wealthy. Rather, the money has been collected from the very people to whom it is being returned. In fact, the rich pay the vast majority of income taxes: for instance, the top one percent pay more than a third of revenues. So any fair tax cut means that the rich will receive more than will the poor. One can justify progressive taxation and social spending, but one must make the argument, rather than simply denounce "tax cuts for the rich."

Similarly flawed is Wallis's discussion of poverty, both domestic and international. No faithful Christian can ignore the enormity of the problem of poverty. But a requirement that one help the poor does not authorize one to force others to help the poor. You will search Scripture long and hard to find such an authorization.

I think Bandow has hit the nail on the head. It's refreshing to read such a well-informed bit of reasoning on church and state. I've often hoped someone would address these issues raised by the Wallis position and am glad to see Doug Bandow gets the job done so in such measured fashion. The entire review is worth reading.

26 comments:

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link.

I have never approached this subject from that angle, eg. "Thou shalt not coerce thy fellow man."

Instead, I have looked at it from the other side, eg. "Thou shalt give man the same freedom of choice that God gave me."

Subtle difference, IMHO.

Tlaloc said...

"Perhaps no where is this more evident than Wallis's reflexive rejection of "tax cuts for the rich." However, the money is not a "public good" to be spent either on government projects or gifts for the wealthy. Rather, the money has been collected from the very people to whom it is being returned."

The bible is very clear on taxation: render unto the treasury department what is the treasury departments.



"In fact, the rich pay the vast majority of income taxes: for instance, the top one percent pay more than a third of revenues."

Yes but the top 1% also OWN a third of the wealth in America. That being the case paying a third of the tax burden is at best barely breaking even with what the poor pay. They should in fact be paying substantially more as the rich both benefit far more and can afford far more.

Hunter Baker said...

The Caesar's coin passage is very rich and doesn't speak to the issue of a democratic government. Certainly, if the expressed will of the U.S. Government is to tax whatever percentage, the Christian has to pay. However, whether that has to be the policy he supports as a full citizen is another question.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

They should in fact be paying substantially more as the rich both benefit far more and can afford far more.

... thus we ought to plunder them?

... thus we have the authority to plunder them?

... thus it is morally OK to plunder them?

Where are you coming from?

Tlaloc said...

"The Caesar's coin passage is very rich and doesn't speak to the issue of a democratic government. Certainly, if the expressed will of the U.S. Government is to tax whatever percentage, the Christian has to pay."

The point though hunter is that Christ explicitly recognized that the coin belonged to the state not to the individual. This is the same point I've made previously. When they claim that "the money has been collected from the very people to whom it is being returned" they imply the money belongs to the people being taxed. The reverse is true. The money belongs to the state, the citizens merely get to use it. Hence returning said money to the state is not "plundering" the rich but repaying an accepted debt (accepted when you chose to barter using the states currency).

James Elliott said...

So, you finally couldn't resist the "it's unChristian to be a Democrat" meme, eh? You can use the Bible to justify practically anything, from social welfare to slavery and beating your wife.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I did find the scripture quote you were looking for, Hunter.

"Pick up your swords and cudgels, and round up the tax collector. Go forth to the rich man's house, take his stuff, and give it to the poor. He has too much, and they have too little.

Oh, and keep a little for yourself, too. You deserve it for your trouble."
---The Gospel According to St. Bastard

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

So, you finally couldn't resist the "it's unChristian to be a Democrat" meme, eh?


Hmmm ... I think it was more, "It is unChristian to take from person A, give to person B, just so person C can feel better."

The way that I interpret the Bible is that just as it is my free choice to accept God's grace, it is my free choice to love my neighbor as myself.

Clearly, the "greatest commandment(s)" (Matthew 22:36-39) requires us to treat "even the least of my bretheren" (Matthew 25:40) as we would treat him; with love.

I still don't understand how the plundering of my neighbor can be thought of as loving my neighbor.

Tlaloc said...

"I still don't understand how the plundering of my neighbor can be thought of as loving my neighbor."

And how exactly is it "plundering" when by both logic and your faith the money was always the property of the state?

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

First of all, Christ did not necessarily say that the coin belonged to Caesar. He specifically asked about the image. For it was known by the pharisees (and Christ himself) that it is not acceptable to bow down to a graven image.

This is part of the trap that the pharasees tried to set for Jesus.

Regarding the ownership of money, you are ignoring the issue by burying it in nonsense.

The vast majority of the American public believes that their money is, well, theirs! That perception is reality, no matter how many times you bring up the canard of "state ownership."

connie deady said...

Why don't we just get rid of all taxes and government.

Private roads, private schools, private airports. Why are we subsidizing airports for the people who can afford to fly? Why are we giving tax breaks to churches? Why do we give some tax breaks to corporations if they develop a poor area?

I find discussions of "my" or "their" money to be really naive. The wealthy who pay the taxes get plenty of services and benefits back from their money. Disaster relief comes to mind. Those aren't poor whoms wiped out on the coasts from hurricanes.

Anyway I no longer desire to give money to help the poor. I am tired of people acting as if they are the only ones getting benefits from the government.

Matt Huisman said...

The money belongs to the state, the citizens merely get to use it. Hence returning said money to the state is not "plundering" the rich but repaying an accepted debt (accepted when you chose to barter using the states currency).

So does this mean that if I choose to stop using currency, the gov't has no right to tax me?

And how did the state decide how much money to give me (or my ancestors)? And who formed the state anyway?

If everything belongs to the state, why does it count as one of its primary functions the protection of private property?

When we render to Caesar what is Caesar's, we are paying him according to the terms that were established in his land...but if I want to leave, I have every ability to convert my denarii into a herd of goats and get out. (And good luck to Caesar if this happens too often.)

Caesar owns the currency and collects a fee for facilitating trade (among other things)...but he doesn't own what the currency represents.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

Render unto Caesar WHAT IS CAESAR'S. That most explicitly says that the coin is owned by caesar.

Not necessarily true, read the passage: "Who's image is this? ..." That passage has been used to justify paying taxes, but the true purpose is to ask, "What is God's" and "What is Caesar's", or "What is of this world."

Jesus did not answer the question directly, but instead gave an answer that avoided the trap set by the Pharisees.


You accuse me of burying the issue in nonsense and then blithely claim that perception is reality?

So when you are robbed do you tell the police officer that some of the states money, which just so happened to be in your possession, was taken by someone else, and it wasn't theirs either?


Why don't we just get rid of all taxes and government.

That is probably what Tlaloc would agree with, but I'll assume you were concluding from my posts that I would concur, but I do not.

Ahh ... but you were being sarcastic! :)

The wealthy who pay the taxes get plenty of services and benefits back from their money. Disaster relief comes to mind. Those aren't poor whoms wiped out on the coasts from hurricanes.

I could not agree more. We should not be subsidizing the wealthy. The government should not encourage people to spend money in ways that, without government, would be foolish.

Tom Van Dyke said...

When we render to Caesar what is Caesar's, we are paying him according to the terms that were established in his land...but if I want to leave, I have every ability to convert my denarii into a herd of goats and get out. (And good luck to Caesar if this happens too often.)


Entirely correct, Mr. Huisman. In fact, that's just what happened to the Roman Empire---except the people gave those goats to the local baron in exchange for his protection from the state. The people chose serfdom and the feudal system over the onerousness of citizenship.

Tlaloc said...

"So does this mean that if I choose to stop using currency, the gov't has no right to tax me?"

If in addition to currency you stop using all govenment services I would say so yes. Of course doing so is nearly impossible in this day and age. Maybe you could find some appalachian shack and engage in subsistence farming or hunting.



"And how did the state decide how much money to give me (or my ancestors)? And who formed the state anyway?"

The state was formed by the constitution as a federation of previously loosely bound states. As for how much money I have no idea how the first federal script was introduced.



"If everything belongs to the state, why does it count as one of its primary functions the protection of private property?"

Who said "everything?" I said money.



"When we render to Caesar what is Caesar's, we are paying him according to the terms that were established in his land...but if I want to leave, I have every ability to convert my denarii into a herd of goats and get out."

No argument here.

Tlaloc said...

"Jesus did not answer the question directly, but instead gave an answer that avoided the trap set by the Pharisees."

I understand that but in so doing he explicitly (i.e. in no uncertain terms) claims that all coins forged in caesar's likeness are caesars.



"So when you are robbed do you tell the police officer that some of the states money, which just so happened to be in your possession, was taken by someone else, and it wasn't theirs either?"

Of course not, we do not have to elaborate the complicated role of money in personal and governmental interactions everytime we talk about cash. Nor is any illusion of mine that it was my money that was stolen make it real.

It was money in my possession just as the apartment I live in is in my possession in that I live there, but fundamentally it is not mine. I am using it according to an understanding between me and the landlord. When I tell people how to get to where I live I may say "my" apartment but that does not mystically transfer the deed to me because perception does no equal reality.

Matt Huisman said...

I no longer have any idea what your point is.

connie deady said...

I no longer have any idea what your point is.
to be honest I seldom do, and I'm a fellow liberal

Matt Huisman said...

As far as Mr. Wallis goes…while I respect his desire for our country to solve the large social problems of the day, his appeal is for Christians to be relevant/useful, and I suspect that this desire has overtaken the greater purpose of the faith. In his zeal to right wrongs, Wallis encourages an apparatus fixated on curing the ills of the day…but one that does nothing to develop the real virtues necessary to truly overcome these problems and to accomplish the life transformation that Christ intended.

In his book ‘Out of Solitude’, Henri Nouwen points out that ‘…care should be the basis and precondition of all cure. In a community like ours we have put all the emphasis on cure. We want to be professionals: heal the sick, help the poor, teach the ignorant, and organize the scattered. But the temptation is that we use our expertise to keep a safe distance from that which really matters and forget that in the long run cure without care is more harmful than helpful.’

When discussing the life of Jesus, no one argues that he cared. He fed the hungry, made the blind see and raised the dead. But why didn’t he do so for everyone? It seems his purposes were beyond social justice. When we look closer, we see that he fed the multitudes after receiving loaves and fish from a stranger in the crowd; that he did not return the boy of Nain to his widowed mother without having felt her sorrow, that Lazarus was not raised from the grave without tears.

Certainly government has a role in facilitating the necessary care for the disadvantaged, but without the personal attention that only private citizens/groups can provide…Mr. Wallis’ cure will die over and over, irrespective of how much money we provide.

Tlaloc said...

"I no longer have any idea what your point is."

Fair enough. My point is this: claiming that taxation is robbing from people is false because the money is printed by the government, it is distributed by the government, it's value is controlled (or at least guided by) the government. It is reasonable then to consider the money as the property of the government which we choose to use and in so doing we accept their right ti take back some or all of it at their whim.

Is that in any way unclear?

If we consider the money to belong to us as individuals then you run into the bizarre kinds of situations where the government can rob from you simply by determining inflation rates (and thus devaluing "your" money). A dollar afterall is more than a piece of paper, it is a representation of value. You may own the piece of paper but the government for all intents and purposes owns that concept of value attached to the paper. They control it.

Hunter Baker said...

Matt said,

"As far as Mr. Wallis goes…while I respect his desire for our country to solve the large social problems of the day, his appeal is for Christians to be relevant/useful, and I suspect that this desire has overtaken the greater purpose of the faith. In his zeal to right wrongs, Wallis encourages an apparatus fixated on curing the ills of the day…but one that does nothing to develop the real virtues necessary to truly overcome these problems and to accomplish the life transformation that Christ intended."

Matt, I could not have hoped to have expressed the basic problem as simply and perfectly as you have. Well done.

Matt Huisman said...

Tlaloc...No one here is disputing whether the gov't has the right to tax. And you are correct that the gov't controls the concept of value as a unit of measurement. But the government is not the owner of the underlying wealth that them money represents.

If we consider the money to belong to us as individuals then you run into the bizarre kinds of situations where the government can rob from you simply by determining inflation rates (and thus devaluing "your" money).

If you come into the country with two goats, sell them for $200 but are only able to buy one of them back a week later after the country has just doubled the money supply (assuming no other variables), who suffers the financial loss? YOU did. You owned the goats, not the gov't. It's not technically a robbery, because you assumed the risk that the currency would retain its value...but it would sure feel like one.

When they claim that "the money has been collected from the very people to whom it is being returned" they imply the money belongs to the people being taxed. The reverse is true. The money belongs to the state, the citizens merely get to use it.

Again, its the citizens that suffer the loss of wealth when the money is taken away. Either you're saying that the state owns everything (which it doesn't, because I have the ability to leave with my possessions) or you're saying that the state has to use other measures beyond recalling its own property to fund its activities (a tax of someone else's property).

Tlaloc said...

"Tlaloc...No one here is disputing whether the gov't has the right to tax."

I tend to assume they are when CLA refers to taxes as "plundering" people.



"But the government is not the owner of the underlying wealth that them money represents."

I'm not sure I agree with this formulation. This makes it sound like wealth is a fixed thing rather than a constant flux. Maybe we're getting too abstract though.



"If you come into the country with two goats, sell them for $200 but are only able to buy one of them back a week later after the country has just doubled the money supply (assuming no other variables), who suffers the financial loss? YOU did. You owned the goats, not the gov't. It's not technically a robbery, because you assumed the risk that the currency would retain its value...but it would sure feel like one."

How is that situation any different than you coming into the country with two goats, selling them, the government taxes half the money away and then you buy one goat back? Perhaps it's a moot point since you've said you agree government has the right to tax which was really the underlying argument in the first place. Is taxation proper or a plundering of citizens?



"Again, its the citizens that suffer the loss of wealth when the money is taken away. Either you're saying that the state owns everything (which it doesn't, because I have the ability to leave with my possessions) or you're saying that the state has to use other measures beyond recalling its own property to fund its activities (a tax of someone else's property)."

I don't think that follows. The citizens benefited from the ability to use the cash and beauase of that they enter into a tacit agreement with the state. They borrow the state's property (money) in order to conduct transactions which ideally increase the overall wealth. In return the government gets to peel off a bit of that wealth at each stage. If the people choose to invest in say gold then I agree that the government shouldn't come and take a portion of it under this argument. However the government can come and demand recompense for say the roads used to transport that gold, the subsidized banks used to store it, and the military and police forces used to guard it. That's a separate argument that gets into taxing property though as opposed to cash/income.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

I tend to assume they are when CLA refers to taxes as "plundering" people.

Plunder was simply my response to you claiming that the wealthy "... should in fact be paying substantially more ..."

While I do not want, nor have the time, to get into an income tax debate, suffice it to say that I believe that someone paying "substantially more" than a 35% marginal tax rate is, IMHO, being plundered.

Further, we do not have, generally speaking, a wealth tax in this country.

Matt Huisman said...

However the government can come and demand recompense for say the roads used to transport that gold, the subsidized banks used to store it, and the military and police forces used to guard it. That's a separate argument that gets into taxing property though as opposed to cash/income.

Which is the arguement that everyone else on the planet uses.

Is taxation proper or a plundering of citizens?

It's both...is it so inconceivable to think that there may be a level of taxation that would be viewed as onerous?

Tlaloc said...

"It's both...is it so inconceivable to think that there may be a level of taxation that would be viewed as onerous?"

As I see it it's like asking "is it inconcievable that there is a level of interest a bank could charge that would be onerous?" Well I'm sure there's a level of interest a bank could charge that would send you down the road to the next bank but frankly the bank can charge whatever they want for the service they provide.

a moneterized system is a service provided by the government. They can charge whatever they see fit to their customers.