All You Need Is Gov: A Response to Obama's "Biblical" Economics
The State has a way of swallowing up competitors. And not just because it can outspend or legally forbid competition. Government has a monopolizing tendency because once it takes responsibility, no one else feels responsible.
At the National Prayer Breakfast on February 2, President Barack Obama explained that his economic policies—highly progressive taxes, greater welfare entitlements, deficit spending—reflect his "biblical" values. A few excerpts via Politico:
“for me as a Christian, [the rich paying more in taxes] coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required,’”
“When I talk about our financial institutions playing by the same rules as folks on Main Street, when I talk about making sure insurance companies aren’t discriminating against those who are already sick... I do so because I genuinely believe it will make the economy stronger for everybody, but I also do it because I know far too many neighbors in our country have been hurt and treated unfairly over the last few years. And I believe in God’s command to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’”
“I talk about shared responsibility … because I genuinely believe in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income, or young people with student loans, or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone,”
There is no doubt about the Bible's emphasis on love, grace, hope and charity—particularly in the New Testament—but it is not some bureaucratic, disembodied kind of charity. Loving "thy neighbor" is about voluntary relationships, not government mandates. And suggesting that "to whom much is given, much shall be required" (Luke 12:48) is somehow related to material wealth and taxes is a far stretch. How can one reconcile such a peculiar interpretation with the Parable of the Talents, which says the exact opposite: "whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them"?
The supposed Biblical support for government redistributionist economic policies is weak. And while I believe that the President wants to help struggling Americans, his convictions do not translate to either effective or morally superior outcomes. Indeed, his misguided approach is suffocating the economy and adding to the struggles of those he desires to help.
Top-down economic solutions are rarely effective. First, economic incentives often work counterintuitively as the complexity of markets creates a "domino" effect on other conditions, sometimes for the worse. For example, minimum wages sound good prima facia, but they make it more difficult for low-wage workers to find employment at all. Some of them end up supported by government or charities instead of getting experience and personal dignity working for their own paycheck—even if it isn't much. And, of course, we saw how much sub-prime mortgage programs helped out. Adjusting economic outcomes is not a simple pull of a lever, though politicians often speak this way.
Market complexity leads to the second point: For a centralized management of everyone's "needs," we would have to calculate exact preferences and quantities for every person, family and community at every sequential moment. The fascist and communist economies of the twentieth century collapsed because this fundamental requisite is impossible. We live in a world of unlimited wants and limited goods, meaning that somehow resources must be allocated to their best uses. Free market economies work because these decisions are made by millions of people every second, at the most direct and personal level.
If a policy is ineffective or makes conditions worse, we clearly cannot claim any moral achievement, but there are other concerns. First, substituting taxes for charity is like switching apples for oranges. The taking of one's property to relieve someone else's discomfort has significant implications for how we view property rights in the first place. Do such rights exist, as the Declaration of Independence says? If so, do they come from God? The right to one's property is sacred because it is tied to our natural responsibilities as decision makers and stewards of our resources. Like the parable, God grants us gifts and talents, and it is up to us to make them produce fruit and share it voluntarily as we are moved to do so.
But let us assume that taking property through the vehicle of pseudo-democratic legislation is fair game in certain conditions (after all, I may be tempted to steal if it meant I could save someone's life). It is then necessary to ask whether there is any point at which this justification is lost. I might steal to save a life, but would I steal to satisfy a less urgent need, like cleaner water or minor medical care? What about healthy food, exercise and education? We are currently doing all of these. But at what point do we say "no," and insist that individuals take responsibility for their advancement and comfort? That is the question up for debate.
I cannot conceive of what tax rate Jesus Christ himself would be calling for. There is, of course, the standard 10 percent tithe, but would he raise that to 50 or 75 on wealthier Christians? He is not silent on the issue—when asked his thoughts on taxation his reply was to "give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." It turns out, Jesus is not concerned with tax rates; he is concerned with that which is God's—our hearts, where government cannot go. In God's design, helping one's neighbor is perhaps more a matter of personal sacrifice than welfare assistance. The miracle is not that someone is a degree more comfortable, but that someone gave of himself or herself willingly.
The IRS is no substitute for a generous soul, but the more we place social welfare on the shoulders of the state, the more we abdicate one of our most sacred responsibilities. The church no longer builds hospitals and libraries because we have a government for that. To accept the idea that the state is the proper conduit for the welfare of our friends, family and neighbors is to materialize Christian giving and send it to the same fate. It is practically, morally and theologically unsound.
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