Babies and Bathwater, Statists versus Libertarians, and Golden Rule Christians

“And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” – Luke 6:31

A friend forwarded me an article from the Christian Science Monitor by Gary Moore titled Debt, Deficits, and American Morals. It’s a good read. The Mr. Moore takes a reasoned look, from a Christian perspective, at the debate over government benevolence and a bankrupted nation. I feel he misses the point only slightly, but first let me rehash his point before getting to mine.

He notes: “Today’s impasse between the welfare-statists (who think our government should maintain full care for the boomers, even if it bankrupts the nation) and the tea party activists (who apparently think our needy and elderly should just get jobs) deepens as America sinks into European-style secularism. ”

With regard to the Tea Party, the he is referencing (as he does in the article) the Ayn Rand version of libertarianism. Rand was a libertarian and an athiest, who apparently felt that not only should government not provide benevolence (a point I agree with) but also that people in general should not (a point with which I clearly disagree). I point this out to note that agreeing with the first premise (government benevolence is bad) does not directly infer that one must agree with the second. I think there are many conservative Christians who feel the same.

Mr. Moore then goes on to note (and this seems to be the crux): “In more religious times, the teachings of Christ Jesus helped unite most of us by providing a third way: each of us caring for our neighbors, particularly those in need, in a loving, voluntary manner. Yet should some decline that moral responsibility, as Rand did, Christ suggested the law of Moses would remain a moral necessity, since the poor will be always with us. That law required the affluent to round the corners of square fields and leave the second picking of grapes for the poor.”

Here is where we part ways, for a number of reasons. Yes, in more religious times the teachings of Christ indeed held sway in communities around the country – we cared for our own, we cared for our neighbors. That system of localized caring has been under attack as contrary to the state-run system for some time (see The Pope Almost Gets it: Competing Social Structures and the Tip of the Iceberg).

Mr. Moore appears to be kidding himself if he thinks we can stand up a local care system, which provides impassioned, heart-felt aide, but requires behavior moderation; and set it contrary to a state-run system, which provides nothing but money and requires no behavior modification. Those who want to change and become new will choose the former, those who want the money will choose the latter. And who will pay? This is obvious. The state system will demand that everybody pay in, even those who freely choose to pay into the local system as well.

I would personally love it if the government system gave a full tax refund (not a deduction, a refund) up to the amount of taxes paid for all monies paid into local benevolence funding. This is not unlike the position that Warren Buffett supports by his actions (not his words) in his recent discussion of tax policy (see Warren Buffett Should Make a Better Argument). That’s not to say I support taxing for benevolent purposes, just that this would be a step in the right direction.

Then there is the added gem at the end, make sure you catch this one: “Yet should some decline that moral responsibility, as Rand did, Christ suggested the law of Moses would remain a moral necessity, since the poor will be always with us. That law required the affluent to round the corners of square fields and leave the second picking of grapes for the poor.” Now, on the one hand, I love it. First, he appears to be saying that only those who decline their moral responsibility should be taxed for benevolence (which we just discussed). But then there is the “law of Moses” issue and the requirement to leave gleanings (see Deuteronomy 24:19-21).

This is fraught with questions. First, gleanings are not made in determination with the needs of the poor. If the number of poor doubled or tripled, the Jewish farmer did not have any larger requirement for leaving gleanings. Not so in today’s entitlement world. And who is to determine what level of benevolence is consistent with gleanings? It was easy when we were totally agrarian. But how much of my paycheck should I drop on the floor consistent with leaving the gleanings?

Beyond each of these is the law of Moses itself. To use the law of Moses as a dictum for state-mandated benevolence is to open the door for theocracy itself. Remember, we’re not talking about free choice here any more. (Each of us is accountable to God for our choices. Each is accountable for our benevolence [see Matthew 25]. This is apart from state policy. Government benevolence programs do not, by their existence, remove our responsibilities to the poor and the needy.) Which parts of the law shall we choose, and which parts shall we dismiss as irrelevant?

Shall we stone adulterers, fornicators, prostitutes, and witches alike? Are these not also commands in the law of Moses?

And by what right do we claim the law of Moses as covenant and foundational for our democracy? Did the Lord strike a covenant with the United States, giving us a law to abide with promise of blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience? Don’t misunderstand, I don’t at all believe that a nation can behave, as a people, “any old way” – the righteous Judge will have His say.

So what do I believe? The Golden Rule.

We live in a democracy (or a republic, which is a democracy with inertia) and we self-identify as 80% Christian. In a democracy, the government is the people.

I don’t think that Christians should use the power of government to force non-Christians to exhibit behaviors they otherwise would not. The Lord has left them free to choose, and so should we. That is not to say I support anarchy – I fully support collective defense of individual rights (life, liberty, property). But as soon as the government (which is the people) forces one of the members of society to change their behaviors, when those prior behaviors did not violate the individual rights of another, then we are exhibiting traits of theocracy. We ( the Christians who would vote for such policies) are becoming judges of the law rather than doers. We are ascribing our judgement to their benevolence (or lack thereof) and setting ourselves as above, superior, the political and religious elite.

Where does this leave us? I side with the libertarians and with the Tea Party. We may disagree on morality, but we agree on the role government should play in benevolent morality.

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