Friday, May 20, 2005

Why I'm going fishing on Sunday morning

Aaaand we're back. After spending a series of weekends traipsing across the height and breadth of Texas visiting relatives, my 4-month-old son has discovered a deep theological truth: Carseats are hell.

Now be forewarned: This post is going to be fairly lengthy, because I'm returning to my endlessly diverting discussion with Sandefur and St. Pierre.

In a recent post, Sandefur poses a question for me:

Continuing our conversation about the market, virtue, and everything, I have a question: should people be forced to join a church?

It can’t be reasonably argued that every person-or even that most people-for whom religion isn’t an important part of life is a convinced atheist. Instead, the discrepancy is largely the result of ignorance: people who haven’t read the Bible; who haven’t attended church when they were kids; who don’t really know what Christianity is all about. You might say these people have been “crippled,” in a sense, by their families or surroundings, in that they will live and die without really being exposed to the teachings of God. This is certainly not fair to these people. They may not know it, but they are in serious moral and personal danger, through no fault of their own. Should this not be remedied by forcing people to attend church?

A few paragraphs later, he recasts the question:

On what principle ... can we say that “society” should be responsible for people’s material needs, but should leave them free to run their own lives when it comes to their spiritual needs?

Before I seriously engage this question, l'd like to juxtapose it with our previous discussion of taxation, social services and capitalism. In previous posts, we've been discussing whether it is a good idea for a government to tax people to pay for social services. I use the vague phrase "good idea" here because I can't come up with anything more specific. Sometimes we seem to be arguing that such taxation is (or is not) morally justifiable; in fact, this was what I tried to do in my "thieves and oppressors" post. More often, though, we seem to be arguing about whether such taxation would be (or would not be) part of the Best Possible Government. I suppose the moral justification argument would be an important part of this argument, because we would want our ideal government to be completely morally justifiable. Therefore, I'd like to make a few more comments on moral justifiability before I move on.

My argument for the moral justifiability of social programs leans heavily on another argument: namely, that free-market capitalism is inherently oppressive. In the interest of clarity, let's pause here to define some terms.

When I use the phrase "free-market capitalism", I am referring to a relationship between government and commerce. Namely, I am referring to the relationship in which government makes no laws regarding commerce. In a free-market system, there would be no tariffs, no regulation of monopolies, no minimum wage. To maintain this relationship, the government might go so far as to include in its constitution a restriction such as: "Congress shall make no law respecting commerce." While nothing about free-market capitalism prohibits the creation of social programs by the government, income taxes and social insurance would probably have the deck stacked against them.

When I use the term "communism", I am referring to a relationship between government and commerce in which the government controls the means of production. Factories, refineries, electrical utilities: all are owned by the government. In this system the government is a social program, hence the sister term "socialism".

Now from a moral standpoint, capitalism is flawed in two significant ways: First, it imperfectly rewards virtue, and sometimes rewards vice. I may work 15-hour days to make my small grocery succeed, but if a mountain of capital such as Wal-Mart moves in down the street, all that hard work is for nothing. Meanwhile, a factory boss gets wealthy by exploiting poor workers.

Second, in a capitalistic system, power inevitably shifts from many people to few people. This is because capitalism is a resource game, and those who have resources are best equipped to get resources. This traps the poor in what's sometimes called the poverty cycle, a well of no resources from which they are unable to escape. And while overall economic lift may occur when the rich choose to invest their money (as Sandefur argues), those who have resources will continue to gain more resources, and the wealth gap in the society will continue to grow.

The distinction between overall wealth and relative wealth is critically important here. Overall wealth determines comfort, but relative wealth determines power. Because wealth gradually shifts toward people who began with the most resources, power is gradually funneled into the hands of fewer and fewer people.

If you don't buy this, take a moment to think about the effect of the compound interest. Let's say I start with $1000 and you start with $10. If we both simply stick our money in savings accounts that earn 2% interest, this is what we get:

Year 0: difference of $990
Year 1: difference of $1009.98
Year 25: difference of appx. $1600

So even if the wealthy had no resources other than money, the wealth gap would continue to grow.

But I digress. My point is that it's morally justifiable to tax rich people to pay for social programs if the social programs helped relieve some of the moral problems inherent in free-market capitalism. And my point before that was that Sandefur's question about church bypasses the moral justification debate and takes us back to the wider debate about the Best Possible Government.

So now I'm going to attempt to answer Sandefur's question: What principle justifies my saying that the BPG should include social programs but not "spiritual" programs?

I'll begin by mentioning that the BPG discussion is not one of constitutional law. While I wholeheartedly agree with Sandefur when he says that the Constitution is a spectacular bit of design, the particulars of our constitution don't matter in this discussion, because we're talking about the government that ought to be. Therefore, I can't simply answer his question by saying, "Forcing people to go to church is unacceptable because the First Amendment has an establishment clause prohibiting such laws, but there is no comparable restriction on the redistribution of income."

But now I must apologize to Sandefur, because I'm about to utterly demolish his argument, completely shatter it, brutalize it and make it cry for its mommy.

The principle that justifies social programs and prohibits religious programs IS ...

Um ... yeah. I can't think of one. And the more I think, the more I am convinced: I can't come up with a single principle that always provides justification for social programs and always prevents the government from forcing people to go to church.

The simplest thing I can come up with is this list of four assertions.

1) The government should never infringe upon the rights of its citizens, except when these rights conflict.
2) The right to be free from religious coercion is a legitimate right.
3) The right to keep one's property is a legitimate right.
4) The right to pursue property is a legitimate right.

Some comments on each of these assertions:

Protection of Rights
I don't think this needs much explanation. Randal has a right to bear arms, but if he begins interfering with peoples' right to live, the government is justified in taking Randal's guns.

Religious Freedom
This means that people should be able to freely practice their religion, but possibly more importantly, it means that the government should never force people to participate in any sort of religious activity. While I think that a few people might be more virtuous people, and have better lives, if they were forced to go to church, I think that most of the population's virtue and quality of life would be unaffected. Besides, putting the power of government together with the power of religion results in a concentration of power that is just too dangerous to be allowed.

Right to Property
Here's where things start to get all messy. Most of us believe that people have a right to keep their property, which probably includes their income. However, we tend to think it's OK for the government to deprive people of their property if the people are given some sort of due process and convicted of obtaining that property illegally. This suggests that there is some relationship between a person's right to property and the virtue that was involved in obtaining that property.

Now I'm not suggesting that the government should be able to sail in and take money from pornographers because James Dobson says pornography is wicked. I am simply asserting that there is some sort of connection between virtue and property rights.

This is significant, because it means that if we assume wealth is primarily a result of virtue, we tend to support a strong right to property. If, on the other hand, we suppose that wealth is primarily a result of chance, or of a particular economic system, we tend to support a weaker right to property. This affects how we view the relationship between the right to property and the next right I'll discuss.

Right to Pursue Property
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson offers as important rights "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", modifying John Locke's triad of rights - life, liberty, and property*. (To be fair, Locke also wrote a few things about the pursuit of happiness.) This encourages some people to posit a "right to pursue property".

In protecting the right to property, the government has both negative and positive responsibilities. It must not take people's property itself, and it also must ensure that people are able to keep the property they have. Similarly, the right to pursue happiness has a negative and a positive side. The government must ensure that it is not itself a significant impediment to the pursuit of happiness, and must work to create a society in which all of its citizens have the chance to pursue happiness.

Somewhere between the two lies the right to pursue property. It is a less ambitious right than the right to pursue happiness, but more difficult to ensure than the right to keep one's property. In the context of this discussion, I think it may be better understood as "the right to an opportunity to increase one's wealth". And in a purely capitalistic society, the poor have no significant opportunity to increase their relative wealth. Therefore, a capitalistic society contains an inherent a conflict of rights.

So what?
If all four of these assertions stand, then it becomes clear why I support government-driven social programs and do not support forcing everyone to go to church. If there is a right to be free from religious coercion, but no right to learn virtue, then the government should respect the right to be free from religious coercion.

And if there is a right to property, and also a right to pursue property, then taxation presents a legitimate conflict of rights - in fact, it's a double bind. You can't allow the wealth gap to continue to widen because it deprives more and more people of their right to participate in the market. On the other hand, you can't take money from people and give it to other people without threatening the right to property.

And as I have asserted in previous posts, the right thing to do in this situation is to split the middle. A government that chooses capitalism as its economic system has a moral obligation to address the harms of poverty, and attempt to break the cycle of poverty. But because its citizens also have a right to the property they have already acquired, it must also attempt to protect the right to property when gathering wealth from its citizens.

*Some people suggest that the original draft of the Declaration of Independence read "life, liberty and the pursuit of property", rather than "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." However, when I look at the draft, I can't see any evidence that this is so.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

In the meantime...

(Update: Two posts from Sandefur, here and here. Responses coming as soon as I can get enough time to form a coherent thought.)

'Bout to be out of the loop for a few days.

In the meantime, here's something from Mike Cope's blog that you can chew on.

The Christian Affirmation document is at

And yes, "Christian Affirmation" seems to be an Orwellian name. Those of you who grew up in the Church of Christ tradition will probably get it. The rest of you will think it's the most ridiculous thing you've ever seen.

Feel free to discuss, but please forego any disparaging comments about signatory James Thompson's moustache.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Ante up!

Sandefur makes two good arguments challenging my previous post.

First, he argues against my premise that life is, on some level, a competition for resources. He points out that in modern society, wealth is not a zero-sum game. So as I make money, I am not necessarily taking it away from other people. In fact, if I invest the money (in a business or bank) I may be providing other people with the opportunity to make money.

This is an excellent point, because it encourages us to refine our thinking about economics. If Ann has 1000 businesses, or even 1000 Rolex watches, there's no reason to believe that she is doing the society any harm. In fact, if Ann has 1000 businesses, she's probably improving the standard of living for the people around her.

The obvious question is: If money can be created, why don't we all have as much money as we want? And why do whites have proportionally more money than blacks?

I suspect that Sandefur would attempt to explain this disparity based on virtue. In other words, the rich are more virtuous than the poor - they work harder - and therefore they have more money. (I doubt that he would go so far as to assert that whites have proportionally more virtue than blacks.) But having some personal experience with the poor, I feel justified in saying that this explanation is inadequate. We cannot characterize the poor as "moochers" and "looters". Some poor people are lazy. But some rich people are lazy, too. And some poor people work extremely hard. So I don't think that this explanation is sufficient.

Instead, I would argue that our current distribution of resources has little to do with virtue and more to do with the fact that you must have resources to get resources. If this is true, my first premise stands: Life really is a competition for resources, and some of us start out so far behind that we can't compete.

Second, he questions my use of the word "oppression". How can free-market capitalism be characterized as oppressing the poor?

Pure capitalism is oppressive because it excludes the poor from the market based on factors that are beyond their control. In particular, it excludes them based on poor schooling, bad family life, skin color, weak social connections, and lack of capital. People with mental and physical disabilities are also marginalized.

Capitalism might work perfectly if everyone started out with equal resources. But in the current system, you have to ante up to play, and a lot of people can't make the ante. If you realize this, and allow the system to continue unmodified, I think it would be fair to characterize you as oppressing the poor.

Now if Sandefur disagrees and says that the poor have equal opportunities to generate wealth, this is the point we will have to debate. But if he agrees, we can ask another question that I think is more interesting: How should we change the current system?

Briefly, I'll state my opinion.

First, I think that we should create government programs that mitigate the immediate harms that result from the imbalance of resources. Government-sponsored health care would be one such program. Welfare would be another.

But I also think that we should work to re-balance the system by empowering the poor. As a society, we should help the poor get resources - such as healthy families and good schooling - that will really help them play in the market. Creating these valuable resources, more than handing out money, will help alleviate our oppression of the poor.

(Update: new posts from St. Pierre and Sandefur. And guys, please try to spell Sandefur's name right.)

Friday, May 06, 2005

Thief or Oppressor?

(Update: Sandefur has seen fit to comment on the post below .. and he makes a good point. More later.)

For the last day or two, Mr. Sandefur (a lawyer) and Mr. St. Pierre (a Software Engineer) have been using their blogs to argue about libertarianism. This is not unusual for Sandefur, whose blog makes it clear that he is a staunch libertarian. Their argument centers on one of the key injustices that libertarians propose to fix: the theft implicit in paying for social programs with tax dollars.

Theft, you say? Yes, Mr. Sandefur rightly asserts. If the taxee does not agree to be taxed, taxation is theft. To enforce this point, let's suppose that while I'm walking home from work today, a robber leaps out from behind a garbage can.

He screams, "Give me all your money!"
"No," I say.
"Give me all your money, or I'll shoot you."
"OK," I say, and hand over my money.
Satisfied, the robber takes my money and leaves.

I continue my walk home, and soon an IRS agent approaches me. Crap. I missed the filing deadline.

"Pay your taxes," he says.
"No," I say.
"Pay your taxes or you're going to jail," he says.
"I'm not going to jail," I say.
"If you don't cooperate, I'll shoot you," he says.
"I didn't know that IRS agents got guns," I say.
"This is Texas," he says. "Everybody has a gun."
"Good point," I say, and write him a check.
Satisfied, the IRS agent takes my money and leaves.

Of course, the workings of government are a bit more convoluted than this. In particular, the fact that citizens vote for their representatives means that they have some input into how much they are taxed and what these revenues are used for. Also, there's the consideration that some of the taxes will be used for "public goods": things that all citizens derive benefits from (and, some might argue, derive those benefits in proportion to the amount of money that they put into the system). But if I'm in the minority, or if the system isn't working, and I decline to pay my taxes, the government has the option to come after me using force. I don't see how you can avoid equating this with robbery. Therefore, we shouldn't tax people because we might end up spending it on things they wouldn't approve of. Right?

Let's look at the other side of the argument.

First, let's suppose that both Sandefur and St. Pierre are correct in asserting that people are "greedy little beasts."

Second, let's suppose that at some level, life is a battle for resources. A resource is anything that can be used to fulfill a need or desire.

Third, let's observe that all resources can be used to get more resources. Examples: food, shelter, wit, knowledge, money, property, family connections, physical strength.

Fourth, let's notice that the people who are best suited to get resources are the people who already have resources.

If this is an accurate picture of the world, then it seems obvious that over time, the balance of resources will shift toward the people who begin with the most resources. And once people get into the well of No Resources, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to get out. Allowing this sort of oppression, I think, is morally unacceptable. Hence our dilemma.

And it's a textbook ethical dilemma: you're wrong if you steal from the rich, and you're wrong if you allow the rich to oppress the poor. So what should we do? I think we have to accept guilt on both sides and try to split the middle.

A government that allows resources to flow as they will avoids the problem of "theft" discussed earlier, but it would also result in a dramatically unbalanced distribution of resources. A government that enforced an equal distribution of resources ... well, it sounds fair, but communism just doesn't seem to work.

What seems to work? A government that allows an unequal distribution of resources, but occasionally steals from the (undeserving) rich and gives to the (equally undeserving) poor.

So instead of arguing about stealing and oppression, I'd like St. Pierre and Sandefur to suggest where a line might be drawn. How much stealing from the rich is too much? How much oppression of the poor?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


will the wind ever remember
the names it has blown in the past?
and with its crush, its old age and its wisdom
it whispers no, this will be the last.

and the wind cries

Monday, May 02, 2005

Journalistic Balance

Well, my wife just told me that Jeff's song is actually TEN times funnier when you hear the music, which, being translated, means: "Without the music, it's not really funny at all."


So as penitence for ruining a pretty funny song, and for repeatedly dogging on my Church of Christ heritage, I'm going to link you to something good that comes out of our tradition.

Manhattan Church of Christ Resources

The kiddy stuff is nice, I guess, but what you really want to peruse is A Community Without Barriers: Women in the NT and the Church Today. (Unless you speak Spanish, and then you want Una Comunidad sin Barreras. You'll probably also want to read the Spanish translation of this blog, which will be available just as soon as I become fluent in something other than Spanish curse-words.)

One of the nice things about our tradition is that it's very interested in knowledge, and also very interested in the Bible. This accounts for the fact that some of the world's best biblical manuscript scholars have come out of the Churches of Christ. (I'm sure there must be a better term than "biblical manuscript scholars", but you guys are going to have to help me on that one.) For me, this means that it's easier to respect the text while critiquing it, floating somewhere between the Bible-bashers and the Bible-worshipers.

A Community Without Barriers is a study guide written by Dr. Thomas L. Robinson, the senior minister of the Manhattan Church of Christ. It investigates what the NT has to say about women, giving particular attention to Jesus' interactions with them.

Robinson's guide is good because it encourages the church to realize the full humanity and equality of women. But it's really good because it does so without exploding the traditional Church of Christ hermeneutic. In other words, it doesn't flagrantly break any of our rules for interpreting the Bible, which makes it accessible to (the tradition's) moderates, and even some conservatives.

If you don't have time to read the full 120 pages, at least read the chapter summaries. Nothing earth-shattering there, but you might get hooked and read the whole thing.