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.


life_of_bryan said...

I understand the illustration he's trying to flank you with, but govt mandated religion was never part of God's design in the first place, so it wouldn't be an ideal that the church would seek. It conflicts with the free will part of the design. If God wanted to use govt as a tool for enforcing his message, then he would have started from the beginning and made Jesus rise to a position like Ceasar, or parliament or something. Instead, he designed this role for the church.

But even if you can step away from that context and look at it in abstract, there are some basic rights and "services" the govt has a duty to provide/protect (your argument to him)...but the govt's role as far as religion is to ensure objective freedom (re: his argument). I understand the moral side of the poverty/oppression issue, as well as with Christianity's saving grace message. Just seems to me that the church is charged with both (helping the poor and reaching the 'lost'), whereas the govt is only given the responsibility for social programs and not religious ones (by the people & Constitution). You can certainly disagree with the social responsibilities/duties of the govt, but until enough folks get together and vote in representatives to change these responsibilities...they are deemed to be accepted.

One clarifying question -- are we asking for the govt to make sure people's needs are met, or to make sure they don't fall too far behind the leaders of the pack even when this subsidy would exceed simple basic needs? Seems like two entirely separate arguments to me.

Another question -- how do you know when you have the best possible market structure (this tweaked version of free mkt capitalism)? What outcome are you asking for?

Paul said...

Hi Matthew –

Low on time, so this may be partly redundant with your systematic approach which I’ve looked at quickly.

While I appreciate Sandefur’s calm and balanced sounding tone, there are big problems with what you quote him as saying. I’ll point briefly to a few that occur at a glance:

His assumption that people unfamiliar with Christianity are in “moral and personal danger” sounds doubtful to me. If this means “going to hell,” I’m pretty sure even most conservative Christians don’t believe this lies in store for those who haven’t had an opportunity to be exposed to Christianity. If the danger he refers to doesn’t mean, “going to hell,” I don’t know what it means.

The equation of “meeting people’s spiritual needs” with exposing them to Christianity – and, I’m assuming here, his version of it – represents a highly parochial take on this idea. People have met, and look to meet, their spiritual needs in any number of ways. Maybe a better approach would be making a course in world religion and spirituality available at the high school level.

Purely anecdotal, and not meant to condemn my own tradition, but it happens that I’ve known a number of people “crippled” by exposure to Christianity, especially conservative versions. I don’t happen to know anyone crippled by lack of exposure to Christianity.

shane said...

Here is an interesting view of social mobiblity in the US I found the other day. I'm not sure if it supports you or Sundusky, but it's there.

badger said...

On a sidenote:

At the risk of casting the shadow of my own political ignorance onto a meaningful debate, I would argue that the USA has typically worked out religious and economic matters practically, not idealistically.

If I remember my Locke correctly, he felt a society should be based on reason (as opposed to revelation), but even an idealist like him couldn't conceive that everything could be determined by reason. He was concerned, however, that matters which reason cannot prove or disprove (in his view, religion) not lead people to kill each other, as they had in the political landscape he knew.

Practically speaking, the US government has often had influence over a variety of both religious and economic matters--it has leaned at times towards promoting certain religious beliefs for its citizens (e.g., Abraham Lincoln interpreting the Civil War in light of Christian Scripture in his 2nd inaugural address), and it has leaned at times towards redistributing wealth (e.g., the current economic system).

It seems to me that the reason people could claim that these moves didn't violate the constitution (freedom of religion and right to property) is that our government has never gone all the way: it has never forced everyone to go to church or esponse particular religious beliefs, and it has never taken complete control of all its citizens' property, distributing all wealth according to its own preference. If it did, few would be able to deny that it had violated the constitution.

Of course, people have often accused the government of going too far, but it has never been the case that everyone thinks the government has gone too far, so the question always calls for debate. Ideally, we would settle the matter according to reason (like Locke would have wanted), but in practical experience that just doesn't work––too little of real life can be rigorously analyzed according to reason, and people come to opposing, apparently reasonable, conclusions.

Instead, here's what we seem to get: the government inevitably exercises some control over people's lives to the extent they will stand for it. At times, people have been willing to let the government have some––though not complete––control of the nation's religious climate. And at times, people have been willing to let the government have some––though again not complete––control of the nation's economic climate.

I suspect (and perhaps you would all agree) that our government will never operate according to pure reason. Yet I still kind of like Matt's pursuit of an ideal rule to settle these things. So my question: Is it indeed desirable or useful to seek consistent rational principles that could moderate the government's role in religion and economics?

Josh.Graves said...

Good post.

Actually, the American writers changed John Locke's language from "pursuit of property" and changed it to "pursuit of happiness."

I can't recall the exact text but it was Locke's orginal phrase altered.