Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Creeping Christian Statism

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the statist temptation to use government power to achieve social goals, used by both liberals and conservatives. Bruce Alderman provides a partial defense:

First, the role of the state. The United States Constitution outlines the role of the national government and specifies its duties, one of which is "to promote the general welfare." Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress to collect taxes for this purpose (among others).

Bruce is quoting the Constitution out of context that distorts the meaning of this phrase. The phrase "to promote the general welfare" is not a duty of the national government. Read the entire preamble:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Emphasis added. The preamble is a statement of intention, not authority. The national government provided under the Constitution has no blanket authority "to promote the general welfare" however it sees fit. The subject of this sentence is not the national government, but "we the people". The people are taking the action of establishing this Constitution to promote the general welfare (among other reasons).

Bruce continues:

So it would seem there should be no controversy there: If giving aid to people living in poverty promotes the general welfare (and I think it does), then the federal government has not just the right, but the duty to collect taxes for welfare programs.

Bruce's argument hinges upon a general authority of the national government to promote the general welfare, which it does not have. Hence his argument breaks down at this point.

Bruce continues:

Furthermore, through tax revenues the government has access to more resources than any individual or group could ever hope to collect. While most private charities do the best they can with the resources they have, the need is just too great. If we were to rely solely on voluntary charitable giving, a lot more people would fall into poverty.

Again, Bruce is presenting the Robin Hood perspective: thievery is acceptable when people are poor. Perhaps one could create such a moral argument (Bruce does not), but remember: a government that has been given the authority to steal may not limit itself to your political opponents. A government that steals from Peter to pay Paul can always count on the loyalty and support of Paul, but it is just as likely to steal from Paul. Is it not far better to forbid the government to steal from either?

The second issue here is the mandate Jesus gave to Christians to take care of those in need. Our salvation depends on it, according to Matthew 25:31-46.

And yet at no point did Jesus advocate government programs to accomplish this task. None.

At this point, Bruce presents the opposite side, and I find myself in agreement with him. I am not, however, as trusting as he is to state power.

19 comments:

Dan Trabue said...

John, John, John! Taxation is NOT stealing. Taxation is taxation and as such is neither just or unjust in and of itself, but depends upon how it will be used.

Jesus did not condemn taxation when he had the chance but told his followers to render to Caesar. Taxation is NOT stealing and it is disengenuous to frame it thusly.

If you want to disagree with a particular tax, then do so, but don't call it stealing. It's not. It's just not. Words have meaning.

You, yourself, don't think taxation is stealing. You don't have problems with road taxes, war taxes (I don't think) and likely others. You're not calling it stealing when it's for a purpose with which you agree. And rightly so. Because taxation is not stealing. It's taxation.

Also, your interpretation of "promote the general welfare" is just that: an interpretation. The Constitution does not say that the federal gov't has no role in promoting the general welfare.

Also, you said (about helping those in need):

And yet at no point did Jesus advocate government programs to accomplish this task. None.

And you are correct. But, at the same time, at no point did Jesus say that it was wrong (and certainly not "stealing") for a gov't to do so. Or for a people to work together to encourage the gov't to do so.

And, as I have pointed out before, the NATION of Israel (and other nations) in the OT are condemned at the national level when they have failed to tend "the least of these."

I think it's fine to debate about how we best do that: Whether an individually-based solution (as in OT Laws requiring people to set aside part of their fields - their "stuff" - for the poor) or through gov't intervention/assistance of some sort, or some other solution.

But clearly, nations are held accountable as corporate entities for how they treat the poor and thus it is in their best interest (from a faith-based point of view) to take care of the poor in one way or the other. And it is certainly wrong to suggest that the Bible condemns gov't assistance, as that is just not found within the pages of the bible.

Todd said...

Dan, I want to pick up on your line of argument about the general use of taxes.

I would argue that Jesus did promote government programs.

When Jesus was questioned on paying the poll-tax his response was to render to Caesar what is due. The Roman tax system is not that far removed from our own. And it was used for the "general welfare".

So, after a fashion, Jesus did promote government programs.

Rick said...

Dan and Todd,

I think you are both missing John's point about wealth re-distribution.

Today's welfare state - where those who are able to work, don't - promotes sloth, greed and envy. Laziness is not held as a virtue in scripture, yet today's interpretation of "promote the general welfare" includes propping up those who can take care of themselves, but choose not to.

What about the man who was too lazy to put his own fork to his mouth? It is not promoting the general welfare for me to do it for him. I would argue that it hurts the general welfare for me to do so.

I agree that not all taxes are bad. Look at taxes used to provide safety forces, roads and other infrastructure. You can even make a decent argument for public schools here. But when taxes are used specifically for wealth redistribution - especially with no accountability required on the part of the recipients or expiration date put on receipt of funds - then we have a problem.

DogBlogger said...

Wondering, Rick, if you know anyone on welfare.

Sure, there are people abusing the system, but there are many who genuinely need it, too.

Dan Trabue said...

But when taxes are used specifically for wealth redistribution - especially with no accountability required on the part of the recipients or expiration date put on receipt of funds - then we have a problem.

The problem, I'd suggest, is understanding how our tax dollars are spent.

ALL taxation is a transfer of wealth. From all our pockets to someone else's pockets - paying for stuff or staff for various programs. Some programs have more accountability than others (for really large amounts of abuse of dollars, you'd have to check the military and their suppliers' record).

TANF, which is what most people are talking about when they mention "welfare," provides some money to individuals for a limited time. Those individuals have some accountability.

State TANF programs are aimed at reducing welfare use by requiring recipients to work to receive cash assistance and by limiting how long a family can receive welfare.

http://www.results.org/website/article.asp?id=248

The thinking is that if we don't assist those in need with X billion dollars now, then we will have to pay 2x billion dollars down the road (in increased crime and drug abuse, increased prison populations, decreased and less-educated workforce and so on.)

We can and should debate/discuss how effective these programs are, we should have oversight in place, but they are not any more a transfer of wealth than other gov't programs. And we can't dismiss them as anti-biblical or ungodly out of hand. Debate the wisdom and efficacy of the programs, but I don't see how you can debate the intention.

BUT, if you want to debate the efficacy of the programs, I'd suggest doing so with actual meaningful numbers, not just instances of abuse. For instance, I can cite many studies from many different sources that show that prison education programs SAVE taxpayer dollars and result with fewer people in prison and more people in the workforce. So it is a matter of fiscal responsibility, from my point of view, to support these programs.

And, by the way, the OT Laws that provide for the poor could be described as transfer of wealth programs, too. With those laws, you had the state demanding that individuals NOT collect all their food in the field (their wherewithal), but instead, leave some behind for the poor.

Now, in the OT model, the folk had to work still, but they were "entitled" to take a bit of that which belonged to others (those who had worked for it). In today's model, too, people are required to work. With much oversight (although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of abuse, that does not mean that the program itself is invalid - any more than the instances of abuse within the military is evidence that we ought to disband it).

Sorry for the long post.

Dan Trabue said...

Today's welfare state - where those who are able to work, don't - promotes sloth, greed and envy.

There are certainly problems with today's welfare solution. Just as there were surely problems and abuses in Israel's welfare solutions. But, as Dog hints at, most folk "on welfare" work plenty hard. I've seen studies backing the notion that the working poor work even harder than average schmucks just to stay behind. They have two part time jobs which require multiple bus trips which makes it more difficult to keep on top of their children's education and when they get sick they have to leave work (possibly losing their jobs, meaning more work at having to find another job) to go tend to their children and on and on.

I've not known a lazy welfare recipient. I've known plenty who make bad choices and others who are mentally ill, but then, that's part of the reason why they're poor and in dire straits. But I've never met a lazy welfare recipient. For what it's worth.

(and my wife is a social worker, working with homeless families and our church is in the middle of housing projects and has a homeless dropin center, so I have some experience in the area.)

Rick said...

Warning - lengthy response.

Dogblogger,

I have known folks on welfare. I know people on WIC. I know people who have benefitted from other programs as well.

I know people who truly can't work and need assistance. I know working-age adults who cannot remember 2+2=4 from one day to the next. I know people who can work but choose not to.

I know people who choose "gambling night" over a second job to provide for their handful of
children, then have both parents lie to their kids about where their father is.

I know people who game not only the system, but their fellow parishoners, too.

I know people whose social workers have been the best thing to happen to them, and I know others whose social workers have held them back.

I know parents who don't feed their kids breakfast on Sunday morning because they say they can't afford it, so they wait instead for "Coffee/Snack Hour" at church, then go smoke 2-3 cigarettes a piece before worship service.

Notice that I said "know", not "know of".

I belong to a church in an inner-city neighborhood, mixed white, black and hispanic. The congregation consists of the rich, poor and destitute, urban and suburban. Single moms with kids, families with five kids, newlyweds with no kids. People who stop by solely to have their kids baptized, others who stop by solely for $5.

I know those that work hard to survive. I know those that pick their church friends according to how much money and goods those "friends" can give them.

So, the answer to your question is "yes". And I am offended by your insinuation. Never did I say there aren't people who need assistance. I don't live in that black and white world, even if you think I do.

I thought the post was to address the topic of "promoting the general welfare". Back to that...


Dan,

Are you saying then that, where Christian charity isn't sufficient, more giving must be legislated? That doesn't sound like charity any more; it sounds like law. Or if I teach someone how to be productive, but not give them money, then I am not promoting the general welfare? Please clarify.

I am all for education programs and the opportunity for people to improve their lot in life. I am not for money grabs.

Dan Trabue said...

Are you saying then that, where Christian charity isn't sufficient, more giving must be legislated? That doesn't sound like charity any more...

Thus far in this discussion, I have not advocated for or against "welfare," merely pointed out that the insinuation that it is inherently anti-biblical is not a sound insinuation. And to call it stealing is outright wrong.

I have pointed out that our welfare is not that different in concept from the OT welfare - where the State (Israel) decreed a law that people HAD to give of their resources to assist the poor. And there were not even any real "poverty tests" so people could easily game the landowners if they wished. That was the law, nonetheless.

The flaws in the system were not justification to do away with the system.

That's what I've pointed out thus far.

Now, I think some can point to legitimate problems with the systems of assistance as they exist, but flaws are not a justification to do away with them.

I'm saying where private assistance does not sufficiently meet the needs (and it doesn't here in this wealthy nation), AND where it is the case that some assistance can be offered that ultimately saves taxpayer dollars, then it is only fiscally responsible to offer that assistance. That it helps people is an added moral bonus, but it's a fiscal responsibility issue as much as anything.

I'll note further that I'm no fan of Big Gov't solutions (I sure as heck don't trust any gov't to have a military force as large as ours!), but lacking anything else, sometimes gov't solutions can help.

Assistance should be, to my way of thinking, personal, then local, then state, then federal and, if needed, international.

BruceA said...

I don't have time for a lengthy comment at the moment, but here is the beginning of Article 1 Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States...

You're probably correct that this does not give the federal government blanket authority, but it does authorize Congress to collect taxes for the general welfare.

John said...

When Jesus addresses the question on whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Ceasar or not, he essentially dodged the question. He said, in effect "Give currency to the person whose image is on that currency." This was a neat way of avoiding getting sidetracked by the Pharisees into political affairs instead of proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

Disagree? Let's say that we actually tried to follow Jesus' prescription. We would give our money to Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Truman, etc. All of whom are presently dead, which would make it even harder. Or let's say that since Caesar represented the Roman government, we should give our money to the equivalent -- the U.S. government. This would require that we pay 100% of all of our money to the U.S. government. Now is that what Jesus was telling you to do?

Am I wrong? Then tell me precisely how you arrive at justification for confiscatory taxation from this passage.

Also, your interpretation of "promote the general welfare" is just that: an interpretation.

Yes, it is. What's yours?

The Constitution does not say that the federal gov't has no role in promoting the general welfare.

Consult the 10th Amendment.

And you are correct. But, at the same time, at no point did Jesus say that it was wrong (and certainly not "stealing") for a gov't to do so. Or for a people to work together to encourage the gov't to do so.

True, which is why I do not regard Christian statists as inherently unChristian. The Bible has little to say on public policy for 21st Century America, so I give a lot of leeway to a wide range of political opinions by Christians.

And, as I have pointed out before, the NATION of Israel (and other nations) in the OT are condemned at the national level when they have failed to tend "the least of these."

And the NATION of Israel was also condemned for tolerating idols, homosexuality, etc.

I think it's fine to debate about how we best do that: Whether an individually-based solution (as in OT Laws requiring people to set aside part of their fields - their "stuff" - for the poor) or through gov't intervention/assistance of some sort, or some other solution.

Would those be the same OT laws requiring that homosexuals be stoned.

But clearly, nations are held accountable as corporate entities for how they treat the poor and thus it is in their best interest (from a faith-based point of view) to take care of the poor in one way or the other. And it is certainly wrong to suggest that the Bible condemns gov't assistance, as that is just not found within the pages of the bible.

I'm willing to take it on good faith that Christian statists do not think that they are stealing for the sake of income redistribution, and I do not deny you as a brother in Christ because we have different views on this subject.

John said...

Todd wrote:

When Jesus was questioned on paying the poll-tax his response was to render to Caesar what is due. The Roman tax system is not that far removed from our own. And it was used for the "general welfare".

Please provide evidence to the effect that the Roman tax system was used for the general welfare.

It would appear that the people of Judea disagreed with your reading.

John said...

Bruce wrote:

You're probably correct that this does not give the federal government blanket authority, but it does authorize Congress to collect taxes for the general welfare.

To collect, yes, but not to expend.

Dan Trabue said...

"Please provide evidence to the effect that the Roman tax system was used for the general welfare."

I believe they built the aqueduct, which would provide for the general welfare (if my memory serves correctly). I don't have a good enough command of Roman history beyond that.

I'm willing to take it on good faith that Christian statists do not think that they are stealing for the sake of income redistribution...

AAAAGGGGHHH!! It's NOT stealing!

John, why would it be stealing for prison education, for instance, but not for building roads or a military? You keep just skipping over the obvious problems with that thinking and repeat the error?

Are you trying to annoy we more grammarly types?

John said...

Heh. I had written out a whole 'nother response when I realized that that was a Python reference.

Anyway, the people of Judah were strangely unwilling to "voluntarily" make these payments without the presence of Roman troops in their country. Are you sure that that wasn't stealing?

AAAAGGGGHHH!! It's NOT stealing!

I love the way that a vein pops out on your forehead when you say that.

But seriously, it is stealing. Even taxation for supporting a military and police force (two of the three essential roles of government) is stealing. It may be a necessary evil, but it is still evil; it is still taking without consent. You even noted this yourself a few days ago.

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

"our salvation depends upon it" he says quoting Matthew 25 - and because I think he is right, I therefore think he is wrong.

Our salvation depends upon it because as we give we grow to be like Christ, who gave ultimately on the cross. That is to say, giving ourselves away is a valuable means of grace whereby we are sanctified and made to be more like Christ. (this is why Bruce is right)

The concern is as much (maybe even more) about shaping the character and virtue of the giver than about making sure all the needs are met. If we think an impersonal government bureaucracy that just takes our money, gives us paperwork to fill out and then (we assume) distributes it fairly will satisfy the demands that Jesus makes of us in Matthew 25, then we have completely missed the point. (this is why Bruce is wrong)

BruceA said...

Daniel -

If we think an impersonal government bureaucracy that just takes our money, gives us paperwork to fill out and then (we assume) distributes it fairly will satisfy the demands that Jesus makes of us in Matthew 25, then we have completely missed the point. (this is why Bruce is wrong)

Maybe I wasn't clear enough in my post. I tried to make a distinction between charity and legislation. Regardless of whether we as a nation use our taxes to alleviate poverty, we as Christians still have Christ's command to take care of the poor and needy. That's the entire point I was trying to make by saying there are two issues here.

Dan Trabue said...

But seriously, it is stealing. Even taxation for supporting a military and police force (two of the three essential roles of government) is stealing...You even noted this yourself..."

It is not stealing. It is not taking without consent. I give consent when I live in this great nation to be taxed. If I don't wish to be taxed, I'm free to go to those nations which don't tax you (and where purple unicorns fly to the moon). It's a social contract.

I'm free to disagree with how my taxes are used and to advocate that they be used in a responsible way, and I may sometimes think we're using our money in Godawful ways, but it's still not stealing.

Words have meanings.

Wabi-Sabi said...

Today's welfare state - where those who are able to work, don't - promotes sloth, greed and envy.

This is a popular myth, but it's not true. TANF has significant work requirements and lifetime limits on benefits. Usually no more than 60 months during a lifetime.

Meanwhile, we have moved away from the biblical concept of jubilee where debts were forgiven every 7 years.

I haven't heard too many critics of the modern welfare system advocate for a return to the jubilee concept and many are silent on issues like predatory lending practices and skyrocketing hospital bills that trap thousands of people in poverty every year.

Rick said...

I seem to have caused misunderstanding with my "welfare state" comment. I didn't say "welfare program(s)". I meant the mentality of the nation overall: If you can't provide for yourself - or don't want to - then mandate that the government (or someone other than yourself) to provide for you. Politicians will be more than happy to oblige so you vote for them in the next election.

That is the attitude that leads to greed, sloth and envy.

So does class warfare, which causes rich and poor alike to look down on each other. Because of the nanny state, though, folks act like it's only the wealthy that have disdain for the poor. Not true. Again, I see it play out among my fellow parishoners on Sundays.

I am well aware of the qualifications for state-funded welfare programs. My home state, Ohio, has a very good one. Funny, though, how most liberal leaders advocated against those programs, but are now lauding them.