David Rodeback's Blog

Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Life Among the Mormons, and Other Stuff

Previous Post          Printer-Friendly Version          Next Post


Saturday, February 9, 2013
Two Wrongs Make a Left

Is it wrong for someone to have more than another? Is it wrong to take from one who has more, to give to another who has less? Is there an alternative?

Let's step outside the class warfare rhetoric which dominates our politics right now, in which the so-called 99 percent are supposed to hate, envy, and confiscate the wealth of the so-called 1 percent. Let's set aside for the moment the widespread concern that the number of people receiving monthly goodies from the federal government is perilously close to the number of people being taxed to pay for those goodies. Let's be more abstract than that.

The First Wrong

Is it unjust or otherwise morally wrong that there should be people who are breathtakingly wealthy in the same society which includes many who are desperately poor? Liberals say it's wrong. The conservatives of liberals' stereotype and caricature say it's not wrong.

I, a conservative and a Republican, say: It's wrong.

I'd better explain.

I try to avoid injecting my Mormon (Latter-day Saint) religious beliefs into most discussions here at the blog, but I'm doing it this time to explain a point. I could use other texts than those I consider sacred, but in my value system scripture has greater authority than, say, Adam Smith's classic, The Wealth of Nations, or John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, a seminal work on social (or economic or distributive) justice or "justice as fairness."

The Old Testament abounds in expressions of duty to the poor and divine condemnation of those -- especially people in positions of power -- who abuse and exploit the poor. There's more of the same in the New Testament, plus at least one effort to transcend stark economic differences: the early Christians attempted to live with all things in common (Acts 2:44-45). As a Mormon, I embrace the Bible as scripture, but not the only scripture. There's the rather well known Book of Mormon, which isn't quite like the Broadway musical. There's the Doctrine and Covenants, a compilation of divine instruction given through modern prophets, principally Joseph Smith. There's another small book called the Pearl of Great Price, but that's a longer story. For the purposes of our discussion here, it's not necessary that you accept these books as scripture. It's okay with me if the notion of there being any genuinely holy scripture makes you a little queasy, or if you think my embracing more scripture than the Bible has me zooming down the highway to hell. All you need to do for our purposes here is understand that I accept their moral authority. With that, I turn to the Doctrine and Covenants.

In Section 78 I read that God wants his people to be equal in heavenly things, and, "If ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things" (78:5-7). In Section 84 a certain Church official is given the duty to travel about, "searching after the poor to administer to their wants by humbling the rich and the proud " (84:112, my emphasis).

In Section 104 we strike the mother lode. I'll modernize the language just a tad for clarity . . .

It is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every [person] accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures. [For the moment, let's ignore the possible implications of this for environmental policy.]

I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine.

And it is my purpose to provide for my [people], for all things are mine.

But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my [people], that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low. (104:13-16, my emphasis)

If this were the end of the discussion, I might be forgiven for wondering if God just endorsed the welfare state, which seeks "social justice" by, among other things, taxing the rich and redistributing the money to the poor. But let's read on.

For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves. (104:17)

I guess that phrase "enough and to spare" explains why one doesn't often meet a Mormon Malthusian, but look now at the last three words, "agents unto themselves." That's Mormon scripture-speak for "I'm letting them choose." We read on . . .

Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment. (104:18)

Clearly, in this doctrine, we're free to choose whether or not to "impart our portion" to the poor and needy -- but, if we choose not to, there's hell to pay. Literally. But the judge and enforcer in that scenario are God, not earthly government.

I've mentioned writings considered scripture by Mormon Christians, non-Mormon Christians, and Jews. Let's embrace more than a billion Muslims, too, on this point. I've read that the prophet Muhammad preferred the company of the poor, and that he said God prefers it as well (Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 1376). I've read in several places in the Koran itself of the sacred obligation to care for the poor and the condemnation one is under for failing to do so. The Koran actually describes a system for doing do; I've seen it called "paying the poor-rate."

I'm sure the Left would be more comfortable without God in this discussion, but more to the point, I'm quite comfortable agreeing with the Left that gross economic inequality is morally wrong.

I can almost hear conservatives squirming. Nevertheless, allow me to repeat: Gross economic inequality is morally wrong. I believe this, in part on the authority of scripture. Others may have their own reasons.

The Second Wrong

Beyond this, the Left and I diverge decisively. I insist that compulsory charity is not charity, and forced compassion is not compassion. We are to be very generous with our means, but we are to do so voluntarily, through our own independent acts and through voluntary institutions.

The Left's response is to grant government so much power and expand it to such a size that it not only has the mechanisms to collect and redistribute wealth on a nationwide scale, but also the hubris to decide what fairness is, and how rich is too rich. The price in freedom is enormous. And that, I maintain, is wrong -- the Second Wrong. Hence my title.

Let's review for a moment. The Left and I agree that great economic inequality is morally wrong. But I see that wrong as an opportunity for voluntary generosity and compassion. The Left sees it as justification for a second, perhaps even greater wrong: an enormous government apparatus which partially enslaves part of its people in order to provide unearned benefits -- so-called economic, distributive, or social justice -- for another part of its people.

On this subject the book I quoted earlier says some other uncomfortable things. Here's one more example:

Thou shalt not be idle; for he that is idle shall not eat the bread nor wear the garments of the laborer. (Doctrine and Covenants 42:42)

By "idle" I presume we mean those who are able to care for themselves and their families, but choose not to. I note that this text makes no distinction between the idle poor and the idle rich. In any case the welfare state does not fare well in this formula.

Debate Samples and Benjamin Franklin

We'll give Benjamin Franklin the last word in a moment, but, first, here are some short related readings, more or less intelligent discussion of these matters from both sides. 

  • From the right, economist Walter Williams reasons that our present approach to inequality is immoral. Along the way, he quotes James Madison -- "Charity is no part of the legislative duty of the government." -- and Ayn Rand -- "When you have made evil the means of survival, do not expect men to remain good."
  • From the left, economist Lawrence Summers focuses on inequalities in opportunity and sees a huge government role in remedying them.
  • From the right, economist Thomas Sowell describes a disparity which gets little attention: disparity in the ability to create wealth.
  • From the left, E. J. Dionne sees inequality as a great challenge to conservatives and advocates more government intervention -- in fact, more European-style social democracy -- to reduce it.
  • From the right, David Harsanyi criticizes a specific legislative effort to promote wage "fairness."
  • From the right, Wesley Pruden criticizes a Department of Agriculture assault on "mountain pride" -- that is, personal responsibility and economic independence.

Finally, Diana West quotes Benjamin Franklin's April 1768 letter to a magazine:

I fear the giving mankind a dependence on any thing for support, in age or sickness, besides industry and frugality during youth and health, tends to flatter our natural indolence, to encourage idleness and prodigality, and thereby to promote and increase poverty, the very evil it was intended to cure; thus multiplying beggars instead of diminishing them.

If Franklin is right, then the Second Wrong is doubly wrong: first, because it pays a grievously high price in freedom to remedy the First Wrong; and second, because it actually magnifies the First Wrong, promoting and increasing "the evil it was intended to cure."

After the Last Word, with Apologies to Mr. Franklin

It seems to me that there are two general types of thinking among the Leftists who embrace these two wrongs. There are those who genuinely care for the poor and needy and seek their welfare, who either do not see the great price in freedom or do not value it as highly as righting the First Wrong. I'll call these the humanitarians for a moment. There are also those who seek great power and find my Second Wrong a very effective means to it. I'll call these the power-hungry.

I do not believe that the power-hungry alone are sufficiently numerous to impose the Second Wrong on a free, democratic people. They can only do this when allied with the humanitarians. Philosophically, this is an unnatural alliance, because all of history testifies that the power-hungry destroy people, and that is contrary to the inclinations of the humanitarians.

When free people do not care effectively, even aggressively, for the poor and needy through their personal generosity and their private institutions, needs that are both real and great go unmet, perhaps even on a massive scale. This both pushes the humanitarians into an alliance with the power-hungry and blinds them to the tyranny -- the inhumanity -- which must result.

Therefore I conclude that free people, to remain free, must answer the First Wrong aggressively, persistently, generously, and very nearly comprehensively, or they will be unable in the long term to avoid the Second Wrong.

Previous Post          Printer-Friendly Version          Next Post


Bookmark and Share