Monday, November 25, 2013

Liberal Christians missing the point

There's an idea among liberal Christians that Christ's demand to give to the poor cashes out to passing laws that mandate wealth redistribution - ie, telling the men with guns to start taking money from people through threat of violence and imprisonment. This is like regarding the admonition to get married if you wish to have sex as license for the government to order women to marry men who wish to have sex.

If a liberal Christian balks at the latter - if they regard that as a horrible idea that does not follow Christ's commands, because the willing consent of both parties is absolutely essential - then it's pretty easy to see where the demand for government redistribution of wealth falls apart, at least as a Christian ideal. The point of the command to give to the poor is not simply 'the poor need money, give it to them by any means necessary', just as the command for sexually eager men to marry doesn't mean 'men need to have sex, let's round up some women and force them into a marriage'. To view either command that way is spiritually and intellectually warped - and in large part, they stand and fall together.

This isn't to say that no justification for wealth redistribution can exist. It's to say that trying to interpret Christ's commands in that way fails, badly and obviously. When Christ tells people to give to the poor, the goal is not merely to change the economic state of the poor person, but to change the intellectual state of the wealthy person. Yes, I know - that's difficult, and they may not agree. Too bad. There is no shortcut here.

18 comments:

Syllabus said...

There's also another point here: if we are really to care about helping the poor - which we are absolutely to do - then we ought to pay attention to what means have historically worked best to accomplish that goal. Almost unilaterally, societies in which there has been massive redistribution of wealth have resulted in worse conditions overall for the poor than have societies which have not done so or used other means to care for the poor. We ought to put our efforts into avenues which will work if we want our goals to be achieved, and ignoring history to that end is , frankly, foolish.

Crude said...

I agree entirely of course. But I think it's important to stress - because people seem to forget this - that the command to give to the poor is not simply some singular 'the poor need more money!' claim. It's also a claim about wealthy people, the attitudes we'd like them to cultivate, the behaviors we'd like them to engage in. (Wealthy meaning, you know, pretty well everyone who isn't poor. Not just Bill Gates.)

Not to mention the psychological and other effects on people. I have seen some rotten stuff, firsthand, with people who get used to handouts of this type. They are not grateful. They do not feel indebted.

Syllabus said...

It may just be an overly optimistic view of human nature, a la "if we give people more money, then they won't be criminals, and they'll be grateful. After all, they're simply victims of their circumstances." Sort of the reverse of the fundamental attribution error. (Of course, that may be untrue, since they often think that people with money are greedy bastards. Or maybe they're just inconsistent.)

Crude said...

For the record, it's not like I think conservatives are golden on this either. When I mention that it's a Christian duty to implore the wealthy to give to the poor - willingly, not through coercion of law - a lot of conservative Christians rear back and get into 'it's their business what they do with their money' mode, which I also think is wrong.

Crude said...

Another thing which bothers me about the liberal mentality is the lack of any talk about what the poor owe the people who give them money. I remember one Christian who flat out told me, the poor have zero duty to anyone because Christ commanded us to give to the poor. We shouldn't expect them to meet certain standards, they are not duty-bound to do anything, etc. It's entirely a one-way transaction to them.

I think that's insane and anti-Biblical, and it starts getting into territory where it sure seems like someone is upholding their political party first and foremost.

Syllabus said...

When I mention that it's a Christian duty to implore the wealthy to give to the poor - willingly, not through coercion of law - a lot of conservative Christians rear back and get into 'it's their business what they do with their money' mode, which I also think is wrong.

For whatever it's worth, I think this is, if not exclusively an American issue, particularly pronounced in the US. Where I grew up in South America, it seemed to be simply assumed that it was the duty of the Christian to help the poor. From my dialogue with other people in other parts of the world, it seems that that's also the case elsewhere. (Of course, that may simply reflect the sort of environment in which I lived and in which I interact, which is why I'm not hasty to make the generalization.)

I remember one Christian who flat out told me, the poor have zero duty to anyone because Christ commanded us to give to the poor. We shouldn't expect them to meet certain standards, they are not duty-bound to do anything, etc. It's entirely a one-way transaction to them.

Wow. Never quite heard that one, but wow.

Crude said...

Well, the issue is, if the poor have a duty - if they're expected to work if they can work, to work hard if they do have a job, etc - then the conversation becomes very complicated, very fast. So hey, better to short-circuit that entirely and just deny they have any duties.

Gyan said...

Conservatives are flat wrong when they say that State welfare is charity.

The State does not do Charity, but justice and the Church does teach that the surplus of the rich belongs to poor in justice.

The conception of justice may be wrong or misguided but it is not charity. That is first thing. Thus, the Christian commands to charity do not apply to the state.

But this confusion is universal among conservatives.

Crude said...

Conservatives are flat wrong when they say that State welfare is charity.

Which would mean that liberals are likewise wrong to regard social welfare, etc, as acts of charity.

The State does not do Charity, but justice and the Church does teach that the surplus of the rich belongs to poor in justice.

It does not teach 'belongs' in the sense that is necessary for the machinations of the state to get involved. It teaches that those with a surplus 'should' give money to the poor and the needy, absolutely. But the express and thorough point is that this is a two-fold need - wealthy people are supposed to give of their own free will, personally, not under threat of force and violence. And the poor are supposed to be grateful, and use the money properly.

Gyan said...

If it belongs to the poor in justice, then the State can justly be involved.

You see, the State exists for justice, and nothing else.

If "wealthy people are supposed to give of their own free will," then it is charity and not justice.

You can not have both.

PS "surplus" is the wrong word I used. The correct word is "superfluity".

The point is that the property rights are not absolute. One approaches this from many angles, Christian, classical, liberal etc.

Classically, what matters is the good of the community. This good may require redistribution from rich to the poor. In particular, a republican form of state presumes a certain equality among the citizens. Too-much inequality is not good for republic.

Crude said...

If it belongs to the poor in justice, then the State can justly be involved.

No, it actually can't. Not on those terms alone. It also certainly does not become an action endorsed by the church just because it's suddenly called 'justice'.

If "wealthy people are supposed to give of their own free will," then it is charity and not justice.

You can not have both.


Even if I granted this - and even if I further granted that the poor 'justly deserve' money, which I either do not agree with, or do not agree with to anywhere near what the current modern liberal view requires - you still wouldn't get where you want to go. It is entirely possible for act X to be 'just', but for the Christian to believe some just acts should be done of a person's own free will.

Classically, what matters is the good of the community.

You keep saying this, but you keep ignoring the relevant classical differences on this matter, as well as the limitations. Christianity is not about calling the men with guns up and forcing men to act properly in all things, and classical thought includes thought about the supreme importance of individual acts and wants.

Gyan said...

"To give to the deserving poor is not charity, it's justice. Charity is giving to the undeserving poor."
Chesterton

The acts of the State are justice or mistaken justice. And mistaken justice is still in the nature of justice. It is not a case of charity.
So I am NOT justifying any particular welfare measure. All I claim is the welfare undertaken by state is in the nature of justice and is not charity.

"you keep ignoring the relevant classical differences on this matter, as well as the limitations"
It would be good if you could expand on this.

Crude said...

"To give to the deserving poor is not charity, it's justice. Charity is giving to the undeserving poor."
Chesterton


Where is this from? I'd like to see the context.

The acts of the State are justice or mistaken justice.

I think you're going to find that a lot of people think the government can engage in acts of charity, or that when they talk of 'deserving' they aren't doing it with any reference to the greeks but their own imaginations and 'what happens to sound nice at the time'.

All I claim is the welfare undertaken by state is in the nature of justice and is not charity.

How come 'intention' is something you stress when it comes to individuals, but it seems to leave the premises when we're talking about the state?

It would be good if you could expand on this.

We can start with the stoics.

Gyan said...

The state acts, properly speaking, by way of deliberation on common good. Thus, the intention is always to common good. You can even think it as a matter of definition.

Charity is an act of love. But the state is hardly the kind of entity that could be said to love.

The interesting thing here is the possibility of arbitrary acts of the state. That is, the irrationality in the state which is, practically, the hallmark of tyranny.

Crude said...

The state acts, properly speaking, by way of deliberation on common good. Thus, the intention is always to common good. You can even think it as a matter of definition.

That sounds bonkers. When does the state ever do this? You're talking about an idealization. I need to see this in reality, because as near as I can tell, the state acts by way of deliberation on the good of whatever forces and individuals happen to be able to hijack some power.

Charity is an act of love. But the state is hardly the kind of entity that could be said to love.

Since when is charity an act of love by definition? You'd need quite a broad view of love.

Gyan said...

"the good of whatever forces and individuals happen to be able to hijack some power."

All politics, properly speaking, is a struggle to realize one's vision of common good.

And then there is the element of arbitrary acts i.e. acts not ordered to the common good or at least not deliberately so.

Your position amounts to the negation of politics and with this, negation of republic and the constitutional government.

Crude said...

All politics, properly speaking, is a struggle to realize one's vision of common good.

Again, you describe an ideal that I do not see instantiated.

Your position amounts to the negation of politics and with this, negation of republic and the constitutional government.

You just got done talking to me about the role of elites and how they're the ones 'truly' in power.

My position is one of making the government - particularly large, federal government - as much as possible, irrelevant. Isn't that the distributivist, aka Chestertonian, way?

Gyan said...

My remarks, general and definitional in nature, apply to ALL levels of governance, from village to federal.