Social justice and the state

I think it’s safe to say that this is one post that most of my liberal Christian friends won’t be sharing with their friends.

I firmly believe that Christians should be preoccupied with the plight of the marginalized and the remediation of social injustice. I, too, have evolved considerably from my conservative Christian background and rejected the “Jesus is a Right Winger” presupposition characterizing the stereotypical American evangelical. However, time and again I am reminded that I am something of an anomaly among post-evangelical/liberal Christians (whatever you want to call me).  My theological evolution did not result in some sort of flipped switch that automatically turned me into a Democrat-supporting left-winger. I do not assume that the ideal way of going about addressing social concerns is through the government or that those skeptical of the state’s ability or moral authority to do this are selfish cretins who hate the poor and destitute. In fact, I think that the use of force that the government depends upon is often responsible for creating and perpetuating their plight.

At present I have no plans here at Undeception to debate the various and sundry reasons, both moral and practical, that I oppose wielding government mandates, the threat of publically sanctioned violence, in order to alleviate social problems. I intend this post to be a one-off statement, the kind of thing I might link to during other discussions in the future, but not any sort of opening salvo. I already tried doing the theology/politics thing on this blog, and I don’t think I’m going back.

However, in this one post, I wish to state for the record my belief that when people seek to influence voluntary interactions using involuntary power structures, particularly the kinds of structures run by power-seekers who have every reason both to promise the moon and to ensure that it stays within only their benevolent grasp (i.e. politicians), a vast array of unintended consequences, moral hazard, and artifacts of force will result, making truly voluntary structures wholly preferable. There is no end to the number of politicians who will seek and be granted power after promising to throw unending money at problems or propose attractive sounding schemes to address them, but one of the many devastating unintended consequences is that such publically funded charity has endangered inherently more calculated private endeavors by cutting away at our disposable income through confiscation and, more insidiously, by giving our society (and, indeed, the Church) the impression that voluntary forms of charity have been superseded by a superior broker of charity; truly it is said that no one competes with the government.

Our exemplar of social concern, Jesus of Nazareth, made a point to avoid placing himself in or ingratiating himself to the extant power structures, even though he ostensibly could have done one or either quite easily; rather, the powers-that-were recognized him as a threat to the very foundations of their coercive methodology, not just their refusal to use it to bring free healthcare and stabilize private industries. Statist Christians on both the left and right wing preach against theocratic tendencies: leftists decry the right wing’s attempts to restrict behavior not deemed to be Christian (such as homosexuality), but as a seemingly unquestionable principle they advocate using the state to enforce social justice and other such demands of godly morality that they believe in.

As I said, I don’t want to use this site to debate the particulars of political philosophy. What I would like is for socially conscious Christians to examine their assumptions about which political reality will best bring about their ideals and not simply adopt the political philosophy of the vocal progressive Christians they learned their theology from. I think there is much common ground that we can claim when we stand up for the disenfranchised and beg our evangelical brethren to not simply assume that “people are only poor because they are lazy” or the like; I agree that conservatives tend to turn a blind eye to the dangers of big business (but the Left also needs to recognize that the chief of these evils is their weapon of choice: inviting the government in to grant them all sorts of privileges and immunities). And you know, it doesn’t bother me so much when someone just happens to be gullible enough to trust government to do the most good because it has the most power (red flag!). But because they continuously broadcast their assumption that a socially conscious Christian will therefore vote a confiscatory, redistributivist political agenda, I feel compelled to ask, “Are you sure that the state really serves the interests of social concern in the way you think it does?” I invite you to read the news from a classical liberal/libertarian perspective from resources such as Reason Magazine or the Cato Institute. Suffice it to say that there is plenty of evidence that the more power we give to the state, the more we will all end up suffering.

(By the way, if you’re one of those people who believes that classical liberals/libertarians are un-Christian – or that Glenn Beck is a spokesperson for us – I invite you to read these rejoinders from a site I enjoy: 1, 2, 3.)

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  • jonathanrobinson

    As a token of my respect for you, :-), I will attempt to take you to task.

    I think it would help if you would discuss particulars, for example, you americans have been getting upset about the unfairness of a universal health care system, something which both the countries I have lived in, UK and NZ, have had and something which these economically succesful countries have been able to provide the whole population without causing suffering on a wide spread scale to us “all”. Your generalisations are very unhelpfuland characterise the whole discourse (at least as far as i have been exposed to it, and no time does nt permit to follow all those links).

    The redistribution of wealth via tax to the have-nots of society is actually of benefit to everyone because the bigger the gap betwen the rich and poor in a nation the more crime and the more antipathy between the different classes of a society Those nations with the highest level of redistribution, e.g. the scandinavian ones, have the lowest rates of crime and recidivism. Now isn't that reducing suffering for us “all”? Capitalism is a system for redistributing wealth up the social pyramid, which it does more or less completely succesfully, socialism is the reverse mechanism. A healthy society has both forces acting against each other. The USA has too much of one and not enough of the other which is why despite its wealth and power it has some of the most severe social problems of any developed country.

  • My good Jonathan,

    I appreciate your passion. I think you may have misunderstood the main intent of this post, though: you say that my “generalisations are very unhelpful,” but as I stated, I have no interest in getting into the particulars in this post. I've half a mind to rattle off a few particulars just to show that it's not all disembodied principles, but that would be a rabbit trail. My main point is this: statism isn't the automatic response to social justice, and a belief that a social order characterized by liberty and voluntary interactions, while debatable in its efficacy, may be espoused as a response to social injustice.

    A few points of yours beg for response, and so against my better judgment I'll make a few observations and leave you the last word.

    “Capitalism is a system for redistributing wealth up the social pyramid…” This makes me honestly wonder what you think “capitalism” is!

    Income gaps do not cause crime: bad conditions cause crime, and bad conditions, at least in the U.S., are not fully economically determined. Besides, in a truly free market, the gap does not necessarily widen. The rich get richer, but so do the poor; wealth is indeed redistributed, but on a voluntary basis, as employers compete for employees and both must settle on mutually beneficial terms; the same goes for suppliers and consumers. If market forces are left uninfluenced by state lobbying interests and class warfare opportunists, negotiation and a justice system that punishes force and fraud keep transactions civil. In a redistributive society, incentive for accumulation of capital is drastically cut, and so the pie to be divvied up is smaller. The reason Sweden had enough capital to redistribute was because they were a classic free market economy up until the '70's; stagnation resulted, as did a free market response.

    As an American, I can tell you that the U.S.'s dabbling in the welfare state has caused and perpetuated the gap, and the advocates of this system, jockeying as always for power, have been the ones inciting class warfare. Something else you must know is that the U.S. is not the UK or NZ — by a long shot. Redistributive systems work much better on a smaller scale, and the U.S.'s massively larger and more diverse population cannot function like Sweden's; but even Sweden's economy has had to roll back some of its social policies. As citation, let me direct you to the two sites I mentioned in the post, which have written extensively on the subject: Reason (1, 2, both with helpful videos) and Cato (1, 2).

    Much of what I hear is the fear that there will be people not provided for by the state: in capitalism, those who can't or won't work can find themselves in a hard spot. But beyond the fact that the number of such people is much smaller than is often assumed, this is where social concern really meets the road. The Church and other concerned parties would be in a better position to provide for the disenfranchised.

    I've already said much more than I wanted to. I repeat: although I wanted to articulate my politico-economic assumptions in general terms, my overarching point was not that liberty, free markets, and small governments are objectively better (although I do believe that), but that those who advocate for those things just might be doing so because they have reasons to believe that this is the most efficient and most moral way to support those in need. Leaning on the strong arm of the state to enforce our moral convictions is not the only way for those who are concerned for the practical needs of society to seek to address them. Can we at least agree on that? 🙂

  • Arcamaede

    My Goodness the UK social welfare system does help people — but it has also produced a huge mass of people who refuse to work and milk the system.

    No system will solve all problems. But, beware that anyone think any system is immune from corruption.

    We need the ability to address disparities. We need to get it out of our heads that government or competition are the ultimate solutions.

  • We need the ability to address disparities. We need to get it out of our heads that government or competition are the ultimate solutions.

    I meant to convey just this. The redistributivist ideal assumes that the ideal government/economic system will take care of everything; the right-wing ideal assumes that everyone worth helping will be taken care of by capitalism. Neither is true: we must undertake to help those in need well apart from undue reliance on a politico-economic system.

    That said, my contention is that a government that protects individual liberty is most apt to provide an environment where voluntary giving flourishes. This is borne out by recent statistics. The U.S., income gaps and all, provides the vast majority of charitable giving to the world, and tellingly more than five-sixths of that giving is private rather than pubically funded: This doesn't mean we shouldn't give more, or give better. The biggest problem is that some of the countries we're giving money to are blowing the money because of exploitative government systems.

  • jonathanrobinson

    Steve, I'm sorry to have forced you into writing more than was intended!

    Rather than engage blow by blow, i will only address your final point. Redistributive systems are not using the strong arm of the state to enforce moral convictions. They are merely practical ways of ensuring society continues to finction in a way that is best for everyone. With regard to the USA, the social legacies of colonisation, slavery, civil war, and migrant exploitation, mean that wealth and social and cultral capital are unevenly and unfairly distributed. I absolutely agree with you concern that Christians and other groups should not expect the state to do their good works for them, and that the state will never be able to provide solutions for those issues. The state should however work hard to mitigate those problems. I am not suggesting that any redistributive system is ideal or even without major flaws, I am suggesting that a national health system and a stronger welfare state would make the USA a better place to live for everyone.

    To reply to Arcamaede, yes there are dole scroungers and benefit frauds in every welfare state but the numbers should not be overestimated, nor should they weighed up against those who genuinely need help.

  • I know I said I'd give you the last word, and you can still have it – after this 😉 but you might like to hear this clarification.

    You might be surprised to know that, for all the philosophical objections I raised, I am not altogether opposed to redistributionism: it might work for awhile on very small scales. I'm particularly not opposed to people voluntarily contributing their possessions to one another by instituting a socialist system of government. More than a libertarian, I'm a subsidiarian: under the ideal governmental system, the power would be with localized governments, and the people would be able to decide how they'd like to be governed, socialism included. But even “ensuring society continues to function in a way that is best for everyone” should not be undertaken through coercive means that force people who work and earn to surrender the fruits of their labor according to the whim of the majority. A group of people should not be allowed to go to their neighbor's house and demand that he hand over some of his money for the poor guy, with the threat that they will lock him up otherwise — even if those people who do so call themselves “government” and they use votes and laws to give themselves legitimacy. Even aside from the moral argument, incentive to put in the labor to earn more is dramatically reduced, and there ends up being a smaller pool of money to share after all.

    Ok, ok, that's it for me. 🙂 The last word, truly, is yours!

  • As a thoroughgoing Augustinian I firmly believe that every human institution is corrupted at a basic level, whether governmental or private, at both the individual level as well as the collective level. I often half jokingly say that both the left and the right are partially Augustinian and partially Pelagian.You only have to reverse their views and you get the mirror opposite. The left believes in the inherent goodness of governmental action, but the utter depravity of any privately owned business entity. And of course the right is the exact opposite in their argument, and yet identical in their basic thinking. In effect they're both guilty of ideological idolatry, or as I like to call it ideolatry. Speaking of which, I need to finally get busy in writing that article. I may not agree with some of your conclusions, but I do appreciate your stimulating this important conversation.