Wealth Inequality–A Moral Problem?

One of the more interesting chapters in Jay Richards’s Money, Greed, and God is chapter 4, “If I Become Rich, Won’t Someone Else Become Poor?”  This chapter brings us to the heart of the impasse between left and right, with the one side contending that “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer” while the other insists that, on the contrary, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting richer too…just not as fast.  From a certain perspective, both claims are true.  Even the right, in its more honest moments, admits that income inequality is growing.  Which means that, in relative terms, the poor are growing poorer.  But is absolute poverty increasing?  The right denies it but of course, it depends where you are talking about–in sub-Saharan Africa, it is.  On the whole, my limited grasp of the statistics suggests that the right is correct, global absolute poverty is slowly declining.  

Now, from the right’s standpoint, this means we do not have a moral problem–the rich are not getting rich at the poor’s expense. (In fact, from the right’s perspective, this would be true even if absolute poverty were increasing; so confident are they in the wealth-creating power of the market, that they would have to chalk this up exclusively to the failures of the poor or their governments).  Richards thinks that he has demonstrated another example of “zero-sum thinking,” revealing the left’s logical and moral idiocy.  If the poor are getting richer too, then why does it matter how fast the rich get richer?  It’s not a moral issue.  

Here we find a clash of moral intuitions–Richards and his ilk honestly feel that there is no moral problem here, whereas others find a glaring injustice.  The source of it, I suggest, lies in different presuppositions about property.  

 

Before dealing with the presuppositional issue, there is a prior hole in Richards’s argument worth addressing.  First, as I mentioned in my review, just because the global market isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game doesn’t mean it never is.  Sometimes the rich really do get rich by ripping off the poor.  Richards says incredulously, “For decades, Latin American theologian Gustavo Gutierrez has looked around at the poverty in Latin America and concluded that Latin America is poor, in part, because North America is rich: ‘The poor, dominated nations keep falling behind; the gap continues to grow.’  It’s as if the United States sucks the wealth out of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Peru and leaves Latin Americans without food or houses or land.”  

What a bizarre notion!  It’s as if he thinks that American corporations swept into Central America in the middle of the last century, made deals with local barons to monopolise as many of the resources as possible, worked with corrupt government officials to maintain the status quo, and then, when popular movements started to call for a more equitable economic and political order, they went to the US government and asked that the “communists” be brutally suppressed.  Then, it’s as if the US government went in with guns and money and troops and specially-trained torturers and death squads and helped thugs within Central America wage war against their own people for a couple decades, reducing the people to misery, while American corporations continued to profit.  Can you imagine such a cock-and-bull story?  Preposterous!  And yet, of course, thoroughly documented fact.  

So Richards should be more cautious about cavalierly dismissing the idea that there might be a direct causal connection between enormous First World wealth and appalling Third World poverty.  So eager is Richards to deny that poverty is often the result of exploitation that when it’s undeniable, he denies it in the main text and then admits it sheepishly in an endnote.  After insisting for nearly two pages that we should have no problems with the massive wealth of the world’s three richest people–Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Carlos Slim Helu–because they’ve “created” wealth, rather than taken it, he tacks on a little endnote saying that actually, Slim Helu might be something of a crook, but his point still stands. 

 

But on to the main issue.  Let’s assume that the rich are not taking money away from the poor.  Let’s assume that they really are creating wealth by upright means, and it is slowly, haltingly, trickling down to the poor.  Is there still a problem with this picture?  Could we still say that the wealth of the rich comes at the expense of the poor?  Well, yes, duh.  Richards is untroubled by the fact that Slim, Buffett, and Gates together have as much wealth as the world’s 600 million poorest people–unless they stole it from the poorest, then everything’s fine with this picture.  But St. Basil would beg to differ:

“Are you not greedy?  Are you not acting like robbers?  Are you not usurping that which you have received merely in trust?  He who steals some one else’s garment is called a thief.  But he who fails to clothe the naked even if he were able to do so, does he not by chance deserve to be called by a different name?  The bread which you hold back actually belongs to the hungry; the garment which you lock in your chest belongs to the naked; the shoes which rot in your store house belong to the bare-footed; and the money which you are hiding…belongs to the needy.  Thus you do a great injustice to all those whom you could succor…. ‘Whom do I injure’, says the greedy, ‘if I merely keep what is mine?’  But then, tell me, what is really thine?  Wherefrom did you take it?  And how did it get into thy life?  Is the greedy person not like the man who, after having taken his seat in the theater, restrains all latecomers from attending the show, thus acting like one who considers his own that which actually is meant for the common use of all?  Are not the rich of this type?  For after having taken care of themselves by crude usurpation, they declare that everything they have gained by this usurpation is theirs forever.  But if any man would claim only what he really requires in order to satisfy his true needs, and would leave to the needy what exceeds his own immediate needs, then no one would be rich, and no one poor.” 

Richards, Schneider, and Co. will tell us that Basil is a slave to zero-sum thinking.  He thinks that the rich can only be rich by directly ripping off the poor, and they will tell us that they may have been true in Basil’s day, but not in ours.  But listen to Basil.  This is only one small part of his concern.  His main point is that, however you got the wealth, however justly it may seem to be yours, you are stealing by failing to give it when you are able.  From Basil’s standpoint, Buffett, Gates, and Slim’s billions actually belong to the 600 million hungry poor.  We might argue about exactly what this should mean in practice–clearly, you can’t just transfer a couple hundred billion all at once to slum-dwellers in Mumbai, and ideally, we should find ways of sustainably creating wealth for them; and we could argue about whether this “theft” ought to be dealt with legally.  But that’s not where the disagreement lies right now.  Richards sees no relevant moral duty here, no sense in which the superfluity of the rich, not shared with the desperately poor to the fullest extent possible, represents an injustice, represents withholding something that belongs to another.  I dare say he would be flummoxed at the very idea. 

Basil’s rhetoric certainly is revolutionary rhetoric, but the basic notion underlying it is quite simple, and was shared by his successors in the Christian ethical tradition for more than a millennium; the same intuition, I expect, underlies the sense of injustice that many today instinctively feel about global inequality, an intuition that Richards simply cannot relate to.  It is the sense that the world is “meant for the common use of all.”  Private property may be well and good, argued Aquinas, but it must serve the end of common use.  Each person’s right to the use of their own possessions was logically, temporally, and morally secondary to the right of all men to a sufficient share of the earth’s goods.  Again, what this meant in practice had to be worked out carefully–Aquinas did not want an anarchistic free-for-all, in which everyone grabbed for his share.  But he wanted to establish this principle of justice as a starting-point.  And if you accept that, from the standpoint of justice, God created the world for the benefit of all, then there is a problem if the wealth of the world doubles, and 90% of that increase goes to 1000 people, and only 1% to 1,000,000,000 people.  Ideally, you should have a system in which wealth is not created so unequally, but of course such a perfect system is impossible to come by.  If the initial distribution comes out radically skewed, then justice requires redistribution, Aquinas would say.  

If you do not accept the priority of common use, and thus of distributive justice, then it might be a matter for concern and compassion if hundreds of millions die in poverty, but the wealth of the wealthiest is simply irrelevant to this issue.  Questions of justice are irrelevant to this issue.  Charity may be encouraged, but even that shouldn’t be emphasised too heavily; the best thing we can do, Richards and Schneider suspect, is working harder to make the global economy grow and create more wealth, which will hopefully eventually find its way into the hands of the poorest.  

 

Now, perhaps you cannot accept the priority of common use; perhaps you really can’t get your head around distributive justice.  Fair enough.  Even with a number of radical influences, it took me a while.  But it’s important for conservatives to recognise that there is such a principle, widely held to, and in fact historically speaking, the norm among Christian ethicists.  The concern of so many over global inequality, over the fact that “The three richest people in the world control more wealth than all 600 million people living in the world’s poorest countries,” is not just sentimentalising rhetoric and fuzzy thinking, or a juvenile inability to understand that “wealth is created”–rather, it is a morally coherent and cogent posture that needs to be debated at the level of moral theology, not name-calling and statistics-flinging.  



Getting Rights Wrong

In his book The Victory of Reason (which I scathingly reviewed last year on my old blog), Rodney Stark provides a first-class exhibit of how hopelessly confused moderns are on the issue of property rights.  Moderns–perhaps especially modern Christians–tend to slide unstably back-and-forth from pragmatic defenses of private property (it’s essential for prosperity and good order in society), which treat private property as the product of a good legal system, and natural-rights defenses, which treat it as a sacred and fundamental God-given right that must be protected for its own sake.  Although this distinction was recognized as crucial by everyone from Cicero to John Locke, Stark seems paradigmatic of our modern Christian wannabe-economists in being simply unable to recognize the difference.

He begins his discussion of property rights with the familiar assertion, “The Bible takes property rights for granted.” (78)  He then narrates that the early Church regrettably considered private property to exist only as a result of sin, before crediting St. Augustine (incorrectly, as it turns out–Augustine shared the Patristic consensus) for regarding private property “as a natural condition.” 

“By late in the eleventh century,” he goes on, “the writer known only as Norman Anonymous wrote in one of his influential tracts that private property is a human right: ‘God made poor and rich from one and the same clay; poor and rich are supported on one and the same earth.  It is by human right that we say ‘My estate, my house, my servant.’” (78)  In this passage, Stark commits such an elementary misreading that it is hard not to laugh at the poor fellow’s expense, as he anachronistically imports the very modern notion of “human rights” into an altogether different argument.  The Norman Anonymous’s claim is precisely the opposite–that private property is a matter of the ius humana (“human right” or “human law”), in contrast to the ius naturale (“natural right” or “natural law”); it exists only by the agreement of human society.  This is in contrast to the natural state described in the first sentence of the quote (which makes no sense on Stark’s reading), in which the earth belongs equally to poor and rich alike.  

Stark goes on to cite scholastic authorities John of Paris, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas, all arguing that private property was “instituted” for “the convenience and utility of man” (79)–all three authorities are making pragmatic human-law arguments, not natural-right arguments; he states correctly that Aquinas considered private property to be “in accord with natural law,” but ignores the other side of Aquinas’s nuanced position–that it was not by natural law, but could be instituted as a legitimate outworking of natural law.   

Finally, he moves straight to the Lockean-libertarian application, citing William of Ockham in favor of the conclusion “that since it is a right that precedes the laws imposed by any sovereign, rulers cannot usurp or arbitrarily seize the property of those over whom they rule.  A sovereign can infringe on private property only when ‘he shall see that the common welfare takes preference over private interest’.” (79)  Again, Stark’s quote works against his interpretation.  Ockham, in line with his predecessors, is merely asserting that a ruler cannot override private property at his personal whim; of course, says Ockham, since private property is instituted by society to serve society’s interests (a Franciscan like Ockham would never grant that it was a “right that precedes the laws”), any private right to property to property can be overridden when the “common welfare” demands.  

 

A reading this careless shouldn’t have passed a freshman philosophy class, and yet somehow it passes muster in an acclaimed book of economic history, enthusiastically blurbed by modern Catholic leaders like Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel.  So far have we fallen out of touch with our tradition, that we don’t blink an eye when someone stands it on its head.



Money, Greed, and Five Favorite Fallacies

As you may have noticed, my passion against Schneider has burned out a bit, since I finished reading him almost two weeks ago, though I will still do my best to blog through the rest of the book.  I read John Medaille’s Toward a Truly Free Market and it was a fantastic breath of fresh air–I reiterate the recommendation I made before I read it: everyone should go read it.  More about it in due course.  For now, though, I’m afraid I have another very unhappy review to share, Jay Richards’ Money, Greed, and God.  (I will admit up front that I did not finish this book.  I made it to the halfway point, and then determined that to continue, with no promise that I would ever be offered a coherent argument, was merely an act of self-flagellation.  I should also point out, lest I seem to be unfairly singling out really lame books to critique, like a scrawny third-grader beating up on kindergarteners in order to feel important, that the back cover of this book is bedecked with laurels like “the definitive case for capitalism,” bestowed by none other than George Gilder, and is rated very highly on both Amazon and Goodreads.  If this is the definitive case for capitalism, then I’m afraid capitalism had better give up and pack its bags.)

This book is laced with unflattering ironies.  The author repeatedly adopts the stance, so attractive to American audiences, as the champion of common-sense over against the obfuscations of intellectuals, who spin webs of fantasy and idealism out of touch with reality.  But he does this while remaining consistently at the realm of abstraction, hypotheticals, and straw men, never deigning to come down and engage economic realities.  Sometimes this equals blatant falsehood, like where Richards asserts that “government spending as a portion of GNP has grown exponentially in recent decades.”  The actual growth?  12% (from 18.4% to 20.6%) over fifty years, and actually a decline in the last twenty.  (You can see all the details here.)

On a larger scale, it means that Richards never actually touches down to earth and tells us what he is talking about.  What is “capitalism”?  Since he never tells us, he can simply duck and hide from opponents as needed–whenever their attacks hit home, he can conveniently claim that as “not-capitalism,” and whenever there is something good that the modern world has given us, he can claim it for capitalism.  This is common enough in books of this genre, as is the tendency to camp out in abstractions and hypotheticals.  We find here almost no real grappling with modern economic realities, but rather platitudes about how an ideal free market functions in principle, and how wealth need not be a zero-sum game.  

Throughout, though, he writes in homely and down-to-earth style, in order to strengthen the impression of common sense over against the distorting sophistications of the academics.  If he used such rhetoric as an aid to clear and cogent logic, it might work, but when it is used to mask the absence of logic, it just makes him look like a demagogue.  Here’s a case in point: “The Ten Commandments–a sort of summary of all God’s laws–take private property for granted.  For instance, the eighth commandment, the one against stealing, implies that we may have property.  Otherwise, there would be nothing to steal, and the commandment would make no more sense than an order not to fraternize with four-headed Jube Jube monsters.  (No, I don’t know what they are, either.  I just know they don’t exist.)”  As I’ve pointed out before, the eighth commandment taken alone merely implies the existence of fixed property relations of some kind–it says nothing about what form those should take–capitalist, distributist, communitarian, or even socialist!  Perhaps Richards hopes that his readers will be so distracted by Jube Jube monsters that they won’t notice the logical lacuna.  

The same complaint can be made against Richards’s extensive use, early on, of a first-person narrative.  He was once an idealistic socialist, he confides in us, back when he was a teenager and it was cool to be radical.  He used to be convinced of all this rubbish, but then when he started looking at real facts, he learned better, and grew to embrace capitalism.  This, presumably, is to help his case, by conveying to the reader that this is not some ideologue, but someone who knows the other side inside and out, and has rejected it for sound intellectual reasons.  However, given that he never deigns to share any of these sound intellectual reasons with us, but resorts to all kinds of straw men and logical loop-de-loops to make his case, this personal testimony just makes him look naive and impressionable.  

Despite the promises of the title and the back cover, Richards does not really attempt in this book to argue positively for capitalism, and certainly not to offer a theological argument for it (inasmuch as Scripture appears, it is generally only as something that Richards defends himself against).  All he really attempts to do is to show that capitalism “is not the problem,” by means of refuting eight “myths” about why capitalism is bad. Rather than deal with Richards’s responses to these as such, I wanted to respond by pointing out five fallacies that pervade his argument through the first few chapter.  The first three are primarily methodological, the latter two primarily substantial.  I will call them The Dystopia Fallacy, The Tweaking Fallacy, The Not-Necessarily Fallacy, The Coercion Fallacy, and The Theft Fallacy.  In a later post, I will discuss the issue of Private Property and Inequality (non-)Problem, which relates closely to the reasons I researched the book in the first place.

 

1) The Dystopia Fallacy

In this fallacy, Richards picks the worst possible example of an alternative to capitalism, and uses it as a bogeyman to scare people away from imagining that there could be alternatives.  The first chapter does this on a grand scale, and in the most fantastically cliched fashion: Look at the massive evils done by countries that were professedly Marxist!  Ergo, capitalism is better than all the alternatives.

For this argument to work, it would require at least these four assumptions:

1) Marxism is the only alternative to capitalism.

2) The countries in question practiced Marxism effectively.

3) The evils that these countries wrought were directly due to their Marxism.

4) Similar evils have not been wrought by countries trying to impose capitalism on unwilling populations.

In fact, I think, all four of these assumptions are invalid.  The first is so baseless that it bewilders me how otherwise intelligent people manage to persist in repeating it.  Richards’ book takes no account of phenomena like European democratic socialism, not to mention of course alternative economic visions like distributism.  The second is eminently disputable.  Leninism, Maoism, etc., have their roots in Marxism, but differ in profound ways from what Marx argued for and envisioned.  One massive and crucial difference is the fact, which Richards notes in passing but pays little attention to, that communism took root in agrarian and Third World countries, rather than in developed Western industrial nations, the context in which Marx developed his ideas.  Unsurprising, then, that it failed so abysmally.  The third fails also, for related reasons.  Again, Richards notes that “revolutions never sprang up in advanced industrial societies where there was a strong rule of law, but rather in poor agrarian cultures with career tracks for despots.”  So Cambodia to the United States should not be an apples-to-apples comparison in determining the relative merit of an economic system.  Many of these evils have been due to despotism in general, and communism is just the particular form it has taken for some countries in this century.  Brutal despotisms on a massive scale have been pretty common historically in places like Russia, China, and Cambodia.  The technology of the twentieth century has merely made it far easier for this brutality to occur efficiently on a massive scale.  This then relates to the fourth assumption.  It would be fair to ask whether, in “agrarian cultures with career tracks for despots,” capitalist regimes of some form or another have practiced terrible brutality and tyranny in the twentieth century.  The recent history of Latin America, unfortunately, answers that question in a resounding affirmative.  

 This sort of fallacy continues throughout the book so far as I have read, using, for instance, examples of a really poorly-conceived and poorly-executed government policy to “prove” that government intervention in the “free market” is always bad; or quoting out-of-context and poorly-worded complaints against capitalism to prove that all forms of opposition to capitalism result from fuzzy thinking.  Meanwhile, he routinely chalks up all the marvels of modern life to free-market capitalism without any argument. This is nothing but post hoc, ergo propter hoc–we had capitalism, now we have the microwave; clearly the latter must come only from the former.  

He is correct, in short, to claim that modern capitalism need not be perfect, only that it needs to be better than any viable alternatives.  But to demonstrate that it, at its best, is better than one particular alternative at its worst, doesn’t get him very far to proving it better than the alternatives.  To be fair, he either needs to compare really bad examples of anti-capitalism with really bad examples of capitalism, or really good examples of anti-capitalism with really good examples of capitalism.  Otherwise, it’s nothing but propaganda.

 

2) The Tweaking Fallacy

This is a common approach among free-marketeers.  What they do is they set up some idealized scenario of a well-functioning market, and then hypothesize one particular change in policy that is intended to make things work better.  Unsurprisingly, the change upsets the system, and ends up doing more harm than good.  But most intelligent people agitating for change don’t just want to make one little change in the system; they want to make a lot of changes, building on one another.  Or they want to change the assumptions inherent in the system.  

An example of Richards’ use of this fallacy (again, quite cliched) is with respect to minimum wage.  If you raise the minimum wage in a well-functioning market, argues Richards, you will increase unemployment, and thus make things worse off on the whole.  Fair enough.  But any responsible initiative to raise the minimum wage would gauge the possible impact of a wage hike on employment (which, depending on the current wage level, might not actually be much at all), and would take steps to avert ill effects.  Or a distributist might propose ways to remodel the entire system so as to both raise wages and employment levels (as quite persuasively argued by John Medaille in Toward a Truly Free Market).

The tweaking fallacy can be conveniently combined with the dystopian fallacy, as Richards illustrates with the minimum wage issue.  He imagines a scenario in which the minimum wage was raised to $1,000 an hour and shows us how bad the effects would be.  Presumably, then, we are to assume that the effects of a smaller raise would be bad too, in the same way, only to a lesser extent.  But logic does not support such an assumption, and the “argument” thus serves only the purpose of alarmist rhetoric.

 

3) The Not-Necessarily Fallacy

In this, another favorite tactic of Richards’s, the logic of the argument runs like this: Opponents of capitalism say that capitalism makes the rich richer at the poor’s expense.  This complaint assumes a zero-sum game–that wealth is never created, only transferred.  But this is not always the case.  Let me show you some examples of how free exchange can make both parties wealthier.  

Ergo, capitalism is not a zero-sum game, ergo, the rich do not get rich at the poor’s expense.  The problem here of course is that almost no critic of capitalism is so daft as to complain that it is always a zero-sum game.  Everyone recognizes that of course it is quite possible for business to actually add net value to everyone concerned, and that this happens all the time, and is much of the reason for the prosperity of the world today.  But do all resources work that way?  Well, no.  Some resources, like land, are fixed and cannot be created.  Some markets–many financial markets, for instance–are essentially zero-sum markets.  

Now, if some significant parts of the system are zero-sum, then it is quite possible, indeed likely, that many people do get wealthy at the expense of others.  It is not always win-win.  And in general, those already most powerful will succeed in entrenching their position at the expense of those less powerful.  The only way Richards could refute the zero-sum complaint would be by demonstrating that all transactions in a capitalist system end up benefiting both parties, and that is manifestly false.  Instead, he confines himself to showing that it is not necessarily true that someone gets rich at another’s expense, and therefore concludes that it is necessarily untrue, which is about as straightforward an inversion of logic as you can get. 

 

4) The Coercion Fallacy

I have written on this before at great length, so hopefully I can be brief.  Richards frequently makes his case by indulging in a sense of moral outrage at the coercion of government coercing people to do stuff, even for good ends, and of course he repeatedly defends the free market by insisting that it is, of course, free.  Whatever you don’t like about it, at least it doesn’t force people to do stuff, but lets everyone meet on an equal level, and exchange what they want less of for what they want more of.  Everything is completely voluntary.  

In a modern world that has exalted freedom as the highest virtue, this sort of argument is taken to settle the question–better for people to do bad things freely than good things under compulsion, seems to be the idea.  Of course, once closely examined, this popular moral presupposition breaks down, but we’ll leave that issue aside.  The more immediate objection is of course that it is not really accurate to speak of all government policies as “coercion” unless one presumes radical individualism.  There is a such thing as corporate decision-making, the public will, and all that.  Or there used to be, at any rate; perhaps there isn’t anymore in the United States.  A corporate decision is only coercive to the extent that the recalcitrant make it so.  But let’s even leave that issue aside.  

The most immediate objection, one that is so obvious that only the most propagandist ideology can ignore it, is that it is absurd to talk about perfectly “free” contracts and agreements in a marketplace constrained by inequality and scarcity.  In a contract between an employer who lives in a mansion with security guards, and is making a 20% profit margin, and 1,000 job applicants who are facing starvation if they can’t find some kind of employment, it would be absurd to speak of the two parties as being equally “free,” or even to speak of the job applicants as free at all in any meaningful sense of the word.

Rather than face up to such real-world realities, Richards insists on making his argument in terms of idealized test scenarios and hypotheses–like the “trading game” that his sixth-grade teacher made his class play once upon a time, swapping toys until everyone ended up with something better than they started with.  “An exchange that is free on both sides, in which no one is forced or tricked into participating, is a win-win game.  It’s a positive-sum game.” But this hypothetical marketplace is one without exploitation (preying on someone’s physical needs to get them to do something you want), manipulation (preying on someone’s emotional needs to get them to do something you want), or deception (ensuring that the other party does not know the relevant facts of the transaction), all of which are institutionalized in many modern capitalist markets.  

In short, I continue to insist that if the defenders of capitalism are to rest the vast majority of their case for the goodness of the market and the wickedness of state intervention on the “freedom” in the former and the “coercion” in the latter, they must provide some meaningful definition of these terms that actually fits the real world.  Otherwise, why should we listen to them?

 

5) The Theft Fallacy

Related to the “Coercion” fallacy is of course the “Theft” fallacy–the repeated rhetorical assertion that any redistribution or contro of private resources by the government is “confiscation” or “theft.”  I’m sure you know the sort of thing I am talking about, but here’s a sample quote:

“Every government has to collect taxes to fund services beneficial to all–to maintain courts, protect citizens from domestic and foreign predators, enforce traffic law and contracts, and so forth.  We have a right to protect ourselves from aggressors, for instance, so we can delegate that right to government. We don’t have the right to take the property of one person and give it to another.  Therefore, we can’t rightfully delegate that function to the state.  Delegated theft is still theft.”  

As I’ve argued before, this argument collapses on its own terms.  Almost any “legitimate” government function breaks down when pressed.  Some citizens have enough mobile capital that if an enemy should attack the US, they could easily pack up and move to London with few adverse consequences, so why is it worth their while to pay tax dollars to defend less affluent citizens.  Maybe they are staunchly pacifist or at least feel that America’s enemies have been stirred up by acts of aggression that such citizens have bitterly opposed.  They didn’t support the actions that created the enemies, so why should they have to pay for the cost of restraining those enemies.  Or what about those of us who live in inner cities and walk everywhere.  Why should we have to pay for the maintenance of the roads and traffic laws?  If societies cannot enact policies that benefit some people more directly than others, then they can’t enact any policies.  Such a reductio ad absurdum suggests that there is a fundamental philosophical flaw in the assumptions behind this “theft” accusation.  

 And sure enough, there is.  The assumption is that private property somehow exists in a vacuum–it is sacrosanct, unconditioned, absolute, timeless.  It pre-exists any society and therefore society has no claims on it.  This assumption turns out to be utterly incoherent once held up to the light of day (and Richards himself discards it in a later chapter when it suits his argument to articulate property differently).  On the contrary, property is, if not a product of society (which I would suggest it ultimately must be from an ethical standpoint), at the very least always conditioned by society.  To say that society has no claims on private property is about as coherent as saying that parents have no claims upon their children.  

Now one can argue that there are limits upon these claims–limits of justice and limits of prudence.  If there were no rules restraining society’s claims on private property, private property would be meaningless.  But conversely, if there were no rules at all regarding society’s claims on private property, then private property would be meaningless.  The relationship is a subtle and dynamic one, not one that is easily defined by throwing around terms like “theft” whenever it is rhetorically convenient.

 

And that last criticism could sum up my critique of the whole book.  Richards acts as if this is a debate between ignorant idealists and people who take economic realities seriously.  But in saying this, it feels like he is critiquing himself.  Economies are subtle and dynamic, and the real world that we operate in is quite different than the fantasy one that Richards has constructed for us with the aid of fuzzy logic and empty rhetoric.



Social Justice and the Jubilee (Good of Affluence #6)

As I mentioned in my fourth post, Schneider does, as a matter of fact, have some interesting and nuanced things to say about the Old Testament economic laws.  He, at any rate, is not content to use in the standard conservative dismissal that says these “laws” were not really laws but merely moral guidance–that would not, after all, help his case, since his interest is not in the duties of government toward the poor, but in the moral duties of Christian individuals.  Nor is he content to ascribe to laws like the Jubilee a purely spiritual and symbolic function, a mere prophecy of the spiritual jubilee of release from sin that Jesus brings (a strategy commonly employed by theonomists like Chilton and North who otherwise insist on taking the OT laws with strictest seriousness as New Covenant legal principles).  As I quoted before, he says at the outset of discussing this material that “concern for the poor and powerless (including the earth and animals)…is essential to the whole biblical vision of delight.”  Later he affirms that “Sider is no doubt correct (as well as in line with all mainline Christian moral teaching) in thinking that the jubilee provisions are a model of some kind for the institution of social mechanisms in law and policy that protect people from losing everything they have.”

So where’s the rub?  Well, Schneider pushes us to evaluate more closely what the Jubilee actually does.  They do not universally redistribute wealth from the wealthiest to the poorest.  For instance, he points out, “The poorest people in society were unaffected by it.  For aliens, sojourners, non-Israelite debtors and slaves possessed no land in the first place and thus had no share in its repossession on the day of jubilee.  Their economic need, however dire, played no role in the redistribution.”  From this he draws the conclusion, “Strange though it may seem . . . the people whom the jubilee helped were not the poor, but the families of original affluence.”  He returns to this theme repeatedly, hinting that the class that the jubilee helped was really what we might call the “gentry,” the “landed classes.”  Although true in one sense, this is deceptive, since the intention of the Old Testament law was that every single Israelite family had land, was a member of the “landed classes.”  Because this ownership was universal and, in intention, fairly equal, it is a serious distortion to imagine these ordinary Israelites as the “affluent gentry,” as Schneider seems to invite us to.  Nonetheless, he does have a point, at least against those who would carelessly invoke the jubilee as being alone a sufficient model for Christian social justice.  However, for anyone who does not take the jubilee on its own, but together with other provisions for the poor in the Torah, the force of his point is considerably blunted, as he himself admits: “Of course there are provisions elsewhere in the law that prove beyond question that the affluent Israelites had obligations of justice to the poor within Israel.”  Moreover, while it is quite true that the Jubilee and the law in general offers much more extensive protections for Israelites, over against foreigners, it seems that this objection holds little water once one transposes these principles into a New Covenant key. 

The Old Testament law is based throughout on a sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders, between Israelites and Gentiles.  But of course it is this very distinction that is challenged so systematically in the New Testament, so that we are called to extend the principles of love, justice, and solidarity that formerly applied only to insiders to outsiders as well.  The point of Jesus’ ministry, as interpreted by Paul in particular, is that exodus and jubilee and all the rest is now not only for Israel, but for the whole world.  Of course, there does seem to remain the continuing principle of “let us do good to all, and especially to the household of faith,” because it is simply impossible from a human perspective to make sure that everyone indiscriminately has all their needs cared for.  This will be discussed further when we get to Schneider’s treatment of the New Testament and “moral proximity.”

Schneider also points out that the jubilee law, as a matter of fact, prevented one from showing unrestrained charity.  Since all land had to return to the original owners every fifty years, even if they didn’t actually need it and there were others who needed it more, it was impossible for a wealthy Israelite to permanently divest himself and share his resources with landless sojourners.  The point was to prevent extreme inequality, but considerable inequality was allowed to remain.  Granted, then, that the jubilee does not (certainly taken alone) provide a clarion call for a complete redistribution from all with a surplus to all with a lack; but what then does Schneider think it does provide?  Does he think that the model of an inalenable sacred relationship to the ancestral land is to characterize our economies?  Presumably not.  So we are not, as a matter of fact, restrained from selling our land and giving to the landless sojourners, in the way ancient Israelites were.  Given that the trajectory of the Old Testament laws is to much greater concern for the poor and vulnerable, might we as Christians not be supposed to intensify this trajectory, and go further than jubilee?  Such questions are, alas, left unaddressed.  

Schneider does not, however, leave unaddressed the implications of the jubilee for private property: “In his classic 1954 study of Leviticus 25, Robert North pointed out that the jubilee, properly understood, actually ‘stresses and safeguards the function of private property as an incentive to industrious energy.’ . . . In fact, Leviticus 25 not only affirms and safeguards the property rights of each tribe, it declares such rights to be unalienable, as unalterable and absolute as the God who gave the property to them.”  The jubilee, Schneider goes on, following North, shows us an ideal of liberty that is dependent upon the “independent small property owner,” an ideal supportive of “modern democratic capitalism.”  Social justice advocates of jubilee, he implies throughout this section, use the passage to try to undercut private property rights, whereas in fact it strengthens them.  Well, yes and no.  As I have pointed out in many previous discussions of this passage and others, the logic is in fact neither socialist (as Schneider apparently accuses his opponents of thinking) nor capitalist (as Schneider seems to think), but basically distributist, with some distinctive sacral elements thrown in.  Private property is extremely important, which is why it is important that everyone in Israel have some, and that no one amass too much property at the expense of others.  Property is not the product of one’s labor, over which one has as much power as over oneself, but a gift held in fief, the use and distribution of which is governed by the original owner, God.  Capital, in this paradigm, is highly illiquid, and subject to enormous restrictions on its ability to move and congregate.  It is, to be sure, a model in which property is the foundation of liberty, but property understood in stark contrast to how modern democratic capitalism understands it.  If you want to go to Leviticus 25 for a “high view” of private property, by all means do so, but recognize that it is a radically different view than the modern Lockean one, with radically different implications for economic life. 

 

What would it look like transposed into a modern key?  Does faithfulness to this Old Testament ideal require an agrarian society of some kind?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  But we ought to be able to agree that the economic ideal presented is that everyone ought to have enough for their sustenance, and that no one ought to amass more than they can use.  We may debate over whether this principle must be applied politically, or “merely morally,” but either way, it renders the “good of affluence” a qualified and relative good, a good that can become an evil in the face of indigence.  



The Privation of Creation (Good of Affluence #4)

In chapters 2-4 of The Good of Affluence, Schneider launches into an Old Testament theology of affluence.  The main burden of his narrative is to show that God has created the material world good, and intends for his people to delight in its bounty.  The Garden of Eden, with its rich provision of fruits for Adam and Eve to enjoy, serves as a paradigm of the blessings to which God calls his people throughout the Old Testament, blessing Abraham and the patriarchs with great wealth and then inviting his people into a land flowing with milk and honey.  In short, God calls his people to an excessive material delight, not merely to the bare necessities, and so we must not, like Ron Sider, decry affluence as ungodly, something to be repented of or guiltily given away. 

Along the way, Schneider displays an actually quite impressive willingness to grapple with Biblical material that would seem to contradict his case.  He acknowledges that concern for the environment is an important part of a Christian doctrine of creation.  He does not pretend that Exodus and Deuteronomy prescribe some kind of unrestrained capitalism, but acknowledges that concern for the poor, and a legal system that institutionalises that concern, is Biblical.  He does not pretend that Amos and other prophets do not decry wealth and luxury in the strongest of terms. He says that all these things must be taken on board, that “concern for the poor and powerless (including the earth and animals)…is essential to the whole biblical vision of delight [Schneider’s shorthand term for the enjoyment of materiality that he is arguing for].”  This is all greatly to be appreciated; and indeed, in discussing these points, Schneider offers some thoughtful exegesis and some helpful rebukes of more careless uses of some of these texts by social justice advocates.  The problem is simply that in the end, Schneider does not think these concerns alter the basic picture he is advocating.  To be sure, they must be kept in mind, they must be taken on board, they cannot be ignored, he tells us, but it is not clear to me just how they are to be kept in mind or taken on board in the lifestyle that Schneider wants to recommend to us.  

I’m going to engage this material in four posts.  First, this post will survey Schneider’s general Old Testament argument, and a couple of large-scale objections to it.  Then, I will have three posts (which I may sprinkle in later, since I am eager to move on in covering the broad sweep of the book) addressing a particularly interesting discussion from each chapter–environmental ethics, the Jubilee law, and the application of Amos’s rebuke to luxury.  The latter two will raise key ethical principles that Schneider is concerned about: the issue of “moral proximity” in discussing the Jubilee law, and the concern over legalism in addressing Amos.  

 

 So, what about the big picture?  Well, truth be told, the core message that Schneider is trying to get across here, particularly in the opening chapter, is not all that different from that of N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope.  Which is to say, an anti-Gnostic argument for the fundamental materiality, and gloriousness of that materiality, that characterises redemption, and God’s blessing of his people.  We were placed into a bounteous creation in Eden and invited to enrich it still further by our labors.  Although we lost Eden, God’s plan is to restore us to it, first by leading Israel into the new Eden of the promised land, to make the whole world into a new Eden, flowing with milk and honey.  This provides a basis for rejoicing in and glorying in creation.  All of this is thus far quite salutary, especially when one compares it to something like David VanDrunen’s Living in Two Kingdoms, which I’ve also been reading.  Whereas Schneider can treat Israel’s sojourn in the Promised Land as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, and a paradigm for our own redemption, VanDrunen is forced to treat this as some weird anomaly, an 800-year interruption in God’s normal pattern of redemption.  But let that pass for now–VanDrunen will have his own blog post (or several).  

But of course, the problem with this lovely picture is that, if it really is at core much the same point that N.T. Wright is making in Surprised by Hope, it should be readily apparent that this does not get us, in and of itself, to where Schneider wants to get us–a materialistic embrace of modern capitalist hedonism.  After all, Wright uses the same basic starting point to arrive by the end of Surprised by Hope at an urgent call for Third World debt relief, to my mind a much more plausible conclusion.  Whence this difference?  Well, so as not to sidetrack into the details of Surprised by Hope, which is an extraordinarily rich piece of theology, let me just say that the key question, which Schneider doesn’t really appear to face, is “Who is all this bounty for?”  If the answer is “for everyone,” as it seems it surely must be, then this bounty must be enjoyed by everyone.  There is, it seems, a hidden premise in Schneider’s argument–the assumption of primordial private property.  

But of course, all through the first sixteen centuries of the Church, theologians assumed that the bounty of the Garden of Eden was common property, and the main question of economic ethics was how close we could or couldn’t get to realizing this primordial condition of shared bounty.  To get from Eden to an endorsement of Bill Gates, you have to assume that the privateness of property is in no way a privation, that each individual is encouraged to enjoy his own personal Eden of billions of dollars even while billions of people perish outside its lush borders.  This is why I have been convinced for some time that an intelligent theology of property is essential to these kinds of discussions.  It may not be possible for everyone to have equal access to the world’s bounty, but if you accept the principle of common use as the original condition of creation, then you have to say that it should be our goal to realize common use and equal access as much as possible (though this of course need not entail anything like precise equality).  But it’s not that Schneider says, “Yes, this should be our goal and our aspiration, but in this fallen world that’s simply not achievable, and so we need private property, and should accept that sadly, this created intention will simply not be realized until the new creation.”  That would be a defensible position.  But Schneider does not show any awareness that there is a problem, or that the massive affluence of a minority of private individuals is anything other than the fulfillment of God’s created purpose.  

 

At least one other serious blind spot afflicts this narrative, appearing at one of the frequent but ultimately inconsequential concessions about how wealth is potentially dangerous: 

“the root of evil in responding to material affluence is also primarily spiritual.  The text expresses it in those fall-like terms of autonomy, the attitude that ‘by my own hand’ I have got this wealth.  This is not the spirit of blessing, dominion, and delight.  It is the spirit of self-serving arrogance and pride of the worst sort.”

 This sort of statement appears repeatedly in these pages, without any sense of the crushing irony.  After all, how did Schneider begin his book?  By declaring how God has poured out, by free and inexplicable grace, bounteous wealth on America and the West, and we should be overwhelmed with gratitude?  Well, no.  By declaring how the brilliant ingenuity of this new human idea–capitalism–has given us bounteous wealth, liberated whole nations, restored us almost to Eden.  (Although as I said, this rhetoric was comparatively restrained in this book, it was still bad enough, and Schneider has said much worse elsewhere.)  How is his attitude, how is our attitude in the modern West, not “by my own hand I have got this wealth”?  (Not, I should add, that I am very comfortable with the attitude that insists we simply attribute all our Western prosperity in gratitude to God, since this encourages us to ask no moral questions about how we came by this wealth and others didn’t.)  In short, even if Schneider’s broader argument about the good of affluence were solid, we would still seem to be left with the sense that the modern Western attitude toward our affluence (and Schneider’s own) is one of extreme moral peril, warranting all the warnings of the Christian writers that Schneider is opposing in this volume.  

And I would argue that this not a simple matter of attitude adjustment, but intrinsically so.  We live, to an unprecedented extent, in a human-engineered world.  The products we consume are mostly not the fruits of the Garden or wine from the vineyards of Israel, but are products created largely by human artifice.  This is true now even of the food we eat–even if it is completely free-range and organic and all the rest, it still most likely comes to our table with the aid of all kinds of modern technology.  This is not intrinsically bad (although I think there is much to be said, and I will say something below, for regaining a more natural lifestyle in some areas), but it is clearly perilous.  If Israelite farmers had a good year and were able to feast on the new wine and oil, it was easy enough for them to attribute it to divine grace (although still easy not to, so wicked is man’s heart).  But if I made my fortune investing in Apple, or worse, by inventing Apple, the temptation to see this wealth as self-created, and hence (tying back to the first point above) to treat it as essentially private, rather than a shared blessing, is enormous.  This doesn’t mean we have to all become Diggers and Levellers, but I’d like to see a little more awareness of these perils on Schneider’s part.

 

This consideration suggests a possible answer to what Schneider calls “the hermeneutics of affluence.”  Is it possible that Abraham’s affluence, for instance, could be good affluence, and ours be bad affluence?  Perhaps Abraham was very affluent by the standards of his own day, but not remotely like Bill Gates or even a mediocre modern millionaire.  Perhaps then the former wealth is great, and should be received with gratitude toward God, but the latter is problematic.  Schneider spends a couple pages (pp. 74-76) addressing this objection, although he considers it essentially vacuous.  This would mean that the Bible’s ethical guidance becomes obsolete as soon as its social circumstances are transcended, so that, for instance, one could Biblically justify the technology of metallurgy, but not that of microchips.  Having made this counter-argument, Schneider moves on, satisfied that he has silenced the objection.  But I am not so sure. 

Aside from the quantitative issue, which I have touched on before and will again (is there really no point at which superfluity becomes absurd?  What reasonable use could someone possibly find for $100 million?), there is a qualitative angle worth considering.  For the affluence of an Abraham consisted in having the full capacity to enjoy natural goods.  Abraham was perhaps able to eat as much as he wanted, including some delicacies, no doubt.  He could clothe himself as much as he needed, and perhaps in some level of finery.  He was housed comfortably.  He had the means to travel when he wanted.  He was, in short, equipped to enjoy the normal bounties of God’s creation.  And this is the vision of the promised land, as well.  Up to a certain point, modern affluence enables us to do that as well–enough to buy all kinds of excellent food and drink, to have some land to enjoy, clothes for all kinds of weather, a car to take me to see the Grand Canyon, etc.  But beyond that, much of this wealth is spent on increasing artificial and unnatural pleasures (again, the jacuzzi with the built-in sound system).  This is not to condemn technology, or to say that artificial=bad and natural=good.  However, it does suggest that something may be distorted in Schneider’s vision.  For if the point is delight in the bounty of creation, then not the most, but the best kind, of wealth is best.  

Schneider throughout suggests that his opponents, calling for Christians to live simpler lives, are ascetics and world-deniers.  He, unlike them, is calling for us to enjoy the goodness of creation.  But this reminds me of the people who insist that the organic, natural food people are ascetically refusing to enjoy the bounty of creation in the form of fast food and processed foods.  (Unfortunately, I am not joking—I have heard this argument repeatedly.)  What if living more simply actually means positioning ourselves so as better to enjoy God’s creation, instead of merely our own creations?  This gets back to the second point above.  Human inventions can be great, and can be a means of enhancing our appreciation and use of God’s creations.  But what about the kind of affluence that buys a big suburban house with a swimming pool, jacuzzi, and well-manicured yard, that climbs into an air-conditioned Lexus listening to satellite radio to drive to the mall, walks across the parking lot while checking Facebook and listening to music on his smartphone, shops for DVDs and computer games, and returns home to try them out on the flat-screen HDTV that drops from the ceiling?  Is it possible that at some point, we are using our wealth in ways that actually decreases our delight in God’s creation and leaves us feeling increasingly empty as we try to entertain ourselves with more and more creations of our own?  In short, without saying that we all need to try to be like Wendell Berry, I would bet you that he experiences far more Biblical “delight” in the material world than Bill Gates does.  

 

And of course, this leads back to my first point as well.  For what if the best way to have true “delight” in the world is by experiencing and celebrating it communally?  What if ever more private wealth actually makes it harder and harder for us to experience Edenic delight?  Schneider, alas, is too oblivious to such questions to even ask them, much less answer them.