Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Morally Unacceptable Budget

On the same day I received an e-mail from Sojourners encouraging me to join Jim Wallis, David Beckman, and Tony Hall in a hunger fast "to put Congress on notice" that immoral "cuts to the social safety net are not acceptable," Doug Bandow's essay "Balancing the Federal Budget: What Would Jesus Cut?" appeared at I concur with Jason Jewell that it is excellent.

Bandow is one of our more thoughtful political commentators working today. He approaches the issue of spending cuts from a non-partisan perspective. As Bandow frames the issue:
The religious right has been justly criticized for confusing its political views with Christian theology, but many leftish activists make the same mistake. The Bible says a lot about man’s relationship to other men and to God. Scripture doesn’t say much about how men (and women, obviously) should organize government and forcibly rule over others.

Indeed, the Bible is essentially silent on when men should regulate, tax, draft, arrest, imprison and kill their neighbors, as governments do every day. For these tasks we should heed James’ injunction to ask God for wisdom. We shouldn’t assume that God is on our side of the political divide.

Bandow makes the point that in order to make decisions about fiscal policy, which, because they always involve constraints on the use of people's property, always have a moral dimension, we must use Christian wisdom. Such wisdom draws not on explicit Scriptural statements about tax rates and subsidy levels, but on Christian principles that must be systematically integrated in order to develop a Christian approach we can use to guide us in determining whether particular government spending is desirable.

Bandow also notes that while Sojouners are right to deny that our spiritual well-being is correlated with GDP and military might, we also err in seeking salvation via the state.
Christians should treat government with the same skepticism they apply to other human institutions. One Biblical principle not mentioned by the “What would Jesus cut” activists is “Thou Shalt not Steal.” (Exodus 20:15) Whatever government takes should be used for the common good, which means spending responsibly for a public purpose.

Uncle Sam fails in this regard every minute of every day. Many programs are created by and for influential interest groups. Moreover, the waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government is legendary. Many agencies aren’t even able to account for the money they spend, let alone demonstrate that they are spending it well.

The above begs the question, of course, of what sort of public purpose  legitimates coerced taxation and spending. Nevertheless, his main point stands. The state routinely takes money from the productive and gives to the politically connected.

This brings to mind an almost prophetic passage from Francis Wayland's Elements of Political Economy. In a section explaining various ways the capital stock could diminish, he discusses the negative consequences of theft. First he discusses private thievery by an individual person and then explains the more disastrous thievery by the confiscatory state.
But the right of property may be violated by society. It sometimes happens, that society or government, which is its agent, though it may prevent the infliction of wrong by individuals upon individuals, is itself by no means averse to inflicting wrong or violating the right of individuals. This is done, where governments seize upon the property of individuals by mere arbitrary act, a form of tyranny, with which all the nations of Europe were, of old, too well acquainted. It is also done, by unjust legislation; that is, when legislators, how well soever chose, enact unjust laws, by which the property of a part, or of the whole, is unjustly taken away, or unjustly subjected to oppressive taxation.

Of all the destructive agencies which can be brought to bear upon production, by fear the most fatal, is public oppression. It drinks up the spirit of a people, by inflicting wrong throughout means of an agency which was created for the sole purpose of preventing wrong; and which was intended to be the ultimate and faithful refuge of the friendless. When the antidote to evil, become the source of evil, what hope for man is left? When society itself sets the example of peculation, what shall prevent the individuals of the society from imitating that example? Hence, public injustice is always the prolific parent of private violence. That result is, that capital emigrates, production ceases, and a nation either sinks down in hopeless despondence; or else the people, harassed beyond endurance, and believing that their condition cannot be made worse by any change, rush into all the horrors of civil war; the social elements are dissolved; the sword enters every house; the holiest ties which bind men together are severed; and no prophet can predict, at the beginning, what will be the end (Wayland, 1843, Elements of Political Economy, p. 112-13).

That is a profound tour de force. In light of the massive amounts of taxing and spending that takes place in our contemporary welfare-warfare state--spending that can in no way be construed as furthering the legitimate mission of the magistrate, Christian property ethics demand that we cut early and often.

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