Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Moral Imperative for Wealth Redistribution?

Lisa Sharon Harper at Sojourners does not like Paul Ryan's proposed budget at all. In fact she says Ryan's budget show's "moral cowardice." Her ethical premise from which she critiques Ryan's proposed budget is that "Christianity and most of the world’s faith traditions explicitly demand protection for the poor and the preservation of the lives and dignity of all."

While this may be a true premise, Harper's conclusion depends on her assumption that protection and preservation of the poor requires the redistributionist welfare state. While she rightly notes that much of our problem was due to increased military spending necessary to prosecute our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Harper nevertheless asserts that our current budget problem is a revenue problem. She concludes that a budget with proper moral fiber would be one that raises taxes on the wealthy.

There are a number of problems with Harper's analysis as well as her ethical framing of the issue. She quotes the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities which asserts that if we extrapolate Ryan's budget into the future, "by 2050, most of the federal government aside from Social Security, health care, and defense would cease to exist." Would that was the case. In fact, Ryan's budget proposal includes virtually no cuts of substance. Not a single government agency is done away with. Money is indeed added to military spending.

To get an idea of how anemic Ryan's proposal is, it promises to balance the budget in 30 years!! Let that sink in for a moment. In that sense alone can we say that Ryan's budget does indeed suffer from "moral cowardice." Ryan's proposal does not plan to have the debt paid off in 30 years, it merely plans not to achieve a year where our federal government lives within its means for three decades. This is the budget that Democrats and Republicans are fighting tooth and nail over. You know our country is in trouble when our rulers battle to the political death over whether to balance the budget in 30 years or in 40 years.

From an economic standpoint, deficit problems are always spending problems and not revenue problems. What matters for economic performance is the magnitude of government spending, because it is government spending that represents how much of society's wealth is being claimed and used by the state. The larger the percentage of income controlled by the government, the less productive society will be, because more economic decisions will be made by government bureaucrats who have neither the incentive or ability to direct scarce economic goods to their most valued ends.

Sure we could reduce the deficit by raising taxes on upper-income brackets. However, doing so will merely reduce their ability and incentive to save and invest. Therefore, increased taxation would promote capital consumption and relative social impoverishment. Additionally, increased taxation does nothing to reduce government control of the economy.Whether funded by taxes or borrowing, government spending prooves to be a drag on the productive economy, reducing standards of living which clearly does not benefit the poor we are to protect and defend.

Harper's reasoning is also ethically troubled, because no where does Christian doctrine teach that mandates to minister to the poor requires coercive income transfers. There are Scriptural directives for charity on the part of individuals, the family, and the church; but not the state and never through coercion. To ameliorate social problems in a Christian way requires not only seeking to achieve Christian ends. It requires using Christian means as well.

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