Professional Pandering

Around the time of the elections last year, I read Crashing the Gate, a book by the creators of the popular liberal political blogs Daily Kos and MyDD. Among other things, this book put the blame for Democratic electoral losses in recent years at the feet of high-paid, ineffective consultants who encourage Democratic politicians to water down their positions and restrain themselves from showing passion in public. With the November midterm victories, I am hopeful that Democrats can rediscover their passion and will no longer be afraid to stand up for the ideals they are supposed to believe in. However, it concerns me that many of them apparently have not learned their lesson about relying on consultants, as was shown by a recent New York Times article titled Consultant helps Democrats embrace faith.

The story concerns liberal evangelical Mara Vanderslice, head of a consulting firm called Common Good Strategies, who encourages Democratic clients to speak more openly about their religious faith. One paragraph in particular concerned me:

Dr. Welton Gaddy, president of the liberal Interfaith Alliance, said her encouragement of such overt religiosity raised “red flags” about the traditional separation of church and state.

“I don’t want any politician prostituting the sanctity of religion,” Gaddy said, adding that nonbelievers also “have a right to feel they are represented at the highest levels of government.”

To Vanderslice, that attitude is her party’s problem.

Although this may just be a poor choice of phrasing by the reporter, this excerpt makes it seem as if Vanderslice believes that atheists wanting to feel represented by their government is a “problem”. I will be charitable and assume instead that the “problem” she was referring to was the belief that politicians should avoid excessive mention of religion. In the following paragraph, she highlights what she sees as some specific points to avoid:

In an interview, she said she told candidates not to use the phrase “separation of church and state,” which does not appear in the Constitution’s clauses forbidding the establishment or protecting the exercise of religion.

“That language says to people that you don’t want there to be a role for religion in our public life,” Vanderslice said. “But 80 percent of the public is religious, and I think most people are eager for that kind of debate.”

This is exactly the kind of statement that annoys me. Separation of church and state does not mean that religion is excluded from public life, only that the government may not use its coercive power to show favoritism toward or discrimination against members of a particular religion. If voters have absorbed conservative falsehoods about what our constitutional rights mean, then the appropriate response is not to shy away from using the words they have slandered. After all, what will stop the religious right from poisoning any new terms we come up with as well?

Instead, the appropriate response is to confront those distortions and defeat them. We should stand up to the religious right’s lies and call them what they are, and in the process, explain what church-state separation really means and why it is a right of vital importance that all rational people should support. The First Amendment is good for atheists, yes. It is also good for theists, in that it protects people’s right to worship as they see fit and prevents the government from preaching or funding religious beliefs which they do not agree with. Church-state separation is and has always been a central part of our national philosophy and the history of our government, and we dishonor our country’s ideals when we act ashamed of it. If Mara Vanderslice had been around in the 1960s, would she have advised President John F. Kennedy not to give the following famous speech?

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote — where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference — and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

That is an ideal any American should be proud to support.

And yet, there is a disquieting fact: if this article is correct, unlike most Democratic consultants, Vanderslice’s tactics help her candidates win. According to the article, exit polls show that her candidates did about 10% better than the average Democrat among white evangelical voters, a traditionally Republican voting bloc. As tinny as it may sound to the atheist ear, does God-talk help progressives get elected?

We should not, of course, forget that nonbelievers are fast becoming a crucial swing vote, a finding that this article does not dispute. However, every vote garnered by a liberal candidate helps, especially if those votes are taken away from traditional Republican strongholds. And though I am an atheist, I see nothing wrong with people discussing their faith if that faith inspires progressive and compassionate moral values, and if it is not used as an excuse to bully or oppress others.

However, I reject the idea that talking about one’s faith is an intrinsic electoral good. I do not think American voters want or prefer sanctimonious, Bible-thumping politicians who proclaim their holiness at every turn and try to force their religious beliefs into government. The conclusive defeat of the Republican party in last November’s midterm elections is strong evidence of that. I think what American voters really want is assurance that the politicians they are electing are decent, honest, good-hearted people – and they take religious piety as an indicator of that, in line with our society’s ubiquitous assumption that religiosity equates to morality.

Although this belief is misguided, I think the intentions behind it are noble. Most citizens really do want to elect moral, upstanding people to office, and in an age of soundbites and mass media, where most voters will never get any closer to their preferred candidate than a television screen, it is not hard to understand why people would wish for some reliable external marker of good character. Religion has taken up that role. And although the fallacy of this assumption has been exposed many times, people continue to make it, probably in large part because there is no proven alternative that they know of. Since atheism has yet to effectively penetrate the media, most believers are unaware of the principles of humanist philosophy or how they can be an effective alternative to divine command morality and the outdated dogmas of scripture.

We can and should criticize consultants like Vanderslice who perpetuate these stereotypes, but the deeper truth is that she and others like her are symptoms of the problem, not causes of it. These methods would not be effective if there was not a voting public already receptive to them. The real problem is the simplistic assumption made by far too many people that religion equates to morality, and worse, that lack of religion equates to lack of morality. Until we nonbelievers can make headway with the public and start convincing significant numbers of people that atheists can be good, moral individuals – which is why I encourage all atheists and freethinkers to evangelize – empty faith-talk will continue to dominate, and politicians will continue to find electoral success by endless repetition of religious cliches. We have the power to change this, but we must work to do so.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Oz

    I don’t think it’s proper to count non-believers as a legitimate political bloc; at most we would be single-issue (separation issues). I refer you to Steven Den Beste (formerly of USS Clueless) and Kevin Baker (of Smallest Minority), and myself (blogless) for examples of atheists who would probably not vote with you in most elections.

  • Alex Weaver

    Heh…reminds me a bit of this cartoon.

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    I agree that statements based on ignorance need to be confronted. I enjoyed your additional comments on this topic at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2006/03/should-atheists-evangelize. The big question is how to get through. I think there are a lot of closet atheists out there. The most important thing they need to know is that they are not alone. These are best dealt with through individual conversations or, at least, this seems to be effective based on personal encounters I’ve had. I am repeatedly amazed that SOOOO many people out there have doubts but are afraid to express them.

    And it’s no surprise, really, given that atheism has so thoroughly been painted as immoral by the mainstream media. When someone does something good for society and it comes out that they are religious, it is trumpeted all over the news that they have faith in “God.” If it turns out that they are atheists or agnostics or ignostics (see http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=839) or Brights or just freethinkers, the media tiptoes around their motivations. After all, how could it be that someone who doesn’t act out of fear of hell would actually act altruistically? The lack of Belief by do-gooders seems disturbing to many people, so lack of Belief is something best not discussed.

    You raise a critically important question: how to best get the word out? I agree with many of your suggestions. Given the sensitivity of the topic, though, many people who would like to speak out fear the loss of jobs and business opportunities.

    Whatever the best approach, I think that sites like yours are playing a big role in getting some momentum in the right direction. The single most important starting point, I believe, is to let other closeted freethinkers know that they are not crazy, they are not alone and that they need to speak up for their rights, in a way that is sensitive to the rights of good-hearted Believers and non-Believers.

    My two cents . . .

  • SteveC

    [quote]I don’t think it’s proper to count non-believers as a legitimate political bloc; at most we would be single-issue (separation issues). I refer you to Steven Den Beste (formerly of USS Clueless) and Kevin Baker (of Smallest Minority), and myself (blogless) for examples of atheists who would probably not vote with you in most elections.[/quote]

    I don’t know, look at this:

    http://iidb.org/vbb/showthread.php?t=172413

  • Chris

    Interesting link, SteveC. It’s particularly noticeable how the difference between Christians and atheists/freethinkers/whatever you want to call us leaps out on the graph that has added Christian data.

    The sampling methods are somewhat suspect, though, I have to say. Users of a particular set of internet message boards may not accurately reflect the demographics from which they come – particularly since their views may be influenced over time by the discussions that take place *on* those message boards. Obviously a conservative Christian site is going to have a lot of conservative Christians as readers/commenters, while a liberal Christian site would have more liberal Christians; neither may accurately represent the spectrum of Christian beliefs as a whole.

    One thing I like about scatter plots though is that they give you a more complete picture of the whole distribution. Looking at a scatter plot really nails down the importance of not generalizing or stereotyping based on the behavior of individuals or even the statistical majority; there are outliers all over the place. (And in this case every data point represents a uniqute human being – unless the board is infested by sock puppets or spoof artists who answered with views other than their real ones.)

    Looking at means quantifies the difference between groups, but looking at the scatter plots makes the fuzziness of the boundaries immediately visible.

  • Unbeliever

    Democrats have always had to hide or water-down their true agenda. If Bob the Democrat runs for office and honestly says, “I want to take even more of the money that you’ve earned and give it to people that I think deserve it more than you,” how many votes do you think he’d get?

    Very, very few in this country want socialism. And yet it is a major part of the Democrat platform.

    BTW, you keep touting the November elections as a huge victory for the Democrats. It was not. It was a huge loss for the Republicans, and since the Democrats are the only other game in town, they get the ball. People were voting against the current administration, not for a Democrat-controlled one.

    Damn, I wish we had a viable third party. Having to choose between bad and worse is getting old.

  • Alex Weaver

    Thank you for that delightful strawman of progressive principles.

    The reason behind social welfare programs, as I’m quite sure you’re aware, is not that others “deserve it more” but that others NEED it more. People need food and housing more than certain people need SUVs. Look back at late 19th century America for an instructive look at what happens to a society when the economy is effectively deregulated and social welfare is left to private charities. Are you actually under the impression that people were better off in those conditions?

    (Also, it’s worth noting that by almost any standard other than circular reasoning using income as a baseline, those most affected by taxation have done surprisingly little to “earn” their money.)

  • Oz

    It’s not a strawman. The fact that you want to give somebody something means that you think he deserves it. The progressive sees “need” as a deserving characteristic.

    As for high salary earners, your opinion as to their worth is meaningless, since you’re not the one with the money to pay them. I don’t think most of them are worth their pay either, but the point is that somebody with the money to pay them does. Likewise, your opinions of how I spend my money are equally worthless to me, since it’s my money.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Very, very few in this country want socialism. And yet it is a major part of the Democrat platform.

    If “socialism” so disturbs you, I think the party you should really be blaming is the Republicans. In six years of one-party Republican governance, we have seen staggering increases in the national debt, enormous wastes of money (especially in, but not limited to, that sinkhole of waste and bureaucratic corruption called Iraqi reconstruction), and a wealth of no-bid contracts and other lavish handouts to mega-churches and mega-corporations on the taxpayer’s dime. At least Democrats want to distribute some of this money to people who legitimately need it, whereas the Republican form of socialism generally involves redistribution to the already extremely wealthy.

  • Unbeliever

    Thank you for that delightful strawman of progressive principles.

    Glad you liked it.

    The reason behind social welfare programs, as I’m quite sure you’re aware, is not that others “deserve it more” but that others NEED it more.

    Right. “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Hmmm… Where I have heard that one before?

    People need food and housing more than certain people need SUVs.

    I agree. That is why those people should work to earn the money for the food and housing that they need. Those unable to work can be cared for by private charities. But don’t take money from my family just because someone else refuses to provide for themselves.

    Look back at late 19th century America for an instructive look at what happens to a society when the economy is effectively deregulated and social welfare is left to private charities. Are you actually under the impression that people were better off in those conditions?

    The period you site was rampant with government intervention in business for the benefit of those businesses. When the government gives massive right-of-way land to railroads, is it any wonder the railroads are able to form monopolies and push out the little guy?

    When the government only works to prevent fraud and enforce contracts, everyone has the same chance to succeed or fail. Some will succeed. Some will fail. And some won’t even try. If that concerns you, then I encourage you to put your money where your mouth is. Just don’t put my money where your mouth is. My money already has a mouth…mine.

    (Also, it’s worth noting that by almost any standard other than circular reasoning using income as a baseline, those most affected by taxation have done surprisingly little to “earn” their money.)

    Then why do you let them keep any of that money? You obviously are the “decider” of who is entitled to have money and who isn’t. Perhaps we should just gather all the money in one place and you can distribute it how you see fit. And if that seems foolish, then take that foolishness to the nth degree by letting government make those decisions.

  • Unbeliever

    If “socialism” so disturbs you, I think the party you should really be blaming is the Republicans. In six years of one-party Republican governance, we have seen staggering increases in the national debt, enormous wastes of money (especially in, but not limited to, that sinkhole of waste and bureaucratic corruption called Iraqi reconstruction), and a wealth of no-bid contracts and other lavish handouts to mega-churches and mega-corporations on the taxpayer’s dime.

    I’m just as disgusted with the Republicans as I am with the Democrats. The former borrow and spend while the later tax and spend. However, the Democrats actually believe that socialism is a good idea. The Republicans just threw away their free-market ideology in order to buy votes. Socialists or hypocrits…I’m not sure which one is worse.

    At least Democrats want to distribute some of this money to people who legitimately need it, whereas the Republican form of socialism generally involves redistribution to the already extremely wealthy.

    By all means, if you take someone’s money for a good cause, then it’s okay.

    And I hate to break this to you, but when you return people’s money in the form of tax breaks, the people who pay the most will get the most back. And then there’s all those millionaires that benefited from that prescription drug travesty…oh wait, nevermind.

    At least I’m consistent. I think it is always wrong to take money from one person in order to give it to another. I am teaching my son to be charitable, but not to be charitable with what doesn’t belong to him.

  • Alex Weaver

    And what happens if private charities are unwilling or unable to care for those unable to work–or those who are working as hard as they can at one or more jobs that simply don’t pay enough to feed their families, with no time or money for the education needed to get a better job (are they supposed to forego sleep in order to improve their situation or make ends meet?)? What about children who are too young to work and, through no fault of their own, are born to parents who are unable or unwilling to provide for them, or the elderly in a similar situation? They just starve? You seem to be operating under the delusion that the majority of the poor are just lazy. Speaking of self-serving rationalizations…

  • Alex Weaver

    PS: It would be a lot easier to take you seriously if you would learn the difference between “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need” and “From each a fair share of his surplus, if any; to each at least the minimum he needs.”

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    By all means, if you take someone’s money for a good cause, then it’s okay.

    Unbeliever, you seem to be under the misapprehension that people earn their money all by themselves, as if everyone was living off their own patch of land as totally self-reliant individuals, and then the government swoops in and takes what’s rightfully theirs.

    That’s not the way it is. Money is by definition a social construct, and the structures and legal systems that make it possible for people in our society to survive and thrive – the roads, the schools, the hospitals, and the laws that regulate the market and make it stable and trustworthy – are only there for your and everyone else’s use because people join together into governments to create the rules and boundaries that make it possible for an economy to exist. Taxation is not stolen from you in an alleyway by a gun-wielding bandit; it’s the fee we all pay for the privilege of access to a system we use in a thousand ways every day, both as upkeep so that system will continue to be there for us, and to expand and improve that system so that other people can enjoy the same opportunities we’ve been given.

  • stillwaters

    And, generally speaking, it’s the wealthiest of the society that utilizes that socially-constructed system the most. It’s only fair that they should pay a larger fee for their greater use.

  • Christopher

    Response to stillwaters:

    The top 1% wealthiest individuals in this nation pay over 50% of the taxes. We live in a system where the rich few support just about everybody else. Your claim that the rich should pay more in taxes has no basis.

  • Alex Weaver

    The top 1% wealthiest individuals in this nation pay over 50% of the taxes.

    This certainly clashes with what I’ve read. Citation please?

    We live in a system where the rich few support just about everybody else.

    Are you actually under the impression that these rich few, doing the work they presently do, would have a single cent to their names without the effort of the millions who do the manual labor, clerical work, design work, research, and pretty much everything else except top-level strategic and personnel decisions in their various companies (or their ancestors’ companies).

    Your claim that the rich should pay more in taxes has no basis.

    I’m quite certain that what he meant was that it’s not unreasonable for the wealthiest 1% to pay more than 1% of the taxes.

  • valhar2000

    The top 1% wealthiest individuals in this nation pay over 50% of the taxes.

    It is hard to reconcile this with tha fact that a large middle class exists in the United States. I would also very much like to see concrete evidence of this.

  • valhar2000

    Your claim that the rich should pay more in taxes has no basis.

    Unfortunately, I cannot find a source for this, so you should take it with a pinch of salt. People I have known who studied Economics told me that there is a consensus among economists according to which redistribution of wealth (taxing the rich more than the poor) is a more effective policy in terms of creating wealth, for the poor AND the rich.

    This is not, however, in any way unreasonable; since the rich must directly or indirectly obtain their income from the poor policies that enrich poor people should revert back onto the rich. Not to say, of course, that policies that appear to do this on the surface might not in fact do the exact opposite, or simply harm everyone.

  • lpetrich

    And I think that there is something insincere about many right-libertarians’ championing of private charity — they seem like the last ones who’d ever want to contribute to any charity, with their wealth worship and violent hostility to anyone lower on the social scale than them.

    And if they don’t like taxes, they can always move to some tax-free capitalist utopia like Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates.

  • TPK

    To all those asking for a “citation” about the 1% – I always thought it was the top 10%, but whatever– the information comes from the IRS. Those who are so fixated on the concept of “redistribution” should keep in mind that NO government can produce anything, it can only “redistribute” wealth that has been created by some citizen. It doesn’t matter if that citizen is Andrew Carniege or Ebeneezer Scrooge, that wealth will not be produced without sufficient incentive to produce it. If incentive is reduced or eliminated through excessive taxation, so is the wealth, and so is the potential benefit available to “redistribute” to the poor. But then this was all stated better years ago, something about a goose and a golden egg…..

  • stillwaters

    Actually, why shouldn’t the top 1% of the rich pay most of the taxes? They own over 1/3 of all the wealth.
    From this link, http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html, we have

    As of 2001, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 33.4% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 51%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 84%, leaving only 16% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth, the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 39.7%.

    And what is this wealth that they own? The common wealth. And what is the common wealth? From the Rockridge Institute’s George Lakoff’s latest book, he explains this quite well:

    Here are a few things that taxpayer money—the common wealth—pays for: the interstate highway system, the satellite system, the security system (police, firefighters, the military), the banking system, the court system. Just about every business depends on bank loans (the banking system), contract enforcement (the court system), communications (the Internet and satellite systems), and the shipping of goods (the highway system).

    The common wealth provides protection for the common good: police, military,
    firefighters, courts.

    It allows for fulfillment in life and creates opportunities, thereby enhancing the
    common good: schools, universities, national parks, roads, a banking infrastructure to start a business. The more money one makes, the more one tends to use the common wealth, and the more responsibility one has to contribute to its maintenance. That is an important moral basis for progressive taxation.

    The common wealth has been used to build highways, develop the Internet and the satellite system, uphold the banking system, regulate the stock market, and support the court system, which guarantees contracts. No business functioning in the market could exist without massive use of the common wealth. It is crucial to the existence and flourishing of markets. And those who benefit from markets have a moral obligation to replenish the common wealth.

    So, my claim that the rich should pay more in taxes does have a basis, and that basis is the moral responsibility of the wealthy few to pay back their fair share to the common wealth.

    Do you think these people got so rich in a completely isolated island? Or do they run a business supported by the vast social infrastructure that we have in place today?

  • valhar2000

    So, my claim that the rich should pay more in taxes does have a basis, and that basis is the moral responsibility of the wealthy few to pay back their fair share to the common wealth.

    I am less concerned with the moral obligation of people to support the common wealth than I am with the necessity of supporting it, given that its existence benefits everyone and its disappearance profoundly harms everyone. Since progressive taxation is the most effective way to do this, I am all for it.

    And bear in mind, please, that this does not mean gutting the rich in order to support a bunch of lazy stoners; that strawman is getting rather old.

  • Chris

    Even under strongly progressive systems of taxation, the rich, after taxes, are still richer than the middle class, after taxes, who are still richer than the poor, after taxes. If a member of the rich has to sell their house to pay their taxes, they have enough left over to buy a slightly less palatial one (and buy it outright, unlike the middle class with their mortgages or the poor who generally rent). Therefore the incentive to financial upward mobility is still quite strong.

    A more dangerous economic threat comes from the fact that productivity is not very well linked to earnings. CEOs whose companies go down the tubes still make huge amounts of money (especially if they sell their stock early enough), while the worker on the assembly line could be producing more than ever and still be laid off, or just see their wages eroded by inflation. The most reliable way for an individual to make more money is not to be more productive, but to be more successful at office politics and getting ahead of other employees and/or jumping to a better-paying job at another company. The skills to get hired at better jobs are far more important to one’s personal financial success than the skills to actually *perform* in those jobs. Lots of high paid people produce little or nothing of value.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    To all those asking for a “citation” about the 1% – I always thought it was the top 10%, but whatever– the information comes from the IRS.

    A more specific citation might be nice.

    Those who are so fixated on the concept of “redistribution” should keep in mind that NO government can produce anything…

    This is a highly misleading statement. As others in this thread have expressed so well, the only reason that individuals or businesses can produce anything of value is through use of the common infrastructure created and maintained by government.

    The last time in history that human beings lived completely on their own, with no government to tax what they produce, was the Stone Age. It is not a coincidence that the growth of complex societies has accompanied every cultural and technological advance we’ve made since then. People who are absolutely self-sufficient can produce practically nothing. It takes the formal laws and arrangements of society, and by implication a government that oversees and enforces those laws, to give rise to the kind of innovation that has so greatly improved our lives.

  • Unbeliever

    Alex stated: And what happens if private charities are unwilling or unable to care for those unable to work

    Isn’t that what private charities are for? The reason they exist in the first place? And the number of individuals who are unable to work is a small percentage of the people who receive government welfare.

    or those who are working as hard as they can at one or more jobs that simply don’t pay enough to feed their families, with no time or money for the education needed to get a better job (are they supposed to forego sleep in order to improve their situation or make ends meet?)?

    Why do I have to pay for someone’s inability to plan their life better? I waited to get married and have a child until I was a financial situation to provide for a family. If someone else refused to do that, then that’s too bad for them. Stop making me pay for someone else’s mistakes.

    What about children who are too young to work and, through no fault of their own, are born to parents who are unable or unwilling to provide for them, or the elderly in a similar situation? They just starve?

    Obviously, children would be considered unable to work. There are probably more charities to assist children than any other segment of society. And if parents neglect their children, then the children should be removed and placed with a family that can care for them.

    You seem to be operating under the delusion that the majority of the poor are just lazy. Speaking of self-serving rationalizations.

    No, some are lazy, some are unlucky, but most just make poor life decisions. Charities should help the unlucky. The rest need to grow up and become full members of society.

    PS: It would be a lot easier to take you seriously if you would learn the difference between “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need” and “From each a fair share of his surplus, if any; to each at least the minimum he needs.”

    Who decides fair? Who decides what a surplus is? If there are people who don’t have any food, can I come to your house and remove all the food leaving you just enough to get by on?

    Besides, our tax system assumes that anything above a certain amount is a surplus. What if I am spending a great deal of money caring for a sick child or an elderly parent? Maybe that doesn’t leave a surplus. And yet I have to pay the same taxes anyway.

  • Unbeliever

    Ebonmuse stated: Unbeliever, you seem to be under the misapprehension that people earn their money all by themselves, as if everyone was living off their own patch of land as totally self-reliant individuals, and then the government swoops in and takes what’s rightfully theirs.

    No, we all benefit from having a government that protect our rights. But we don’t benefit from the guy under the overpass that refuses provide for himself. I am happy to pay the government to protect me, but I don’t need to be forced to pay for someone who is a drain on society.

    That’s not the way it is. Money is by definition a social construct, and the structures and legal systems that make it possible for people in our society to survive and thrive – the roads, the schools, the hospitals, and the laws that regulate the market and make it stable and trustworthy – are only there for your and everyone else’s use because people join together into governments to create the rules and boundaries that make it possible for an economy to exist. Taxation is not stolen from you in an alleyway by a gun-wielding bandit; it’s the fee we all pay for the privilege of access to a system we use in a thousand ways every day, both as upkeep so that system will continue to be there for us,

    I agree with you almost completely up to this point. We citizens can all use these institutions equally and no one person benefits over someone else. I’m not 100% sure about schools and hospitals since these would probably do better in the private sector.

    and to expand and improve that system so that other people can enjoy the same opportunities we’ve been given.

    They already have that opportunity. The ones who do not avail themselves of it shouldn’t be subsidized by the rest of us.

  • Unbeliever

    lpetrich stated: And I think that there is something insincere about many right-libertarians’ championing of private charity; they seem like the last ones who’d ever want to contribute to any charity, with their wealth worship and violent hostility to anyone lower on the social scale than them.

    “Seem like…?” Do you have any evidence that libertarians are less likely to donate that others? Wanting people to be able to keep almost all of what they earn to do with as they please is not “wealth worship.” And I have zero hostility for someone who is poor but works to provide for their families and made sound life decisions.

    And if they don’t like taxes, they can always move to some tax-free capitalist utopia like Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates

    Well, the “socialist-America, love it or leave it” comment took longer than I’d expected, but thanks for coming through for me.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Stop making me pay for someone else’s mistakes.

    If a person with a steady job suffers an illness or serious accident that leaves them unable to work for an extended period of time, and the medical bills end up depleting their savings and cause them to lose their job and their home, is that a mistake?

    If a person with a steady job loses that job because the company they work for decides to move overseas to hire cheaply paid non-union labor, or because the company implodes due to accounting fraud committed by senior management, is that a mistake?

    If a person with a steady job is forced to leave due to a commitment to serve in the military, and returns home to find that their former job is lost and nothing new is open to them, is that a mistake?

    If a person is employed, but at a non-union, minimum-wage job that provides no benefits and not even enough of a salary to pay for rent and food each month, is that a mistake?

    These are not purely hypothetical scenarios. There are thousands of real people in each of the dire straits I described, plus many others. Assuming private charity is incapable of providing for these people’s necessities, which is very often the case, what would you advocate we do? Leave them to starve in the streets and, as Dickens said, “decrease the surplus population”? Reinstitute debtors’ prisons? I really want to hear your solution to this that doesn’t involve any form of government-sponsored social program.

  • Unbeliever

    Ebonmuse stated: As others in this thread have expressed so well, the only reason that individuals or businesses can produce anything of value is through use of the common infrastructure created and maintained by government.

    Again, no argument. Government must exist to protect the rights of it’s citizens and provide a very few pieces of that infrastrucure, like roads. But these acts of government benefit us all equally. There is no section of the interstate that was given to you or me. Wealth redistribution is unlike this. It forcibly takes from one to give to another. I don’t benefit equally from a welfare check given to a 20-year-old mother of five who’s addicted to crack.

    The last time in history that human beings lived completely on their own, with no government to tax what they produce, was the Stone Age. It is not a coincidence that the growth of complex societies has accompanied every cultural and technological advance we’ve made since then. People who are absolutely self-sufficient can produce practically nothing. It takes the formal laws and arrangements of society, and by implication a government that oversees and enforces those laws, to give rise to the kind of innovation that has so greatly improved our lives.

    Well said. Government is a necessary evil, but necessary nonetheless. However, because of the police powers the state must have to enforce laws, government should do nothing other than protect the rights of it’s citizens. Otherwise, the government will become a tyranny that takes control of everything in order to maintain its power.

    This is a great read about one man’s take on forced charity.

  • Unbeliever

    Ebonmuse stated: If a person with a steady job suffers an illness or serious accident that leaves them unable to work for an extended period of time, and the medical bills end up depleting their savings and cause them to lose their job and their home, is that a mistake?

    This is where friends, family, and charities step in. if we all weren’t paying so much in taxes to a bloated government, we would be able to help more in these situations.

    If a person with a steady job loses that job because the company they work for decides to move overseas to hire cheaply paid non-union labor, or because the company implodes due to accounting fraud committed by senior management, is that a mistake?

    This is why having some savings is so important. Being a good citizen is planning for the future, even a bad one. In this economy there are always jobs. They may not be the one you want or pay what you think you’re worth, but they are there. if I lost my job, I’d take any job in order to proivide for my family. Especially before ‘d be willing to take the money that belongs to others. Also, the government should prosecute the senior management.

    If a person with a steady job is forced to leave due to a commitment to serve in the military, and returns home to find that their former job is lost and nothing new is open to them, is that a mistake?

    Protecting its citizens from a foriegn aggressor is one of the few legitimate functions of government. And it requires personnel to do that. So the government must ensure the employment of our servicemen and women.

    If a person is employed, but at a non-union, minimum-wage job that provides no benefits and not even enough of a salary to pay for rent and food each month, is that a mistake?

    My question would be: why can you not get anything else? In most instances, this is the only path left because of poor life decisions made previously. It is a mistake to goof-off in high school. It is a mistake to get married and have a family before you can provide for one. It is a mistake to lose your job due to alcoholism or drug-use. It is a mistake to break the law and become a felon. If you are making minimum-wage, odds are that you are either a teenager making some spending money or someone who has thrown their life away and can’t do any better.

    These are not purely hypothetical scenarios. There are thousands of real people in each of the dire straits I described, plus many others. Assuming private charity is incapable of providing for these people’s necessities, which is very often the case, what would you advocate we do? Leave them to starve in the streets and, as Dickens said, “decrease the surplus population”? Reinstitute debtors’ prisons? I really want to hear your solution to this that doesn’t involve any form of government-sponsored social program.

    Yes, if you have screwed-up your life so badly that no charity will help you and you refuse to take the steps necessary to provide for yourself, then you can starve. And knowing that starvation awaits, some might be encouraged to do what’s necessary to survive. We have created a system where failure carries almost no consequences. If I know that not paying my mortgage will put my family out on the street, I am much more inclined to so do. But if I know that the government will float me for a few months, then my inclination may not be a strong.

    My major problem with the liberal philosophy is its complete disdain for personal responsibility. Some people will waste their lives. If you want to save them, then please do so. But stay out of my wallet when you do. You can’t be charitable with someone else’s money.

  • Alex Weaver

    “Almost no consequences?”

    Have you ever tried *living* on welfare? Having known people who have (up to and including marrying the daughter of one), your perspective on what it entails and what results from it seems unbelievably naive.

    Also, the fact of the matter is that many decent paying jobs require a college education. That ain’t free, and there’s only so much scholarship money to go around. Not being able to afford a college education doesn’t mean a person “goofed off in high school.” The root of your position seems to be a circular argument that if people are doing poorly it’s their fault.

    As for “disdain for personal responsibility,” did the repeated references to the common infrastructure used by everyone, used more extensively by the wealthy, and to the practical necessity and moral responsibility of maintaining it as a motive for accepting taxes go completely over your head?

  • stillwaters

    So, Unbeliever’s solution to the dire straits of thousands of real, American people is to let them starve. I guess that’s why you are so supportive of a strong police force paid for by tax dollars – to protect you from all those starving “goof-offs”.

    Unbeliever, your empathy is pathetic. I truly wish that you would meet with great misfortune, and end up homeless, with nobody to help you. Then, you might realize how thousands of truly poor people feel every day of their lives.

    Speaking as someone who was on welfare once, let me say that it is not a system that supports lazy, no-good, crack-addicts with a dozen kids. It is a system that helps people out when they need that help. When I was receiving welfare, I felt terrible about it. We were receiving medical assistance for my wife, myself, and our child, along with food stamps and a little cash, not much to speak of. It certainly wasn’t enough to pay the rent. Have you ever gone shopping for food and paid with food stamps? It’s not any fun at all. You feel completely terrible doing it. Like you’re a disease on society. And we weren’t buying steak and lobster with those food stamps. We got just enough to feed ourselves.

    I think for the majority of the people receiving some sort of welfare, they don’t like it, and they want to get off it and make a living for themselves. Welfare, in my view, helps out those people who need a little help from time to time to get by. Until they get back on their feet again.

    But, you, with your hard heart and disgust for those inferior to you, wouldn’t understand that sometimes people need a helping hand. The next time my car breaks down in a deserted place at night, I hope you’re not the only driver coming by. I would never get any help from you, and would probably starve to death (as if you’d care).

    To continue with my welfare situation, when my wife and I got back on our feet a little better, they reduced our cash to nothing, and our food stamps to about half. We still had our medical assistance, though. After a little more time, the food stamps went away also, as did the medical assistance for my wife and I. We still had it for our child, though. So, you see that the system helps you out when you need it, and then gradually lets you get back together again. For the most part, people aren’t on welfare for more than two years. Here’s where you can find that statistic, along with some others.

    Since that time, my wife and I have given enough taxes back to the government to pay for the welfare that we received from them (several times over).

    I also know that the welfare system has changed dramatically since I was on it, and not for the better. I just think it’s a real problem for society as a whole when there are people living in the streets who are too poor to even buy food, let alone any type of shelter. And blaming the victims is not going to solve the problem. Maybe you don’t have to deal with it, Unbeliever, or even see it, but when it exists in your country, it does affect you, directly or indirectly, now or eventually, it does affect you.

  • TPK

    Greetings to all after a hard day of work- has anyone noticed that the delightful rarified religio-philosophical atmosphere around here has gotten more and more political? That being said, this is one of the more rollicking threads to date. Sigh…whatever happened to Zeus and Pascal’s Wager and ID and stuff like that?

    Does anyone remember PM Churchill’s comment to the effect that capitalism is the worst system, except for all the others? When JFK cut the marginal income
    tax rate, the economy boomed and the treasury collected a surplus. When Reagan did the same thing, only more drastically, revenues to the IRS nearly doubled. These are indisputsable facts. If the premise is that the government treasury should always have sufficient assets to redistribute to the poor, does this not imply that “progressives” should always be in favor of low income tax rates?

    And I was just wondering, and am asking this question in hopes of sincere feedback…how did our 18th and 19th-century forbears manage to lay the foundation of and build an economic superpower with no Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, unemployment compensation, or income tax? PLEASE: I am fully aware that I and my family have benefited fron most of the aforementiond—–am just throwing out the question.

  • TPK

    PS I will find the specific citation from the IRS on who pays what taxes and post as soon as able

  • stillwaters

    From wikipedia, for the United States in 2006:

    The Treasury Department in 2006 reported, based on IRS data, the share of all federal taxes paid by taxpayers of various income levels. The data shows the progressive structure of the U.S. federal tax system that reduces the tax incidence of people with smaller incomes, as they shift the incidence disproportionately to those with higher incomes – the top 0.1% of taxpayers by income pay 17.4% of all federal taxes (earning 9.1% of the income), the top 1% pay 36.9% (earning 19%), the top 5% pay 57.1% (earning 33.4%), and the bottom 50% pay 3.3% (earning 13.4%).

  • Alex Weaver

    Uh, didn’t the national debt increase by a factor of…what was it again? Following Reagan’s economic policy? Wasn’t there somewhat of a recession during his presidency? Where on earth are you getting these factoids?

    As for the United States building an economic superpower…for the simple reason that it is possible to build an economic superpower even if large numbers of people are living in crushing poverty. GNP and other indicators of wealth aren’t calculated using a “prevalence and intensity of suffering” variable.

  • Unbeliever

    Alex stated: “Almost no consequences?” Have you ever tried *living* on welfare? Having known people who have (up to and including marrying the daughter of one), your perspective on what it entails and what results from it seems unbelievably naive.

    Of course some people fall on hard times through no fault of their own. Those people deserve our compassion. But it is the obligation of family, friends, and private charities to assist them. However, there are also some who are content to live their lives in the safety net. Who have no intention of getting back up on the tight-rope. Why take what I and others have worked to earn and give it to these individuals?

    Also, the fact of the matter is that many decent paying jobs require a college education. That ain’t free, and there’s only so much scholarship money to go around. Not being able to afford a college education doesn’t mean a person “goofed off in high school.”

    And many decent paying jobs don’t require a degree. I don’t think a person has to have a degree to be successful. And do you deny that many who struggle to be successful chose to throw away the opportunity of a free education in public school?

    The root of your position seems to be a circular argument that if people are doing poorly it’s their fault.

    Many times it is. When people make poor decisions, that’s unfortunate for them. But taking another’s property against their will doesn’t make it better.

    As for “disdain for personal responsibility,” did the repeated references to the common infrastructure used by everyone, used more extensively by the wealthy, and to the practical necessity and moral responsibility of maintaining it as a motive for accepting taxes go completely over your head?”

    As I’ve said several times now, I agree that we should all help pay for the infrastructure that we all have equal access to. However, helping to pay for a road that anyone can use and having your money taken and given directly to someone else is a different thing entirely.

  • Unbeliever

    stillwaters stated:So, Unbeliever’s solution to the dire straits of thousands of real, American people is to let them starve.

    Go back and read it again. The people who refuse to work to better themselves deserve their fate. They have no one to blame but themselves. Those who are in trouble through no fault of their own deserve assistance. Voluntary assistance. The kind that comes from people because they want to help, not because they are threatened with prison.

    I guess that’s why you are so supportive of a strong police force paid for by tax dollars – to protect you from all those starving “goof-offs”.

    Do you deny that many of those who refuse to be productive members of society often turn to crime?

    Unbeliever, your empathy is pathetic.

    I’ve never said we shouldn’t help those deserving of it. I’m saying that we shouldn’t steal from other people to do it.

    I truly wish that you would meet with great misfortune, and end up homeless, with nobody to help you. Then, you might realize how thousands of truly poor people feel every day of their lives.

    While you may disagree with me, I do not wish any misfortune to befall you.

    Speaking as someone who was on welfare once, let me say that it is not a system that supports lazy, no-good, crack-addicts with a dozen kids.

    Are you seriously suggesting that there are no people like this on welfare?

    It is a system that helps people out when they need that help.

    I’m not suggesting that we do away with this type of assistance. I’m saying that it is the job of private charity, not the government.

    When I was receiving welfare, I felt terrible about it. We were receiving medical assistance for my wife, myself, and our child, along with food stamps and a little cash, not much to speak of. It certainly wasn’t enough to pay the rent. Have you ever gone shopping for food and paid with food stamps? It’s not any fun at all. You feel completely terrible doing it. Like you’re a disease on society. And we weren’t buying steak and lobster with those food stamps. We got just enough to feed ourselves.

    And I think that private charities could do a better job of providing help with dignity. There is no shame when something happens beyond your control. But would it have made you feel better knowing that the assistance your were given was purely voluntary rather than taken by force?

    I think for the majority of the people receiving some sort of welfare, they don’t like it, and they want to get off it and make a living for themselves. Welfare, in my view, helps out those people who need a little help from time to time to get by. Until they get back on their feet again.

    And if private charities could do this, would that be acceptable to you?

    But, you, with your hard heart and disgust for those inferior to you, wouldn’t understand that sometimes people need a helping hand. The next time my car breaks down in a deserted place at night, I hope you’re not the only driver coming by. I would never get any help from you, and would probably starve to death (as if you’d care).

    If it makes you feel better to insult me, go ahead. But it doesn’t strengthen your argument that forced charity is a noble exercise. I am a very kind, giving person. I would give you the shirt off my back. But that is my choice. If you try to use the power of the state to force me to give my shirt to you, that’s when we have a problem.

  • stillwaters

    Myth: Welfare can be replaced by charity

    Myth: Welfare can be replaced by charity.

    Fact: Charity is too under-funded, too localized, too mismatched and too ill-suited to replace welfare.

    Myth: People on welfare should just find jobs

    Myth: People on welfare should just find jobs.

    Fact: The natural rate of unemployment is 5-6 percent — and impossible to reduce to zero.

    Unbeliever, most contributions in America go to churches, almost 50% in fact. Now, I realize that many of these churches do some good work, but they are obviously not taking care of the poor people of this country. Otherwise, nobody would be asking for help from the government.

    When there are national charities established that can actually take care of these poor people, then we won’t need government assistance. But that doesn’t exist.

    Let me ask you a question. When you received your tax break from George Bush a couple of years ago, what did you do with it? Did you give it all to charity? To a charity specifically designed to help poor and homeless people? Or did you use it to buy that new plasma TV you’ve been looking at?

    The private charity idea is a great idea, but it doesn’t exist. These people need help now, and there are not enough charities to help them.

    I look at paying my taxes as a moral responsibility to help out my fellow citizens. I don’t mind paying my taxes to help others less fortunate than myself, because I think of it as charity. If the government is using my taxes to do charitable services, how is this any different than giving to a private charity?

  • TPK

    Stillwaters: Do you seriously believe that the greater part of the taxes you pay go to “help out your fellow citizens?” I am on this site as a flaming nonbeliever with serious reservations about such things as “faith-based initiatives.” HOWEVER: I wonder if anyone has ever done a study as to how many of the dollars forcibly confiscated by the government actually find their way to the deserving recipients, versus how many of the dollars contributed to church charities reach that destination?

  • valhar2000

    Bear in mind that the government has to fund many more activities than just “welfare”, so most taxes that you pay will not go into helping the poor and needy, even if the government that collects them is very streamlined and efficient.

  • valhar2000

    And, of course, charities have administrative costs, and have to pay for advertising to keep the money rolling in, so not all the money you give them is used the way we would wish it to be.

  • stillwaters

    TPK writes:

    Stillwaters: Do you seriously believe that the greater part of the taxes you pay go to “help out your fellow citizens?”

    Where did I ever make such a statement? I didn’t and wouldn’t say such a thing. In fact, I think the greater part of my taxes presently go towards funding our occupation of Iraq, not towards helping our own citizens.

    My point about taxes being viewed as charity is that I don’t believe that private charity would pick up and fulfill the work presently being done by the government. If the government did not help out the poor people with welfare, then, for most of the people, nobody would. Lowering taxes, IMO, will not increase charitable contributions.

  • Unbeliever

    stillwaters stated: Myth: Welfare can be replaced by charity

    The American people are very generous, they always have been. However, when the government took over the job of caring for our family, friends, and neighbors, we no longer needed to keep giving. We must return to a society that cares for its own rather than push off the job to the government. I wouldn’t suggest that we just one day turn off the faucet. But we should start phasing out all these entitlement and welfare programs, becuase forced charity may have beneficial results, but the ends cannot justify the means.

    People on welfare should just find jobs

    Most already do. For most, welfare tends to be temporary. The unemployment number represents those without jobs at that moment. It says nothing about how many of those individuals got work within a week or two. However, a certain segment of those on welfare have no intention of working to better their situation. Those few do not deserve anything. The rest deserve our help through voluntary charity.

    Unbeliever, most contributions in America go to churches, almost 50% in fact. Now, I realize that many of these churches do some good work, but they are obviously not taking care of the poor people of this country. Otherwise, nobody would be asking for help from the government.

    Then how did people get taken care of before welfare?

    When there are national charities established that can actually take care of these poor people, then we won’t need government assistance. But that doesn’t exist.

    Because there is now no need for them. Our monolithic federal government has so filled this void that nobody needs to create such a charity. That is part of the problem.

    Let me ask you a question. When you received your tax break from George Bush a couple of years ago, what did you do with it? Did you give it all to charity? To a charity specifically designed to help poor and homeless people? Or did you use it to buy that new plasma TV you’ve been looking at?

    I probably used it to pay down bills that I couldn’t otherwise pay because of the enormous tax burder I have to contend with.

    The private charity idea is a great idea, but it doesn’t exist. These people need help now, and there are not enough charities to help them.

    Then let’s get started. Are you prepared to phase in national charities and phase out the government?

    I look at paying my taxes as a moral responsibility to help out my fellow citizens.

    I look at it as my way of paying for the government-provided service of protecting my rights. Nothing more.

    I don’t mind paying my taxes to help others less fortunate than myself, because I think of it as charity. If the government is using my taxes to do charitable services, how is this any different than giving to a private charity?

    Let’s say that I am giving you a lift to the doctor’s office. You have exactly $20 for your copay. As we come to a red light, I see a homeless man along side the road. I want to give him enough money for a decent meal, say $10. But I only have a five. So I take your wallet, pull out $5 and give him the combined $10. How would this sit with you? Now you don’t have enough to pay the doctor and will have to reschedule. I could say that you are always giving to help the poor so it’s all the same anyway, but is it really? Didn’t I just steal your money to do something I thought was right?

    If a man stops me on the street and threatens to harm me if I don’t give him some money, does it make it okay of he turns around and gives that money to a soup kitchen?

    I’m saying that we all should help. But I’m also saying that we shouldn’t be threatened with prison if we don’t.

  • Alex Weaver

    Then how did people get taken care of before welfare?

    Many didn’t, and starved as a result. That’s *why* welfare was established in the first place.

  • stillwaters

    Unbeliever writes:

    I probably used it to pay down bills that I couldn’t otherwise pay because of the enormous tax burder [sic] I have to contend with.

    Exactly, that’s why if we got rid of welfare, there would be no charity to take its place. We’d spend all of our money on something else. And if us Americans are so damn generous, then why are so many complaining about having a welfare system that helps the poor people?

    Btw, if you don’t like the huge tax burden, why don’t you oppose the occupation in Iraq? That’s costing us thousands of dollars every second. The total cost for almost 4 years is over $350 billion. That could feed a lot of hungry mouths, don’t you think?

  • Unbeliever

    stillwaters stated: Exactly, that’s why if we got rid of welfare, there would be no charity to take its place. We’d spend all of our money on something else.

    If we reduced the tax burden by cutting government down to only protecting our rights, we’d be swimming in money. Some would increase donations and some would not. The point is that it is their money, not yours. If I threatened you with prison if you didn’t increase your charitable donations, you’d tell me to get lost. But when the government does just that, you applaud them. Using force is using force, regardless who has the gun to your head.

    And if us Americans are so damn generous, then why are so many complaining about having a welfare system that helps the poor people?

    Because it takes money from them against their will and gives it to someone else! Why is that concept so hard to understand? I already give to charity. But I don’t want to be forced to do it. Let’s assume that you regularly give blood. Since you already do this, would it matter to you if Congress passed a law required all healthy adults to give 2 units a year or face prison?

    Btw, if you don’t like the huge tax burden, why don’t you oppose the occupation in Iraq? That’s costing us thousands of dollars every second. The total cost for almost 4 years is over $350 billion. That could feed a lot of hungry mouths, don’t you think?

    Because a national defense is a legitimate function of government. With Saddam deposed (and now dead), he no longer poses a threat to the US. All Americans benefit equally from this. Taxes for the war on terror take from Bob to protect Bob. Welfare takes from Bob to only help Tom. See the difference?