Helping the Poor, Part 2: Ronald J. Sider's Fixing the Moral Deficit

I approach the task of discussing Ronald J. Sider's Fixing the Moral Deficit with some trepidation. As a conservative evangelical, I am likely to differ with the analysis and the prescriptions—and I do. But I want to say at the outset that I believe Sider cares about the poor, and that he is sincerely concerned about the U.S. national debt and the danger it poses to the future of us all. I agree with him wholeheartedly that it is morally wrong for the current generations of adults to burden our children with a colossal debt.

I've written before about the need to tolerate differences among us on what Paul called "disputable matters" (Rom. 14). Almost everything we argue over in modern politics qualifies as a disputable matter, and the methods by which we propose to offer public assistance to the poor and get the national debt under control certainly fall into that category. We can disagree with honesty and goodwill, and both sides of the argument can—and I believe mostly do—have genuine, godly compassion for the poor, and an urgent hope for the good of all.

We clearly differ on our choice of method, however. Sider has basically made an argument from a Christian perspective for the solutions proposed by the political left: raising taxes significantly on the wealthy; cutting spending on national defense; limiting and indexing Social Security benefits while broadening the basis of taxation for the program; and, in the realm of health care, eliminating the fee-for-service framework, discouraging obesity with taxes and other disincentives, and discouraging people from choosing "extraordinary measures" in their final year of life.

I am in thorough agreement with some of Sider's proposals, such as eliminating federal subsidies for agriculture and eliminating duplication and waste in federal programs. I don't see a need to eliminate relief programs for the poor at the federal level, although I do prefer to have the states administer the funds, and I believe it is important to have a meaningful limit on how long such benefits continue.

But it is Sider's central premise with which I have the most profound disagreement. There are two basic aspects to my critique of his argument about income inequality and economic "justice" (which essentially mirrors the arguments of the political left). One aspect relates to his analogy between the modern rich and the rich of the Old Testament, who were rebuked for seizing land from the poor. The other aspect is what I talked about in last week's column: the tendency to see humanity through the prism of systematic analyses, and to see systematic ideas as a rulebook by which temporal governments ought to shuffle people's goods and livelihoods around.

I find the analogy about the rich one of the weakest points in Sider's book. The biblical disposition of the Israelites' land, with settled ownership allocated by tribe, was remarkable for its time, and it is informative for us in a number of ways that God insisted on preserving it. But the rich today do not have a power analogous to the one they were rebuked for abusing in the Old Testament. To make a case that Western people become rich today by usurping the economic assets of others is to go beyond both economic analysis and any basic principle of God's.

A case can be made that governments continue to oppress the poor, however. The prohibitions and regulations of the modern state tend to discourage small-business formation and job creation while pushing prices up. The entry price of our increasingly regulated life—for the young adult, for the poor immigrant—has gradually steepened over the last century. While technology has changed our standard of living and made some things less expensive than they used to be, regulation has worked against technology to push prices upward on things like buying a home, obtaining medical care, getting a college education, and even purchasing consumer basics like food and energy.

Sider's analysis of our spending and debt problem ignores factors other than taxes and government spending. But regulation is a third factor that now rivals the other two in significance. When regulation discourages business growth and increases prices, the poor feel the biggest impact—and governments feel it too, in foregone revenues. A 2009 study of the economy of California, arguably America's most regulated state, suggested that the annual cost of regulation to the Golden State's economy was almost $500 billion, or a third of the gross domestic product.