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

But Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature have labored to increase regulation (see here, here, here, here, and here as well), and essentially have sought to balance declining revenues with cuts in services for the poor and increased taxes on the rich. At some point, the question must be asked why the people should accept this state of affairs as if the regulatory aspect of it cannot be changed.

Most of us agree that some kinds of regulation are necessary, just as we agree that government, taxes, and relief for the poor are necessary. Where modern thinking has gone overboard is in seeing these necessities of communal life as vehicles for remaking human life on earth according to one systematizing idea or another. "Systematizers" tend to lose sight of the direct, first-order objectives on which a majority agrees, like helping the poor right in front of us, or reducing the incidence of demonstrably damaging toxins in the air. They favor instead theoretical objectives that require using government to "reallocate" resources and reorder society.

For this kind of vision, I see no biblical basis. God is first a personal God, and His great project is not transforming our material world—which He can do Himself at any time—but transforming us. This has never meant that we needn't care about our neighbors or our natural environment; it means the opposite. But it does mean that we are in dangerous territory when we conceive schemes that seek to reorder the lives and choices of others according to our "rules" and theories about disputable matters.

Taxing the people to pay for government, and making relief and education for the poor an expenditure of government, are straightforward policies. But taxing the people to "reallocate resources" is not, nor is framing programs and requirements as economic "justice." These approaches don't focus on the well-being of individuals, but invoke instead an unappeasable dissatisfaction with abstract conditions, identified through numbers and theories.

The need to count, compare, and reorder reminds me forcibly of God's opinion on the census taken by David in 1 Chronicles 21:1: "Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel." Verse 7 says the command to take the census was "evil in the sight of God," which seems strange to our modern minds, accustomed as we are to our governments compiling all kinds of data on us. Is a census actually evil?

Apparently David's motive was. I believe a key lesson from this event in David's reign is that when a ruler treats the people as numbered quantities over which he has power, it is offensive to God. Democratic government doesn't make it less so; popular majorities can be as cavalier and overbearing as kings. I must ultimately disagree with Ronald Sider that there is a scriptural basis for the idea that we have the authority to "reallocate" the assets produced and given value by other people, as if reducing our fellow men to a set of numbers authorizes us to treat them like a mathematical equation.

We are left with the problem of the national debt, which must, of course, be solved. I don't believe it is possible to get our government debt under control without revising our approach to regulation. I agree with Sider that modifications will be required to Social Security and Medicare, and I don't think tax increases should be off the table entirely. But regulation must be on the table, for reduction and reform. We cannot tax and cut our way out of debt; we have to unleash the productivity of the people, and increase both general prosperity and revenues.

Government can provide a foundation for this, with things like good schools and reliable laws, but it cannot prescribe and control outcomes. God never speaks of human government as having that capability. He is clear in the Old Testament that bounty and prosperity come from Him, and that He is in charge of outcomes. We are responsible for what we do, but not for the "systematic" outcomes in other people's lives.

This should give us heart, I think, even if it requires humility to accept. We ought to treat the poor well, but we are not accountable to God for "income disparities." We are accountable, literally, for how we treat the poor. Reorganizing other people in order to have a theoretical effect on income disparities is a separate matter.

3/18/2012 4:00:00 AM
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    About J. E. Dyer
    J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval intelligence officer and evangelical Christian. She retired in 2004 and blogs from the Inland Empire of southern California. She writes for Commentary's CONTENTIONS blog, Hot Air's Green Room, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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