Tuesday, December 06, 2011

KEEPER: Biblical vs. Deistic Economics

Scot McKnight point us to this article...
Biblical vs. Deistic Economics

I’m not sure I’d push this onto deism; but what David Dunn says in response to Dave Ramsey is worth consideration and conversation. Much of what Dunn says here was said years back by Ron Sider. The issue even for a Christian libertarian, as I see it, is two-fold: (1) all that we have is not “mine!” but “God’s” and what God has given us, and (2) the fundamental idea of taxation, which runs right through Israel’s laws, is not theft by the government but support for the people.

I’m for a good solid reading of the Bible, but one has to be careful about thinking levitical laws are for today; one has to see what the law was driving at (care for the marginalized); one has to think these things into the NT teachings and the radical attitude of Jesus and the early church toward possessions and even property; and one has to baptize it all into changing times, including a vastly different economy in our world, and how best to live this out in our world. Yet, even after all those moves have been made … well, there’s too much to say here. Here’s Dunn’s response to Ramsey.
Even though the Christian financial “guru” Dave Ramsey claims not to understand Occupy Wall Street, he does know why protesters (and by extension most Americans) want to raise taxes on the wealthy: We are sinners. “At the core of this demand [to raise taxes],” he says, “is envy.”
This judgment is not just offensive and wrong (see my last post) but sadly ironic: Dave Ramsey tells people to bring the Bible to their personal finances, so he should know that God’s economy is all about (what he scornfully calls) “wealth redistribution.”
Being a theologian, I could talk about how sharing in the life of the Trinity obligates us to share our lives with others, but another excuse to “spiritualize” our wallets is the last thing we need. I am also tempted to “tear apart” Ramsey’s caricature of the “Occupy” movement (it may truly be one of the finest examples of a “straw man fallacy” I have ever seen). But I respect Dave Ramsey as a fellow Christian and a person who has helped free thousands of families from crushing debt. (He does “God’s work.”) Therefore I will focus on the practical, theological root of his economic “heresy.”…
If we are truly the possessions of a loving God (Leviticus 25:23), then rights must be regulated by needs. In contrast to the deistic view Leviticus 25 (the closest thing the Bible offers to a clear economic “policy”) presents a more “open” theology of people and property. That is why this chapter gives more rights to the poor than the rich, saying that a person who falls into poverty, and sells his property to survive, has the right to buy it back at any time (with some exceptions). Or a relative may but it back for him.
This “policy” does not exactly qualify as what Ramsey calls “theft” (yet) but it does not support his deistic concept of exclusionary property, either. If Ramsey says nobody has a right to take his “stuff,” then I assume he believes nobody has a right to make him sellit, either. Though he agrees that everything we have comes from God, which is why he rightly stresses private giving, he sadly fails to let that belief get in the way of his laissez faire economics. Otherwise he might not be so quick to condemn progressive tax reform.
What Ramsey calls “wealth redistribution” the Bible calls “Jubilee.”
Ramsey says, “When someone takes my money and gives me no say in the matter, that’s called theft — whether they’re using a gun or the government.” Though this statement begs the question and shows a desperate need to Google “social contract,” it is most troublesome because of its exclusionary theology of property. Or as toddlers say, “Mine!” This doctrine does not come from Ramsey’s Christian faith.
Exclusionary property rights require Deism.


Catawissa Gazetteer said...

A different view from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on property:

2403 The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.

2408 The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another's property against the reasonable will of the owner. There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing . . .) is to put at one's disposal and use the property of others.

2454 Every manner of taking and using another's property unjustly is contrary to the seventh commandment. The injustice committed requires reparation. Commutative justice requires the restitution of stolen goods.

In other words, the right to property is relatively absolute. While it's true that property does have a universal nature, we have the right to benefit from our labor and that benefit generally accrues to us in the form of property. Our right to property can only be overridden when an emergency demands it for the good of the whole.

The majority of the welfare programs and all the other redistribution schemes don't meet that criteria. We refuse to help at our own hazard but if the government forces us to hand over our property against our will, except in cases of clear and present danger, then it has committed theft.

Beth B said...

Hi Catawissa--

No one is saying that Christians do not have a right to their property. What they are saying is that the modernist neoclassical economic system and the modernist view of human beings as absolutely autonomous is not scriptural, or part of Christian tradition.

Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2425 The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with "communism" or "socialism." She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of "capitalism," individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor. Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for "there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market." Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended."

I take this to mean that government has a responsibility to regulate the market and tax citizens and corporations so as to provide for the common good. If that is "redistribution of property," so be it; it seems Catholics can't argue that their faith teaches that such activity is not only permitted, but required of every just government. It's an entirely different question to ask if the that redistribution is being done well or not. If a program is not promoting the common good, then the government has a responsibility to do what is necessary to correct the situation.

Frankly, I don't see how the Catechism is saying anything really different from David Dunn. "There is no theft ...if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods."
Dr. Jeff Mirus writes, "Note that the universal destination of goods does not militate against personal ownership or private property. To the contrary, ownership is essential to free and full participation in the universal destination of goods. It is the ordinary means by which we exercise dominion, provide for ourselves and others, act as good stewards, creatively develop resources, and so participate more effectively in God’s plan. BUT AT THE SAME TIME we can see that because the destination of goods is universal, ownership and private property are not absolute values in themselves. They have a larger social function, and the proper exercise of that larger function is essential to the common good."

Beth B said...


From John Paul II, "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis:"

39. The exercise of solidarity within each society is valid when its members recognize one another as persons. Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others.

42" ...It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are originally meant for all.The right to private property is valid and necessary, but it does not nullify the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a "social mortgage," which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods. Likewise, in this concern for the poor, one must not overlook that special form of poverty which consists in being deprived of fundamental human rights, in particular the right to religious freedom and also the right to freedom of economic initiative"

Catawissa Gazetteer said...

It's in the "redistribution" that the problem arises. Redistribution is Marxist and the Church has condemned Marxism and socialism unequivocally. Her social teaching is based on subsidiarity. The idea, best explained (and explained WAY better than I'll be able to do it) by Chesterton and Belloc is to distribute, not redistribute, economic power and opportunity, not property. In other words, keep the means of production in the hands of the many, not the few.

This idea seems to equally annoy the Marxists on the left and the crazy Objectivists on the right (in the end, both want central control of the people, whether corporate or government) because it walks a middle ground and uses capitalism in the right way, keeping it within the bounds of morality, ordered towards man first and profit second.

We'd probably find a good deal to agree on, right up to redistribution. I never will accept the idea that someone else is a better steward of my property than me. Theft is always theft and taking what is rightfully mine without my permission, except in an absolute emergency, is theft.

I've really never seen a planned redistribution of "property" (which in reality is the definition of wealth) that had anything to do with an emergency. Most of the time, to be just, a redistribution will be essentially unplanned because it will be necessitated by an unplanned event, war, storms, etc. All these programs our government uses to justify the seizure of our property are not emergencies, except to the extent that they are used to manipulate one. This includes all the various forms of welfare, both personal and corporate and all the other things it involves itself in that could be better accomplished at the family or community level.

I'm opposed to unfettered capitalism, as is the Church. It needs to be restrained because it's not a perfect system. That being said, we've never found a better one. However, the best restraint is subsidiarity, not redistribution.

If you'll note, in the quote from "Sollicitudo Rei Socialis", JPII speaks of personal, not corporate responsibility to help the poor. Redistribution is generally accomplished by the state through force, charity is generally a function of the individual accomplished through choice, a free will offering of their wealth to others.

That's the Christian way.

Paragraph 2425 from the Catechism explicitly condemns communism and socialism. Regulation does not equal redistribution. If viewed through the Distributist lens it merely means that government has the responsibility to make sure that power stays at the lowest level and isn't allowed to accrue to the strongest or wealthiest alone. It means that government has a responsibility to keep the playing field as level as possible, to act as a referee, not the team captain. This doesn't mean equality of outcome but instead equality of opportunity. The poor will always be with us and so will the rich. There's nothing wrong with that.

Ann said...

Catawissa, if the current system were balanced and just, then perhaps your statement that scripture doesn't support redistribution might hold water. However, I think it's imperative that we recognize the truth that's staring us in the face: the present system is unjust and the wealthy/powerful/connected have been using their insider status to defraud the majority, and to build up the fortress of wealth (cf. Proverbs 10:15). So, redistribution is not the fundamental issue, here, but restoration of what has been stolen is. FWIW, I worked in asset backed securities and swaps/derivatives in Wall St. What they did is fraud & theft via excessively complex financial mechanisms. How does God want a just government to handle that theft? Jubilee?

Catawissa Gazetteer said...


I agree with your comment but I'd like to make two points. One, truth is not subjective so the state of the current system doesn't impact what the Church or the Bible teach. Truth is truth. Secondly, you're right to say that the distributive system the Church describes requires a certain level of morality to function, a morality which is sorely lacking today. But then, our current system would probably be much closer to a distributive system if we were a moral people.

As to the jubilee? Maybe. I've been thinking about that a lot lately. It worked for the Jews in the Old Testament but it wasn't carried forward into the New for some reason. I've been meaning to look into the reasons why. What changed? Even my Orthodox Jewish friends don't follow this law.

I think that the real answer today is to let the system collapse, suck it up, deal with the pain, beg God for forgiveness and start over. The problem is precisely the lack of a moral foundation. When, not if, the system collapses, the power and wealth will completely concentrate in the hands of the few and the many won't have the moral or historical foundation to mount a battle against them. But that's a whole 'nother problem.