This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Moral Coercion.


            A friend sent me this interesting and very helpful article.  It is written by Antony Davies (a professor of economics) and Kristina Antolin (a Catholic theologian). If you want to read it for yourself, it’s at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444375104577592892933747400.htm            I feel a need to respond to it, even though I am certainly not an expert on Roman Catholic social teachings.  My response is as a Christian and a citizen.  The article raises significant questions about how to be that: a Christian and a citizen.

            On the one hand, Jesus himself rejects government power when it is offered to him by the Devil.  And legislating morality almost never works.  Thus, some Christians have refused to participate in democratic politics.
            But on the other hand, as a citizen of a democracy I am part of the State and responsible for it.  Like any other citizen, I want my government to represent my values.  My values, based on Scripture, are that inequalities and injustices in society be reduced, that poverty be mitigated, the hungry fed, the sick healed, and those in bondage be set free.  This is what Jesus teaches. Not only is reducing social inequality a good thing to do Scripturally, it is also a matter of national well-being.  History shows that nations that allow injustice and inequality to flourish do not last. 
            To vote is to participate in government and therefore to exercise “coercion” in imposing our views on others.  Perhaps these writers are saying that Christians, and others who follow values different from theirs, should not vote.  Only people who agree with them are encouraged to use coercion?  The rest of us should consider ourselves too morally pure for such an approach?  So only immoral people should vote?  Is voting itself immoral because it is coercive?
“Government is not community.  Government is one of community's tools, a coercive one we use when it is necessary to force people to behave in ways they would not otherwise behave voluntarily.  But that word—voluntarily—is key….  Charity can only be charity when it is voluntary.  Coerced acts, no matter how beneficial or well-intentioned, cannot be moral.”  
            First of all, why do rich people have to be “coerced” to adequately fund programs that help people?  Why aren’t they writing checks voluntarily and enthusiastically to address poverty?  Why aren’t they positively proud to support government programs that meet human needs?  Why are they not eager to pay good wages, give good benefits, protect the environment, produce safe products, and so on?  Why do they require “coercion” to do things merely required by common decency and moral responsibility?
            Perhaps it is because they understand “the moral obligation to help those less fortunate” in a different way than simply, you know, giving.  That is way too simple for them, and, they insist, counter-productive.  Maybe they think that investing in businesses that hire people is a better way to address poverty.  Maybe they think that giving poor people money only fosters irresponsibility and dependency.  These are the kinds of arguments I have heard, anyway.
            That may work in terms of economic theory.  In real life, though, the application of these ideas has never functioned to produce full employment or eliminate poverty.  What is more corrosive of responsibility than allowing someone who has not worked a day in his life to inherit millions of dollars?  Yet these writers would be content to allow that.  Businesses don’t hire people out of charity.  They hire workers because they make a profit off others’ labor.  And they will hire the cheapest workers they can, anywhere in the world.  And they will not care one bit about whether the wages they offer are sufficient or fair.  No doubt this sometimes happens in the case of small, local businesses.  But multinational corporations?  Are you serious?      
            And who says coerced acts cannot be moral?  Is God not using coercion throughout the Bible in warning of the consequences of disobedience?  Do parents not use coercion to get children to behave and learn?  Is not life full of such “coercion?”  The key word here is actually “charity.”  Helping those less fortunate is reduced to “charity,” while apparently giving money to the Pentagon to buy an aircraft carrier is something that may justly be coerced because it is not “charity.” 
            The point is not getting individuals to be more charitable, it is building a just, equitable, and peaceful society.  The government does not provide services for the poor out of a beneficent, charitable heart.  It does this because a society with a large gap between rich and poor, which has an increasing underclass of people without money, health care, or hope, is not sustainable.  It falls into violence and chaos. 
            Look: we don’t have these social programs because of some great liberal conspiracy to create a dependent class.  We have them because of the atrocious abuses of power that happened back the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Back then, when we did rely on the charity of rich people, millions starved to death or died from preventable and treatable illnesses.  Men, women, and children were working long hours, 7 days a week for next to nothing in pay.  Old people were left destitute.  And so on.  Unbridled Capitalism led us directly into a series of economic downturns culminating in the Great Depression, and wars that never seem to end.
            We have the government social programs we have today because Franklin Roosevelt and others realized that it was either modify and regulate Capitalism or face an even more comprehensive collapse of the economy and/or violent revolution.  No self-respecting Modern nation or global community can sustain the levels of poverty, ignorance, disease, and environmental destruction that result if you leave Capitalism alone.    
“If we force people to give to the poor, we have stripped away the moral component, reducing charity to mere income redistribution.”
            The “moral component” is not stripped away when people are coerced to help those less fortunate; but it is non-existent when the less fortunate are not helped, and people are not coerced to pitch in.  In what sense is a having a small class of very wealthy people sit on their assets while millions suffer “moral?”  With the rich it is apparently always about them.  Their “freedom” needs to be protected; their “charity” needs to be encouraged.  What about the rest of us who have to live in a society crippled by their injustices, violence, selfishness, and greed?  These writers understand morality in an exclusively individualistic way that is utterly alien to the Bible.  In the Bible we are responsible for each other, and it is societies, not just individuals, that are moral or not.  How can “income redistribution” be immoral when God commands it?  Or are these writers more moral than God? 
            The real moral poverty is when there are poor at all and a nation is doing little or nothing to lift them up.  We are far more impoverished morally when we use the same coercive power these writers complain bitterly about to fund weapons of mass destruction, or give subsidies to wealthy oil companies, or when we deliver massive tax breaks to the wealthy.  Let’s solve these real moral crises first; then we can address the “problem” of having to coerce rich people to be decent human beings.
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