A State Worse Than Poverty

Dr. John Mark Reynolds | The Torrey Honors Institute | Monday, March 09, 2009

A State Worse Than Poverty


March 9, 2009

In my last article, I wrote that we should love our neighbor, help him, and not tax another neighbor to do so . . . at least usually.

This post also appeared at On Faith and elicited a comment I thought worth a quick response.

My critic said:

What if that charity does not suffice? What is second best? Do you think it is better to take taxes from people and feed the poor, or should we let the poor starve?

This column evades the issue.

Yes, we all agree that taxes are bad in some ways. The question is: Are they worse than the alternative?

If we do not have “the right to force other people to help” as you claim, then by that same rule poor people do not have the right to live. They may starve or die of easily cured diseases, or live in tents. Their children may go without schooling or vaccinations. But we cannot force people who make $100 million a year to help them. Many of those wealthy people would not pay a single dollar in taxes if they were not forced to. Many rich people gave nothing to charity before income taxes were instituted, and many evade taxes today. Are you really willing to trust in their good will to avoid catastrophic suffering and the collapse of the economy?

This is not Christian, nor is it reasonable or practical.

Are the alternatives really dead poor people or confiscatory taxes on the wealthy?

How my ancestors survived the nineteenth century in rural West Virginia before the income tax “forced” the rich to help the poor must remain a great mystery to this man.

They did survive and even managed to thrive. They were part of an Appalachian culture that helped produce blue grass, folk art of a high order, and the faithful citizen-soldiers that won two great wars in the first half of the next century. Poverty and lack of educational opportunities were not good things, but they did not hold back or destroy a proud people. There is no glamor in poverty, but there is no shame in it either.

Evidently this critic is the kind of person who imagines that poverty is the worst thing that can happen to a people, but it is not.

It is worse if a people lose a moral compass. It is worse if a people gains money by practicing injustice. It is worse if a free people become dependent on the state. It is worse if a homogenized culture is forced on them by one-size-fits all government programs.

Using forced taxation to make the rich help the poor is the only possibility that occurs to some people, but this is a failure of imagination of a very high order.

Even if I assume that the “rich” are not willing to help the poor voluntarily, and the most generous people I have personally known were very wealthy, I would still not take a disproportionate share of their honestly earned money against their will . . . even to do great good. They must pay their share, but no more than their share.

It is easy to start taking money away from “those people” with the power of the majority, but it is hard to stop the process once it starts. Wanting “those people” to help the poor can also be an excuse for doing nothing ourselves.

Suppose the rich really will not help the poor. What about my doing so? If you see your brother in a tent or suffering from some disease why should your first thought be to call the government? Why not organize your community to help?

In most cases, we pay so much in taxes that it is hard for us to have the money or time to help. Private charity is direct and less is wasted, but government programs sap the energy and resources needed for private charity to flourish. Many rich people gave a great deal to charity before the income tax as you can see here.

What would have happened to poverty without vast government programs? We cannot know for sure, but perhaps greater economic growth, due to less government taxation, would have provided real jobs for more and more people. Perhaps private charity combined with strong government checks on the abuses of growing businesses would not have created the permanent underclass dependent on government that we have today.

Taxes are not evil in themselves, but confiscatory taxes based on covetousness and envy are wrong.

I believe in extreme cases, such as a massive natural disaster or regions beset with endemic problems such as segregation in the South, that some government intervention is necessary. Normal private social structures break or are dysfunctional and government can offer short-term help.

The key is to keep alive a system of “checks-and-balances” between all parts of the society. This prevents having to trust any one class or segment of the culture to “do right.”

Christians do not trust in the “good will” of the rich. We know the rich are as bad as anyone else. We don’t trust the mob or the government either. Any human institution will be dangerous if it gets too much power.

The right to dispense charity is a great power . . . too great to give to the same institution that also controls the police power. Combine the two excessively and great injustice can result as many nations discovered in the twentieth century.

When the rich oppress the poor by stealing from them, refusing them justice, or exploiting them, then the state or another social institution must punish the rich impartially. We have the right to be treated justly by the rich, but no right to their money unless it was gained by fraud.

The collapse of the economy is a fearful possibility, but not the most fearful. I fear the expansion of government spending will make this more likely and will saddle us with liberty sapping programs after the recovery. I fear resulting inflation which will fall hardest on the pensioner and the poor and turn them towards even greater political extremes.

We can recover from economic times much harder than these as our grandparents and great-grandparents did in the Great Depression. They survived this economic downturn without Great Society programs (which came in the more prosperous 1960’s).

Government “relief” (as my Nana called it) was a modest social safety net compared to the trillions we have spent and are thinking of spending in a government already bloated far beyond what the 1930’s created.

We should do what we can justly do to avoid it, but in the long term avoiding a crash is not worth destroying a just society. Greedy men were allowed to lie and steal and have brought on much of our pain. Foolishness accounts for most of the rest of it. There must be an accounting made by all of society.

I don’t support the Obama economic plan, because even if it solved our short term problem, and even that looks doubtful, it would do so by relying on the bad idea that the “rich” should be forced to do something that the rest of us will not do ourselves.

It takes “love your neighbor” and adds an “or else” that gives fearful power to the state. It expands an already bloated government without addressing the powerful nexus between big business and big government.

If we end up with less liberty, that will be a state worse than poverty.


John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.

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