Jun 13 2009

The Spiritual Poverty of Socialism? Part 3

Category: philosophy,socialism,theology,Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 9:18 am

The previous post in this series is here.

Socialism, for its very existence, depends on powers of the state to make people do things they would not otherwise do (not merely to make them refrain from doing things that harm or threaten specific individuals), in order to achieve goals (outcomes) that seem good to the socialist.  In this sense, all socialists are statists.

I realize that the definition I gave of “socialism” in the previous post is not the textbook one.  That’s because it is not an ideological definition from the point of view of economic or political theory.  It is an operational one, since no significant strand of socialism avoids the attempt to disconnect outcomes for individuals from the efforts made BY those individuals, and to do so with money and other resources taken in the form of taxes, fees, restrictions, regulations, and sometimes outright confiscation, by the state.  Some will cavil that “socialism” requires “state ownership of the means of production.”  See the previous post in the series for discussion about why that is not a useful standard.

On the continuum of socialism (as operationally defined above), nearly every government/economic system has *some* element of socialism/statism.   The very nature of government involves some degree of collective action towards common goals, which will dilute the effect of any given individual’s participation on the outcome for that individual.  It is a matter of degree, and context.

Let’s start with the easy, noncontroversial stuff.  Public funding of roads is socialist.  So are government funded militaries, court systems, police and fire fighting agencies, schools, etc.   While extreme free market fans may theorize otherwise, these are things which are commonly conceived to be the province of government, even though government may execute them via private parties.  That is, governments usually hire private contractors to build roads (though cities often have a “roads department” for minor repairs).  On the other hand, judges, police, and fire fighters are usually government employees.  Oddly, K-12 teachers are either public employees in publicly funded schools, or private employees in privately funded schools, while college and university professors may be employed by private or public institutions, and the private ones often receive a good deal of government money, at least in the form of student financial aid.

What’s characteristic about all of these services (with the possible exception of schools) is that virtually everyone uses them at one time or another, in one way or another, and they are services that no individual COULD provide privately.  That is, no one could afford to build a road from New York to Los Angeles.  Who could afford to maintain their own private police force, court and prison system, just in case they needed it, or keep a fire department standing by locally, just in case?  Maybe Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, but that’s about it.  And, in any case, no one would want ANY private person to have judicial powers, the complete panoply of police powers, etc.  Nor would we want any private person, no matter how wealthy, to be able to decide just where roads would be built.

So, the defining characteristics of “socialist” policies and programs that virtually everyone will accept are:

1)  They provide services that virtually no person could supply for themselves.


2)  They provide services that would require a person to have so much personal power that we would not trust anyone to possess it.

Note that libertarians, radical free market believers, etc., may even complain about these.  But in general, most people who are suspicious of “socialism” — being suspicious of the statism in requires — will not complain too much about about these kinds of things.  Call it “socialism lite.”

These are areas where reasonable people can disagree.  How much should the state be involved in providing utilities?  How much should the state be involved in determining which cars are safe to drive?  What levels of risk are acceptable?  Any brief review of history of such things will reveal that various attitudes have existed, though the trend towards more and more statism in these areas is clear.  In any case, these are essentially pragmatic matters.  What will work best?  What will cost the public least, for the most benefit?

It is certainly not a “spiritual challenge” to seek or accept clean water delivered by a publicly owned utility with state supervision and management.

But, as we will see, greater levels of socialism/statism are clearly dangerous to the spritual health of the person, particularly those that intrude into matters that individuals ARE competent to deal with themselves, and which do not require the exercise of great personal power on the part of the individual.

That will be the topic of the next post in this series.

May 17 2009

The Spiritual Poverty of Socialism? Part 2

The previous post in this series is here.

First, in order to be able to talk about this, let’s agree that no purely socialist society has ever existed.  Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to observe that some government policies and programs are more socialist than others.  So it’s the morality of socialist policies and programs in general that is in question, without regard to whether they exist in a purely socialist system.  In any case, experience suggests that it’s a smokescreen to argue that particular politicians or governments “aren’t socialist” in some absolutist sense.  What’s very clear is that some policies are socialist.  Governments and politicians who primarily pursue those policies can reasonably be called “socialist” in normal speech.

So what ARE socialist policies?  Basically, socialist policies attempt to disconnect outcomes for individuals from the efforts made BY those individuals, and to do so with money and other resources taken from other individuals in the form of taxes, fees, restrictions, regulations, and sometimes outright confiscation.   This isn’t a theoretical economic definition, but is rather an observation of what animates socialist policies (the disconnection of outcomes from individual efforts) and the means by which socialist policies are carried out (taxes, fees, restrictions, regulations, and confiscation).  Call it an operational definition that allows the correct identification of “socialists in the wild” without first capturing them, checking their DNA and doing a complete morphological exam of their complete economic policy.  If it walks like socialist, talks like a socialist, and generally acts like a socialist….

You can look up socialism in several online references and get various definitions, some requiring “state ownership of the means of production” and “central planning of economic activity” and other things.  The problem:  the definition of “state ownership” is vague.  If I theoretically own something, but the state can tell me IF I can use it, how to use it, when to use it, who I have to pay to use it, how much I have to pay them to use it, who I have to hire to use it, where I can sell it, IF I can sell it, perhaps price limitations on what I can sell it for, what kinds of conditions I am required to provide for those I hire, etc., and after all that the state confiscates a large percentage of whatever money I can make using it, even with all those restrictions, regulations and requirements, at what point does my putative “ownership” cease to mean “ownership” in the normally accepted sense?   Particularly if the next “owner” to whom I sell it has the same relationship with the state that I did when I owned it? And now, what if all the people who (theoretically) don’t own my property are still allowed to vote for regulations and policies and taxes that impose all the restrictions I just listed, for their own benefit as they see it?  Who, exactly, owns my property?  Well, quite a few of us, apparently.

This is why those textbook definitions are of little benefit in really identifying “socialism on the ground.”  When someone tells you that European nations “aren’t really socialist,” it means they are looking at the textbooks, instead of the realities on the ground.  It’s like saying that the Soviet Union wasn’t really a dictatorship because they had elections.

So, while textbook definitions of “socialism” often obscure more than they reveal, it’s easy to see that socialist policies attempt to disconnect outcomes for individuals from the efforts made BY those individuals, and to do so with money and other resources taken in the form of taxes, fees, restrictions, regulations, and sometimes outright confiscation.

Statism and socialism have much in common.  It’s pretty safe to say that socialism requires statism to function; if there isn’t much statism going on, there won’t be much socialism, either.  On the other hand, some forms of statism (the purely kleptocractic dictatorship, for example) aren’t particularly socialist, because they have no intent to secure ANY particular outcome for individuals other than those in power.  So:  all socialists are statists, but not all statists are socialists, although in the modern world most are.

In what follows, therefore, everytime I use the word “socialist” it would be good to remember that it means “socialist and statist.”  I just don’t want to say it that way everytime.

Most people who reject socialism are really rejecting statism, its unavoidable symbiote.  I am one of those.  If there was some way of having an entire culture participate in “voluntary socialism,” where everyone worked as hard as if they were working only for themselves, and behaving as responsibly with public resources as if they were personally owned, I might be willing to consider it (though I would have several reservations…  and since we don’t live in Heaven yet, and the Fall happened, this is a ludicrous conjecture anyway).  For me, the deal breaker is the degree of statism that must accompany socialism.

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss the continuum of socialism/statism, i.e., starting with those “socialist” policies that most of us agree about, and moving to those that are more controversial.   Then, we can get to the spiritual implications of all this, the moral questions, the really interesting stuff.  Stay tuned.  I know this has been a bit dull, but it’s about to get much more interesting.

The next post in this series is here.

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May 08 2009

The Spiritual Poverty of Socialism? Part I

Category: capitalism,economy,government,religion,socialismharmonicminer @ 9:46 am

In a brilliant challenge to social theorist Charles Murray, Greg Forster points to the incompleteness of Murray’s argument that socialism is spiritually negative on moral grounds.

Faced with Charles Murray’s argument that the welfare state makes everything too easy, a socialist could ask: Should everything therefore be made more difficult? How can Murray say the welfare state is bad for making life easier while praising other state functions that make life easier, like the police? Only a moral perspective can oppose socialism while affirming legitimate state functions.At the American Enterprise Institute’s annual black-tie shindig on March 11, Charles Murray gave an outstanding lecture on the spiritual (as distinct from economic) dangers of the European-style social welfare state. But Murray’s analysis, though otherwise excellent, is missing a crucial element: an appreciation that these spiritual dangers ultimately arise from disregarding the moral law. And just as a small curve in a funhouse mirror changes the whole image, the single missing piece in Murray’s logic bends his whole argument ever so slightly, but crucially, out of shape.

The topic of Murray’s talk was well chosen. Whatever one thinks of its virtues, socialism on a scale that would have been unthinkable just two years ago is already the law of the land. We see government asserting de facto rights of ownership over our largest financial firms. We have seen a sizeable portion of the economy being brought under direct government control, financed by trillion-dollar borrowing. We have made steps to undermine the Fed’s independence that could bring about inflation that would make the 1970s look tame. Some are beginning to raise tentative but credible questions about the security of America’s sovereign debt. And the top two items on the legislative agenda this year will be near-irreversible first steps toward socialized medicine and a giant new energy tax disguised as environmental regulation.

Murray argues that, even aside from its demographic and economic flaws, the European welfare state undermines the aspects of civilization that make for “a life well-lived.” By a life well-lived, he means a life characterized by a lasting and justified satisfaction that one’s life was worth living. He identifies himself with the Aristotelian preference for seeing human beings fully “flourish,” and argues that this, as opposed to mere hedonism, is what Madison had in mind when he wrote that “the object of government” is “the happiness of the people.”

Only a limited number of human activities can serve as sources for this kind of deep satisfaction. Murray identifies three characteristics that all such activities must have: they must be important, they must be difficult, and they must involve individual responsibility for consequences. Activities that are trivial, effortless, or disconnected from consequences can be fun, but cannot make for a life well-lived.

Murray asserts that there are only four areas of life where such activities take place: family, community, vocation, and faith. The assertion is plausible, if only because Murray is careful to define these concepts broadly—a “community” need not be a neighborhood but can be geographically expansive, and “vocation” can include avocations or, more nebulously, “causes.”

The crux of Murray’s case is that the European-style welfare state undermines all four of these areas of life—and on a deeper level than even most conservatives now appreciate. The welfare state doesn’t just eat away at the material preconditions of these activities, but also detracts from their ability to provide a life well-lived.

—-In the lecture’s most powerful passage, Murray discusses how this deeper dynamic has been at work destroying the family in America’s poor urban communities—where something approaching a European-style welfare state already exists. Welfare makes it much harder for the family to be a source of deep satisfaction for men in these communities:

A man who is holding down a menial job and thereby supporting a wife and children is doing something authentically important with his life. He should take deep satisfaction from that, and be praised by his community for doing so. Think of all the phrases we used to have for it: “He is a man who pulls his own weight.” “He is a good provider.”

If that same man lives under a system that says that the children of the woman he sleeps with will be taken care of whether or not he contributes, then that status goes away. I am not describing some theoretical outcome. I am describing American neighborhoods where, once, working at a menial job to provide for his family made a man proud and gave him status in his community, and where now it doesn’t.

Welfare removes the difficulty from providing for the family, and therefore the importance of the husband and father.

And notice how, once family is undermined, two other areas of deep satisfaction—vocation and community—are undermined as well. The menial job loses its significance, and the now-superfluous father is no longer an important part of his community.

Murray is not saying that the welfare state removes absolutely all deep satisfaction from these areas of life. But the empirical evidence before our eyes, both in Europe and in our own poor urban neighborhoods, ought to convince us that the negative impact of the welfare state is extremely damaging.

—-…. faced with Murray’s argument that the welfare state makes everything too easy, a socialist might well retort: Should everything therefore be made more difficult, so you can have the deep satisfaction of overcoming difficulty? If the welfare state is bad, why are police good? Why not abolish the police so that walking home safely requires more effort (such as arming yourself) and can thereby become a source of deep satisfaction?

We can’t ultimately answer this question without distinguishing between morally legitimate and illegitimate ways of making things easier. Policing the streets makes our civilization more conducive to deep satisfaction because it is right. Coercive redistribution of wealth makes our civilization less conducive to deep satisfaction because it is wrong. Able-bodied people who live on welfare for extended periods are cheating—just as much as an athlete who bribes the judges. That’s why the welfare state has the corrosive effects it does.

—-Those who are now building the socialist utopia around us are convinced that their way is morally superior, and increasing numbers of Americans (especially in the rising generation) are beginning to think that they’re right—especially as they come to see unbridled capitalism as morally hollow and corrosive. The moral case for economic freedom—the rightness of capitalism in the context of an ethical culture—is indispensable if the disaster Murray rightly warns us against is to be averted.

It’s more or less received wisdom on the Christian Left that its socialist leanings are morally superior to those of the selfish, capitalist Right.  After all, didn’t Jesus come to minister to the poor and downtrodden?  Wasn’t His ministry about challenging everyone else to care for the poor?  Isn’t selfishness evil?  Aren’t we supposed to “give till it hurts”?  What about “widows and orphans” in the New Testament?  Aren’t Christians morally required to vote for politicians and policies that will provide more resources for the poor?  Wasn’t a form of communism the pattern of the early church?

These are serious questions, of course, and I plan to treat them seriously in upcoming posts.  If you’ve been lurking around this blog for awhile, you probably know what my general position is, but you may be surprised at some of the reasons.

The next post in this series is here.

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Apr 03 2009

Jesus the anti-poverty activist?

Category: theology,Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 8:46 am

It has become quite popular in many quarters of the Christian Left, from the “emerging conversation” to the old-fashioned New England liberalism of the mainstream denominations, to assert that the message of the Gospel isn’t primarily about personal salvation, saving faith, holy living, and the like, but instead is mostly about “the immanent kingdom,” the kingdom of God that is with us now, expressed primarily as concern for the poor, and (all too often) support for socialist-inspired approaches to “taking care of the poor.”  The Gospel is portrayed (betrayed?) by these well-meaning folks as a reflection of the battle of the rich and the poor, with the poor being preferred by God, and the rich had just better watch out, or they might wind up going to the Hell that the Christian Left doesn’t really believe exists.

There are a few problems with this:

1)  For most of human history, almost everyone has been poor.  There really haven’t BEEN very many “rich” people in any society until pretty recently.  Are we to believe that the exhortations of Jesus and the Apostles to seek God and live holy lives were mostly aimed at the tiny minority of rich folk down through time?  This interpretation of scripture makes it mostly about the rich/poor dichotomy, and lets the poor mostly off the hook because their problems are the rich folks’ fault.  Did Jesus come just to condemn the rich if they didn’t shape up and pay up?  Or was His life, death and resurrection about a bit more than wealth redistribution?

2)  The “rich” in Jesus’ time were mostly not merely wealthy, but disposed of considerable political power, with the ability to directly control the lives of many people.  There was one law for the rich, another for the poor, and that wasn’t just the de facto status of being able to hire better “attorneys,” but was literally the state of the law.  A rich man could murder a poor man, and perhaps only pay a fine, while a poor man who murdered a rich man would be executed.  Shoot, people were sometimes executed just for theft…  or less.

3)  People in prison were mostly political prisoners, not mere felons.  Felons were likely to be executed, not imprisoned, which cost too much.  So visiting people in prison didn’t mean just visiting rightfully imprisoned criminals, it meant visiting people unjustly imprisoned for primarily political reasons.  And note that visiting the prisoner was probably itself a risk, since it meant identifying publicly with someone who had piqued the rulers’ ire.  Think Nelson Mandela, not Baby Face Nelson.

4)  Jesus and the Apostles simply talked way too much about personal living decisions, moral behavior, and living out of love to divert the center of the Gospel into “social justice.”  The poor are as responsible for showing love to the rich, and each other, as the rich are to everyone else as well.  The poor are not given license to demand anything from the rich, any more than the reverse.  Remember, the “rich” meant the politically powerful, not just people with an upper-class lifestyle.  The President of the United States does not have the legal power to do to any US citizen what “the rich young ruler” could probably have done to those in his sway.  When Jesus said, “To be perfect, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and follow Me,” what He probably meant was mostly, “Give up your direct physical power over others and follow Me.”  That was the reality in that time and place…  indeed, in most times and places in human history.

Having said all that, the “rich” do have a responsibility to do two things:

1)  Give what they can and feel led by God to give, wisely placed to do the most good, consistent with meeting their responsibilities to others, which includes their families, the people who work for them, their customers (i.e., the people who benefit from their being economically productive), etc.

2)  Support public policies that will have the effect of improving the condition of the poor.  But this has to be done wisely, too.  Mere handouts mediated by the government have proven NOT to lift people out of poverty, as a group.  Successful economies do, though, by providing opportunities that no government program can sustain over the long term.  No program of government aid has ever done as much as a vibrant, free economy to lift people’s condition.

Oddly, and to the contravention of the common leftist meme, many capitalists love big government programs, as long as they can get the contracts to service them.  One of the biggest temptations of the rich is to use that power to push government programs that sound “caring” on the surface, and will result in the government sending money their way to carry out some aspect of the program.  That’s why Washington DC is awash in lobbyists: precisely the rich, jockeying for a spot on the rail.  If Washington DC wasn’t the fountain of government programs to “help the poor”, there’d be a lot fewer wealthy people and corporations there dipping into the river of money.

The big medical providers have positively loved Medicare, even as they whine about its restrictions.  The drug companies love the new prescription drug benefit that Bush added for Medicare recipients.  Ditto the crocodile tears.  Price supports and agriculture subsidies to rich farmers are another prime exhibit.  All of these were sold “to protect the little guy” and yet the primary beneficiary is people who already had lots of money, enough to hire lobbyists, while the rest of us pay higher prices (the poor pay those higher prices, too) and higher taxes because of those programs.

So: a big temptation of the rich is to use government programs (ostensibly to “help the poor”) to line their own pockets.  But it’s hard to turn down free money, isn’t it?

The notion that the Gospel is primarily about “the kingdom on earth now,” particularly viewed throught the lense of class warfare, is simply not scriptural or historically grounded in either the facts on the ground at the time Jesus and the Apostles lived, or in events since.  To wit:

1)  If Jesus had been primarily concerned about the economic condition of the poor and downtrodden, don’t you suppose He could have done just a little behind the scenes tweaking to the climate, the growing season, etc.?  Couldn’t He have managed to cause the unscheduled diversion of several Roman galleys due to weather and unexplained large waves and winds, so that the poor and downtrodden of Palestine could have kept the fruit of their labor from the evil Roman overlords?  Couldn’t he have arranged for Herod to fall down the palace steps and break his neck?

2)  All the welfare, relief and charity in ALL of human history (and I mean right up to the present) have not liberated as many people from poverty as free markets, free trade, and the division of labor.  It’s a fact.  You may not like it.  Deal with it.  If Jesus’ primary concern is for Christians to do what will have the most beneficial effect on the economic status of the poorest, then all Christians should be voting against statism (which always and everywhere adds to total poverty, and acts as a leech on the economy) and for more or less libertarian economic policy (which floats all boats).   This is, of course, the exact opposite of the tendencies of “rich/poor class warfare” Christians, who seem always to vote for the state to victimize the poor by making them poorer.  I’d like to believe it’s out of ignorance, but I’m not so sure.

3)  Jesus simply never said He had come to impoverish the rich and enrich the poor, economically speaking.  It is prooftexting of the highest order to twist His words into that interpretation, when His entire ministry and actions are taken in context.  He died on the cross and rose again, but he didn’t write a self-help book, nor did he prescribe socialism as the ideal state.  He did have a very great deal to say about the moral meaning of personal choices, made freely (both by rich and poor), and absolutely nothing to say in favor of the state forcing people to give to the poor at the point of a gun, which is the very thing most of the Christian Left votes for, feeling oh so spiritual and moral as they do it.

Oh, wait:  I forgot, there is one scriptural reference detailing Jesus’ teaching that it’s good for the government to take money from people who earn it and give it to other people.  It’s covered here, in a post from before the election.


Mar 10 2009

Other Series

Category: harmonicminer @ 4:47 pm

While you can always search for posts on a topic using the CATEGORY flip menu, about half-way down the right side on the home page, or do a direct search of the blog in the title bar on the upper right, this page also links to other groups of posts on particular topics.  In each case, there are two links for each series.  The first link takes you to the first post in the series, which links to the rest.  The second link takes you to a page showing all the posts in the series.


The Spiritual Poverty of Socialism

The Spiritual Poverty of Socialism. All posts.


Britain, R.I.P.?

Britain, R.I.P.?  All posts.


Misusing Scripture

Misusing Scripture.  All posts.


Prosperity Gospel for Christian Institutions?

Prosperity Gospel for Christian Institutions?  All posts.

Hey, What About MY Choice?

Hey, What About MY Choice?  All posts.

As time permits, I’ll put links to more series here.