Rethinking the Religious Left

So, is the Religious Left right? Should we invoke the Might of the State to force people to be more charitable? Should we use progressive taxation to keep the rich in check?

For many years my answer was a resounding “No!” Charity, like other forms of love, should be from the heart. There is little spiritual gain from complying with the IRS, but plenty of pain. Government-run welfare has its inefficiencies, perverse incentives, and opportunities for corruption. And then there are those commandments regarding theft and envy…

But I have softened my views over the years. Jesus’ admonitions to care for the poor echoed in the back of my mind even as I called for ending the bloated welfare state. I began to wonder if I was on the wrong side.

My first correction was to emphasize getting rid of subsidies for the rich and persecutions of the poor. You can find these ideas by clicking the red buttons in the sidebar.

But are these ideas enough? The horrors of the early capitalist era suggest otherwise. Then again, life was tough on the poor back then largely because society was just plain less wealthy. How would the poor fare today if we had a Gilded Age income distribution but also had a century of Gilded Age economic growth behind us? I am uncertain.

Despite assorted bad economic policies over the past century, we have had plenty of economic growth over the past century. Charity would go up if we ditched the welfare state. Opportunities for the poor would go up if we didn’t have so many regulations. But would these effects offset the benefits lost from ditching the welfare state?

Once again, I am uncertain. And the risk of performing the experiment gives me qualms.

So today, I advocate a first-order safety net – a citizen dividend – to replace the federal welfare apparatus, and leave it as an open question how much state and local governments vs. private charities should take up the slack. The question hinges in large part on how much Christians are willing to up their voluntary efforts before the welfare state is downsized.

And yes, I would prefer to downsize the welfare state for a host of reasons:

  • There are just too many special cases for legislatures to handle. When a legislature doesn’t have time to read the bills, we don’t have democracy.
  • Attempts to handle all the special cases legislatively lead to incredible red tape and legal headaches.
  • Attempts to handle the special cases though civil servant discretion instead of legislation open up many opportunities for corruption.
  • A government that pays for your medical services is a government that knows intimate details about your life. I prefer more privacy.
  • A government that pays for medical services decides what constitutes a valid medical procedure. Abortions? Sex change operations? Viagra for the unmarried?
  • Christianity without charity that has real costs leads to spiritual flabbiness. The welfare states of Europe are going Post Christian.
  • Look at the antics on our college campuses to see what happens when the State and big corporations provide the funding.

Order of operations is important. Caring for the poor now takes precedence over long term social concerns. If we are to avoid a Post Christian United States, sincere Christians must make the first moves. We must fund the alternatives to government social engineering before certain political reforms.

This is expensive. It means serious money for schools, hospitals, private charity, and more – on top of funding priests/preachers, church buildings, TV programs, etc. In this series I will make a Biblical case for more of the former and less of the latter.

Liberty and eternity are at stake.