posted by Amy on Nov 17

Recently the idea that “spreading the wealth around” is “socialist” and “un-American” has become a rallying cry for economic conservatives. They say that people should not have to pay taxes, but are better qualified to spend their money than government is. I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that we eliminate government entirely, so I’m a bit puzzled by this. How are we supposed to pay for the policy decisions that our elected officials make on our behalf? Who is going to pay the huge “credit card bill” represented by the decisions to cut taxes while massively increasing spending (on warfare, mostly) that have been made?

There are those who think that the concentration of wealth under capitalism is akin to natural law, and that it’s wrong to interrupt or modify the process. Capitalism is a religion with us. Suggesting that some of the wealth that has been created by the sweat of the brows of the poor should be returned to them is the ultimate blasphemy in this religion. Furthermore, many people seem to think, usually in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that someday they, too, will be rich enough to pay a lot of taxes, and leave taxable estates when they die. Based on this wildly improbable assumption, they preemptively object to “spreading the wealth around,” even when that means they would benefit from it.

As Jared Diamond shows in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel, “redistribution of wealth” has been going on for millennia. When societies went from having simple tribal, egalitarian structures to having a ruling class, the rulers (who did no useful work) began exacting tribute from the workers. They convinced the farmers, herders, artisans and laborers that they were better off supporting chieftains, armies, palaces, temples and the like than they were under the communal, decentralized structure that existed before. This may very well have been true, but once it starts, it doesn’t stop on its own. The tendency, throughout history, is for more and more treasure and power to be concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people.

The value of what “the many” have contributed is discounted or forgotten, as is the value of the infrastructure that everyone worked together to build–the schools, the courts, the roads, the airports, the banking system, police and fire protection, and the communication system, to name a few. It would not be possible for anyone to conduct business or use property productively without this infrastructure. The entire system would break down without it, yet somehow it’s against our “religion” to invest in it for the common good, or to expect those who benefit from it the most to pay in proportion to what they’ve gained.

The proper role of government is both to legitimize and formalize the wealth transfer from the poor to the rich, and to impose limits and rules on this transfer, which will include reappropriating some of the wealth and using it to pay for the things that the entire society depends upon for its common welfare. That’s my view of “redistribution of wealth.” What was originally transferred from the labor and the taxes of the “many” to the few is, in part, returned to them, mostly indirectly.

One of the subtexts of the objection to redistribution of wealth is covertly racist and classist. People object to taking money from people who “earned” it and giving it to people who don’t deserve it and didn’t work for it. Never mind that most of the poor in this country, in gross numbers, are white, the modern version of the myth of the “welfare Queen” is the myth of the illegal immigrant soaking the system for freebies. I have a few brief comments on this objection. (I actually have a great deal to say, but this entry is already longer than it should be.) One is that most of our tax money doesn’t go to social welfare (other than Social Security and Medicare). It goes to military spending, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, debt service on our enormous national debt, military pensions, massive farm subsidies (that mostly benefit huge agribusinesses), and multiple other programs. On the subject of benefits, most people think their aging parents “earned” and deserve their Social Security checks and their Medicaid. I don’t disagree (even though a lot of people end up taking out a lot more than they ever put in.) Also a lot of people engage in “Medicaid Planning” to deliberately impoverish themselves so they can receive long term care at taxpayer expense. I do disagree with that, yet there’s a thriving legal specialty built up around the practice. Another comment is that one of the largest “wealth transfers” in this country is the subsidy for home ownership represented by the tax deduction for interest on home loans–both for first and for second homes. The lost revenue from this subsidy is in the billions of dollars, but no one objects to this wealth transfer. Finally, common decency dictates that people don’t starve or die of exposure or of treatable medical conditions in “the richest country in the world,” whether they are “deserving” or not. Jesus never asked anyone that he healed whether they had earned the right to it.

The Bible has a great deal to say about God’s plan for human society, and it is diametrically opposed to our secular religion of unfettered capitalism and acquisitiveness. Of the numerous Bible passages in support of this, consider Isaiah 3:14-15: “The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the LORD GOD of hosts.” (emphasis added).

I am not a communist, or a Utopian. I realize that entrepreneurship creates economic opportunity and positive outcomes for many people other than the business owners. I know business creates jobs, and that is how most modern people support themselves. I know that business people cannot be expected to (and won’t) take entrepreneurial risk without the expectation of profit. However, the tendency for wealth to become ever more concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people, if left unchecked, has negative consequences for everyone. And let’s not forget that one of the purposes of founding this country, as articulated in the Preamble to the Constitution, is to “promote the general welfare.”

Above all, it should be noted that God sees money and economics differently than we do. If you study it, you soon discover that individualism, consumerism, hoarding, greed, and acquisitiveness do not meet with God’s approval. The early Christians knew this, and lived it (see Acts 4:32-37), but soon things began to change.

Basil the Great, who lived between 329 and 379 said, “When someone steals a person’s clothes, we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to those who need it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes. The money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

He wasn’t just speaking metaphorically. He literally meant that anything you have in excess of your need belongs to the poor. Time and again, starting with the Israelites being fed “enough” manna in the wilderness during the Exodus, God tells us that the earth is the Lord’s, and that there is enough for everyone if it is fairly allocated. For Christians, that should be the starting point for any discussion of wealth and poverty.

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