Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Responding to Mike Lux...four months later

You know, I never actually think of this blog being read anywhere else but on my own laptop. This is why it never occurred to me that when I wrote a critique of an article about progressives and Christianity, there would actually be a response! You can read the original article here, my critique here, and the response here. Who knew I'm actually a "conservative writer" worthy of a thorough response? In any case, sorry Mike Lux, if I had known you responded way back in May, I probably would've responded sooner. I'm sure people have been just dying to know what I have to say.

I thought it would be a good exercise, after four months of further reflection on economics and political philosophy, to respond to Mr. Lux, point by point. Not that I feel compelled to enter into a full scale debate with him; it just seems as good a way to sort out the relevant issues as any. I think what you'll see is that Mr. Lux has not been able to cross the fundamental divide between the way he and I see political life. Although I have great admiration for him to speak up for a Christian progressive political philosophy, I just don't think he's been successful at questioning his basic assumptions about what the issues really are.

For starters, let's talk about labels. Lux labels me a "conservative" writer. Again, I'm really just flattered anyone took the time to respond to me. But after rereading my original critique, I noticed that even back in the spring of this year, I was writing things like this:
"Now, if Lux wants to argue that Christians should not be conservative, I will not argue against him. The kind of conservatism he bashes in his article is a pretty sad excuse for a political philosophy, not to speak of its biblical merits."
I suppose when I was younger I would have embraced the label "conservative." That's changed a bit in the past few years. At the moment, if were to embrace any sort of label concerning my political philosophy, I suppose it would be "Libertarian" or "Classical Liberal." Sometimes I run from labels because I just want to be thought of as someone seeking the truth in all its purity. On the other hand, it's probably better for me to embrace some sort of label, because it serves as a reminder that my opinion is not only nothing fantastically new, but also just one of a plethora of philosophies--and for these reasons it could very easily be wrong. I wouldn't want to be too slow to acknowledge that much.

That point aside, let's move on to more meaningful topics. I offered two critiques of Lux's original argument. My first point is that a market economy is not a zero-sum game. This much he acknowledges. Yet the issue for him remains the same: the government must intervene to make the market equitable. He explains:
"The judicial system can sometimes (when they find out about the problem and have enough resources) deal with the problems that are outright crimes, but only a few of the problems mentioned above are even illegal. Judges should absolutely treat everyone equally under the law, but it's the rest of the government-the other two branches- that need to be involved to make markets work more fairly. And unlike the judicial branch of government, and unlike the free market in the private sector, the legislative and executive branches of government in the American system have to make choices. Every day. The results of these choices boil down to a simple formula: who benefits first, and who benefits most? Policymakers have to write budgets that impose taxes: who do they tax and at what level? They have to decide whether Social Security gets cut or not. They have to decide whether to raise, lower, abolish, or leave the minimum wage the same. They have to decide whether schools or the military budget or both get more money, or less."
The issue here is that Mr. Lux and I have two fundamentally different conceptions of the proper use of government. The question "who benefits first, and who benefits most?" is precisely the question I think government should never be asking, whereas for Mr. Lux it is the most fundamental question.

Making laws is tricky business, which is in theory why we have two houses of Congress. In terms of economics (i.e. resource allocation), the legislative branch of government should in general try to avoid achieving a specific outcome. Rather, the aim of law-making should be to dictate what is and what is not just behavior in a free society. Designing laws with a specific economic outcome in mind carries with it a certain presumption that ought to be avoided. (A perfect example of this is minimum wage laws. As a recent article in the New York Times shows, such laws can have unintended consequences for the poorest of the poor.) The ruling elite far too often carry a heavy presumption that they can shape the world to fit their moral vision through legislation--not to mention the presumption that their moral vision is complete and accurate. Note that there is a large difference between the principles of justice on the one hand and moral visions on the other. Moral visions carry with them not just principles, but preset outcomes. (Thomas Sowell has written some fascinating essays on this.) In pursuit of such visions we are tempted to revoke God's sovereignty in favor of our own; hence the all-encompassing State grows larger and larger.

The principles of justice, by contrast, are those principles which we can apply equally to all people in every situation. Law-making will always be an important function of the State, because as society progresses there will arise new technologies and new cultural phenomena that require new applications of justice (for instance, how do the principles of justice apply on the world wide web?). Moreover, we are required to continually rethink the principles on which we have based our laws. On some issues, such as slavery and civil rights, it has taken our country decades or even centuries to come to its moral senses. These are matters of justice, and not of moral visions, per se. We depend on having a government that enforces principles of justice, not one which seeks to reshape the world according to a specific vision.

Mr. Lux never imagines that government could do anything but shape the world according to its moral vision. In his version of American government, the judicial branch is responsible for enforcing justice, while the other two branches are responsible for imposing some moral vision on the country. This is hardly what the U.S. Constitution describes, but on the other hand it is nothing new. Humans have always been attracted to this vision of government ever since the first monarch rose to power. As far as I can see, the political Left views American democracy as the ability for the common people to elect kings and queens into office. I'm not sure the Right views it all that differently in practice. But my view is that government is merely a service provided to the nation, hopefully by competent people. It is one service out of many. It is by no means the most fundamental, and it is by no means necessarily the most influential. It is the most influential in our day, since the power of the State has been growing steadily over the last century or more. This is neither inevitable nor desirable.

Sometimes I find that people confuse the American people with the American government. As intelligent people will sometimes tell me, "We are the government!" No, we are not, and it is a terrible mistake to think so. We have the right to elect governments, yes. But to identify ourselves with the government only cements the massive amount of power government already commands. It hands over to the government not only the privilege to interfere with our whole lives, but also the right to speak and act on behalf of all Americans. This is neither right nor safe. In reality, we are not the government. The government, again, is an institution meant to provide a particular service (that of enforcing the principles of justice), and as such it ought to be accountable to the people, yet never synonymous with the people.

The second point of critique I offered up in my original response to Mr. Lux was "that he creates a false dichotomy between favoring the rich and favoring the poor." Note my wording here. Mr. Lux, instead, words it this way:
"Which brings me to my other "mistake", as Graber puts it, that I was making a false dichotomy between rich and poor."
It is difficult to fathom how the dichotomy between rich and poor could be a false one, given that they are, by definition, opposites. But I am not trying to be petty by criticizing Mr. Lux's wording. I think he truly missed the point of my original wording, which I still think is pretty clear: the government ought to show no partiality. Unfortunately, as I understand it, Mr. Lux believes impartiality is neither possible nor desirable. In fact, he seems quite emphatic in stating that Jesus was biased in favor of the poor and against the rich. As he says,
"Sorry, Jameson, but it is Jesus making that mistake: I'm just following his lead. As I document in my post, and Graber never even tries to actually refute (probably because there is no Biblical way to do it), Jesus in verse after verse stated he was on the side of the poor, and in verse after verse was dismissive, sometimes even openly hostile, to the wealthy."
It is true that I never tried to refute Mr. Lux's use of Jesus' words, but that is I am trying my best to refrain from that presumption of which both the Right and the Left are so guilty, namely that of using Jesus' words to support a preconceived moral vision. But I can quote Scripture, too. "God shows no partiality," says St. Paul (Rom. 2:11) and James, too, says, "But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors." (James 2:9) As for all those quotes Mr. Lux lays out in which Jesus talks about the danger of being rich, I think it's simply an interpretive slant to see this as Jesus framing the world in terms of class struggle, in which we must choose a side. To be consistent with the rest of Scripture, I'm sure Jesus was rather trying to say that we must let go of our partiality toward the rich. The cure from unjust partiality toward the rich is not unjust partiality toward the poor (which often has the ironic effect of hurting the poor); the cure is simply justice.

One may legitimately ask, in our own day as much as in any other, whether the rich are shown partiality while the poor are forgotten. The answer will be, even now, that they are indeed shown partiality. This is a perversion of justice, that rich bankers get off with government money for doing the very things that caused a financial meltdown. This is a despicable crime, that CEOs flying to Washington in their private jets receive government bailouts, all in the name of helping the people. Who is it that actually shows partiality to the rich in our day? Those who favor State-led development are showing more partiality to the rich than any true defender of the free market. Those who insist on having an overgrown State are helping huge corporations, who continue to use their resources to make deals with government to get special protections. Government "regulations" on big business end up being favors given to particular huge corporations that happen to please those currently in power. Businesses will naturally come and go, but we can be assured that many huge corporations exist today because of government favoritism. And this is the inevitable result of unbridled growth in the power of the State.

As Mr. Lux would have it, Jesus is calling me to choose the right kind of favoritism. Yet as I read every single passage quoted by Lux in his original essay, I can only interpret Jesus to be saying that we must overturn the favoritism inherent in our corrupt political systems. Favoritism like the kind that Lux himself describes:
"Graber quotes Exodus saying that a judge should not be partial to a poor man in a lawsuit, and paints a picture of an idealized free market where everyone has an equal ability to make their own way, to make something out of nothing. But markets get distorted by monopolies, oligopolies, fraud, sweetheart deals, and political influence. Markets develop bubbles and collapse. Consumers get sold bad products and tainted food that kills or maims them. Workers get abused and exploited. Innovative small businesspeople get intentionally squeezed out of markets by big businesses that don't want the competition."
All of these things are symptomatic of businesses having too much political influence, which, again, is caused by the power of the State being out of control. Rather than refuting my position, Mr. Lux has only confirmed it. (How he could have missed this as he was writing about "sweetheart deals" and "political influence," I cannot tell.)

There is another point at which Mr. Lux simply shows confusion over basic economics.
"Graber argues that "the policies of the Left (not sure why he capitalized it) provide incentives not to take risks and not to be productive." This is the argument of Glenn Beck and so many other conservatives, but it doesn't make any sense. Which would you rather be: Bill Gates or living on welfare? Or even just comfortably employed in a good job, with a nice house, able to take vacations and send your kids off to college, or living in cramped and dirty subsidized public housing with no capacity to do the things people in the middle class used to take for granted like take vacations and send their kids to college?" [NB: It is quite normal to capitalize "the Left" as well as "the Right" when talking about politics. Not sure why that was an issue.]
I shudder to be compared to Glenn Beck, but hey, sometimes even the most terrible people do say things that are vaguely accurate. Anyway, Mr. Lux is misunderstanding the word "incentive." Economics is about choices, but not the kind of nice, clean, abstract choice he imagines. Real choices are between two non-ideal options. If you asked any person, "Would you rather have a happy, productive life, or a miserable life in which you barely scrape by on welfare?" any person in her right mind would go with the former rather than the latter. This much is obvious to everyone. But suppose now imagine a hypothetical unemployed software engineer from California, who has to decide whether to stay in California looking for jobs for another year, or move out to a small town in Nebraska to work for a small company that's actually growing. Neither choice is particularly desirable for him. That's where incentives factor into the equation. If the government of California decides to extend unemployment benefits to unemployed software engineers, he might choose to stick around longer being unproductive, waiting for a job in a more ideal environment for him. However, if those unemployment benefits are gone, he might give in and take the job in Nebraska.

The policies of the Left tend to be such that incentives are biased in one direction or another. Those who benefit from such policies may be quite grateful for them, but someone has to pay for them. Is it just for us to be forced to pay for policies that may not be of any real necessity? And are such policies going to result in the most efficient allocation of resources? Perhaps we would find it easier to come out of this recession if we didn't presume to know what the most efficient use of resources is, and instead we left it up to responsible individuals to decide how to make the difficult choices they face on their own. Cutting back on government intervention would probably result in a terrible political backlash (as we are witnessing now in Europe), but it would probably be better in the long run.

It is always difficult to talk about these things without sounding as if you're trivializing people's struggles. I am not. Real choices are hard, and on some intuitive level it is easy to think that life is unfair for presenting more difficult choices to some than to others. We begin to form a moral vision in our minds, in which the "playing field" is somehow "leveled" a bit. Yet I will defend the notion that, in spite of the fact that we are faced with difficult decisions, we are still better off being left to handle them on our own than left to the strong arm of government intervention to impose its vision on us. We might appreciate that strong arm when it seems to be fighting for us, but if only we could see the effect this has had on our society as a whole, we would understand that in the long run it is better for individuals to make careful decisions on their own, without biased incentives from the State.

Am I speaking right now of the truly poor, those who don't have enough to eat each day? No, I'm not. I do think it's the responsibility of the State to make a good-faith effort to feed the poor, and I admit this can be a complicated matter. But this matters little, since in reality the welfare state isn't for the truly impoverished; it's for everyone. Social security is a retirement benefit for all Americans (not that it helps anyone sustain even a moderate lifestyle); medicare is in place for all elderly Americans; and now increasingly the government is going to take care of health insurance for all Americans. The government has not limited itself to caring for the poor. It has extended its reach into the lives of every single American. For this reason it has become the absolute center of all public life. Is this what Jesus would have voted for if he had been born an American? Surely Christian progressives aren't so presumptuous as to think they have the final word on this.

Finally, Mr. Lux comments on my use of the story of the fish and the loaves. His criticism here is very misleading, and it leaves me rather frustrated. Here's what I said in my original response:
"Personally, I think it's impossible to derive the "correct" system of economics directly from Scripture. But here's a story about Jesus that inspires my economic thinking:"
Then I used the story as a metaphor for the way in which "God's economy is not zero sum." I thought, and still think, that this was somewhat clever. However, Mr. Lux takes my use of the story to be an attempt at drawing a direct parallel with the free market system. Then he smugly points out that no, actually the story is about a miracle that Jesus performed and not about economics. I can assure you, this was not an astonishing revelation for me. The story was helpful in illustrating only one idea, and to be honest, if I had imagined that anyone beyond my own room would be reading this blog, I would not have imagined that such an illustration would be helpful.

Sadly, what was more important than the story I used is what I said just before the story: I do not think it's possible to derive the correct system of economics from Scripture. As if there is such a thing as the "correct" system of economics. By contrast, progressives like Mr. Lux seem convinced that Jesus wants us to accept his political ideology for religion's sake. In that respect, are they any different from the conservatives they criticize?

Let me end with the very same words I ended with in my first response to Mr. Lux.
I don't believe that God means for us to base our economic policies on fear, but rather on love. The ultimate economic value is the value of the human person. It is human beings, not things, that add value to the economy. It is not a matter of redistributing wealth, but a matter of valuing life and liberty. Life is unpredictable, and liberty embraces that. But these are the greatest gifts of God, and I would be ashamed if I didn't embrace them.

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