Peter Leithart's blog post today made me think to write some thoughts on a topic Christians rarely seem to sort out. On the one hand, we acknowledge that God is the source of everything we have, and that we can do nothing on our own. Fundamentally, everyone has to acknowledge this, including atheists: everything that we have to work with is in some sense inherited, whether biologically, culturally, or in some more abstract sense (e.g. all of us are composed of matter that came from stars billions of years ago). On the other hand, we work to earn a living in this world, to create things beautiful and/or useful, to discipline ourselves into moral people, to solve some great problem, or just to satisfy our own desires. Can we really claim credit for any of these accomplishments, given that everything we have to start with is a gift? If not, why do we bother?
This question could quickly become abstract theoretical, leading to a discussion about the famous free will problem in philosophy and theology. What we can't miss, however, is that this is an eminently political question. Many of today's biggest controversies are over the question of how a just society should distribute its resources among its members. In typical partisan terms that most people are familiar with, the "conservative" answer is that people should get to keep what they earn. The "liberal" answer is that the conservative answer is inadequate without some adjustments, because you can't deny that all of your success is built on things you didn't earn; so we should make some attempt to redistribute our wealth to make things a little more equitable.
To make my own position plain from the outset, I think both answers are wrong. I don't find them merely incomplete; I actually don't think either of them have any reasonable foundation on which to build a just society. So where to start?
Milton Friedman was not a Christian, nor was he a religious man at all. Yet I once heard him make a remarkably Christian statement. It was while he was addressing a question which someone asked him to the effect of, "Don't you think women deserve to make as much as men?" His response was, "It's not a question of desert. None of us deserve anything. Thank God we don't get what we deserve!"
Life is a gift: that is my starting point. Everything we have is also a gift. Many people will readily acknowledge this when it is pointed out to them. Where, then, do we get the concept of deserving, and why does it feature so prominently in our moral thinking?
In fact, the idea of deserving comes from situations in which there is a clear hierarchy of people, with one person in charge of deciding who gets what. For instance, if you work for a company and have a boss, you expect to get paid what you deserve--not in some ultimate sense but in the sense that there is some reasonable standard by which you can measure a given employee's performance and give out pay accordingly. In somewhat similar fashion, parents often set up a system of rewards and punishments to shape their children's behavior. Thus the idea of deserving mainly serves to form cooperative groups of people by forming clear behavioral expectations.
The reward/punishment system is very intuitive, and for that reason it is hard not to want it extended to the society at large. However, the system depends on having a leader to distribute rewards and punishments. As a consequence, the reward/punishment destroys both freedom and equality, since someone will have to be placed in authority over us (thus making society unequal) and this authority will have to be used to shape our behavior toward some preconceived ideal (thus destroying freedom).
I suppose any system could work if we had Jesus Christ himself in charge of all economic distribution. But as we read in the gospels, Jesus rejected that responsibility.
A just and free society cannot decide the question of economic distribution based on the concept of deserving. Instead, I suggest that society be built on the concept of grace, which is the radical notion that we do not get anything from merit, but from the freedom of giving. As Jesus says in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, "Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?"
For the present I'm going to hedge the question of property rights and how they should be defined. Suffice it to say, without any concept of property (implicit or explicit), members of a society have no way to understand gift. If I cannot own anything, then I cannot give or receive anything. Ownership is not the ultimate value in a society, but it is a necessary feature.
(Note well that I have concentrated on gift and have not even mentioned exchange. Gift is always prior to exchange, since if we had never been given anything (at the very least our own lives) we would have nothing to exchange. About exchange free market economists have many things to say, but perhaps it bears repeating that a free society is based on more than economics!)
Once we accept this principle of grace, there remains a lot of work to be done concerning the nature of property rights and defining the limitations of government. However, my concern is that most people do not seem to accept this principle, because the principle of deserving is so much more intuitive. Surely no one deserves to have "so much money"--a hundred thousand dollars? a million dollars? a billion dollars?--and surely the poor deserve something from those who have more than they need. So might a liberal say. On the other hand, surely people deserve to keep the money they make, and surely lazy people don't deserve anything from those of us who work hard. So might a conservative say. I don't say either one of these things, because I know that none of us--not even the best of us--really deserve anything. I don't say that people shouldn't be praised for their accomplishments; but even this praise is a gift, freely given by those who rightly enjoy seeing good things accomplished in the world.
Yet in spite of our undeserving (or, more properly, in spite of the fact that "deserving" isn't the right category to be applied), we do have an abundance of good things. Should we reject them just because we do not deserve them? On the contrary, the best way to appreciate a good gift is to enjoy it, and to give to others as a response. But when you convince people that everything is a matter of deserving, it is remarkable how stingy they become. Or do you call it generosity when a man gives everything he has at gunpoint? Only a free society can foster true generosity.
On first examination, it looked as if grace and freedom were somehow opposed. It turns out quite the opposite: the one cannot exist without the other.