Posted by Brad Littlejohn at 9:12 PM
April 9, 2010
(See the first part in the previous post)
...Third, and most significantly in my mind, this narrative requires that we can legitimately regard the money that has been taken from us as “our money”--as in the Margaret Thatcher quote, “you run out of other people’s money.” Now, I have already pointed out one sense in which this is oversimplistic--simply by being members of a society, some of our resources have to be pooled, and the decision over how to use them will not belong to us alone. Nevertheless, it could still be argued that there are some uses of money by a society that are inherently unjust, that simply no society has any business using its members’ money for. This, perhaps, is how to take statements like Wilson’s: with the implied distinction that while there are certain uses to which our government may justly put our tax money, uses that we should accept even when we think they are ill-managed, there are others which it cannot. In the latter cases, since it is levying money from us for unjust purposes, one could make the case that it is unjust in levying the money, and thus the money still justly belongs to us. To take what justly belongs to another is “theft” or “robbery” and so, in such cases, perhaps the accusation holds.
In fact, Aquinas says as much: “If princes exact from their subjects that which is due to them according to justice for the preservation of the common good, this is not robbery even if they employ violence in doing so. But if princes extort by violence something which is not due to them, they commit robbery just as much as the bandit does.” (ST II-II Q. 66 a. 8 ad 3; notice, by the way, that Aquinas uses the word “robbery” rather than “theft”--this points to another sense in which our modern critics have been careless, though I had not mentioned it so as not to seem petty: “theft” properly speaking refers to property taken in secret; “robbery” to property taken openly and by force.)
So the question here is whether there is any justice in taxation for things like welfare, healthcare, social security, etc. Of course, these are all somewhat distinct phenomena, and so we might have to have an argument about justice in each case. But I’ll try to simplify the matter into the single question: is it ever legitimate for laws to require that resources be taken from those who have surplus to help supply the needs of those who, for whatever reason, do not have enough?
Now, interestingly enough, on this point, the general consensus of the Christian tradition seems to be resoundingly “yes”! Pope John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens says, speaking of society’s obligations to workers, says, “The obligation to provide unemployment benefits, that is to say, the duty to make suitable grants indispensable for the subsistence of unemployed workers and their families, is a duty spring from the fundamental principle of the moral order in this sphere, namely the principle of the common use of goods or, to put it in another and still simpler way, the right to life and subsistence” (par. 18; I will come back to this “principle of the common use of goods” in a bit).
Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno states, “Yet when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them” (par. 49).
Martin Bucer, in his De Regno Christi, among many other suggested economic regulations, went so far as to say that the king ought to take land from the wealthy wool farmers and give it to subsistence farmers, that all might be able to provide for themselves and that the land might be better managed and populated.
Thomas Aquinas, as I have recently posted about, argued that, as property was given first and foremost for common use, and only secondarily for private possession, insomuch as that served common use, it was a duty of justice that the property of those with surplus be used to meet the needs of those who were lacking. Indeed, for Aquinas this meant that the man in great and pressing need could take from the one with surplus without it being considered theft. (In case we should think Aquinas a radical in this, we should note with relief that he hesitated to go so far as the Church Fathers and say that the man with surplus who held onto his surplus was guilty of theft or robbery.) Aquinas does not specifically treat of redistributive taxation, but renowned Aquinas scholar John Finnis connects the dots for us:
“He teaches that rulers have a responsibility to provide, for each of their subjects, whatever they would otherwise lack to sustain them in their respective conditions and status in life. [II-II q. 77 a.4c] More clearly, he goes along with Aristotle’s clear and repeated teaching that it is appropriate for the state’s rulers and laws to make provision for the fair distribution of goods for use in consumption, so that that use be truly ‘common’. [I-II q. 10 a. 1 ad 1, q. 105 a. 2c and ad 3) In Aquinas’ own theory this amounts to saying that the distribution by owners of their superflua is an appropriate subject for legislation to avoid backsliding, arbitrariness, and inequity. So payment of taxes imposed for redistributive purposes will be a primary way in which owners discharge their duty of distribution.”
(By the way, I think Finnis’s points here help to preempt any “Robin Hood” objections, along the lines of “Well, if Aquinas is right, then why can’t just anybody take from the rich to give to the poor?” God calls different people to different responsibilities, and if you aren’t a total anarchist, you believe that he calls some people to positions of governance, responsible for overseeing justice and the common good. These people may have a responsibility to ensure the common use of resources that any old private citizen does not have.)
The principle of the priority of common use articulated by Aquinas became a standard of Catholic moral theology, and, so far as I can tell, was long shared by most of Protestant moral theology (though I will defer to the expertise of others here); it is this to which John Paul II and Pius XI are appealing. The idea is that since God only ordained private property in order to serve the common good, it naturally follows that someone cannot legitimately cling to their private property to the detriment of the common good, but should let the governors of society put it to use where it is most needed (e.g., giving it to someone who cannot afford healthcare). There is no injustice in this reallocation; on the contrary, there is injustice when some members of their society cling to resources that others may be desperately in need of.
Of course, I do not pretend that the Christian tradition has been unanimous on this point, any more than it has been unanimous on any other point. Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, and Anthony Rosmini’s 1840s treatise Society and Its Purposes, for example, seem to regard such reallocations as matters of charity, not justice, and hence not the government’s business (see my previous post). However, the grounds upon which both of them put forth their philosophies of property and politics are essentially Lockean, leading many subsequent Catholic thinkers to doubt them on these points.
The crucial standard for us, of course, is the Bible. For my part, at least, it is hard to see how the Old Testament laws did not require that resources be taken from those who have surplus to help supply the needs of those who, for whatever reason, do not have enough. I have recently posted about this, of course, but so this post will be complete in itself, I will briefly reiterate some of the same points. The gleaning laws seem like they would meet the modern conservative definition of “theft”--private property owners being required by law to let others have part of their resources. The triennial tithe, and the requirement that the produce of the sabbath year be shared with all, seem like the same sort of thing. The Jubilee law states that land must be taken from the current owner and given to the original owner. And I could go on.
Of course, we cannot make simple one-to-one applications from the OT laws to welfare laws today; far from it. Gleaning may not prove to be a legitimate basis for Social Security, for instance. Indeed, some may even argue that none of these OT laws could be used in any such way because these weren’t really “laws,” simply moral decrees, binding on the individual conscience, but no more. I confess that after six months researching this issue, that argument doesn’t make any sense to me, but I know it has been made. So, I don’t mean to say, “Ah look! The Old Testament requires us to impose Obamacare and all the rest”; but I do mean to say that one has to reckon with such texts, and with the strong consensus testimony of the Christian moral tradition, before one could begin to make an accusation like “Taxation for these purposes is theft.” Such an accusation does not have any prima facie plausibility or force, as most of those making it seem to blithely assume; it may have some force after careful and patient argument, but not otherwise.
And of course, this does not mean that there may not be many other grounds for objecting to much of this legislation, including Obamacare. One might say, for instance, that it is inefficient, or ill-conceived, that it will not succeed in helping the common good, but will make problems worse, that certain particulars of it are unjust, that there was a failure of due process of law, etc. But to say that it is straightforwardly “theft” is to declare any supporter of it, including many a Christian brother, an accomplice to a crime. As a practical matter, this is hardly going to be helpful in moving the discussion forward, and, in any case, it seems that we ought to think twice before leveling such an accusation. In light of the points I’ve raised here, it seems that we need to ask ourselves, are we OK with saying that Aquinas and Bucer advocated theft? What about Moses? If what we are now facing is something quite different from what Aquinas, Bucer, and Moses advocated, we need to spell out rather precisely what the difference and what the problem is, instead of simply assuming that, because some resources are being redistributed, they’re being stolen.