On Justice and the Healthcare Bill Part 2

This is the followup posted by my friend Chris, I’m sure he’ll get to your comments when he finds time, he often moonlights as a blogger, and works during the day. But here’s part two, thoughts?

I decided to post this as a separate [post] because it got really long… are you shocked? You shouldn’t be… Check out the previous note for context if you’re interested, but this is a response, and hopefully a clarification to an impressive rebuttal of my last note.

Mike – thanks for your thoughts; you have a very passionate rhetorical style, although it was a little aggressive for my taste. I’ve only met you briefly in person, so I want to avoid taking liberties that I would not take if we were speaking face to face. I think this electronic format has a tendency to dehumanize these sensitive discussions and I don’t want this to turn into the sort of name-calling and disrespect you see on YouTube comments or online news articles; it doesn’t suit either of us.

[…]I intended this post to offer a particularly Christian approach, not even toward the Health Care bill in particular, but more generally toward the manner in which American political issues and philosophies bear upon those living in poverty. I only used the Health Care bill as a device to make the point of separating American/Enlightenment ideals from Christian ones. To tell you the truth, I am not even necessarily a fan of the bill – I think it is ill-timed at best, and we are all aware of the inefficiency of government-run establishments (though we must be fair – most of them are not as dreary and pitiable as you’ve made them out to be). So while you are absolutely welcome in this discussion, this note is intended to challenge Christians, because, as you point out, it is for Christians a moral issue – we believe that public policy cannot be separated from morals, nor economics from real people.

Yet as stated, my concern is for those living in poverty, and how to conceive a Christian perspective on economic justice on the level of national policy. When in right standing, both biblically and historically, Christians have always stood in solidarity with the poor, and have always been advocates and practitioners of charity, in line with our foundation in faith, hope, and love.

Though we obviously have different perspectives on the impact of Christianity in the world, on which I will abstain from comment, I think we do have a couple points of agreement. Firstly, when you equate morality with productivity, you demonstrate my point about the Capitalist commoditizing human beings. Your logic is sound. That is the necessary end to the starting points of enlightenment political philosophy, and in that sense I think you have done a superb job of faithfully appropriating and articulating that position. That is precisely why I opted to try and distance it from a Christian ethic, which is our second point of agreement.

And I’m glad we agree that the American/Capitalist/Enlightenment tenets of individualism, etc., are decidedly in express conflict with the Christian imperative of charity. It (sadly, from my perspective) can be all too easy for Christians to miss this clear distinction and adopt the American/Enlightenment ideals as their own, and thus they can become entangled with the individualistic/materialistic pursuit that such philosophies engender. There is a fundamental conflict between Christian virtue and American ideals, and when they are strained to coexist (as is, again, sadly, more than common), you have wish-washy, confused, and ineffective Christians. The American Dream stands squarely in the way of charity – just as Christ says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” And on that note I thank you Mike for helping me make my point.

The real crux of the matter for me is that the American/Enlightenment philosophy is inseparably annexed to the myth of humanistic progress – that by reason, as a society, we can continually build toward a utopia where there the rising tide of improvement “floats all boats” to the point where poverty, inequality, and injustice are eliminated altogether. I think it has for the most part matured beyond this naiveté, but it cannot shake its roots completely.

Now, if the science of economics teaches us one thing, it is that there will ALWAYS be poverty. Of course, if you’re a Christian, you could have just listened to Jesus to learn that, “the poor you will always have with you.” And since society has not yet progressed to the extent that these problems have been eradicated, this leads us to suspect the veracity of the progress myth. It leads us to conclude that all men are NOT born with equal opportunity to succeed, and these people are those who will live in poverty. The “lower class,” as an entity, exists not as a remediable condition of society – one that can be addressed and overcome exhaustively on the societal level, or as such on the individual level – but as a permanent fixture of all societies at all times – a symptom of a broken world that needs help. And since there will always be people living in poverty, the economic question is therefore ALWAYS a moral one:

Why, and under what circumstances is a human being valuable?

Christians say (based on the Bible, mostly) that human beings are valuable because they are God’s children – created in his likeness, and because he loves them in the same way, although much greater than, a mother or father loves their children. Thus, the poor have the same value as human beings as the wealthiest and most productive members of society, and charity makes sense(!), because the purpose of life is not to be productive – it is to love. The value of all human beings is tied to their equality.

If you are a proponent of American/Enlightenment philosophies, a human being’s value is tied directly to their productivity, and their equality is no longer tied in any way to that value. It is instead tied to their “rights” to pursue the American Dream. Thus, when the poor fail to participate in the forward economic movement of society, it must be because they didn’t capitalize on that equality. Industry is the morality of Capitalism, and I think it fails to consider human beings rightly.

So, if there will always be a lower class living in poverty, and it is not up to the individual to pull her/himself out of it because poverty is a perpetual and perennial fact of society, then the middle and upper classes have to make a choice as to how they will relate to this ever-present lower class.

The Capitalist, having located the equality of human beings in the individual’s theoretical potential to gain wealth, demands that the lower class raise itself out of poverty through industry and individual pursuit; and if they fail to do so, it is their own fault. The Capitalist says to the poor, “if you would only drop the chip on your shoulder/if you would only stop being so lazy/if you would only… fill in the blank… you would not be in this situation.” The lower class does not produce, so they deserve what they have gotten. The responsibility lies in the lap of the poor.

For the Christian, however, responsibility for the poor lies with those who have wealth and power – the ability to help. The Christian, called to charity, should look to fundamentally change what it means to be in the lower class. Christians should not look to eliminate the lower class, because that is impossible. But they should look instead to transform it. If the lower class will always exist, then why not ease the suffering of poverty? Isn’t that at least part of what charity is about on all levels? If all members of society are equally valued, but not equally bequeathed, then let those who have give to those who have not! Let our economic policies reflect an effort to make being in the lower class an acceptable and bearable life. Let them attempt to shrink the chasm between those who have all of the resources, opportunity, and power, and share them with those who cannot obtain these things for themselves. Let us truly treat our neighbors with equality and let us work toward economic justice!

How do we do this? I don’t know. Is it Obama’s Health Care Bill? Probably not. As I said, I do not think politics can or will ever solve the problems of our society. But as Americans we must participate in our own governance because, by virtue of the structure of our democratic republic, that responsibility has been extended to us. And for those of us who call Christ Lord, we must see human beings through Christ’s eyes and not those of Locke, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, and we must let that vision not only dictate our political priorities, but also take us beyond their language of “rights” to take up responsibility as God’s ambassadors far beyond the legislation our government passes. I think the primary action to which Christians are called takes place within and through the Church, and from there our charity and Christ’s love should spread through all arenas of life. Politics plays a part in that.

As for the examples Mike mentioned – the failures of Venezuelan socialism and the Soviet Union’s communism, etc… it was not simply and straightforwardly economic policy that cause them to fail. There are always many other factors at play, and that history is up for interpretation. What I do see clearly in recent history is a general move toward socialism – a trail surely blazed in Europe, but then followed, if not hesitantly, by the United States. There is of course, as I said previously, a balance to be had: because on the far extreme of socialism there is a killing of the market and failure of the economy, while the capitalist extreme of Laissez-faire economics only gift-wraps all of the wealth and hands it over to the powerful and affluent, creating a small upper class, a small middle class, and a huge lower class. In the US, it is only because of the regulatory involvement of government over the market, and the social programs instituted since the Great Depression, that 1) we have such a robust and thriving middle class, and 2) that poverty in the United States is so much more bearable than in other countries. We have the choice to try and make it more than bearable.

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4 thoughts on “On Justice and the Healthcare Bill Part 2

  1. I had the opportunity to read Mr. Lind’s response and would like to offer my own perspective. Again, I see two responses, one as an American and one as a Christian. However, I will only respond as an American, because I’m not entirely sure where Mr. Lind is coming from on Christianity – whether he hates it entirely or whether he simply would separate it from the marketplace. So I don’t know how to respond.

    As an American: as I indicated in my last response, American thought and capitalistic thought are not exactly the same. I agree that Enlightenment thought underlies both to a large extent, but where Chris concedes that “[i]f you are a proponent of American/Enlightenment philosophies, a human being’s value is tied directly to their productivity, and their equality is no longer tied in any way to that value” I am unwilling to follow. My thesis is this: economic capitalism is only partly responsible for the success of the American experiment and only represents part of American thinking.

    Perhaps Enlightenment thought does lead to the extreme conclusion of conceiving of humans in purely economic terms, but neither the Constitution of the United States nor its legal tradition operate purely from this conclusion. Granted, Mr. Lind probably could characterize the Constitution economically, because economics is a language and you can translate different concepts into economic terms and create economic justifications for them. My point is that there is some serious translating that needs to be done, because the “Founders” were not thinking primarily in economic terms and the courts have not been thinking primarily in economic terms and the people of the United States haven’t either. I could list a host of examples, but I’ll save that for follow up if any is needed.

    I’ll stick with one example from my personal experience: I volunteered in a legal clinic where I met a woman in the middle of an eviction situation. To make a long story short, she had been given an eviction notice by her landlord on the 5th of the month. She had to be out by the 31st. She resigned to the fact that she would be evicted, but was concerned about her rental record. She called the landlord’s office and asked if there was a way to keep the eviction off her record. She was told that she could make a deal where, if she left the premises early – by the 17th – the office would not report the eviction. She came in and signed a bunch of paperwork to agree to that deal. One of the papers she signed read to the effect. Meanwhile, she came to our legal clinic, where pro bono attorneys told her that the law did not support the landlord’s reasons for eviction and that they would get a court injunction stopping the process. Relying on their promises, she did not vacate the premises on the 17th. The landlord acted pursuant to the agreement and had all her possessions taken away by a trash company. The next day, the court reversed the eviction proceedings and ordered that she had a right to the premises. She came to us asking what she could do about her possessions.

    What is the law on that issue? It goes like this: in an eviction proceeding, a landlord must take responsibility for any possessions he removes from the premises. He must store them for a certain period of time. They must be kept in storage for that time and returned to the evicted party upon request in the condition in which they were removed from the premises. The big question: what if – as in our case – both parties sign an agreement to the contrary? The agreement is VOID as a matter of public policy, and the landlord was liable to repay tenant for all of it and punitive damages (and criminal liability according to my reading of the statute; though my colleagues disagreed). That would have been the result even if the eviction had been approved by the court.

    Is this the efficient outcome? Generally, economic efficiency is determined by the free contracting of parties (see, generally the work of Easterbrook), so the likely answer is no. Mr. Lind may try to justify the rule on economic grounds, but I doubt the Minnesota legislature (typically Democrat) was thinking in those terms. Mr. Lind may also disagree with that result, which would be consistent with his thoughts on morality, but – I would argue – inconsistent with the “American” attitude (and clearly inconsistent with what the representatives of the people of Minnesota thought was the right outcome).

    My point is that this is one tiny example of a whole separate vein of American thought and ideals – probably still grounded in the Enlightenment – that has thrived in this country since its founding and has existed in tension with Liberty. In fact, the last twenty to thirty years have seen a resurgence of Liberty influencing the law in places where it didn’t exist before – in other words, we have become more libertarian in some respects (corporate law is an especially interesting example, since the closer you are to our nation’s founding, the less freedom there is in corporate law – the contractarian theory of corporations is the new, radical theory; see generally, Lucian Bebchuck “Limiting Contractual Freedom in Corporate Law” Harv. L. Rev. 1989).

    In short, the values the liberals bring to the table are not exports from China and Russia, but home grown American ideals that deserve some credit for the quality of life we have. I’m more than happy to concede that capitalism is responsible for our quality of life – and I almost always vote Republican, including in the last Presidential election, and I don’t like the health care bill. However, I think it’s important to have perspective on the different forces involved in creating the quality of life Mr. Lind is so proud of. One might even go so far as to say that we have been successful because we have capitalism and because we are willing to depart from capitalistic ideas when human dignity is on the line.

  2. Richard a great closing thought, and interesting response all around.

    I think that given the world we find ourselves in, we have benefitted from capitalism, but a capitalism that responds to human dignity, or at least attempts to.

    Hats off sir, great response.

  3. Agreed, thanks again for your thoughts Richard – it was an excellent response.

    I guess my rhetorical style tends to be more dialectical than descriptive – I don’t mean to represent all sides realistically, but instead to capture the essential presuppositions and fit them into a sort of archetype (in the Jungian sense) that is relatable and indentifiable.

    I wanted to expose what I discern to be a strangling out of Christian sensibilities with regard to this particular issue of economic justice in the arena of American ideology and politics. I want Christians to answer the question, “what about the poor?”

    My route to doing so was to take Enlightenment ideologies to their logical end, in the arena of economics. This was not done to cast my characterization of such as the singular motivation for and source of the broader American mindset. It was meant to be purely polemical, to expose the roots and implications of much of the modern debate as they relate to the lower class.

    I think niether that Capitalism is fully responsible for our nation’s success (as you mentioned, the American political foundation is also concerned with all that we understand to fall under the term, “justice”), nor do I doubt that we have benefitted enormously from its influence. But we are not in the roaring twenties anymore – people have gotten a lot better at making vast sums of money. There aren’t too many Mom&Pop shops left around this country, but we do have more and more Monsanto’s and WalMarts. As the world market has become more complex, it has also become more corrupt. The more potential for individual gain, the more it has been capitalized on at the expense of the poor. Government has had to respond to keep the few rich elites from monopolizing everything…. why? Because that would be unjust.

    If your goal is to make money, then Capitalism is your best bet. But if you are concerned about justice, then you’d better start leaning a little more left. Capitalism is a powerful and fearsome animal; and as such it can be very destructive to the very ones it is meant to serve. If it is going to be our beast of burden, we should be sure the yoke is tightly-bound, the bit is fastened, and the whip is ready.

  4. Chris, I think that’s a good response, and having a better idea of your audience, your posts make good sense. The point I want to make here is not intended to be contrarian, but merely an observation. It certainly isn’t something I would expect in the scope of your blog.

    Your generalized comments about our increasingly complex economic situation and the problems of corruption are widely shared – perhaps not among your typical readership, but certainly in this country overall. However, once we get into the details, the problems – as you would expect – become very complex.

    Let’s take a single corporate issue on its own and analyze it: executive compensation. The raw data: in the 1950s, corporate executives made, on average, 40 times the income as employees of the company. In 1999, corporate executives on average made 1450 times what employees of the company made. I expect this is the kind of thing you’re talking about when you say: “The more potential for individual gain, the more it has been capitalized on at the expense of the poor. Government has had to respond to keep the few rich elites from monopolizing everything.” If so, you would obviously have a point.

    But is it really that simple? Not quite. First, the entire difference is almost entirely made up in equity. That is, corporations are not handing out more cash to their executives, but things like stock, restricted stock, and stock options. Which means a couple things: a) the company is not taking money away from employees and giving it to executives; executives are selling their equity on the open markets, b)equity will only make profit if the company is successful, which (of course) creates incentive for executives to be successful. Equity compensation is worthless if the company performs poorly – meaning there is no floor on how little executives can make – and equity compensation has no cap in its worth – meaning the sky is the limit if the company is successful. Interestingly, policy makers approve of this style of executive compensation because it spurs companies to success, so the tax code favors equity compensation (e.g. it is classified as capital gains and not income).

    Second, while the disparity between executives and employees has become quite drastic (due mainly to equity compensation), this hasn’t technically hurt the employees. Their salaries (adjusted for inflation) have increased too. Not nearly as much, of course.

    Third, the general standard of life (arguably) has also improved for the common employee, who now has – among other things – facebook, twitter, and a blog. Such standards have been raised largely due to the success of corporate executive management.

    Given those details, it becomes (in my opinion) harder to identify exactly what the injustice is in this picture and what to do about it. It depends on our standard: if the standard is that people should be getting paid close to the same as each other, then we have a big problem. But if the standard is that no one should benefit unless everyone benefits, there may not be a problem with this picture at all. And of course – everything in between!

    Now, I’m not trying to express views about this kind of issue, but simply to describe what the issue actually is beneath the noise you hear on television. It’s good for people on the religious right to hear vague arguments against the vague principles they believe in. But I also think theology – and theologians – needs to move beyond general assertions to help those of us stuck with the nitty gritty.

    Thanks for your work.

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