A recent feature on the politics page of The Christian Post discusses the issue of income inequality in America, and various Christian proposals for the best way to address it. Professor Ron Sider of Palmer Theological Seminary argues that the appropriate response to the "enormously centralized" economic and political power we see in America today is for the government to redistribute wealth via tax hikes on the rich and increased public investment in our poorest citizens. From the article:
"[S]ider supported higher taxes on the rich and a combination of tax breaks and education reforms to help the poor. He supported an upper income tax rate of 50 percent for those making over $5 million per year. He also called for the federal government to tax dividends and capital gains at the same rate as other income,' which would target the rich and raise more money to reduce the deficit.
For the poor, 'biblical justice demands access to the productive resources so they can earn their own way,' Sider argued. In the information age, the productive resource is knowledge, so he supported education reforms to help the poorest Americans. He suggested a major trial period for both school vouchers and public school reform. Whichever most helps the minority poor should be universally implemented.
Sider argued that, rather than segregating themselves into 'white suburban enclaves,' Christians should advocate for spending more money on public schools, especially in minority areas. They should also support food stamps, Pell Grants, and increasing tax refunds for the poor. He would reform government along this principle - 'If you work full time responsibly, you ought to get to 125 percent of the poverty level and have health insurance.'"
Mr. Sider's proposals appeal to sentiment, but are ultimately ill conceived. Few would argue with his observation that wealth and special interests play too great a role in America's political and economic landscape. The solution is not, however, to tip the scale in the other direction by soaking the rich and increasing government control over public education. A better approach is to take the thumb off the scale and let markets and charities do their work. Economic justice should not be the result of competing special interests advocating for bigger and bigger slices of government largesse. Economic justice should be the result of free, virtuous, and lawfully acting individuals and groups interacting with others in their community for their own betterment and that of others, with each contributing their time and talent and each reaping rewards commensurate with their efforts and talents. Would such a model result in income equality? Most certainly not, but it would result in a fair and level playing field. It would realize the American dream of equal opportunity that has drawn immigrants to these shores for the last 300 years.
Of course, no one is saying that government doesn't have an obligation to help those who can't help themselves. Civilized societies have always recognized a collective obligation to help the weak and the vulnerable, and government has a role to play in this equation. It is naïve and ignores the lessons of history, however, to think that the best solution is for government to enforce income equality through punitive tax policy and an expanded welfare state. This approach belies the same old social engineering mentality that has wrought so much human misery and suffering over the last century. When governments try to legislate the perfect society, they inevitably resort to oppression and tyranny in order to eliminate variety and establish total control. In the end, everyone suffers as productivity and liberty are suppressed
As a theologian, Sider should understand that human beings are sinful. As an observer of human nature, he should certainly recognize the truth of Lord Acton's observation that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." In light of these immutable truths it's hard to understand why Sider would place so much trust in government to right society's wrongs. You can be sure that increased power will be abused and that the politicians will use it as a vehicle for buying and controlling another constituency in order to perpetuate their personal power. While we should all strive for a just society, let us not fall victim to the deluded notion that government is the best instrument for achieving that goal. Instead, we should strive as individuals and families and churches to stand as examples of hard work, thrift, self-denial, and charity, and let those virtues do their work in transforming society.
As for education, the facts do not support Sider's position. Federal spending on education has gone up steadily over the decades, with little to show for it. Money means little when it is controlled by unaccountable bureaucrats who care more about appeasing the teachers' unions than they do about educating children. Here again, markets can be a much more effective agent of transformation, because markets are based on performance, demand accountability to customers, and are stimulated to perform by competitors. Reforms like school choice, vouchers, and charter schools have been shown to work, yet the federal educational apparatus opposes them at every turn. The special interests at the NEA and their political patsies prefer the status quo, because the status quo keeps them in power.
Bottom line, in this life we will not achieve utopia, and most certainly not through government. The Founders understood this, which is why they went to such great lengths to establish limited government and to put in place checks and balances. The American people would be better off to take their focus off of Washington, D.C., and concentrate instead on building virtuous communities. Professor Sider's so-called "biblical solution" is likely only to create a governmental Frankenstein.