Saturday, July 7, 2012

Thoughts of a Christian Centrist: Is Big Government Really the Big Problem?

As I explained in Part 1, I consider myself a Christian centrist and a questioner. I don’t claim to be an expert on politics, and I don’t plan to do a lot of political posts on this blog-- but one of the questions I have had to ask myself in today’s political climate is whether I agree with the political stance taken by many Christians in the U.S. today—the stance that many non-Christian Americans have come to identify with Christianity: libertarian-style political conservatism. Besides the fact that there are actually many Christians who do identify with centrism or progressivism, it seems inappropriate for Christianity to become so identified with a political party in the first place. But setting that aside for now, the main question I have to ask myself is whether I agree with the stance that big government is our big problem.

The idea seems to be that government is infringing on the rights of businesses and private citizens, who would all be much better off if government stayed out of their business. And this is not just about the national debt and how much government spending we can afford. George Will’s column in my local paper for June 17, 2012 (I’m sure this appeared in newspapers all over the country), said:

“[In] the 1930’s the [US Supreme] Court formally declar[ed] economic rights to be inferior to ‘fundamental’ rights. This begot pernicious . . . tolerance of capricious government abridgements of economic liberty.”

Mr. Will defines “economic liberty” as “private property rights, freedom of contract and freedom from arbitrary government interference with the right to engage in enterprise.”

I wasn’t born in the 1930’s, but I do remember my history. It was the time of the Great Depression. My basic understanding of the economic situation out of which the 1930’s Supreme Court made its declaration, is that “economic liberty,” at that time, included the liberty of banks to gamble with their depositor’s investments, the liberty of corporations to hold wages down below minimum subsistence levels, set 14-hour workdays, and ignore even rudimentary safety standards, and the liberty of landowners to treat migrant workers however they pleased, often subjecting anyone who tried to resist them to violence. The economic liberty of the powerful meant that they could engage the police to uphold and even perpetrate human rights violations against individual workers who merely wanted to earn enough to feed a family. One thing the Great Depression taught the nation was that when economic rights are unrestrained, the strong trample the weak, a certain small segment of society becomes richer and richer, and everyone else suffers.

The question, then, of whether economic liberty is really equal to fundamental, basic human rights like life, dignity, security and personal liberty, is one that I have to ask. And I have to answer that when the economic liberty of one person (I’m mainly speaking about the way a person “engages in enterprise,” as George Will puts it) infringes on the basic human rights of another, economic liberty really must take a back seat. Should government interfere with economic liberty by regulating private enterprise in ways that protect the powerless from the powerful? I have to answer yes.

So here’s what I see as the real problem in my country.

The way I see a lot of people thinking, it is the government alone which can or does oppress people, and it does it through taxation and redistribution (which was equated with theft by a representative conservative voice in my last post) and through regulations that hinder the ability of private businesses to make wealth. But according to passage after passage in the books of the prophets, God faults both the rulers and the private sector for oppression— and especially, as in the verse above, when they conspire together to make laws that benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else.

Micah 7:3, one of the prophetic lamentations about the sins of the whole nation of Israel says: “Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate what they desire--they all conspire together.” This is what things are looking like in the United States, from where I sit. Powerful business interests are dictating public policy through campaign contributions to our legislators, while the ordinary citizen has little or no voice. What should happen is that government and private enterprise act as checks and balances upon one another. What I see instead is collusion.

The lamentations of prophets like Micah are applicable today in that they identify in a timeless, universal way, what is right and wrong in the way we treat one another, both as communities and as individuals. Of course the actual groups addressed by the prophetic books are not the same as the ones that hold power today. But power is power, and rule is rule. The fact that we have elected officials instead of kings, and high-tech corporations instead of wealthy agricultural land interests, makes very little difference.

Here are some other, similar passages:

Isaiah 1:23 - Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow's case does not come before them.

Isaiah 3:14-15 - The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of His people: ‘It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?’ says the Lord God of hosts.

Isaiah 10:1-2 - Woe to you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!

These passages don’t seem to fit very well with the idea that God is primarily displeased when government interferes with the power of the wealthy to make more wealth. Instead, the prophets’ outcry is against laws created through bribery and undue influence by the powerful on the lawmakers—laws that make things tougher on the poor and the ordinary citizen.

And then there are these passages, which are not clearly aimed at “rulers” at all:

Isaiah 5:8 – Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!

Micah 2:2 - They covet fields, and seize them; house, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance.

To join asset to asset until there is room for no one else— this is what big business does today, and the government has aided them by watering down the laws that used to protect citizens against monopolies. And seizing houses and other assets is most recently the province of the big banks, whose subprime mortgage fiasco led to the seizure of millions of homes from ordinary citizens who were duped by unscrupulous financiers into taking out loans they could not afford. Do the citizens bear responsibility for their own actions? Of course—but who is more responsible, the ordinary citizen with little or no training in finance, or the financiers who led them into trouble?

A few more:

Ezekiel 22:6-7, 12 & 29 - See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. . . in you they have oppressed the alien and mistreated the fatherless and the widow. V. 12 - In you men accept bribes to shed blood; you take usury and excessive interest, and make unjust gain from your neighbors by extortion. And you have forgotten me, declares the Sovereign Lord. V. 29 - The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.

Amos 5:11-12 - Therefore, because you trample on [another reading is “impose heavy rent on”] the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.

Malachi 3:5 - Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against . . . those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear Me, says the Lord of hosts.

It is not just “princes” but “men” in the private sector who are in view in the Ezekiel passage. The other two almost certainly address both. Who are these passages applicable to today? Congressmen and senators who receive campaign finance promises in exchange for promoting laws that profit the donors— often at the expense of the people they were elected to represent. Credit agencies which jack up interest rates. Corporations which pay huge salaries and bonuses to those at the top while their workers suffer wage freezes and layoffs. Real estate management companies which raise rents excessively. Banks and Wall Street moguls using their wealth to influence Congress to make laws which help wealthy investors give one another inside knowledge to avoid weak investments, while average citizens are on their own. And all these things are commonplace.

In 1 Timothy 5:18 Paul cited the Old Testament, “do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” to discuss the principle that a laborer is worthy of his wages. Workers today are working more hours than they have in decades, only to see their real wages—the amount of goods and services that their money will buy—continue to fall. Most people I know have not had a raise in years, but consider themselves lucky to even have jobs. And while wage growth stymies, corporate profits rise. Is this happening because of oppressive government? Only, as far as I can see, in the sense that the government is doing little or nothing to stop this kind of oppression from the private sector.

In order for these things to be stopped, the limitation of powers cannot be one-sided, limiting the government alone. The Lord does not view only government officials as responsible for their use of power. Wealthy private citizens and business interests are also powerful, and also responsible—and only through a balance of power between government and the private sector can the natural greed of humanity be curbed. Campaign finance needs to be regulated. Banking practices need to be regulated. Business and employment practices need to be regulated.

Right now, it seems to me, we are suffering not so much from too-powerful government as we are from too-powerful private interests. Huge corporations that shut down their plants and ship the jobs overseas. Companies that lay off huge numbers of workers, then hire them back as temporary help at half the wages and no benefits. CEOs who take record-size bonuses while the employees on the lines see their wages frozen—for the third year in a row.

I think we need the government to hold accountable the hugely powerful private sector, just as we need the private sector to hold the government accountable. Instead, the wealthy in both are in cahoots with one another to make each other even wealthier. My problem with government right now is not that it is getting too big—it is that it is getting too weak, more and more under the thumb of the private sector through powerful lobbying interests and campaign finance promises, no longer able or willing to do what’s right without an eye to personal profit. There is supposed to be a fine line between campaign finance and bribes—but that line is getting to where only a lobbyist or a politician can actually see it. It all looks like bribery to me.

Good fences make good neighbors, they say, and locked doors keep honest people honest. But people in positions of power and influence, whether public sector or private, do not become virtuous just because they are entrusted with more responsibilities. On the contrary—power corrupts. Where there are no fences and no locked doors, people are going to cross lines. Deregulation and more deregulation of the private sector is not the answer. Neither is lifting the restrictions on how much money a politician can amass, in the name of “free speech.” According to the most basic Christian doctrine of the sinfulness of humanity, power needs to be curbed.

There have been times when too much regulation has been a problem in our nation. But the way it looks to me—that time is not now.

And as for the national debt? I’m concerned about that; I really am. But it seems to me that if more ordinary, working people were allowed to get ahead, rather than working so hard just to enrich their bankers and CEO’s—then we would all be able to both save more and buy more, and we would be paying more taxes on our increased incomes. Increased prosperity would mean that less people needed government services, decreasing spending and increasing revenues at the same time.

And then we wouldn’t be talking about balancing our budget by cutting aid to the most vulnerable in our society. In the long run, that will not help our nation as a whole. In reality, we’re all in this together. When one child who could have become a productive citizen fails to do so because of poverty, it harms our whole economy.

I’d like to see our nation start putting more value on everyone pulling together, and a little less on every man for himself.


Morgan Hyde said...

I don't think I have anything particularly intelligent to say about your topic, but I wanted to thank you for being so logical and wonderful and sensible. It's a nice break from the rhetoric of other folk.

As for the topic, I agree. I don't need the bible to tell me anything about it, but I think its cool that the bible agrees too.

Kristen said...

Thanks for your lovely words! I'm so glad it made sense to you.

Anonymous said...

Well thought out, Kristen. Thanks for including the Biblical perspective. Unfortunately, the ideas that are promoted by much of the current thinking in conservative Christian circles are the antithesis of everything Jesus taught. I've met a number of conservative Christians who believe in Libertarianism and don't want any curbs on the private sector, nor any additional taxes on anyone, including those at the very top, who pay lower taxes than they have in 80 years. The thinking is that one day we may be rich, too, not realizing that the deck is stacked against them. This short piece from Fiscal Times:

The authors of "The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy and the Role of Government.” suggest that taxes rather than being evil are the nutrients that sustain a garden and enable healthy growth. Link below.

The government has not grown as a sector in recent years, rather it's shrunk, primarily by massive layoffs of teachers, police officers and firefighters. That has not helped with economic growth due to a ripple effect throughout the economy. And as for debt, right now borrowing rates are at record lows. People, particularly young people and laid off construction workers, could be put to work. We have infrastructure, roads and bridges, crumbling all over the country. The longer we wait to fix these problems the more expensive it will be. Meanwhile there have been deaths from collapsed bridges along major highways. -- Kim

Anonymous said...

Sorry, posted the link to page two of The Fiscal Times: this is page 1