In two earlier posts (Part 1 and Part 2), I addressed concerns about the libertarian view that taxation for the purpose of transferring wealth to the poor is equivalent to theft. I’m looking at Matthew Tuininga’s posts on this in particular, but I think his thoughts are pretty widespread among Christians.
I believe Tuininga’s main point was to show that this view is not consistent with the Christian tradition, but there is a lot packed into his posts on this subject that I would also like to address.
In a discussion following his initial blog post, Tuininga says that “if the poor are not receiving justice, then the government has to intervene to ensure that they do.” By this he means that if the poor have not received sufficient charity from those who are able to give, the civil magistrate should (as a last resort, he grants) tax them and transfer the proceeds to the needy.
What about Tuininga’s use of the term “justice”?
Justice: Reduced Inequality or Equal Treatment under the Law?
We’ve seen that usage before. This is a loaded use of the term “justice” common to those on the Christian Left–and the rest of the Left as well. It is an “outcome-based” use of the word rather than a “process-based” use of the word.
In the Left’s view, “justice,” usually preceded by a qualifier such as “social,” is determined by whether the poor have received material assistance, not by whether the laws have been applied evenhandedly to all. The outcome-based view of justice would judge the fairness of a basketball game by how close the scores are rather than whether the referees applied the rules with equal vigor to both teams.
Similar use is made of the term “protection” (particularly in Tuininga’s post here). If the government has a duty to protect the poor, how far does this protection extend? Does it mean protection against the aggression of others? Does it mean protection against the destruction of natural disaster? Does it mean protection of the poor person against his own self-destructive conduct? Clearly, “protection” without boundaries could spiral into some pretty intrusive regulation of our conduct, in addition to the implied seizure of assets.
Embedded in Tuininga’s comments are some unstated ideas about jurisdiction–the limits of authority. Somewhere between “government has a duty to protect the poor widow against being beaten by her neighbor” and “government has a duty to protect the poor man against health problems and ensuing worse poverty by forbidding him to purchase cigarettes or glazed doughnuts,” I assume Tuininga would say that there is a boundary of civil authority.
One of the commentators on the initial blog post does a good job of pointing out some of the problems with this thinking. There are different authorities that God has set up–family, church, and state. Each of these authorities has limits on its jurisdiction.
There’s Charity and Then There’s Justice
This brings us to the matter of rights, which I discussed in an earlier post, “Human Rights and Biblical Rights.” If “justice” is about making sure that rights are protected, we should be careful in thinking about who has a right to what. Are all rights to be enforceable by the sword of the civil magistrate? Tuininga says “…the first level of support for the poor and for one another should come through the organic structures of civil society….But I also believe government [by which he means civil government, not family or church government] has a responsibility to make sure this happens….”
Where do those responsibilities end? Does the civil magistrate have power to enforce (with the sword) every positive duty of families and churches?
While a person with the ability to give has a moral obligation to do so, this is different from a poor person having a legal right to the assets of a rich person.
In the same way, while a pastor or elder in a church has a moral obligation to fulfill the duties of office by shepherding and teaching, a parishioner would be wrong to push for a law that threatens pastors with prison time if the pastor does not visit homes enough or preach sermons that are substantive enough.
My church’s session has the authority to limit access to the Lord’s Table to confessing believers in good standing with their church, but if it fails to do this, the sheriff’s office may not send deputies to the church on Sunday morning to physically bar others from the table. Neither may the church step into the civil magistrate’s realm by arresting, trying, and punishing a rapist the State has not pursued. I have authority over my children, but I may not intrude into another family’s raising of their children to administer punishment for an offense the parents are overlooking.
So, even if those with means to give charitably do not do so, this is a long way from showing that the civil magistrate has a right to extract wealth from them by force and transfer it to the poor. As R.C. Sproul, Jr. has pointed out in another post, true compassion is done voluntarily, with one’s own resources, not resources forcibly extracted from others. Unfortunately, the twisting of the terms “justice” and “protection” clouds this truth, as wealth transfers become (in the Left’s view) just another part of the civil magistrate’s legitimate pursuit of “justice” or “protection” for the poor.