For those of us of the Jewish or Christian faith, the prophet Micah provides a succinct summary of our personal and social obligations in the eye of the Almighty: “. . . and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God” (Micah 6:8 KJV).
I have an obligation to respect the rights of my neighbor, including her right to her income and property. I must pay my bills to those who provide me goods or services. I must abide by the contracts I enter. This is to do justly. Correspondingly, I have reason to expect to be treated justly. My neighbor must respect my rights, including my right to my income and property.
It is never quite that simple, though, which is why government codifies, regularizes and enforces the rules of economic exchange and justly requires both my neighbor and me to pay taxes to support the state. Even so, to use the coercive power of the state to take my neighbor’s income or property to simply fulfill ends that I desire is on its face the antithesis of justice. And it doesn’t matter whether those ends are my own enrichment or the enrichment of someone else I deem worthy of my neighbor’s wealth.
Pure redistribution of income through the state may be many things but it is not justice.
Note that Micah’s dictum also calls us to love mercy. If my neighbor is in need, I should give him aid and comfort. I should rally others in the community to help him. So is it possible the coercive power of the state can be morally used to promote the ends of mercy?
Even the most libertarian among us agrees that there are times and circumstances the state may be the best instrument of mercy (think military evacuation before or after a natural disaster). Reasonable people can and will disagree about how far this should go (that has something to do with walking humbly with God). But please, let’s not call income redistribution justice. It is mercy.
This rendering of the Biblical passage is at odds with the prevailing entitlements-as-social-justice view that permeates the left, including the Christian left. In that view we all have “rights” to food, clothing, housing and even Internet access. But surely one can see that those “rights” are only ensured by violating someone else’s right to income or property, which makes such action morally ambiguous at best.
When I graduated from high school I had the opportunity to move for the summer to my brother’s fraternity house in Atlanta, Georgia. Jobs were readily available there and the option was appealing. I informed my parents that if I moved to Atlanta they were obligated to give me an allowance of $40 a week (in 1973 dollars) as they would no longer incur the expense of my living at home. They both laughed at me — and my mother informed me, “Son, the world does not owe you a living.”
I did spend that summer in Atlanta, I did get a job there and my parent did send such aid as they thought necessary and appropriate. I also took away a great lesson: I was responsible for earning my own bread.
We all receive help, aid and comfort from our families, friends, teachers, mentors and community. We should all give aid to others in our capacity as parents, friends, co-workers and neighbors. But this is the domain of mercy. To elevate it to a matter of justice is misguided and counterproductive.
Cecil Bohanon, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.