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October 17, 2013

BOHANON: Economist doubts redistribution is biblical justice

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.

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