My left-leaning evangelical friends often chide me as being uncaring and unbiblical when I resist increased taxes for social welfare programs. They believe that they have Biblical and intellectual reasons to take their position, but I think they actually do not, and are violating biblical and sensible limits to the role of civil government.
Of course, recent reports show that small government religious conservatives give more time and money to both secular and religious charities, so that accusation is baseless.
There are a few different concepts and frameworks that intersect at the point of public policy, and they need to be considered in concert.
1. Limited Government – Provide v. Promote
The first, and perhaps most important/influential, is a theology of government, including the limits of civil government. I think the founders got it largely right in limiting it to essential functions i.e. provide for the common defense.
However, such provision (redistribution of moneys via taxes) in my mind was considered to be, and should be carefully and greatly limited. In fact, the writers of the Constitution of the United States use a different verb for what civil government should have less of a hand in, that is promotion of the general welfare. In fact, the preamble uses 5 distinct verbs and associated objects which need explanation:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
In this case, I think promote means to create incentivizing legislation (like giving tax breaks for charitable giving), but not redistibution. The important difference in that case is that a company or individual gets to keep more of their the money they earned – they are not receiving money from someone else.
I do not think that government should be PROVIDING for the common welfare, only promoting it within an open market (controlling for monopolies, fraud, etc.). More on that later. However, I do admit that Section 8 of the Constitution does include the term “general welfare” under the verb provision, including collecting taxes for such things listed below, which I am sure was not meant as an exhaustive list, but an exemplary one:
- To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;
- To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;
- To establish Post Offices and post Roads;
- To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;
- To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;
- To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;
- To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;
- To raise and support Armies
Note that there is NOTHING about securing income, food housing, or monies for individual citizens – so even if you do believe that the general welfare is included under “provision,” it still does not seem to be part of the enumerated roles of the tax system.
I wrote extensively on this in my three posts:
- The Five Functions of Civil Government
- Proportions for Public Policy – the Normal Curve
- Proportions for Public Policy – Non-normal Views
2. Who is Primarily and Secondarily Responsible?
One of my favorite teachings is that of the five spheres of government (self, family, church, civil, commercial). The idea is that each has it’s own sphere of authority and responsibility – as a father, it is MY responsibility to feed and educate my kids, not the government.
If I skip out on my duties as a father, for example, even if we decide that the government is going to step in, its goal must always be to return the responsibility to me if possible. Such things as alimony payments are necessary towards this end.
Note that some social services, like education and healthcare, may exist in shared responsibility between government and commercial realms – these more complex issues require a government/commercial hybrid solution. For example, I love the idea of public schools with school choice (charter schools).
3. Legislating Ethical Norms Rooted in Morality
People of any faith (even those grounded in humanism) need to go through the 4 step process outlined in the article below where we determine which of our values should be ensconced in public policy, that is:
- What are our values?
- Which of these do we consider to be universal ethics?
- Which of these do we think government should enforce?
- Which approach should our legislation take? (promotion, protection, prescription, control, punishment)
Not all of our values should be considered global ethical norms, and not all ethical norms should be legislated.
4. Governmentally Enforced Ethical Priorities
As stated above, I do NOT think the civil government, except perhaps in a dire crisis like war, should be deciding which charities I should be giving money to. I understand there is a gray area here because not helping individuals could be hurting all of society, which government is tasked to ‘promote the general welfare.’
This word promote is very specific and important. I still think it means to NOT provide, but to encourage, through incentives and disincentives, the behaviors we need, be they saving, home ownership, starting a business, marriage, or charitable giving.
I believe that the initial limitations of ‘provide’ v. ‘promote’ are very important, because if we merely fall back on ‘whatever the majority wants,’ we may soon find half of our paychecks going to popular causes which we hate, be they abortions, gender reassignment surgery, physician assisted suicide, global warming nonsense, or welfare recipients buying booze with our tax money.
5. Why Government Solutions are Almost Always Worse then Free Market
It comes down to this comparison of government v. commercial solutions: monopoly v. free-market competition. As we may all admit, ultimate power corrupts ultimately – and government is always a monopoly which will be manipulated for selfish gain.
In addition, the competition of the free market ensures that no one is gouging prices (with meaningful regulation against price fixing and monopolies there), which drives cost containment and innovation. Government will almost always lack those drivers.
6. The Thorny Problem of Poverty
Here’s the rub. There will always be some poverty because (a) people are sinful, lazy, and destructive, and (b) those in power will try to make surfs out of them.
The general and ubiquitous problems with removing inequity via government programs is
- they don’t work because people have no incentive to take personal initiative (see the Soviet Union)
- they are rife with the fraud that is part of government monopolies
- they never get to the root of the issue, which is personal initiative, as well as individual generosity.
- they remove individual liberty and responsibility for the good of the whole according to some popular ideas that may be ill conceived (more often than not)
7. God loves a Cheerful Giver
To me, the bottom line issue here is the heart of men – both givers and receivers. That is what Christians ought to aim to change, not public policy first.
If people are not generous enough, the government should incentivize, but not take money to do what some majority thinks should be done. It is the church that must promote virtue through the preaching of the gospel and works of charity.
If we are failing, or lack the faith to create virtue in our citizens, are we merely going the way of the natural man, who would rather control than influence because his words are not influential?
That’s how I see public policy hardliners. In my ‘normal curve’ papers, I argue that even doing things like making abortion illegal are coercive (just like redistribution on the other end), and perhaps we need to change the hearts of people, not change merely the outward laws. However, I admit that the unborn, like slaves, are a special case in which basic human rights trump what the majority thinks. We can’t wait to change every heart, but we certainly need to aim to unless we want bloodshed like the civil war.
This discussion is not about whether or not we should have compassion on and help the poor. It’s about proper means, not just motives or ends. Government means to those ends are poor in that they violate liberty, personal self determination and responsibility, and shift the burden of responsibility away from the primary owners, a usurpation of responsibility and authority which is neither sustainable nor effective. It contradicts both Biblical principle and principles set out by the founders of our country. They were smart fellows. But we suppose ourselves so much smarter as if they haven’t created the most amazing country in all of history.
I really enjoyed this book on God and Govt in the NT