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Phil-osophically Speaking: September 14, 2012

What Would Jesus Do?

“The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve apostles came to Jesus and said, ‘Send the crowd away so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside to lodge and get provisions; for we are in a deserted place.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘Why not give them something to eat?’ They said ‘We have no more than 5 loaves and 2 fish —- unless we are to go and buy food for all these people. For there are about 5,000 men.’ And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘You know what? You’re right. Don’t waste your time and shekels. It would positively be immoral for any of you to spend your hard-earned money on these people. They knew full well they were coming to a deserted place, and should have relied on themselves and brought more food. As far as I’m concerned it’s every man for himself.’ The apostles were astonished by this teaching. ‘But Lord,’ said Thomas, ‘the multitude will surely go hungry.’ “That’s not my problem, Thomas. Better their stomachs are empty than they become overly dependent on someone with authority. Where, in God’s name, would it end?’

The above passage from A Revolutionary Biography of Jesus was authored by William Crossan, a former Jesuit priest who sought to make a point about society’s social obligations to the hungry and dispossessed. In the area of hermeneutics, I am no practiced scholar, but Crossan’s attempt at eisegesis is deplorably self-serving. In other words, I know a heterodox interpretation when I see one. To construe the story of the multiplication of the fishes and the loaves into a prescription for a governmental anti-poverty program is to irresponsibly conflate a public obligation with a personal duty. Jesus commands his followers to take care of the poor, not to compel others to take care of them.

Not that the philosophical and moral underpinnings of a welfare state via the consent of the governed is unprincipled. Indeed it’s commendable providing it’s affordable. But we’ve gone further than this in taking from Peter to give to Paul; we’ve implemented an array of punishing taxes and regulations to create a hostile environment for investment. Sadly, many of our policymakers are under the delusion that it was corporate greed and not government policy, i.e. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, The Community Reinvestment Act, affordable housing quotas and the Federal Reserve’s below-market interest rates that created the economic meltdown. Turning on the investor class may feel good but it makes no sense. It was Abraham Lincoln who warned against a war on capital. Lincoln was well aware that equality of opportunity did not mean equality of outcome, but that did not diminish his faith in the system: “I take it that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it will do more harm than good.”

These words motivated any number of would-be capitalists to make their fortunes free of compunction. Nearly a century after Lincoln penned those words, the astute historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that despite Lincoln’s universal appeal, had the Great Emancipator lived to see how the Leviathan of late 19th-century industrial capitalism marginalized the common man, it would have jaundiced his optimism. Perhaps, but it was also Lincoln who joked God loves poor people, which is why he made so many of them. It was levity secure in the knowledge that with hard work and persistence penury is not a permanent condition. Lincoln knew poverty, but he also knew America was a Samson that could break the chains of want and deprivation. In 1900, if you go by constant dollars, 90 percent of the people were poor but by the 1960s this number had been reduced to 12-13 percent. Lincoln was right; allowing people to get rich produced more good than harm. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, or a portion of it, was not designed to uplift the general masses, which were doing well thanks to America’s engine of economic growth that created a profusion of opportunities, but rather to a portion of the population who were mired in perpetual and intractable poverty.

Over the last 45 years, the United States has spent many hundreds of billions on trying to break the poverty cycle, but the percentage of those who are indigent has not changed. In fact, due to the severity and protractedness of the recession it has risen. There are numerous reasons why the welfare bureaucracy has become another failed social experiment, but one of them surely is that while social programs can provide provisions, they cannot create opportunity. Only investment, production and economic growth can do that. This is not to say that there is no room for welfare, only that its methods and goals have to be continually reassessed and reformed, like it was in 1996, so that subsistence isn’t the only objective but also independence from want.

The other arm of social welfare is social insurance providing succor for the temporarily unemployed and creating provision for the aged, programs that are enduring monuments of 20th-century America. It became so because the Great Depression changed America and the way Americans think: People’s life savings were wiped out in an instant; joblessness dwarfed anything in our national experience, both in numbers and duration. People were desperate and frightened of what seemed to be a sudden and inexplicable dislocation. That it was government policy rather than corporate cupidity that immeasurably exacerbated many of these calamities was not known nor would it have pacified a panicked public. What was needed was a port in the storm. With the election of Franklin Roosevelt, the idea of collective security in the form of government intervention became that safe harbor and ever since it’s been a permanent fixture upon the American landscape.

In his 1801 inaugural address, a minor masterpiece of political literature, Thomas Jefferson stated, “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer that question.” History has answered it in the celestial guise of an archangel known as Big Government. Listen to Bill Clinton at the recent Democratic National Convention when he essentially asked the audience if they wanted to live in a society where there was cooperation and support for one another or would they rather have a society that says … you’re on your own? Leaving aside Clinton’s mega-wattage personality and forensic skills, it is a seductively enticing and embracing formulation. Given the dictates of human nature, the choice, save for the purest of individualists, is a fait accompli.

It is also misleading; for Clinton’s framing of the question as a choice is an illusion. An “on your own” mentality died from the Great Depression.” That’s what it should say on the death certificate: Killed by the Great Depression. The Industrial Revolution, urbanization, the growing complexity of laissez-faire economics and mass immigration required more regulation and government involvement. The progressives, for all their faults, glimpsed this reality and the economic collapse that defined the 1930s made it as clear and undiluted as sunlight. The question since the Depression is not whether government should be involved in the economic life of the nation, not whether there should be a safety net or social insurance, but how much, how do we pay for it and how pervasive should it be. I know of no Republican, neither elected nor running, that is proposing to uproot and demolish the most popular segments of either the Great Society or the New Deal. With people living longer and advances in medicine and medical technology such proposals are impractical. Also impractical is not only continuing on the same course, but enlarging government (taxpayer) obligations for new and more expansive services instead of inculcating market arrangements within the present framework of social insurance, an innovation bound to yield greater cost savings and results.

In its headlong push to redistribute, the present administration has failed to grasp that production and investment matters not only to the population in general but to those who depend on today’s social programs. The stimulus or pump priming to resurrect the economy did not work for Roosevelt in the 1930s. Ten years after the great crash unemployment was still well into the double digits, the Dow Jones Average seemed hopelessly suppressed, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was still 10 percent lower than it had been at the onset of the crisis and of all the industrial countries America was the last to recover. Frankly, it hasn’t worked for President Obama either, who really should leave the cozy environs of Harvard Yard that intellectually nurtured him and take a crash course about capital formation at the University of Chicago.

But even if the economy begins rolling again, the sails of the entitlement culture must be trimmed. Instead, the political physics have harnessed the wind to thrust the ship of state into uncharted and dangerous waters. With the economy listing so perilously, spending so out of control, the debt rising faster than an onrushing tide, I had hoped that voters would want what The New York Times journalist Ross Douthat called “the government that the New Deal liberals had built, but run by conservatives.” It sounds like a nice balance, but as an old friend once told me, you can live on hopes but you can’t grow fat on them.