Monday, October 15, 2012

Redistribution of Wealth

a popular graphic on Facebook
The catch phrase "redistribution of wealth" has become an important one in this political season.  It is often thrown out as a criticism of Obama, that he is for the redistribution of wealth.  I'd like to make a few observations about the issue.

First, every economic transaction involves the redistribution of wealth.  When I receive my paycheck from Cambridge Drive Community Church, it represents a redistribution of wealth.  Church members have placed checks in the offering plates and their wealth is redistributed to me and to other obligations of the church.  When I go to the grocery store and purchase groceries, my wealth is redistributed to workers, stockholders, property owners, and before them to producers.  The question is not whether wealth will be redistributed, but whether the rules that govern the redistribution are fair to all involved.

I have to say that I often respond to Facebook posts and to the graphic above about redistribution of wealth by saying it is a Biblical idea.  It clearly is and basically always involves redistributing from the wealthy to the poor.  The Old Testament laws regarding the Year of Jubilee are the archetype for the issue.  In those laws, every 50 years all debts were cancelled, slaves freed, and land - the primary means of production - returned to the original family of ownership.  Think of what that means for a minute... John Doe was an excellent businessman, worked hard, and was able to acquire significant property.   He dreamed of passing it on to his grandchildren so they could have a leg up.  Doesn't happen though because in 50 years, everything is equalized and all of the additional property he purchased through his hard work went back to the original families of ownership with no reimbursement to him or his heirs.  On the other hand, Jack Smith was a lazy do nothing.  He lost all of his family's property due to sloth and poor decision making.  He never thought a moment about his grandchildren.  Because of the year of Jubilee, they didn't need to live with the consequences of his poor choices.  Everything was equalized and they started on a level playing field with the grandchildren of John Doe.  Neither would benefit or suffer from the decisions made by their ancestors.  Scholars do not believe that the laws were ever observed.  It is no wonder.  By the time the first observance came around, those who had accumulated goods and advantages weren't willing to give them up.  In spite of the clear proscriptions in the Law, they refused to follow God's plan for redistribution of wealth.  Like the graphic, they shouted, "It's not fair!  We worked hard for that property."  The law looked at a deeper question of fairness and observed that systematically denying the means of production to some people is worse yet.

A particular verse in the discussion of the year of Jubilee has been on my mind a great deal this week as I've been thinking about this issue.  Leviticus 25:23 says,  "the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants."  In an agrarian time, the land was the primary means of production.  Leviticus tells us here that the primary means of production belongs to God, never to an individual, and therefore cannot be sold or owned in perpetuity.  The "owners" are always tenants or aliens rather than owners of the means of production and that property is always God's to redistribute.  More importantly, the assumption is always there that those who hold the means of production are stealing from the poor.  This especially clear in the minor prophets but we see it just as clearly in the words of Jesus - Mark 10:23-25, Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

So what do we do with this today?  Clearly we are not going to institute the Year of Jubilee.  Still, we can see the tax code and government programs shaped in such a way as to favor the poor over the wealthy so regardless of whether one is wealthy because of hard work or an accident of birth or whether one is poor because of laziness or an accident of birth, all receive equal opportunities.   We can imagine schools funded in such a way as to remove the systemic advantages that go to the already wealthy.   We can imagine the means of production as equally available to all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Truth builds on truth, Roy. Thanks for laying the basic truth stone, yet again. Perhaps some of the rest of us can help contninue to build the edifice of hope and hsaring!