Yes, The Gospel of Redistribution
By Forrest Simmons
This essay was inspired by a thought provoking article in the March 2009 edition of the Mormon Worker entitled, “ The Gospel of Redistribution?” by Matthew Wappett, Ph.D, and by the provoked thoughts of the many people that posted their comments to the online edition here.
Most of the comments were in favor of voluntary redistribution of wealth to the less fortunate in the form of private charity, but were against government welfare on the grounds that (1) government funds are acquired through compulsory taxation, and (2) government intervention causes more problems than it solves, including dependency of recipients. If government would only get out of the way, men of good will would have more means and incentive to step in and solve the problem without all of the bungling and waste of a faceless bureaucracy. If enough people cared about the needy to pass laws to help them, then why would the law be needed?
Many comments relied on the authority of cold war era pronouncements of church leaders against godless communism and socialism. Of course these leaders were not speaking against the United Order and would resent that non-members might call it “Christian Communism.” Of the leaders cited, one in particular, Elder Ezra Taft Benson, used to speak and write enthusiastically and optimistically of laissez-faire capitalism as a system that could foster free enterprise solutions to poverty without compromising agency.
Some comments pointed out that there are other more equitable systems of government based on egalitarian principles that do not require downward redistribution of wealth because these systems do not allow the upward concentration of wealth in the first place, e.g. by keeping control of the means of production and disposition of goods in the hands of the producers (i.e. workers) rather than a separate class of owners and managers. These systems are forms of “libertarian socialism” or “anarcho-syndicalism.” Unfortunately, opponents of socialism, including some church leaders, tend to paint all of its forms with the same broad brush. In their view laws that prohibit vast accumulation of wealth must compromise the agency of the thwarted robber barons. Would they go so far as to say that Captain Moroni and his army had no right to pull down the power of the wealthy king men?
Where there is no systematic upward distribution of wealth, no downward distribution is needed. But as long as there are concentrations of wealth and power, as has been the rule throughout history, the rich and powerful have known how to use governments to entrench their advantage. The most blatant recent example is the multibillion dollar taxpayer bailout of billionaires. In the words of Noam Chomsky, “Bailouts and subsidies for the rich, but market discipline for the poor,” and “privatize the profits while socializing the costs.”
According to D&C 134 we believe that governments are [supposed to be] instituted for the benefit of mankind. But what benefit do we get from governments that are only used to reinforce the natural advantage of the rich and powerful over the poor and powerless? Some would argue that military and police protection from foreign and domestic threats are legitimate uses of government that benefit both the rich and poor alike. However in practice the poor are the traditional cannon fodder for the wars waged by the rich, not to mention that they are also the traditional targets of tasers and tear gas when protesting unsafe working conditions, unfair labor practices, and other social inequity and iniquity (to be didactically redundant). If government does have a legitimate role in protection of the population, then why not in protection from the wolf of hunger at the door? As somebody mentioned in the comments, we have had more casualties from poverty than from any shooting wars. Furthermore, our shooting wars have caused more poverty at home and abroad than most people realize. Talk about redistribution: From food to bombs!
Since the principle of individual agency is central to the strongest comments by LDS readers against “redistribution” of wealth, let’s take a closer look at this. First of all, when we chafe at being compelled (by threat of consequences that might compromise our agency) to donate some of “our” money to help the poor, haven’t we forgotten that in reality it all belongs to the Lord? If he were to make us stewards over a part of it, that part would only satisfy our basic needs, until everybody’s basic needs were covered. If we were compelled to distribute the Lord’s money to the people that he would want to help, we would still have a choice; we could give cheerfully or grudgingly. Wasn’t that our choice when mom or dad made us share with our siblings?
Secondly, if I choose to not pay tithing, I am restricted from entering the temple. If I choose to not pay taxes, I may have some other restriction imposed. Which consequence is worse from an eternal perspective? We who are LDS believe that God respects our agency, but the consequences of using our agency against God’s laws are worse and longer lasting than the consequences of using our agency against man’s laws. Because of this we need to rethink our “agency” excuse for opposing laws of men that provide for collecting taxes for the general welfare, as outlined in article I section 8 of the US constitution. If I refuse to pay my taxes because I don’t believe in supporting war profiteers, I might go to jail (though most war tax resistors have gotten away with it), but I doubt that would keep me out of the Celestial Kingdom. In Matthew 25, the Lord doesn’t say, “I needed money for bombs, and you refused to give it to me.” If I refuse to pay taxes because I oppose providing for the general welfare, the Lord might have reason to ask why I withheld my food from him when he was hungry, my clothes from him when he was naked, etc. Do significant numbers of people help the less fortunate outside of government programs? Yes, but under capitalism the vast wealth that the real owner (God) wants redistributed is outside their reach.
The Lord’s comment on a system that allows one man to possess “that which is above another” is “wherefore the world lieth in sin.” Mere possession does not mean ownership. In the same section (104) the Lord makes it clear that He owns everything, and that whoever takes from the abundance that He has provided and resists efforts to distribute it, will “with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment,” presumably tormented with a clear realization of how much suffering his vanity caused his fellow beings. Will a man rob god? Inasmuch as ye have robbed one of the least of these ye have robbed me (and vice-versa). “They rob the poor because of their fine clothing,” etc. Can we use “agency” as an argument against penalties for robbery? Bastiat considered taxes for welfare to be “legal plunder” of the rich by the poor. He didn’t seem to realize that mere possession does not constitute ownership, or to know who the real owner was. Possession does not constitute stewardship, either. Only someone with the appropriate priesthood keys can appoint such a stewardship. So let’s not get too defensive about “our” possessions.
One comment suggested rather ironically that “love it or leave it” could be applied to people who feel taxes are too coercive. They could go to Somalia where there are no taxes and see what that is like. Others responded that because this was not a realistic possibility, they felt that societies that used public funds for welfare could only give you two choices: pay up or go to jail. However in traditional societies, people who exhibit anti-social behavior (like not pitching in to help) are not exiled to far away countries like Somalia but are shunned locally.
The D&C terminology is that “they become a law unto themselves” and they are left to the “buffetings of Satan,” in that they forfeit their safe place in the bosom of society. Outer darkness is not a special torture camp, it just means that if you cannot abide the law of any kingdom of glory (where a decent person would want to live) then you must become a law unto yourself and deal with the forces of chaos on your own without the benefit of the eternal government of god, the holy priesthood. This would be the ultimate in self sufficiency, except for the indispensable “hand out” of an indestructible resurrected body.
Many comments spoke highly of self reliance as opposed to dependency. But the scriptures emphasize interdependency. Too much emphasis on self reliance to the extreme of self sufficiency gives a lopsided view of our natural interdependency; if you have two coats and your neighbor has none, save your extra coat for a rainy day. You might not have enough money to buy a new one when this one wears out. When I was in a position to talk to other bishops about welfare cases that crossed ward boundaries, I used to wince when they used “self sufficiency” interchangeably with “self reliance.” Unfortunately in a recent issue of the Liahona magazine all instances of “self reliance” in Marion G. Romney’s talk on the subject were translated into Spanish as “auto suficiencia,” which means self sufficiency.
Why have some Mormon leaders like Elders Benson and Romney been so adamant against government funded safety nets while other leaders (not as vocal in the McCarthy era) have been in favor of a substantial government role like the New Deal? During the Great Depression, most Utah and Idaho Mormons were farmers and ranchers, so they scoffed at the need for government assistance. My mother, who grew up in the Naples Ward of Vernal, Utah, was a lifelong Republican (who passed away in 1964, before Goldwater lost to LBJ). But my father, who was raised in the coal mining camps of Carbon County during the depression, voted for FDR. Most farmers had little quarrel with laissez-faire capitalism, because they had the means to survive its depression, and they liked its leave-us-alone-to-prosper policy when things were going well. But unregulated capitalism is a double bind because on the one hand it makes self-sufficiency necessary for survival, while on the other hand its monopoly game style ratcheting dynamic inexorably concentrates control of property, wealth, and government into the hands of an elite few, so that for most people it is not even possible to have enough land for subsistence farming.
I believe that socialism, communism, and capitalism as we know them are all far from the United Order that the Lord wants us to live. It seems to me that capitalism is better with a social safety net for the poor than without it, and that agency is a poor excuse for omitting this provision. The rest of this essay is a critique of the system under which we live, the one that caused Moroni to exclaim, “O ye pollutions …” Some people will assume that because I criticize capitalism, that I must approve of other false and failed systems that are now commonly called communism and socialism, just like they falsely assume that if I am not a Republican, then I am a Democrat. I don’t approve of any system that concentrates wealth or power, whether into the hands of government bureaucrats or into the hands of private tyrannies. We have learned by sad experience that such concentrations of power and wealth always corrupt those hands, lead to various forms of slavery, and grieve the Lord as the common people mourn the consequences of unrighteous dominion. So let’s talk about the inner vessel, the system that concerns us most at present.
It seems to me that supporting capitalism (whose god is Mammon) is just as bad as supporting the godless Soviet style communism that Elders Benson, Romney, and J Ruben Clark used to condemn in conference talks. It is easy to criticize the outer vessel half way around the world, but it took a Spencer W. Kimball to criticize the evils of capitalism at home, as he did in his remarks celebrating two hundred years of the Declaration of Independence. I also remember him suggesting that we could learn a thing or two from the Chinese about living simply and working cooperatively as opposed to our system of cut throat competition. This was during his tenure as church president circa 1980 when it wasn’t popular to suggest that the West could learn something from the East. These critiques were not frequently quoted like the ones from other leaders against the system used by our official enemies. It always struck me as odd that Elder Benson would cast the communists in the role of modern Gaddianton Robbers when the Robber Baron capitalists seemed so much more apt for the part.
It seems to me that unrestrained capitalism is not truly compatible with democracy. In democracy the influence of a group of people is in proportion to the number of people in it. In capitalism, the influence of a group is in proportion to its wealth. Dollars talk, and capitalism protects their speech because of laws bought and paid for by (you guessed it) capitalists.
Similarly, capitalism is incompatible with the Law of Moses in which there was a periodic (seven year) release from all debts. Like the Ten Commandments, this part of the Law of Moses was never rescinded. In fact, it is subsumed under the law of consecration and stewardship which says, in effect, that all debts must be forgiven at all times, not just every seven years. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” is a risky prayer for those who categorically limit the forgiveness of debts. If we were to put even the Law of Moses version of the debt release into practice immediately, it would solve our economic problems by getting everybody out of debt now and starting us down the road of recovery from capitalism. Of course, this cannot happen, because the rich capitalists who write the laws think they have more to lose by debt cancellation than to gain (their souls).
Capitalism makes Babylon “the whore of all the earth” in that it commodifies everything for profit. Nothing is too sacred to be commodified, from sex to security. Pollution credits commodify the poisoning of the planet. Indigenous farmers cannot save and use their traditional seeds without paying a royalty to Monsanto, because they never thought to patent them. The “churches that are built up to get power and gain” are the giant corporations of capitalism. Any protection of life cannot be a seamless part of capitalism. It must be must be jury rigged as a makeshift patch and grafted onto the system with baling wire and duct tape from the outside. As these patches are sloughed off, species continue to be exterminated, our air, water, and food supply poisoned, forests turned into desert wasteland. It is impossible to regulate the concentrated wealth of capitalism that pays the regulators for its freedom from regulation. Under capitalism, instead of a chicken in every pot, we have a fox in every henhouse, otherwise known as the “revolving door” between industry and government.
Capitalists have no interest in the fate of surplus workers displaced by industrialization, where machines make it possible for one man to produce as much as a thousand preindustrial age workers. It wouldn’t be so bad if these workers had enough land for subsistence farming outside of the capitalist economy, but no, that cannot be. To see how hard it is for families lucky enough to own farms to hold on to them under capitalism, Google “India Farmer Suicides.” Capitalist agribusiness has driven many millions of peasants worldwide off of their small farms into the slums. In Mexico this effect was highly amplified by NAFTA, a big factor in the increase of undocumented immigrants in the USA.
The secret and private combinations that have been built up to get power and gain, and have gotten above us in control of our government as Moroni warned in chapter eight of Ether, are the giant corporate powers, including the king men that own them, the lobbyists and other movers and shakers of capitalism behind the scenes, the bought out politicians, and the collaborating intellectuals that continue to justify them through their priestcraft, not the long feared communists! These same radical capitalist powers have taken control of the former Soviet Union and Red China, which no longer have even the superficial forms of socialism that were once held out in promise to their poor. The beast of John’s apocalypse that ravages the world is not the pathetic United Nations (as averred by our 700 Club Christian friends), rather it is the corporatocracy of the Gentiles who were once an highly favored people, but are now lifted up in our pride above all the nations of the whole earth while serving Mammon.