Tuesday, October 28, 2008

From each according to his ability ...

This post is probably not what you think; it's not about Senator Obama's current (or previous) Marxist-friendly remarks, though Marxism is on my mind because of the current discussions about "redistribution of wealth". It is more about whether this country can have a reasoned discussion about Marxism. That may be too much to ask, but I'm still curious whether it's possible.

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" was a catch-phrase made very popular by Marx, and it had (and in some circles still has) massive appeal. The reason for its appeal is not likely to be noticed if someone hears "Marx" and automatically sees gulags and mass graves. Marx inspires visceral reactions because of the long series of bloody, tyrannical dictators who have marched under his banner and have justified the unjustifiable with some help from his popular slogan. The Marxists have not yet determined how to make a Marxist utopia without resorting to a totalitarian state.

What I have here is a series of thoughts on both the appeal and dangers of the Marxist slogan. I used it to clarify some of my own thoughts, & would be glad to hear your own, on "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

Appeal: Is there any clearer articulation to date of what, exactly, a well-run economy should accomplish?

Danger: Here is a question for democracy to ponder: if you split the population very nearly in two, with the 51% of the people on the lower-producing / lower-earning end in one camp, and the 49% of the people on the higher-producing / higher-earning end in the other camp, is there anything to prevent the 51% from voting to confiscate a certain amount of the money of the 49%? Is there a risk of democracy becoming mob rule by vote, without resorting to violence?

Appeal: Who could argue but that it is both patriotic and humanitarian to help those in need?

Danger: The history of charity (and of charity-based welfare economy) has shown one thing clearly: whenever people are paid for being needy rather than for producing according to their ability, there appear a certain number of scammers, and the scammers if left unchecked tend to take as much as they can. There is an incentive for scammers to multiply until the system breaks as the demand for charity grows beyond the ability to supply it.

Appeal: The system, if followed correctly, sounds like it should work. If all the people capable of producing did produce according to their ability, there should be enough for all. There should be enough extra to redistribute to those few people unable to produce enough for themselves.

Danger: The success of the whole system depends on maximizing the number of people in the "from each according to his ability camp" and minimizing the number of people in the "to each according to his need camp". However, there is no incentive for people to produce according to their ability, if they are not also rewarded according to their productivity.

Appeal: If everyone produced according to his ability, very few would be needy.

Danger: The "from/to" dynamic of the whole slogan makes redistribution the practical application. This is a disincentive for productivity among the people who are productive, and a disincentive for becoming productive among those who are not. The system carries a natural slant towards ever-smaller productive camps and ever-larger needy camps.

Appeal: It sounds like simple justice if each produced what he is able, and each consumed what he needs.

Danger: There is a certain injustice if the one who produces more is not also receiving more, if the one who works the hardest has no appreciable return on his work beyond the same given to one who hardly works, and if the one who hardly works receives material benefits from the produce taken away from the hard worker.

Appeal: There is no starvation if the whole economy is focused on meeting the needs of the people.

Danger: There is no incentive whatsoever to produce beyond the level of need. Gearing an economy to produce at the base level of need creates an economy which is an inch or two above the starvation line.

Appeal: An inch or two above the starvation line is a step forward for a nation that is starving.

Danger: An inch or two above the starvation line is a step backward for a nation where even the welfare recipients are far better off than that.

Appeal: When productivity is harnessed to meet peoples' material needs, there is no reason why anyone's material needs should go unmet.

Danger: When productivity is seen as serving only the goal of meeting material needs, there are abilities not likely to be tapped, such as the ability to innovate.

Appeal: An economy in which everyone consumes only what he needs ensures that everyone has the necessities of life.

Danger: When no one is permitted to consume or produce beyond material needs, there is no incentive for art, joy, creativity, leisure, or enthusiasm. The resulting culture is likely to be unyielding, cold, and Spartan. The necessity-driven economy does not envision breathing space for producing a thing of beauty or gladness for which nobody has a material need. Therefore, it fails the worker badly at his need to excel, to strive, to produce according to his full ability, which exceeds the level of producing at survival/necessity level.

See, I told you it wasn't about Obama. ;)


Chris Duckworth said...

Good reflection, though I disagree with the general direction of your argument. Two points:

You write, "Danger: There is a certain injustice if the one who produces more is not also receiving more."
Though admittedly it is hard to translate the Gospel into governance, I'm not sure that Jesus agrees with your statement. Check out the parable of the workers in the field, Matthew 20:1-16.

Also, you write with some concern about scammers milking the welfare system. This sounds much like President Reagan's ridiculous (and mythical) notion of the "Welfare Queen." I've worked in the inner city and never met anyone who wanted to be on federal assistance. Are there abuses? Sure there are. But abuses of food stamp programs or rent assistance is chump change compared to the Wall Street scammers and corporate welfare that Washington doles out with impunity. In this country we love to assail assistance for the poor but we think it patriotic to send taxpayer dollars to Wall Street. Please.

Again, I have no doubt that some of the dangers you outline are indeed legitimate. But at the same time I question our country's love of capitalism over community, personal accumulation over concern for the poor.

God has given humanity all it needs to survive, yet we defend with patriotic fervor a system that is wrought with grave inequalities. There's a log in our American eye.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Chris

You know, I almost added a section about the "workers in the field" parable, and the only reason I didn't was that I wanted this post to focus exclusively on the slogan "From each (etc.)".

I think it's a fundamental mistake to interpret the workers in the field as an economic parable; that would make about as much sense as interpreting the parable of the talents ("your mina has earned ten more!") as an economic parable; I'd reject both interpretations equally, even if one (so misinterpreted) would be communist and the other capitalist. Neither one is about economics.

The point we can and should take from the workers in the field is about generosity in general and God's generosity in salvation in particular. Jesus isn't intending to teach the economic point "everyone should be paid the same regardless of how much they work".

The point that can be legitimately taken is that God is generous with us and therefore we should be generous with each other. With that I'm in full agreement. Whether generosity should be interpreted an entitlement for someone who works less to receive as much as the one who is working hard by taking from the one who is working hard regardless of his consent, that's where you and I might part ways, depending on your stand there.

Speaking of the bailout, I think it was a horrible idea. My rep voted for it and did an interview on public radio in which he said he hated it too and thought it was horrible, but he believed it to be better than the alternative.

I don't think charity-based scams are necessary "chump change". The sub-prime lending crisis was charity scamming run amok. Same for Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac. What percentage of our recent bailout is actually coerced charity? What percentage of our current economic crisis is that the charity systems of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac took on too many charity cases and collapsed? I'm serious about the questions, they're not rhetorical at all, and the questions (if you'll notice) is that I actually want to know what percentage. If the news industry was doing a better job, we might know that answer. Suffice it to say I don't think charity scamming is negligible; it's gone institutional.

I'm not denying it exists on the individual level also; I personally know a fellow who is in his 50's and has basically lived on government handouts all his life. He's resentful that he doesn't get more, and considers most jobs that he could get beneath his dignity. So you and I are supporting him. But as you say, individual abuses are chump change.

The part that concerns me about most talk of "economic justice" is it is used to imply that "justice" is the correct term for taking from a hard worker and giving to someone who does not produce according to his ability; that is actually a form of injustice (if done by coercion) or generosity (if done voluntarily).

So to me the real question is this: how do you get optimal productivity so that "from each according to his ability" covers the people who are able to take care of themselves actually being required to take care of themselves, *and* provides for economic justice for both those who are incapable of meeting their own needs, and economic justice for the productive.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Chris Duckworth said...

Hey there,

Thanks for your comments. No, I don't think that Jesus' workers in the field parable is an economic teaching. God is generous with all - those who come early and those who come late. Also with the son who wasted away his inheritance. Also with . . . And as you said, God's generosity calls us to a faithful and generous response. But a Lord who is willing to go against basic economic orthodoxy, even as a sermon illustration, probably calls us to rethink a few things about money, neighbor, community . . .

I think it is terribly difficult to translate Gospel into governance, as I wrote earlier. Christians will come out on both sides of the issue, that's for sure. I simply see in the Scripture and Christian tradition a call for greater compassion and generosity than that which the Cult of Capitalism or Faith in the Free Market asks. The question is, then, what should Christians ask of their (secular) government (of a religiously diverse nation), vs. what should they ask of themselves? (Role of government issues are a huge question for me.)

In a sense, Jesus' ministry is not a good model for governance, actually. It got him killed in only three years. He was less interested in teaching the hungry to feed themselves than he was in simply feeding them directly. His was not a modern strategy for sustainable governance.

But whether we're talking about faith or simply about sound public policy, I don't think a growing divide in the income gap is good for anyone. The divisions create social tensions (see Gov. Palin's "Real America" comments) and strains on the (social, economic, transportation, etc.) infrastructure of our nation. We do better by "uniting, not dividing" (as George W. Bush used to say). Traditional conservative tax-cutting and government-stripping measures lead to more long-term problems than they do to long-term prosperity. I mean, if you cut taxes and want to starve government, then should we be surprised that we have little oversight on toys made in China or that we have a hapless response to Hurricane Katrina?

Luther spoke about a rather activist role for government in caring for the poor and needy (see my post from July, Luther on Government in Psalm 82). Still, what does that mean, what does that look like today?

I'm not afraid of taxes or of government, for the government has the God-blessed task of restraining evil, maintaining order, and seeing to the common good. I don't call for a huge government or a uber-strong state, but I do call for a healthy government that is properly funded to do its God-given tasks.

Can government power be abused? Surely it can. Rights can be abridged and taxpayer money can be spent recklessly with few checks and balances, as we have seen in recent years. Christians should call on the government to be accountable and wise stewards of taxpayer dollars and guarantors of civil rights. But unlike most conservatives, I start from a generally positive view of the role of government in society.

OK, that's enough for now. Not sure I'll be back for more, but thanks for the post and conversation.

ProclaimingSoftly (PSanafter-thought) said...

One of the problems in the economy these days is that people aren't paid according to their work or ability. For example, the person who cleans a hospital is extremely important to both the reputation of the hospital and to the success of the hospital. But they are, undoubtedly, on the low end of the hospital pay scale. The hospital can't exist without the doctors and nurses, but also would go down quickly without competent cleaners. There are other jobs there that are also essential, as well as many jobs that they could do without, for awhile, anyway.

Why is it that child care workers and elder care workers earn less than those who wait on tables in a fancy restaurant? Here I deliberately chose a group of workers who have to go to school to do their job in contrast to a group who doesn't. It doesn't mean that a waiter doesn't work hard.

We often focus on who earns more than we do. Or who gets more. It might be more "Christian" as well as more practical to look at actually paying each according to his ability and his work.

Is the CEO of the conglomerate who owns the Widget Maker factory actually worth 250 x more per hour than the widget maker on the assembly line, especially if that widget maker isn't paid enough to afford health insurance?

A few months ago, my son was let go from his job at an insurance/financial advising company. He was probably lucky to get out when he did and find another job (for less money, even though the prerequisites for the job were high). He was told that they were going to hire a woman for the job who didn't need to earn as much, and he was to train her. Of course, he protested. Because one part of his job, he knew how much many of the higher ups were actually earning, and he knew that they weren't hurting financially (unless they were WAY overextended.)

Side point: We've seen that the scammers are also on the high end of the economy, not just the loafers on the low end.

Weekend Fisher said...

And don't get me started on what professional entertainers / athletes are paid ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF