Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Thou Shall Not Covet

Imagine a political climate in which politicians urge citizens that murdering one another might actually be a moral option worth pursuing in the event of a disagreement. Perhaps they would suggest that in unusually difficult times and only in moments of exceptional rage, murder could be overlooked, or even encouraged. Or imagine a climate in which political leaders subtly defended our right as citizens to steal. After all, consider what has been stolen from you via interest from greedy banks or profits from big business. Theft is a way to get even, to level the playing field. Of course it isn't the ideal way to solve a problem, but it is justifiable when you're up against enemies that don't play by the rules.

It is hard to imagine such a political climate precisely because we know murder and theft to be wrong. Even if not for the fifth or seventh commandments, no human civilization lifts up murder or theft as virtuous. Sure, we explore times of moral confusion when we want to justify such sins, or when we are legitimately unsure when the difference between, for example, "murder" and "kill" emerges. What about soldiers on the battlefield or a battered spouse in self-defense? Is that murder? Or I think of The Bicycle Thief as an exploration of how desperate people behave in ways they otherwise would not. The point is, the commission of such acts, even in extreme cases, is almost always considered wrong. We know it to be wrong instinctively, and our Judeo-Christian culture certainly reinforces it.

Murder and theft, of course, are not the only commandments we are to live by, even in a secular world. They are, perhaps, the "hardest" of all the commandments. That is, society feels the effects of these broken commandments, although not honoring our parents, committing adultery, and lying rank pretty high as well. The first three commandments pertaining to our relationship to God (no other gods, do not take the Lord's name in vein, and honor the Sabbath) effect society if broken to be sure, but not as directly as murder or theft. The first three are what you might call "soft" commandments; following them is a relatively private affair.

That brings us to the ninth and tenth commandments: you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, and all his possessions. Some church traditions yoke these commandments together, making no distinction between your neighbor's wife and his stuff. Most Protestant (and I believe Roman Catholic) traditions separate these commandments, but that makes it easier to correlate them to the "harder" sins they lead to: adultery and theft.

These two commandments make up 20% of the great Ten Commandments, but get scarce attention, probably because they are "soft" commandments. Certainly society benefits when we are obedient to the commandments, but we often don't follow the ball long enough to see how they are a great detriment to societies when we are disobedient. We focus on the hard sins of murder and theft because we can legislate and prosecute them. But such hard sins always have their roots in the soft sin of coveting.

This commandment needs special attention in our day. It needs such attention precisely because we do live in a political climate where politicians encourage us to covet. For some reason, we will not tolerate politicians who subtly encourage us to murder, but we elect them to represent us when they invite us to covet.

Perhaps we overlook this because no politician will come out and tell us to covet. But they do encourage us to covet every time they engage in demagogic class warfare. Whenever a politician speaks about certain members of society paying their "fair share", coveting is being encouraged. Wherever the welfare state is lauded as salutary, we should expect that coveting will be the end result. The recent debt deal stalled precisely because one side wanted to use coveting to force tax increases on those who "could afford it," those who needed to put more "skin in the game."

More examples abound. The rioting in London, where entitled children of the welfare state justify their crimes because the business owners are rich, are prime coveters. Flash mobs here seem to operate on the same premise, that it is okay to rob a store because the corporation never did any good anyway. I would also go so far as to say that a spate of racial crimes of late, and indeed the entire racial victimization phenomenon is rooted in covetousness. White, in some circles, is synonymous with rich, privileged or entitled.

It is no better to encourage coveting any more than it is good to encourage one another to kill, steal, or lie. Politicians and the culture can feel free to ignore the first three commandments; they deal more with man's relationship to God. But the next seven speak to how we live together as a community, and even most secularists would endorse them as good. Just because the softer of these commandments, mainly those pertaining to what happens in the mind, exact a cheaper cost on society doesn't make it acceptable to encourage them. Because the soft sins lead to hard sins, politicians and cultural leaders should do everything in their power to speak about service to one another, showing honor to one another, and respecting one another. That is how the polis survives. Encouraging us to covet only destroys.

Why don't we hold politicians who encourage us to covet to account? I suppose because we like to covet. Politicians are surely complicit in our sin, but we're the ones who love to commit them. If we can't rely on our elected leaders, we will need to rely on ourselves to know what coveting is, when we commit it, and how to stop. Coveting can only lead to resentment at best and hard crimes at worst.


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Jesse said...

I take serious issue with this post. Having a discussion about the fairness of the tax structure is not the same as encouraging people to covert each other's possessions. There is no 'natural' or correct level of taxation in a society, but there is a continuing discussion about how to get it right according to the situation at hand, generally to produce both incentives to work and economic growth, and to satisfy man's innate sense of fairness.

The unspoken social contract that underlies western democratic government assumes that we all have a share in the common good and to some extent need to contribute to it in proportion to our means.

America is a country which is systematically paralyzed by its inability to raise enough tax revenue to cover the basics of government that its people expect. It is also a country in which the gaps between rich and poor have been growing hugely since the early 1970s - a growth in inequality which is due mainly to conscious decisions on the part of successive governments to lower the tax burden on the very rich.

This has now reached a stage where, as Warren Buffet recently pointed out, the very rich often pay a lower marginal tax rate than the poor.

This is not even to mention the well documented correlation between monetary inequality in a society and negative social indicators such as murder, educational achievement and levels of trust.

It is understandable that in this context people should begin to question whether the tax structure is correctly balanced.

Implying, as this article does, that the current level of relative taxation in America is correct and natural and that any change to it is essentially to nurture 'covetous' thoughts shows a distinct lack of understanding about the issues at hand and is a lazy application of Biblical concepts.

Daniel said...

We've grown to expect our politicians to encourage covetousness, and this is a pattern that has been firmly in place since the Reagan era. Carter was the last politician to seriously talk about personal sacrifice, scaling back our expectations to have whatever we want whenever we want it. He asked us to try putting on a sweater when the room gets a little cold, rather than demanding heat and the cheap fuel it requires. He spoke for moderation and simplicity.

Reagan ended all of this. "Greed is good" became the national motto, and you were entitled to your own sports car if you worked hard enough (as the myth goes). Even two decades latter, George W asked Americans, facing a new war, to serve the country by going shopping. The president has been the marketer-in-chief, greasing the wheels of capitalism by encouraging citizens to want more stuff than they currently have.

I think Obama has mostly followed this pattern, and until we have a successful candidate that models an alternative narrative actually win an election - this is what we're stuck with.

@logantreed said...

I mostly agree with Jesse... this post has a lot of problems. The divide between wage earners in this country is absurd. Saying that this somehow makes the other 99% of us covetous and/or jealous is missing the point.

As to presidents "encouraging citizens to want more stuff than they currently have": isn't that just one logical step away from "go work hard"? Also, consuming more goods doesn't have to mean more tangible "stuff". It can mean a house half the size but built twice as nice, like Europe.

Daniel said...

I believe there are reasons to work hard beyond wanting more stuff. We were created to glorify God by creating beauty and utility through our work, and this is it's ultimate end. So I don't follow that logical step.

Also ...

Smaller, high-quality homes are clearly not acceptable. This would mean smaller screen sizes on televisions, smaller closets that hold less apparel, maybe a small garage with (gasp) no room for a second car. Walk around Home Depot or Lowes or Best Buy or a used car lot one day and imagine everything cut in half. This is why you cannot talk about reducing home sizes, even back to 80's proportions.

Benedict Augustine said...

To Jesse and Logan:

You cannot equate the spontaneous riots and protests on Wall Street with "having a discussion about the fairness of the tax structure." These are people, often from rather affluent backgrounds, who shot their wad on a useless degree and lack the means to pay their loans. Oh, and they hate rich people too. What do they want? If you can piece together a coherent argument from all the indignant chatter, they want all their loans to be forgiven, the government to give them jobs, and to take down that top 1 percent somehow--maybe with guillotine, if necessary. This is plain populist fury, not a discussion about fairness.

For those clamoring about taxing the rich for "fairness's sake", we should reexamine what is meant by "fairness". To me, fairness is judged primarily by how much people covet. We're not addressing mass poverty, starvation, or oppression. We're not even looking employment, when discussing the tax code. We're just wanting to take rich people down a peg because we want what they have. You can call that justified, but don't say coveting doesn't figure into it.

IF, people were concerned about income disparity, they should look at the regulations, tax loopholes, and subsidies in place that all discourage competition and promote monopolies. They should look at our education that under-prepares young people entering the workforce. They should look at insufficient immigration laws that enable companies to exploit illegal immigrants and undercut fair wages. They should consider the exorbitant healthcare costs that really do overburden middle class.

These are a few things to consider when addressing income inequality. Don't be foolish enough to plead the government's case of lacking revenue? Our government is heft and it needs to stop borrowing, just like the rest of us. Our governments was intended to be small. Thomas Jefferson, who had reservations about the Louisiana Purchase because of its effect on increasing the size of the federal government, intended a small government and independent citizens. Government is there to ensure that independence, not to arbitrarily redistribute the fruits of their labor.

Daniel Nairn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jesse said...

Hi Scott,

Firstly, your comment that "These are people, often from rather affluent backgrounds, who shot their wad on a useless degree and lack the means to pay their loans. Oh, and they hate rich people too." is an oddly specific generalisation which is stupid, crass and does your argument no favours, so I will say no more about it.

I agree with you however that the regulations, loop holes, education, healthcare costs etc are part of the problem of income disparity and need to be reformed, and I'm sure the people in the occupy wall street movement would agree with you too.

However tax rates must be a part of the discussion, not least because the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy have been the single largest contributor to America's current government deficit. No amount of political rhetoric will escape this simple fact.

Taxes on the top 10% have been progressively lowered in western countries over the past four decades, a deliberate decision on the part of governments (and their campaign funders) to move more of the productive capacity of the economy into the hands of the wealthy (covetousness anybody?). This was actually done for some convincing, but ultimately unsound economic reasons, and has resulted in the large disparities in wealth that we see at present.

All governments redistribute wealth in one form or another, through marginal taxation, subsidies, and selective provision of services. Only a system of pure flat taxation, or perhaps an even more radical 'citizenship fee' would avoid this, and I don't think anyone on either side of the political spectrum is seriously proposing this.

Therefore the question, as it has always been, is what level of distribution is fair under the current circumstances, not whether it is right to do so or not.

Previous governments have decided that it was a good idea to increase inequality, what people are now saying is that this has gone far enough and perhaps we need to reverse the trend a bit.

I don't think anyone thinks that killing the rich and giving everyone a government job, as you suggest the wall st protesters want, is much of a solution. Caricaturing the protesters in this way is about as inaccurate and helpful as saying that the rich are trying to turn America into a feudalist society whereby the rich overlords will each have thousands of surfs in economic bondage and wretched poverty under them to exploit for their own purposes.

This sort of radical generalising of people on the other side of the political spectrum is bitterly unhelpful and and only further entrenches the dangerous division in American political life.

Rick Warden said...

This is off topic but I thought people here may be interested in a Christian apologetic that uses architecture, well, to some extent:

The Health and Logic of a Thankful Lifestyle

Unknown said...

"America is a country which is systematically paralyzed by its inability to raise enough tax revenue to cover the basics of government that its people expect."

That has to be one of the single silliest things I've ever read in my entire life. The tax revenues raised by the US government (and that of local and state governments) are not only more than enough to meet "basic" government operating costs, but are enough to enable wastefulness and extravagance that would have embarrassed an Emperor of the Ming. The US government has the largest tax revenue stream in the history of the planet, and if that is not enough to satisfy what the people "expect," much less what the people consider basic, then it is precisely the people's absurd expectations that are to blame. If 5.2 trillion dollars in government revenues per year cannot provide "basic" government services, then our notion of what constitutes a "basic service" owed to us by other people has grown beyond mere covetousness, into a sense of cosmic entitlement that borders on actual insanity.

In point of fact, of course, the causes of income inequality have nothing whatsoever to do with government tax policy (we have the highest corporate tax rate in the world by a very large margin, and are the only Western nation that levees taxes on revenue earned overseas), and everything to do with 1) an educational system devastated by decades of leftist misrule, and 2) the importation of millions upon millions of poor people from the Third World, a policy that is also supposedly demanded by basic Christian compassion but which also runs directly counter to the equalization of incomes (I cannot find any reference to the Gini coefficient in Scripture, by the way, but perhaps you can expand on the point for me).

By the way, monetary inequality in a society has nothing to do with social indicators such as the kind you mention, as is obvious by pointing out that when America was much more unequal--when it had a dramatically smaller middle class--it was by far better off in terms of murder rates, quality of education, and basic levels of trust in society. The same is true of countries with royal pasts such as Great Britain, and pretty much everywhere else too. And if societies with greater social health (less violence, stronger families, etc.) also are better able to sustain healthy middle classes, this in no way even suggests that income inequality is a significant cause of social dysfunction. If it were, then London under the rule of Queen Victoria should have been a squalid, violent cesspool marked by widespread ignorance and low civilizational achievement. We know that not to be the case.

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