Paul A. Cleveland is Assistant Professor of Economics and Business Administration at Birmingham-Southern College
There is much discussion today about the rights people possess and about the need to promote social justice. It seems as if every time one watches television or reads a newspaper there is someone demanding government action to secure a new right. Today, it is widely believed that everyone has the right to education and a good job, to quality medical care and inexpensive housing, and to a host of other items whether the individual can afford these things or not. It is, therefore, assumed that government action is both necessary and justifiable in procuring these rights especially when someone lacks the ability to acquire these things for himself. A proliferation of government programs to provide citizens with various goods and services has resulted from this belief. However, before we conclude that this activity is appropriate, it would be prudent to examine what rights people actually possess. As Proverbs 19:2 warns, "... it is not good for a soul to be without knowledge, and he sins who hastens with his feet."
To adequately address the issues involved in promoting a course of government action aimed at establishing the right to consume certain products, it will be important to examine the nature of justice and the nature of mercy and grace. Jesus told a number of parables illustrating the nature of salvation and God's mercy and grace towards sinful human beings. One example is the parable of the workers in the vineyard which is recorded in Matthew 20:1-16. An examination of Jesus' purpose for the parable is a good starting point.
Jesus uses the parable to instruct his disciples about what is necessary for a person to be saved. As you may recall, the parable follows Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler who came to Him to inquire what he should do to gain eternal life. The key to understanding the encounter, and to understanding the parable that follows, is to realize that Jesus is pointing out that man can do nothing to earn eternal life. The rich young ruler's problem was his high view of his own performance. He thought that he was capable of meriting salvation. Jesus revealed that this was an erroneous perception. The reality is that if any man is to be saved, he will be saved according to the mercy of God and not through his own efforts.
Following the encounter, Jesus begins to discuss the issue with his disciples who were somewhat bewildered. They too were misinformed, as is evident by Peter's response, "See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore, what shall we have?" To clarify the lesson that salvation is based solely upon the merciful decision of God instead of the actions of men, Jesus told the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In the parable, Jesus deals with the human propensity to presume upon mercy and grace. It was the same presumption which had just been displayed by the rich young ruler.
As you will recall, the parable is a story about a landowner who hired laborers to work in his vineyard. The owner of the vineyard sought out a number workers over the course of the day and had agreed to pay each worker the appropriate portion of a day's wage based upon the length of time worked in the field. At the end of the day when the landowner settled his accounts with the workers, rather than paying each worker in proportion to the work done, he paid everyone a full day's pay. As one might expect, the workers who labored only part of the day were very pleased for they each received more than was expected. However, the workers who labored the full day began to grumble against the landowner because he had not treated them with the same grace he had shown the other laborers. They resented the landowner for not being gracious to them. At the gut level they believed that they deserved more than the others because they had worked longer than the others. However, the landowner makes it clear that his generosity is not dependent upon the efforts of those who are being treated generously. Instead, it is unmerited.
Three points can be gleaned from the parable. First, how wonderful it is to be treated with mercy and grace! Such treatment should always give rise to a heart of thankfulness and gratitude. Second, men are envious and jealous of the mercy received by others when such mercy is not also extended to them. People sinfully believe that it is unfair for such compassion to be shown to others and not to themselves. Third, those who show compassion and mercy to others are under no compulsion to show that same mercy and compassion to everyone universally. No one has the right to force someone else to deal with them in a merciful and compassionate way. If mercy could be mandated, it would not exist. This is the very foundation of God's declaration, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion", which is first presented in Exodus 33:19 and later repeated in Romans 9:15.
This understanding of grace, mercy, and justice can easily be applied to the issue of the government's provision of certain goods and services. Many people conclude that such provision is necessary because of the selfishness of successful men who refuse to participate in charitable activities despite the Bible's clear admonition to do so. Proceeding upon this observation, they call for legislative action aimed at forcing people to be charitable to the poor as an act of justice. For this reason, the successful establishment of government entitlement programs is often referred to as social justice. Unfortunately, this activity is anything but just.
The law of God establishes the just relations among men. Two of God's commandments which are particularly relevant are His prohibition of both stealing and lying. Thus, taking another person's property by force or by deception are specifically prohibited by God. Instead, we are called upon to respect the property of our neighbors. In addition to these commands, God also admonishes us to be merciful and compassionate. The question at hand is, does God's admonition for people to be merciful imply the use of governmental force? That is, is it government's role in society to ensure charitable relations among men? Thoughtful consideration of this question will reveal that the only way for government to pursue this course of action is to disregard individual property rights which is a practice that shows contempt for the law of God. Moreover, the attempt to fix the charitable relations among men through legislation implicitly assumes that people have the right to be treated mercifully and that this right is properly established by taking property away from taxpayers.
True mercy requires a voluntary sacrifice. A person who has been forced to give up property for the benefit of another has not been merciful or compassionate. Nor has the one using force done anything charitable. On the contrary, in such situations the force used to expropriate the property is an act of injustice. Coerced charity is no charity at all.
The same is true of all efforts to use government force to provide for the needs of the people. It costs the legislators nothing to legislate special benefits for some people by penalizing others. The tax collector who forces payment for the programs cannot be said to have sacrificed anything in a merciful fashion. And, the only reason taxpayers give up their property is out of fear of punishment. In actuality, these programs are really nothing more than a means of legal theft. This is evidenced by the attitudes of the beneficiaries of the programs. Just as a thief has no regard in his heart for the people whose property he takes, so too the recipient of governmental largess has no regard for taxpayers. In fact, the opposite is true. Having first received the benefits of such programs, recipients develop the belief that they have a fundamental right to the perpetual continuation of those benefits even though they can only be continued by taking even more property away from others.
The legitimate role of government in society is to punish people who would violate others. That is, government will benefit society economically to the extent that it protects the property of all people without showing favoritism either to the rich or the poor. In this case the government's use of force to collect tax dollars to fund its activities is justified because it is promoting everyone's general interest of securing order and peace. In this environment people would then be free to produce and trade amongst one another without fearing thieves and murderers. This is the essential message given in Roman's 13:1-7.
The attempt to establish mercy and charity on earth via the law is not a Christian concept. It is instead a clever counterfeit masquerading as light in our fallen world. It is based in the philosophy of pragmatism and not in a proper understanding of the word of God. Our perfect example of mercy is Jesus Christ. No one forced Jesus to go to the Cross. He went voluntarily. His sacrifice was real and because of it we have a legitimate hope of salvation in His name. Those who understand this, in turn, have the privilege of reflecting the glory of God by extending mercy and compassion to others in a depraved world. Let us heed the words of the Apostle Paul, who said in Ephesians 4:28, "He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need."