“Legitimate Redistribution”? No such thing!

“Once elected,” Pope Francis once said, “by virtue of the promise of Jesus to Peter, the Pope is preserved from the possibility of error.” According to the current leader of world Catholicism, his role is important enough that God Himself forbids him from ever making a mistake. One wonders if Francis would extend that same protection to popes who presided over some of Europe’s many deadly wars and religious conflicts, inquisitions, and assassinations. Regardless, it unfortunately puts those of us who might criticize or disagree with him in a fairly tight spot. Nonetheless, in an act that’s sure to be folly of biblical proportions, I can’t help but challenge the pope’s comments this week calling for a “legitimate redistribution” of wealth. I can’t help it, you see, because such a thing does not exist.

As the AP reported last Friday,

“Pope Francis called Friday for governments to redistribute wealth to the poor in a new spirit of generosity to help curb the ‘economy of exclusion’ that is taking hold today.

Francis made the appeal during a speech to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the heads of major U.N. agencies who are meeting in Rome this week. . .

On Friday, Francis called for the United Nations to promote a ‘worldwide ethical mobilization’ of solidarity with the poor in a new spirit of generosity.

He said a more equal form of economic progress can be had through ‘the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.’”

It is fair to say that Pope Francis is a far cry from the anti-communist Cold War views of his predecessor John Paul II and more interested in getting involved in major geopolitical issues than Benedict XVI, whose social commentary tended more towards the evils and dangers of Harry Potter than to matters of political ideology.

Pope Francis, who once tweeted that “Inequality is the root of social evil” (I had a hard time finding that one in the Bible), has seemingly used his position more to support the spread of socialist ideas about the need for redistribution than he has to promote Christianity itself. His tenure has thus far been that of a Latin American socialist seemingly using his role as an extension of the global left’s railing against inequality. It is hardly surprising that, under this kind of leadership, the loyalty of self-identified Catholics in the US to the Vatican has continued to wane.

(For a great, related writing on the subject of Christianity and socialism, I recommend Lawrence Reed’s “Rendering Unto Caesar: Was Jesus a Socialist?”)

Popularity aside, the real test of the pope’s injunctions to redistribute wealth is reason itself. There is no such thing as a “legitimate redistribution” of wealth by the state. The legitimate distribution of wealth is achieved by a free market in which value is traded for value through voluntary, non-coercive exchanges. Government, by definition, is an institution with a monopoly on the use of force in society. It is inherently and by its very essence coercive. This, however, is not a bad thing. It accrues this power by the just consent of the governed: the people delegate their use of force to an impartial arbiter tasked with the defense of their rights against criminals and invaders. The test of the morality and legitimacy of the government they erect is whether it uses that power of physical force in a retaliatory fashion against rights-violating criminals and foreign aggressors or whether it initiates force against its own citizens, denying them the rights that it was assigned to defend.

The redistribution of wealth is the oldest and most pervasive means of the state abandoning its proper purpose. First undertaken by nobles who justified their extractions by claiming that God had made them superior to their serfs and entitled them to greater wealth and power, it was continued in the modern era by socialists who performed the same abuses in the name of the masses. In a post-Cold-War era without the threat of a devoutly atheistic Soviet Union, Pope Francis appears to be synthesizing the two, papering over a cravenly socialist ideology with papal rhetoric and vaguely biblical-sounding demands for redistribution.

The rights of individuals to their property, however, are objective and indispensable. By nature, the right to wealth accrues to those who produce it. This is true from a minimum wage, teen-aged worker in a fast food restaurant to the restaurant manager to the CEO of the company that owns the chain. And as the teenager works his way up from one rung to the next, he does not sacrifice any of his rights along the way. He is as entitled to his wage at every successive stage as he was when he started. The government of the country in which he lives has no legitimate claim to tell him that as he progresses he loses his right to the product of his labor and, by extension, to the hours and days and years of his life that he devoted to his success. It has no prerogative to commit his life to the next young man starting out behind him any more than it did the men who went before him. It was his life, his mind, his body, his effort that produced the wealth he has; he dealt with others not out of charity but by trade, because of the value he offered to them. To tell him that he must surrender the wealth that he has accrued or else be imprisoned—“Your money or your freedom”, which is always the implicit ultimatum in any redistributive program—is not only economically destructive and rights-violating; it is also the very opposite of charity, generosity, and benevolence.

Virtues such as benevolence and compassion are presented as the spirit of redistributive injunctions by the pope and others. In reality, however, these qualities—like all morality—depend upon the element of volition on the part of the actor involved. Consider the following three scenarios:

  1. A man is walking down the street to his car. As he stops to remove the keys from his pocket, a fifty-dollar bill falls from it unnoticed. He drives off, and the fifty-dollar bill is found by a college student who puts it toward paying his expenses through school.
  2. The same man is walking down the street to his car. As he stops to remove the keys from his pocket, he looks down and fails to notice someone approaching. When he looks up, he finds a gun pointed at his face and is mugged for the contents of his wallet, losing the same fifty dollars. The mugger then uses the money to pay his child support, helping to pay for his kid’s education.
  3. The same man is walking down the street to his car. As he stops to remove the keys from his pocket, he is approached by a pair of fundraisers asking for donations for their school to buy supplies and help fund a new arts program. Finding only the fifty dollars in his pocket, feeling generous, and remembering his own positive experiences in arts classes during school, he wants to support others in getting the same benefit and gives the full amount.

For which of these instances would we commend the man in question? For the accident? Hardly. It would be odd to gush with praise for his haphazardly dropping fifty dollars, regardless of whatever cause it ultimately wound up supporting. For the mugging? That would be even more bizarre. Any sane person would understand that surrendering the money was entirely involuntary, and any just person would appreciate that while it may ultimately have contributed to a child’s betterment, the act itself was wrong. What about the generous choice to give to a cause he valued? This seems the most likely object of our praise—and with good reason. A man recognized a noble cause that was supported by his own chosen values, and with integrity he chose to support it in a way that was feasible to him.

Can we rank the moral virtue of this man’s actions in the first and second cases? No. We can condemn the mugger in the second case, but whether in the case of the accident or the mugging, our leading man doesn’t have much say, so we recognize—implicitly or explicitly—that he doesn’t merit any commendation. Is it the final cause that determines whether we admire his actions more in one instance than another? No. In all cases, his fifty dollars went toward supporting someone’s education, so our differential responses cannot be attributed to the end cause. What is the distinguishing quality that makes the third case different from the first two?

It is the element of volition. In moral questions, we usually implicitly understand that a truly morally commendable act is an act freely chosen by the actor in question. Where we most often lose this understanding, however, is in matters of politics and state action. Even though the most avowed socialist would generally condemn the mugging outright, those leftists, moderates, or conservatives who support redistribution fail to conceptually integrate the fundamental ideas behind the policies they are advocating. They are willing to support the same kind of act so long as the party taking the money is not a mugger but society at large, so long as his weapon is not a pistol (at first) but the state and its legions of bureaucrats and policy analysts on-call to achieve the most efficient reallocation of your property, and so long as the injunction is not “your money or your life” but rather “your money or your freedom” (at first).

Once this act is properly institutionalized according to socialist standards, they not only pardon and exalt the mugger as a crusader for society; they seek to palliate the victim by saying that his role is no longer pitiable or inert but deserving of praise. He is no longer seen as a passive actor. He is presented, in hindsight, as having had all the choice in the world, and he is patronized for having chosen to give. After all, he could have chosen to take the mugger’s bullet or gone to prison for tax evasion or been executed for rebelling against a socialist state. These were his choices, they say, and he was free to choose.

The “freedom” to choose between your property and liberty is no less a false idea of freedom than the “freedom” to choose between your money and your life. They are the same. Redistributive programs that claim the power to forcibly take from some members of society to give to others under threat of imprisonment are not, as Pope Francis describes them, “ethical” or “legitimate”, and there can be no such thing as a fair and equitable “cooperation” with an armed state holding disproportionate power over unarmed, private, so-called partners. Wealth produced by workers is not some inert “benefit” to be taken and disposed of arbitrarily; it is the property of those who produced it and the direct result of their productive virtues. And the pope’s use of his position and ecclesiastical rhetoric to pursue a global redistribution of wealth is no more ethical and will be no more fruitful than the eight hundred years of Dark Ages in which religion was used as a rationalization for feudalism or the three generations of slaughter and deprivation achieved by communism. If the pope was truly concerned with the well being of the world’s poor, he would look rationally and honestly to history and embrace the only social system to have lifted man from the depths of a miserable, brutish, and short existence to the heights of industrial progress and development, improving the lives and opportunity of all. He would be a capitalist.

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