Originally posted at the Values & Capitalism Blog.
“The idea that churches can tackle national poverty, take care of those who are ill, and rebuild communities after natural disasters requires a spoonful of bad moral theology and a cup of dishonesty.” - Robert Parham
In a recent blog post, EthicsDaily.com editor and Executive Director of Baptist Center for Ethics Robert Parham claimed that churches and charities could never do enough to alleviate poverty. I agree.
Poverty will never be “tackled” because it is a relative term; a moving target. If you could describe the plight of America’s poor today to a poor person in another country, or an American 100 years ago, they would conclude that poverty had been eliminated. The standard of living among the poorest Americans today is incredible by world and historical standards. Yet we still wage the war on poverty, even in America. This is not a bad thing – helping the down and out can be wonderful and is something Christians are called to. But when we aim at targets like the “end” of poverty, there is no end to what we can justify in order to reach this impossible goal. “The poor will always be with you.” The question for Christians is how best to reach them, spiritually and materially.
The second reason I agree with Parham’s claim is that, to the extent that poverty can be reduced, the church and private charity alone are simply too small to do it. The incredible gains in social and material welfare of the poor in America have not primarily resulted from charity, churches or governments. They have resulted from (mostly) free-market economies.
If we look at poverty in a vacuum as Parham does and ask how private charity compares to government efforts, we could conclude that private efforts are too small. But if we look at government and private efforts combined compared to the power of the market, they would be dwarfed so as to make them hardly important in the big scheme. Charity is a targeted and short-term salve for the wounded; its value is far more in its spiritual nourishment than any material progress it brings. A vibrant free-market is the only institution powerful enough to bring about the kind of dramatic increases in standard of living that most of us wish to see.
Jumping from the premise that private charity is not enough to the conclusion that government must do something places a blind, sometimes idolatrous faith in government that counters logic and experience. The incentive structure in government departments is to perpetuate and grow regardless of their effectiveness or the need for their services. There is no check on whether or not they are effective. In fact, the less effective a bureau of poverty relief is, the more they are rewarded with bigger budgets. If poverty is on the rise, and they will always claim it is so as to increase their importance, the last thing to do is cut the department of poverty relief!
Government programs are also subject to “capture” by interest groups and politicians. Scratch the surface of any government program and you will find that it is not the “general welfare” being promoted, but the welfare of a very small and politically connected group at the expense of the general welfare.
To examine private efforts and claim they cannot tackle a problem is only half the analysis needed. We must also examine government efforts and ask if they can tackle the same problem before we charge them to do it. The field of Public Choice Economics does just this, and you would be hard-pressed to find a case where the market is not providing something and getting government involved makes it better. If Christians have a duty to help the poor, they also have a duty to use their brains to discover ways that actually work. Intentions and actions are not enough, we need to understand how to be effective. This requires some knowledge of economic and political systems.
Wrong about Rights
The most damning and least supported claim in Parham’s article was that it is wrong for a Christian to value other people’s property rights:
“[L]ibertarian morality values property rights over human rights. For a Christian, that’s bad moral theology.”
I beg to differ. What Parham leaves unexplained is how human rights are to exist absent property rights. Private property is not some sacred dogma for its own sake; it is important because there is no other method of peacefully settling competing demands for limited resources. Such resources include food, water, shelter and other necessities of life. Common definitions or human rights include the right to be free from hunger. How can you have this right if you have no right to the very food you need to survive?
If Parham means by human rights the right to food, shelter, health care and other positive rights, this poses an incurable conundrum. Positive rights are a logical and practical impossibility. They cannot coexist with negative rights, or even with other positive rights.
A positive right is a right to something. A negative right is a right from something. A positive right obligates another person to take action. A negative right prohibits another person from taking action. A right to life, liberty or property is a negative right. You are free to live and act and justly acquire property, and no one can prohibit that so long as you are not violating their rights. A right to health care is a positive right. If you have the right to receive health care, someone else has an obligation to give it to you. If I am a doctor and you say you need my services, I am obligated to assist you in a world of positive rights. But what if at the same time I am hungry and need to eat rather than assist you in order to maintain good health? Our positive rights to health care cannot both be fulfilled, and in order for one of us to fulfill them we’d have to violate the other’s negative right to liberty and property.
Indeed, it is not possible to have any moral theology whatsoever without an acceptance of private property. One cannot give generously what one does not own, and one cannot help another by stealing from him.
Means and Ends
To sum up the argument, the author couldn’t imagine the church doing a task to his satisfaction, so his response was to ask men with guns to take money from people who presumably wouldn’t part with it voluntarily, and give it to causes he valued. Everything government does is backed by threat of force. Indeed, that is the only thing that distinguishes government from all other institutions. Let’s remove the intermediary agents (IRS, law enforcement) and revisit the argument with the author as the principal actor:
Churches can’t or won’t do as much to help the poor as Parham wants so he takes a gun door to door and says, “donate or else.”
That’s clearly a barbaric and inhumane way to a more civilized and humane world. Yet voting for people who will appoint people who will hire people who will send threatening letters promising agents with the ability to use lethal force if money isn’t sent to some other agents to spend on social causes is no different in moral terms. The means of the kingdom of God are service, sacrifice, grace and love. The means of all earthy kingdoms are brute force and the threat of it.
When the rich man refused to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, Jesus did not send Peter and John after him to extract a percentage on threat of imprisonment. He let him walk away. We are to do the same.
Tags: capitalism, charity, free market, public choice, society
Any time individuals wish to exchange with one another there are transaction costs. The cost of travelling to the location of the exchange, choosing the goods or services and the quantity to buy or sell, settling on a price, communicating the price to the other party, agreeing on the terms of the sale; all of these are a part of the transaction cost of an exchange.
Transaction costs exist for non-material exchanges as well. There is a cost to you of reading this information and a cost for me typing it. There are costs incurred in forming social bonds like friendships or marriage – traveling to the places people meet, taking the time to get to know each other, the effort of putting thoughts into words through speech, trying to decide who is trustworthy, who will think your jokes are funny or who will be offended by them. None of these are insignificant costs, and many times the transaction cost of a social interaction, just like a market exchange, may deter us from engaging in the exchange at all.
The reduction of transaction costs plays an important role in shaping how humans interact with one another and how institutions evolve. Economist Ronald Coase noted that in markets for goods and services people often form cooperative enterprises, or firms, to reduce transaction costs. For example, when an auto mechanic wishes to contract with an accountant there are costs associated with finding an accountant, drawing up the contract, deciding and enforcing the terms, monitoring the activities of the accountant and, if need be, finding a new accountant if the results are unsatisfactory. The accountant incurs the same costs on his end of the exchange. The mechanic and accountant may decide to discontinue the high-cost practice of their contractual arrangement and form a single firm – an auto garage with an in-house finance department.
Firms are not the only mechanism that makes transactions less costly. In market and social arrangements societal norms and beliefs play a major role in reducing transaction costs. People with shared values and language can better communicate, rely on each other to fulfill promises, and behave in predictable ways, which greatly reduces search and information costs when engaging in exchange.
Religion is one of the strongest institutions of shared norms and beliefs. It provides a shortcut to individuals seeking to exchange by providing common terminology and assumptions that reduce the costly process of discovering the foundational beliefs that guide the actions of others. Predictability on the part of a partner in exchange is incredibly valuable, and shared religion provides a large degree of predictability. Thus, those with similar beliefs band together under the umbrella of a religious tradition and enjoy the reduced transaction costs of an easily identifiable brand, specialization within the institution, etc.
We see examples of religion being used to reduce transaction costs in the material sense all the time. Many businesses have the Ichthus symbol in their logo. In my home town there was a car dealership called “The Christian Car Company”. These businesses were attempting to signal potential customers that they had a predictable set of beliefs and would, presumably, conduct their business affairs in a way consistent with Christian values. The intent is to reduce the search cost on the part of customers looking for businesses with a particular ethic.
In non-material transactions religion also serves to reduce transaction costs. When I was on the dating market I spent much of my time involved with a church college group. Not because I was some kind of creepy stalker consciously looking for a wife, but because I sought to form friendships with the kind of girls I may someday want to marry and I thought it unlikely to find them in bars and clubs. I am not opposed to bars and clubs per se, but the transaction cost of forming relationships with people whose values I knew nothing about was much higher than it was for people who had at least somewhat of a shared philosophical and moral foundation. I grew up in church so I knew something about church people. It took me less time and effort to discover compatibility, since I could skip over many foundational beliefs and start with a common language and assumptions.
(I do not intend here to make religion into a purely economic institution. The fact that religion serves an important role in reducing transaction costs need not diminish the other spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical roles it plays. Indeed, the practical benefits of religion seem to me to make it more, rather than less intriguing and sacred. Any married person can describe the material benefits of their marriage – a division of labor, economies of scale, ease of communication (sometimes) – yet no one I know would claim these material benefits are the only desirable thing about marriage or that they somehow diminish the romantic or emotional benefits.)
It cannot be denied the tremendous impact religion has on reducing transaction costs in our social exchanges, just as a firm does for material exchanges in the marketplace.
If creating cooperative enterprises reduces transaction costs, why doesn’t the market evolve into one giant firm? There are benefits to creating a firm, but there are also costs.
One of the chief benefits of creating a firm is that each participant is freed up to spend more resources specializing in what they do best (or in economic terms, where their opportunity cost is lowest). This means that one or a few individuals serve in the role of manager, visionary, or entrepreneur, allowing the others to serve in their specialized roles. Not everyone has to create and maintain the goals of the firm, track the long-term outlook and make strategic “big-picture” decisions. Engineers don’t have to worry about branding, marketers can ignore supply chain management, and maintenance personnel need not concern themselves with bookkeeping. But where specialization within a firm reduces some costs, it increases others.
The larger the firm the harder it is for individual agents to hold each other accountable. The gains of reduced transaction costs may be more than offset by the losses from absence of competition. No one in the marketing department is likely to know whether or not the finance department is using the most efficient methods. A shared culture can reduce the risk of bad actors and instill trust, but as firm size increases the ability of culture to keep wayward individuals in check diminishes. These are called agency costs.
Public Choice Economics reveal how agency costs are starkly evident in political institutions. Most governments are so large and voters and taxpayers so many that the cost of a single government program or action is spread very thin over the population. Each individual citizen has very little incentive to spend valuable time and resources monitoring the behavior of a program for which their share of taxes is only a few cents. Those who are supposed to be filling a specific role within the government to benefit all citizens have incentive to stray far from the constraints of that role and serve interests other than those of the citizens.
Firms face these same problems. Shareholders, CEO’s, managers, board members, workers in different departments, contractors and customers often want different things and keeping all of their actions within the optimal range for the firm is impossible. An IT department, for example, may have every incentive to provide less than optimal services, since an increase in computer problems may lead to an increase in the department’s budget.
Small firms or individuals under contract can avoid many of these agency costs by engaging in continual competition and by having personal knowledge of each other. In a firm of just a few people it is much harder to get away with slacking or sub-optimal behavior. Short term contracts which can be bid out to many providers allow competitive pressure to produce better results. But, as we saw earlier, smaller firms or individual contractors also face high transaction costs.
This is why there is no optimal size for a firm. Instead, cooperative arrangements in the marketplace are constantly in flux, always trying to reduce both transaction costs and agency costs as much as possible. Terry Anderson and Peter J. Hill, in their excellent book The Not so Wild, Wild West discuss the ever-changing arrangements for protecting grazing land, mines and scarce water in the American West. Anderson and Hill talk about the “Institutional Entrepreneurs” who innovated and forged new arrangements when transaction costs or agency costs became prohibitive.
Just as religion reduces transaction costs like firms in a market, religious institutions also face the problem of agency costs. As churches or value systems become larger and more inclusive they suffer from rogue agents who use the institution for their individual benefit and to the detriment of the congregation. It becomes increasingly difficult to monitor and reign in those who are behaving in ways that are destructive to the religious mission of the institution as specialization increases and the number of members grows.
The reduced transaction cost of forming relationships with people of the same faith is offset by the increased agency cost when that faith becomes so broadly defined, or that church so large that it is no longer possible to predict what kind of assumptions members will have in common. Hence a person identifying as “religious” or, “Christian” today conveys very little information and does not greatly reduce the search and information costs of discovering what their core beliefs and values are.
Enter the Religious Institutional Entrepreneur. Just as with firms, there is no optimal size or scope for a religious institution. Religion and its sub-groups are constantly in flux. When agency costs are perceived to be too high – corruption, conflicts of vision, confusion of terms – religious entrepreneurs split off and form institutions with tighter bonds and a more defined set of beliefs.
The Great Schism, the Protestant Reformation, and the myriad denominational disputes and church splits of today are examples of the constant search for the most efficient religious arrangement.
I am not claiming that in these instances the actors involved consciously sought to reduce transaction and agency costs and create the most efficient religious institution. The reason for these divisions and innovations is usually theological, emotional, and very complex and messy. But because an outcome is not the product of human design, but merely of human action, does not mean it is any less a part of the search for the optimal institutional arrangement. Individual actors in the marketplace rarely calculate all the transaction and agency costs present in their potential decision, yet over time the market process results in institutions that work to reduce these costs as much as possible. This is the fundamental insight of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” regarding markets, and of F.A. Hayek’s work regarding social institutions in general.
I am not saying that innovations are always an improvement, or that the innovative process itself (what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction” in the market) is painless or pleasant. In fact, in both the market and society at large, most innovations are not improvements and do not survive. I speak from personal experience when I say that church splits and denominational squabbles can be deeply painful and counter-productive for the individuals involved. As the common economic example illustrates, the automobile was not a welcome change for buggy whip makers, and I do not wish to downplay their pain. But in the long run and for the whole of society, disruptive innovations and the constant evolution towards optimal arrangements is a tremendous blessing.
I have compared religious institutions in society to firms in the marketplace, both in their ability to reduce transaction costs and their propensity to suffer from agency costs. What is the take-away?
It is common for religious and non-religious people alike to criticize massive religious institutions for both their material largesse and theological shallowness. Mega-churches, televangelists, and “watered-down” denominations are often mocked and criticized. Many of the criticisms are well-founded no doubt, but if the economic insights of the marketplace teach us anything it is to give pause before judging these institutions.
Large firms and large churches alike exist because of their ability to greatly reduce transaction costs and provide a valuable shortcut to those seeking to contribute to and benefit from their products and services. When a massive firm or institution exists, it exists for a reason and is the result of a dynamic process of seeking optimality. Though it is not permanent, its existence in the present speaks something of its ability to meet the needs of its agents and customers better than other arrangements.
Likewise, when we feel the urge to criticize the lack of unity among religions and denominations, or lament the infighting and sectarianism constantly taking place in the church community we would do well to consider the service such innovations may be providing. Divisions are another part of the dynamic process of seeking to meet our needs with the lowest cost.
Seeking truth, attempting to discover the most fundamental principles of existence and share them with our fellow man, is (ideally at least) the business of religion. We ought not judge too quickly the way that religious institutions form and are reformed, since the process itself is a necessary part of finding the best arrangement to find eternal truths. Finding truth and sharing it is important. So too are the institutions that aid us in the search by reducing the costs involved. And if these institutions are important, so too is the process by which they continually evolve.
In eternal truths, values, beliefs and institutions as in goods and services, the spontaneous order of the competitive market – both when it is creative and when it is destructive – cannot be overlooked. We should not be quick to judge it, or to presume that we know the why’s and how’s of the orders that emerge as a result.
Tags: denominations, economics, entrepreneurship, religion, theology
I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war. – Psalm 120:7
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace–but now it is hidden from your eyes.” – Luke 19:41-42
All men desire peace, but very few desire those things that make for peace. – Thomas a Kempis
I recently heard praise among churchgoers for the movie, “Act of Valor”, a movie about Navy SEAL’s funded in large part by the Navy itself. (And, judging by the previews, it’s basically a military recruitment film.) There is even a Bible study that coincides with the movie and is based on the SEAL code of honor. I was unexpectedly overcome with grief when a Christian excitedly described this to me at church.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the terrible contrast I had just experienced. The sermon that very morning was on this verse from the Beatitudes in the book of Matthew:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”
Blessed are the peacemakers. And yet here Christians had high praise for a code of conduct espoused by an outfit whose entire purpose is to kill ruthlessly and efficiently. And not merely to kill, but specifically to kill whoever they are commanded to kill by the political powers in the United States without question. The very first tenet in the SEAL code of conduct is “Loyalty to Country” which means, in practical terms, obeying the orders of your superiors who are supposed to represent “the country”, however ill-defined the term.
Not only does obedience to the first tenet render obedience to any of the rest impossible, it is unfathomable to me how a Christian could find this a suitable basis for a Bible study intended to make men into better Christians. The first tenet of this code means quite plainly to forsake your own conscience, do not question the morality of your orders, do not seek to understand why you are supposed to be at war with whomever you are told to be at war with, do not investigate whether or not your targets are a genuine threat or deserving of death, but simply pull the trigger.
The Evangelical Church in America today looks very little like a body of Christ followers and more like a body of state and military followers. American flags grace many a pulpit. Veterans Day celebrations are common. Prayers for the success of military ventures are not unheard of. Calls by politicians and pundits for the use of violence in almost any country for almost any reason will almost always gain the unwavering support of the entire Evangelical community. Anything – including torture, assassinations, and “collateral damage” – can be excused and even praised if it is done “for the country” and under the stars and stripes.
How did this happen? Can you imagine Jesus, or Peter or John with Kevlar vests and M-16’s kicking in doors, screaming ,“double-tapping” people in the head before yelling, “All clear!”’ and high-fiving each other? Can you imagine them dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki? Can you imagine Jesus instructing his followers to study a code of conduct that begins first and foremost with, “Be loyal to the Roman government”?
Not only did Christ and the giants of the Christian faith refuse to aggress against others, no matter how sinful or evil, they even refused to use violence in self-defense and instead chose martyrdom. When Peter tried to defend Jesus with the sword by cutting off the ear of a soldier, Jesus rebuked him and healed the man’s ear.
Jesus did not instruct the disciples to go to the wilderness and train for a few months so they could plan a stealth nighttime assassination of the guards who crucified Him or any who opposed the Way. He told them to forgive. To Baptize. To turn the other cheek. To submit even to death for the sake of the gospel, rather than resort to violence. That is a radical message and they lived it.
And yet the Church finds herself cheering for the military and honoring them without questioning what they are doing, who they are killing, why they are doing it, or if it’s right. Worship of America and the myth of its righteousness have taken the place of any sense of individual moral responsibility on the part of soldiers or those who support them.
I left church with an immense weight on my soul. I wept. I wept because I knew exactly the sentiment expressed by most of the churchgoers that morning. I used to share it. I wept as I remembered my bloodlust after 9/11. I wanted the United States military to kill people. I wanted bombs to drop and guns to fire. I wanted somebody to get it, good and hard. I wanted death. I wanted war. I did not want peace. I felt no love, only hate.
This impulse is the most human of all impulses. It is also the very impulse Christ taught us to overcome and demonstrated how to do so by His own example. Even when others hate, love.
I wept as I saw in my minds eye the blood on the hands of nearly every Christian in this country. How many self-proclaimed followers of Christ have cheered on “the boys in uniform” during every conflict we’ve ever had, including wars of aggression, just because they’re “our countrymen” fighting for “our side”?
What are “the things that make for peace”? The belief that right and wrong trump nationality and patriotism. The belief that killing is only ever permissible as a last resort and in self-defense. An understanding that Congressional or Presidential approval of an action does not make it moral. That obeying orders is not a virtue unless the orders are virtuous, in which case they should be obeyed because they are right, not because they are orders. That voluntarily agreeing to kill whomever you are told to kill is not honorable. That love is better than vengeance.
Before you support any military action, conduct a brief mental experiment: imagine not the US Military, but you as an individual embarking on the mission in question. In the end it is only individuals who can act and bear moral responsibility for their actions. Imagine standing before God and saying, “I was only following orders”.
How many churches cheered for war against Iraq? Yet can you imagine a pastor standing before his church and saying, “For the next six months we are all going to train in explosives and guns, and we are taking a church trip to Iraq to kill bad people and make the world a safer place.” Who would support it? In moral terms, it is no different to support taking money from taxpayers to pay soldiers to do the same. In fact, the latter is in some ways more nefarious and less honest.
Most would argue that there is a difference between unjust violence and just violence – indeed there is. Some argue there is a difference between just war and unjust war – perhaps there is. But never in my years of observing church support for state military action have I witnessed a single discussion of whether the action was just or right. There have been a few discussions of whether it was “Constitutional”, but never whether it was moral. The morality of war is assumed by the mere fact that the war is waged by the United States Government.
Until the Church in America stops blindly supporting violence done in the name of patriotism, our hands are bloody and our witness is tainted. We say we are for peace, but we want war. We say we pray to the Prince of Peace, but we ask him to bless the violence committed by soldiers. We say “the law is written on our hearts” yet we ignore our hearts and only follow the laws of governments and call what they call right good, and what they call wrong bad.
In our ignorance, we support violence. We can cry out, “Father forgive us, for we know not what we do.” But after our eyes our opened and we begin to examine the morality of acts of violence, we will be held accountable for what we know. I pray we will be willing to oppose violence, even when doing so makes us “unpatriotic” or “un-American”; even when doing so may lead to our own persecution.
“He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God himself” — C. S. Lewis.
Tags: church, foreign policy, Jesus, military, pacifism, peace, prayer, war
Cross-posted at the Values & Capitalism Project
A great many people believe that changing the law is the solution to social problems. This is a fiction.
If written law were some kind of unbreakable magic spell, the United States would not look as it now does. Nearly all of what the government does today is not by any stretch of the imagination “constitutional.” Written laws and documents do not hold the power to control individual behavior or government behavior.
It is true that when people believe the law to be important, they will obey it. But when they believe it to be unimportant they will just as easily disregard it. In the end it is people’s beliefs, not the law that determines behavior.
Perhaps we are seduced into the “Myth of the Rule of Law” because it is so hard to see what’s really regulating behavior and generating social order. The “Invisible Hand” that Adam Smith described as channeling self-interest in the marketplace to serve the diverse needs and wants of its participants is also at work in the marketplace of ideas, social norms and morality. The core beliefs we hold and the norms that emerge from centuries of social interaction are what restrain or fail to restrain behavior.
This is not merely academic. It is dangerous to persist in the belief that the law is the ultimate check on human behavior for two distinct reasons: First, law does not ultimately change the behavior of its intended targets; second, because it does change the behavior of others.
The first problem renders social reform efforts ineffective. The vast majority of attempts to restrain government, help the poor, make people healthier, more charitable, more equal, less intolerant, more responsible with natural resources, or better educated are really just attempts to change what’s written on pieces of government paper. A different combination of words in the Federal Register one day to the next cannot change human hearts one day to the next.
A powerful example is the brief experiment with alcohol prohibition in the United States. Many in the temperance movement genuinely wanted to prevent drunkenness, alcoholism and the irresponsible and even violent action that sometimes accompanies. They focused their attention mainly on what they incorrectly thought to be the source of power over human behavior—the law. They were successful in changing the law, but failed to sufficiently change hearts. A large number of people still wanted to consume alcohol because they did not believe it was immoral to do so. Because they believed in it, they did it despite the law. The main effect of making the activity illegal was to make the production and distribution of alcohol a violent business, where it had previously been much like any other beverage. There were not gang wars over the soda fountain.
Contrast the legal strategy with the strategy of an organization like Alcoholics Anonymous. AA aims for the heart. They work to change individual lives and behavior by developing a non-judgmental network of support and accountability. AA has been able to change countless lives and free people from the bondage of alcohol addiction. The law could never do that, and we should not ask it to.
I mentioned a second problem with believing the law to be the source of social order: It has a negative effect on unintended parties. This can also be illustrated by the prohibition example. Not only did the law fail to change the behavior of most drinkers, it succeeded in changing the behavior of criminals and government officials, leading to more corruption and violence. It also allowed those who wanted to lessen the damage done by alcohol addiction to feel like they’d “done something about it,” when in fact they’d not helped those that needed help at all.
The change in the average citizen’s moral sense is probably the gravest danger of belief in the power of law. It weakens our moral sense and lulls us into the belief that legality is a substitute for morality. We cease evaluating actions based on their merits as against the moral law and begin evaluating them against state-made law. We shirk responsibility to offer genuine aid because the law will do it, and at the same time we pronounce judgment on actions that are perfectly moral, just because they are illegal.
The issue of illegal immigration is illustrative. If we examine the idea without cloaking it in legal/illegal terms, we begin to see a different picture:
A friend of mine is desperately poor and wants to earn a better living for his family. He applies for a job with the local grocer. The grocer is impressed with his work ethic and is happy to offer him a job. This job means my friend can move his family out of their impoverished condition, afford a reasonable apartment and begin saving so his children and grandchildren can have a much better life. There is no trespass or harm committed in this story by any of the parties involved.
Would it be moral to hire armed men to stop my friend on the way to his first day on the job and physically remove his whole family and send them back to their old neighborhood and old life? Would you do this even if you knew it meant you were ensuring him a life of grinding poverty and very possibly death?
It is clearly immoral to interfere with another individual in this way, in particular when such interference condemns them to a much harsher life. But that is precisely what most Americans advocate when they cry for enforcement of immigration laws. The only thing that makes otherwise moral people advocate such immoral behavior is the word “illegal”—in other words a belief in the power of law.
People believe that breaking state-made law is in and of itself an immoral act that justifies the use of violence in retaliation. This absurd notion does not hold up under the slightest scrutiny, even for those who most strongly believe it. I have yet to find an American who says that those harboring Jews during the Holocaust were acting immorally and deserved punishment, or that the individuals who assisted escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad were deserving of incarceration for breaking the law.
Helping peaceful people who are destitute and persecuted is noble, and when done in defiance of the law can even be courageous. It is only a belief in the supremacy of man-made law over moral law that prevents most Americans from viewing as heroic those who assist immigrants hounded by armed border agents. I submit that looking out for the poor is better than locking them up when they have done nothing but seek a better life.
When we remove our awe for legislation we discover that genuine social change is hampered by a belief in the power of law. We also discover that good people will tolerate or even condone immoral acts when they believe that what is legal is more important than what is right. It is lazy to let the law be our agent of change and dangerous to let it be our moral compass.
Tags: immigration, law, morality