Obama, 'Joe the Plumber' and Catholic Social Teaching
Earlier this week, Donald McClarey introduced us to “Joe the Plumber”, referenced by McCain in the third presidential debate.
The website Family Security Matters carries a exclusive online interview with Joe Wurzelbacher. Some excerpts:
See, I believe in working for what I get. I don’t want to say it’s a handout, but essentially that’s what it comes down to. You’re going to tax someone else more that’s been working hard to fulfill the American Dream and you’re gonna give it to other people who – I’m not saying they don’t work as hard, but I’m sure some of them don’t – and I don’t think it’s right just to give it to them or reduce taxes on their part and hike it up on my part like a teeter totter to bring it back even. So no, that wouldn’t – well, let me rephrase that. It would appeal to me because back then I was struggling. That kind of thing appeals to me – anybody wants to cut my taxes, I look at it very seriously, it’s like, it sounds great. But you gotta see what the other hand is doing too. [...]
[Obama] doesn’t want to “punish” me, but – when you use the word “but,” you pretty much negate everything you just said prior to that. So he does want to punish me, he does want to punish me for working harder to – you know, my big thing is the American Dream. I work hard. You know, I was poor; my mom raised me and my brother by herself for a very long time until my dad came along. So I know what it’s like to suffer. It’s not like I was born with a silver spoon. Usually it was a wooden spoon and it was on my butt. It was just a contradiction of terms, what he said: he doesn’t want to punish me but he wants to redistribute my wealth.
Joe’s conversation with Obama raises some pointed questions:
- To what extent do we — both as individuals and the State — have an obligation towards the poor?
- Is the material welfare of the poor better achieved through the encouragement of voluntarity charity or should it be coerced through involutary distribution?
- Do charitable efforts still retain their moral worth if they are in fact involuntary?
How would Catholics approach such questions? — As Leo XIII acknowledged in Rerum Novarum, “It is no easy matter to define the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor.” I took the liberty of revisiting his encyclical (worth reading in full) and the very meaty section 22 offers much food for thought. I took the liberty of breaking down the paragraph into some bite size nuggets:
- It is one thing to have a right to the possession of money and another to have a right to use money as one wills. Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. “It is lawful,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence.””
- But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? – the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, ‘Command the rich of this world… to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.’” (Summa theologiae, IIa-IIae, q. lxvi, art. 2, Answer. )
- True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.”(Ibid)
- But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.”(Luke 11:41)
- It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty not enforced by human law. But the laws and judgments of men must yield place to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God, who in many ways urges on His followers the practice of almsgiving – ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive”;(Acts 20:35) and who will count a kindness done or refused to the poor as done or refused to Himself – “As long as you did it to one of My least brethren you did it to Me.”(Matt.25:40)
- To sum up, then, what has been said: Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others. “He that hath a talent,” said St. Gregory the Great, “let him see that he hide it not; he that hath abundance, let him quicken himself to mercy and generosity; he that hath art and skill, let him do his best to share the use and the utility hereof with his neighbor.”Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute has written a thoughtful article on this very subject (Religion and the Welfare State Religion & Liberty Vol. 2, No. 3), in which he addresses the proposition “that the moral integrity of a society is determined by the use of a state’s taxing and transfer apparatus to tend to the needs of the economically marginalized.” As he puts it:
The moral status of those from whom Robin Hood stole could not be said to have been elevated by the fact that their money went to help the poor, assuming it really did end up helping them. For whatever noble end one may hope to achieve with the forced sharing of wealth, morality cannot be one of them. Forced morality is no morality because free choice is a necessary precondition for virtue. Additionally, “society” is an abstraction which cannot be said to be moral, except in relation to the actions of the individuals within it.
As Fr. Sirico notes, even Pope John Paul II in Centesimus Annus drew attention to the problem of what he referred to as the “Social Assistance State” which oversteps its bounds:
In recent years the range of such intervention has vastly expanded, to the point of creating a new type of State, the so-called “Welfare State”. This has happened in some countries in order to respond better to many needs and demands, by remedying forms of poverty and deprivation unworthy of the human person. However, excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provoked very harsh criticisms of the Welfare State, dubbed the “Social Assistance State”. Malfunctions and defects in the Social Assistance State are the result of an inadequate understanding of the tasks proper to the State. Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.100
By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need.
Finally, returning full circle — here is some (what I thought to be) helpful commentary on Senator Obama’s plan to share “Joe the Plumber’s” wealth:
- Digging into the Obama Tax Plan by Alan Stewart Carl.
- Obama’s 95% Illusion: It depends on what the meaning of ‘tax cut’ is Wall Street Journal October 13, 2008:
For the Obama Democrats, a tax cut is no longer letting you keep more of what you earn. In their lexicon, a tax cut includes tens of billions of dollars in government handouts that are disguised by the phrase “tax credit.” Mr. Obama is proposing to create or expand no fewer than seven such credits for individuals …
Here’s the political catch. All but the clean car credit would be “refundable,” which is Washington-speak for the fact that you can receive these checks even if you have no income-tax liability. In other words, they are an income transfer — a federal check — from taxpayers to nontaxpayers. Once upon a time we called this “welfare,” or in George McGovern’s 1972 campaign a “Demogrant.” Mr. Obama’s genius is to call it a tax cut.
Just for the record, I don’t claim any particular expertise either on economics or Catholic social tradition — so I welcome differing opinions and, if need be, fraternal correction if I have mangled poor Leo. =)