presented at First Church in Billerica on March 6, 2016
When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist. — Archbishop Hélder Câmara of Brazil
Pope Francis is often thought of as a progressive or even radical pope, but much of his message has been to re-emphasize Catholic social justice teachings that go back more than a century, and have been restated by every pope since. Our first reading is from one of those prior encyclicals, Laborem Exercens, written by John Paul II in 1981. (One progressive thing popes didn’t do in 1981 was to use gender-inclusive language. So I apologize for that in advance.)
Working at any workbench, whether a relatively primitive or an ultramodern one, a man can easily see that through his work he enters into two inheritances: the inheritance of what is given to the whole of humanity in the resources of nature, and the inheritance of what others have already developed on the basis of those resources, primarily by developing technology, that is to say, by producing a whole collection of increasingly perfect instruments for work.
The second reading is from Ayn Rand, a favorite author of Speaker Paul Ryan and many other conservatives. This paragraph is from her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged, and in particular from the John Galt speech that is the philosophical climax of the novel. Here, Galt is also talking about those “increasingly perfect instruments for work” — specifically, the steel factory owned by one of the novel’s other heroes, the industrialist Hank Rearden.
The machine, the frozen form of a living intelligence, is the power that expands the potential of your life by raising the productivity of your time. If you worked as a blacksmith in the mystics’ Middle Ages, the whole of your earning capacity would consist of an iron bar produced by your hands in days and days of effort. How many tons of rail do you produce per day if you work for Hank Rearden? Would you dare to claim that the size of your pay check was created solely by your physical labor and that those rails were the product of your muscles? The standard of living of that blacksmith is all that your muscles are worth; the rest is a gift from Hank Rearden.
I’ll hit this point harder later on, but look at what Galt has done to what the Pope called “the second inheritance”, the inheritance of technology. In Galt’s view, Hank Rearden is not just the inventor of the specific new products his factory produces, he is the sole rightful heir of all technological progress since the Middle Ages. Having been disinherited from the legacy of past inventors, the workers’ standard of living rises only through their employer’s generosity. Anything more than a medieval wage is essentially just charity. It is “a gift from Hank Rearden”.
The final reading is “The Goose and the Common”, a protest poem from 18th-century England. For centuries, the people of England had been suffering through a process known as Enclosure, in which a village’s common land would be fenced off and become the private property of the local lord. To appreciate the poem’s biting humor, you need to know this piece of 18th-century slang: a goose was not just a bird, it was also an ordinary person — a usage that survives today in phrases like “silly goose” or “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
The law locks up the man or woman
who steals the goose from off the Common,
but leaves the greater villain loose ,
who steals the Common from off the goose.
The law says that we must atone
when we take what we do not own,
but leaves the lords and ladies fine
when they take what is yours and mine.
The poor and wretched don't escape
when they conspire the law to break.
This must be so, but they endure
those who conspire to make the law.
The law locks up the man or woman
who steals the goose from off the Common.
And geese will still a Common lack
until they go and steal it back.
The meditation is a vision of peace and prosperity that comes from the prophet Micah: “They will sit under their own grapevines and their own fig trees, and no one will make them afraid.”
Unitarian Universalists talk a lot about social justice. And when we when talk among ourselves, we all more-or-less know what social justice means: Things should be more equal. The disadvantaged should be less disadvantaged. No one should be hungry. The sick or injured should be cared for. Education should available to everyone. And so on.
We’re much better making these kinds of lists than we are at explaining why this world we’re envisioning is just. Where is the justice in social justice?
Among ourselves, we usually don’t need to answer that question. Most people with UU values just feel it, without explanation. You say, “Isn’t it awful that in such a wealthy country, so many people are hungry or homeless or go without healthcare or education?” And whoever you are talking to probably says, “Yes, it is awful.” And the conversation goes on from there.
There’s nothing wrong with that conversation. But if that’s what we’re expecting, then we’ll be at a loss when we talk to people who have a different notion of justice. For example, justice could also mean that people get to keep the things they own, unless or until they decide to give them away.
If that’s what justice means to you, then when you hear that list of social justice goals, you’ll wonder where the money is going to come from. Who is going to pay the farmers and teachers and doctors who provide those goods and services? And more specifically, is the government going to take that money by force from the people who rightfully own it. Because, what’s just about that?
In one of the 2012 presidential debates, a young man asked the Republican candidates: “Out of every dollar that I earn, how much do you think that I deserve to keep?” Afterwards, Ron Paul had a clear and simple answer: “All of it.”
Former Judge Andrew Napolitano, a frequent Fox News contributor, has generated this fantasy:
You're sitting at home at night, and there's a knock at the door. You open the door, and a guy with a gun pointed at you says: "Give me your money. I want to give it away to the less fortunate." You think he's dangerous and crazy, so you call the police. Then you find out he is the police, there to collect your taxes.
Napolitano saw the income tax as representing “a terrifying presumption. It presumes that we don't really own our property.” We only own the part of it that the government chooses not to take.
No wonder Glenn Beck told his listeners: “Look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can.”
When people respond to your social justice talk by grabbing their wallets and running away, it’s tempting to write them off as selfish or hard-hearted. But many of them aren’t. Some people who look at the world this way are quite generous. They give money away. They volunteer. They put themselves out for other people.
But the model they put on this behavior isn’t justice, it’s charity. They do it out of the goodness of their hearts, not because they are under some obligation. And they expect the beneficiaries of their generosity to receive those gifts with humility and gratitude. Because, after all, beggars shouldn’t be choosers.
And if the amount that individuals are willing to give away doesn’t match the need — which it never does — then the charity mindset sees that not as a flaw in the system, but as a problem of personal morality. We need to do a better job of preaching generosity, not change the way our economy works.
Ultimately, if our social justice work is going to succeed, we need to do more than just talk to each other and shake our heads at people who disagree. We need to critique that charity-based worldview and explain why it’s inadequate. In short, we need to explain what’s just about social justice.
The beginning of that critique was in our opening words: It’s fine to give food to the poor, but we also need to take the next step and ask why the poor have no food. Why can’t everybody buy their own food, save for their own retirement, pay for their own health insurance, and educate their own children? And if they can’t, what does that have to do with those of us who can? Why should our property or income be entailed with some kind of obligation to provide for them?
Those are hard questions, and so right away you notice a major difference between a charity mindset and a social justice mindset: Charity comes from the heart, and often finds itself in conflict with more practical thinking.
But social justice demands that head and heart work together. It’s not enough feel sorry for the poor, we need to understand how poverty happens, and how the system that creates such a gulf between rich and poor justifies itself. If the system that your reason supports leads to a result that your compassion rejects, social justice suggests that maybe you're taking something for granted that you shouldn't. Social justice doesn’t ask you to give up on thinking and follow your heart. Instead it tells you to check your assumptions and think again.
Whenever I try to rethink things, my first instinct is to go back in time and read works that are a little closer to the era when the original assumptions were made. In this case there’s also a considerable irony in the author I want to tell you about, the Revolutionary War pamphleteer Thomas Paine.
You see, at about the same time that Glenn Beck started telling everybody to run away from social justice, he was also styling himself as a modern-day Thomas Paine. He named one of his books Common Sense, and claimed to be updating Paine’s classic to call for the Tea Party revolution that we need today. Now, if you actually know something about Thomas Paine, this is perversely hilarious. Because in addition to his role in founding our country, Paine is also one of the founders of the American social justice tradition.
Thomas Paine was one of the true revolutionaries of the American Revolution. After we won our independence, he moved to England to stir up revolution there. And when the British deported him, Lafayette invited him to Paris where he tried to be the conscience of the French Revolution. That got him thrown into prison during the Reign of Terror, and only a bureaucratic mistake delayed his execution long enough for Robespierre to fall. Eventually the American ambassador, future president James Monroe, got him released. And in 1795, while he was staying with the Monroes and recovering from his ordeal, he wrote a little book called Agrarian Justice.
Agrarian Justice is addressed to the English, and proposes that when each young adult comes of age, the government should give him or her — I’m not being politically correct, Paine wrote gender equality into his system — a stake of capital to get a start in life. Also, those who survive to old age should get a pension. And all this should be funded by an inheritance tax on land.
Paine writes: “It is justice and not charity that is the principle of the plan.” In his mind, young adults were entitled to a stake in the economy, and old people were entitled to a pension. And the rationale for his inheritance tax would strike fear into the heart of Judge Napolitano: Paine believed that we don’t entirely own our property, and that all property comes entailed with obligations to others.
So Paine was not trying to appeal to people’s compassion and preach personal generosity. He was challenging their fundamental assumptions, and asking them to think again about one of the most basic concepts of the 18th-century economy: landed property.
When people have lived under a property system their entire lives -- as the English had then and we have today -- they tend to take it for granted. But Paine did not take the property system for granted, because he had seen the example of the Native Americans. He writes:
The life of an Indian is a continual holiday compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand, it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. … Civilization, therefore, or that which is so called, has operated in two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.
But wait, European-style civilization is supposed to be a good thing, isn’t it? Paine agrees:
The first principle of civilization ought to have been, and ought still to be, that the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period.
Now that’s a fine heartfelt sentiment. But if our heads are going to come along on this trip, we need to understand why things didn’t turn out that way. Was there some reason why the poor had to be wretched, or did European civilization make some early mistake that led to that result? Paine says there was a mistake, and it has to do with how we invented the concept of property.
Let me stop here for a minute, because I just snuck in a radical idea: Property is a human invention. Today, a lot of people write about property as if it were natural, something that exists prior to all societies or governments. But that’s just not true.
Paine uses theological imagery to lampoon this belief: "The Creator of the earth," he says, did not "open a land office from which the first title deeds should issue."
He might also have pointed to the animal world, because nothing remotely like property exists in nature. Animals have territory, which is a very different idea. A bird may chase rival birds away from the tree where it nests. But no bird has ever sold a tree to another bird, or rented a nest, or taken in someone else’s egg in exchange for a few worms. The tree and the nest are not property.
Similarly, land as private property is not a natural concept at all. Paine writes:
The earth in its natural, uncultivated state, was, and ever would have continued to be THE COMMON PROPERTY OF THE HUMAN RACE. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life-proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.
Being a practical man, Paine recognizes that modern agriculture would not work on those terms, because it requires a long investment of effort before you see any product. You have to cut down the trees and pull up the stumps and dig out the rocks. Each year you have to plow and plant and fertilize and weed. And who would do all that if, in the end, he had no more right than anyone else to gather the harvest?
So Paine believed it was right and just for the difference in value between cultivated land and uncultivated land to be private property. Not the land itself -- the difference in value between cultivated and uncultivated land. And here he locates the original mistake, the original sin for which the poor pay the price. Rather than just let people own the value of their improvements in the productivity of the land, we created a system in which they own the land. We created a system in which the Earth itself is owned, not by humanity in general, but only by the people who have their names on deeds.
Consequently, a hungry Indian could go hunt in the forest or fish in the pond that was part of his tribe’s territory, but a hungry Englishman could not, because those natural resources were owned by some other Englishman. In short, the poor of Europe were worse off than the Native Americans not because God created them that way, and not because they were lazy or stupid, but because they had been disinherited; their share of the common inheritance of humankind had been usurped.
Paine was just talking about land, but it’s easy to see how his ideas extend to other areas. No one would dig a mine or drill a well if they had no claim on the resulting iron or gold or oil, but some part of that output also has to belong to the common inheritance. It can't all be private property.
And consider not just our physical inheritance, but our cultural inheritance. I’m a writer. I work in words and sometimes I sell my words. But I did not invent the English language, or teach it to all of you so that you could understand me. And the ideas I’m telling you this morning: I have some claim to them, but large parts come from Thomas Paine and Pope John Paul II and other benefactors of our cultural legacy. So if there is value in my words, I didn’t create that value out of nothing. Part of that value should belong to me, but part rightfully should go back into the common inheritance.
The same is true for the Hank Reardens of this world, the inventors, researchers, and industrialists. They do indeed create value, but they don’t create it out of nothing. As Newton put it, they stand on the shoulders of giants, and the legacy of those giants should belong to everyone.
In short, I’m endorsing that idea that so scares Judge Napolitano: We don’t really own what we own, free and clear, with no obligations. And to that young man at the presidential debate, I would say: “You earned that dollar by using the common inheritance. Some part of it needs to go back.”
We all owe a debt to the common inheritance, because none of us makes things by calling them out of nothing, like the God of Genesis. Everything we make relies on the resources of the Earth and the tools that have been passed down to us. Paying our debt to the common inheritance -- and particularly to those whose share of that inheritance has been usurped -- is the “justice” in social justice.
The flaw in the charity mindset is that it refuses to recognize that debt. It accepts, without question or objection, disinheriting the poor from the common legacy. Once you have done that, they have no rightful claim on anything beyond what the rest of us volunteer to give them. And any tax collector who shows up demanding money to help the less fortunate is just a well-intentioned thief.
But if you do accept that the poor are owed a share of the common inheritance, how should they collect it? Paine, as I said, was a practical man, and he recognized that he couldn't even calculate the rents and royalties that the poor have coming, much less collect and distribute them.
Instead, he proposes that everyone be offered a deal: In payment for your share of the common inheritance, in exchange for your acceptance that you were born into a world where virtually everything of value was already claimed by someone else -- we’ll offer you this: When you reach adulthood, we’ll give you a stake, some bit of capital that can get you started in life. And if you make it to an age where you can’t reasonably expect to work any more, we’ll give you a pension. That's how he proposes to make good on the principle that civilization should benefit everyone, and not just some at the expense of others.
Notice that Paine does not propose a dole, or some program of bread and circuses, or make-work projects that will give everyone a meaningless job. His proposal is much more radical than that: The poor should be capitalized. Everyone should have a stake, a chance to launch themselves into the middle of the economy rather than start at the bottom.
In Paine’s day, that didn’t take much.
When a young couple begin the world, the difference is exceedingly great whether they begin with nothing or with fifteen pounds apiece. With this aid they could buy a cow, and implements to cultivate a few acres of land; and instead of becoming burdens upon society … would be put in the way of becoming useful and profitable citizens.
A similar idea has popped up in many other guises. In Biblical times capital meant land, which is why Micah envisioned every family under its own vines and fig trees. Later on in the encyclical I quoted, Pope John Paul II envisions the ideal society not as a Great Feeding Trough but as a Great Workbench, where we all have our place and access to the tools we need to be productive.
Launching yourself into today's information economy may be more complicated than in Paine's day, but the value of the common inheritance has grown. Exactly what deal it makes sense to offer now, in lieu of the inheritance we still can’t deliver, is a topic for another day. But certainly education must be part of it, and childhood nutrition. In general, people should be freed from poverty traps, from situations in which their short-term survival depends on doing things that harm their long-term interests. No heir of a rich inheritance should ever have to eat the seed corn.
The Pope’s image goes a long way towards helping us evaluate the adequacy of any proposal: Everyone should have a seat at the Great Workbench. That seat should belong to them by right, and not depend on anyone's approval or generosity.
Even if we had such a program, if we had a way to deliver to each and every person the value of their share of the common inheritance, things could still go wrong. A Prodigal Son might waste his inheritance. Unlucky people might lose their stakes to accident or illness. Some people's abilities might be so limited that no tools we can provide will make them productive. There would, in other words, still be occasions for charity.
But that is not where we are now. In the world we live in today, people are poor because the common inheritance has been usurped by people who believe that what is theirs is theirs, and they owe no one for its use; who believe that only land-owners are beneficiaries of the Creation; that businessmen and industrialists are the sole heirs of technological progress; that only the educated rightfully inherit our cultural legacy.
After the inheritance or some fair compensation for it has been delivered to all people, then charity might be enough. But until then, we should never stop demanding justice.
The closing words are by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.
Rich relations may give you
crusts of bread and such.
You can help yourself,
but don’t take too much.
Cause Mama may have,
and Poppa may have.
But God bless the child that’s got his own.