Systemic injustice, social sin, structures of oppression. These concepts permeate the understanding of sin preached from many pulpits in America. “Social sin” is seen as the matrix for interpreting man’s fallen state, producing a diminished importance on personal sin or what Pope John Paul II called “a loss of the sense of sin.”

A call to political activism has become the preferred response to the problem of sin in many quarters. Personal freedom and the responsibilities that are its burden disappear in the comfortable anonymity of group accountability. I can join a movement and fulfill my duties and responsibilities. I atone by joining. The fact that personal sin has a modeling effect and its accumulation has a social impact makes some think that the essence of the biblical message focuses on such accumulation as it reveals itself in systems.

Interestingly, the religious leaders insisting on systemic justice give these systems anthropomorphic qualities. The poor are poor because systems are oppressive or lack heart or exhibit a hardened “soul.” The reality of personal sin in never directly negated, it is only allowed to recede into the background as the system, described in human-like fashion, emerges to the forefront.

We are told that systems with a wicked heart cannot respond to the plights of the poor and allocate resources, which are plenty, in ways that keep the many in poverty. To blame the poor for their poverty is to blame the victim, to give a pass to a victimizing structure. That is why many of these religionists have no problem in calling for wealth “redistribution.” If the problem is one of allocating resources, then we need to re-allocate them and set our priorities straight. The same way that we collectivize the burden of sin, we collectivize the ownership of resources.

The great problem with this analysis is that it begins with a collective interest in systems and ends with a solution based on collective systems. The problem with looking at the fate of groups is not new, nor should it be a controversial. In fact, Adam Smith engaged in such quest for collective understanding in his masterpiece, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Smith asked himself why some nations prospered while others did not. His interest was the common good.  What he found was that nations that allowed for expansive economic freedom were the ones that created the best conditions for the greatest number of people; they were better at promoting the common good. They did that by allowing natural and systemic economic processes to exist without government intervention.

The discovery showed that it was neither the amount of resources nor the intentions of people in allocating them the major factor deciding the economic fate of nations.  Outcomes varied depending on the kind of system implemented. Systems that tried to align well to the way human beings are in reality were better in promoting great creativity and economic activity. Systems that started with an idea in the mind on how people ought to be, were less effective. They misunderstood the human person and they attempted to re-create human nature. Smith understood that to unleash human creativity, sin must be tolerated as liberty demands it.  His system was realist and that respect to the reality of human existence, even in the presence of evil, resulted in better outcomes for the many. Systems that were utopian attempted to impose an answer from above, tamed the creative impulse in trying to eliminate sin, and as a result were inefficient and ended up creating a greater presence of evil.

The wonderful paradox is that by allowing freedom to reign and allowing reason to exert its influence systemically, without a need for concentrating it from above, a moral outcome is attained by placing less emphasis on intentionality and purpose. In the economy, systemic processes, the building of systems as systems, is more important than the prevailing of moral purposes. The error of some religionists is tied to what Michael Novak has called the “totalistic impulse” of comprehensive systems. Religious people think their views are so right and their values so wonderful that they are absolutely necessary to run an efficient economic system; therefore, it is a demand of “economic justice” to have them command the system. They are wrong. The “natural system of liberty” that Smith discovered does not deny the great importance of virtue and moral values. It does not mock good intentions and high motives either. It simply understands that they are not absolutely necessary to bring about the best outcome precisely because human beings are not always motivated properly nor regularly aligned with given values.[1]

Religionists of the left, however, attack such natural systems in favor of exactly what Smith demonstrated to be the kind of systems that only created poverty. They insist that Christ also favored interventionism. Scripture is made to align its indictments with those of Marx. The problem of sin is a problem of structures controlled by ruling classes that enrich themselves at the expense of the weak. Redistribution is necessary to eliminate injustice and prevent alienation. By imbuing the system with “Gospel values” we create better outcomes. The only difference between many of these religionists and Marx is that Marx was more consistent in interpreting the paradigm. Marx understood that if the case was that these powerful forces were willing to create injustice and derive great advantages from it, they would surely not relinquish their status willingly through appeals to “doing the right thing.”  He understood that the nature of systems is what is important and that reform was not possible. Thus, violent struggle was inevitable to force the powerful to relinquish their power.

Some religionists insist that theirs is a call to transform the heart of systems. However, their tool is political, not moral. They join movements and agendas of the left not to convince hearts but to impose policies. Moreover, they are willing to “understand” the reason for some becoming violent. So, they become “prophets” warning us of impending doom while joining the forces ready to bring it about. They not only sound the trumpet but align themselves with the very movements that could eventually bring forth the violence.

In all the emotive indictments and searching condemnations there is something lacking: sound economic thinking. The greatest error we can commit in creating an economic system is to build the system on intentions and emotions. A system works if it is effective even in the absence of intentions coming from imperfect men. A just system is just if it is structured in ways that facilitate a desired outcome, not because it guarantees a specific one. We do not need an economic system that has a commitment to a very specific understanding of justice as a result. We need a system with a set of rules, a process, which gives each an equal opportunity to engage it, regardless of outcome.

An equal opportunity to engage a system does not require the erasure of any meaningful difference between economic actors.  To promise equality of results demands the imposition of power, not the spreading of good will. Securing specific outcomes makes a mockery of freedom as where is my freedom if the result is predetermined? Negating reality and opposing nature, which has offered unequal endowments to men, is not the kind of system that secures justice as it must impose injustices on some to offer the semblance of benefit to others. A system that understands human nature well and values liberty with conviction, allows for the wheat and the tears to live side by side. Utopian systems cannot change human nature but promise the results of a changed one. They fail because they negate reality.

If I compete in the Olympics and my country is poor and cannot afford to offer me the training I need, I still stand on line with others. If I did not have the diet I needed nor the time to train or the genes to run fast, I stand in line with the others. That is just as long as the rules for the race are clearly understood and equal to all. It is not about redressing the injustices of cosmic realities but about process. Human beings come to the market with a throng of rational, emotional, cultural, and historical differences. These are what they are. Any system devised to erase reality is built on dreams of cosmic justice, one that always escapes us. In its pursuit, true injustices are indeed allowed in the name of justice.

The analysis of reality of Marxists and leftist religionists is the same, as well as the general demands. The kaleidoscope of radicalism is varied but they all seem to agree on certain things. One is the application of the concept of rights to whatever is desirable.  Wishes become rights become entitlements. These range from “affordable” health care and housing, to free higher education, job security,  a “living wage,” early retirement, and you name it. Other times it shows as a cry for “access” to a share of government funds coming to local areas through grants or other means.

The concept of rights creates an entitlement and entitlement requires little personal responsibility. If people have a “right” to government-conceded goods and services, it follows that others have an obligation to provide them. Who are the ones with such responsibility?  It follows that they are “the rich”, those who control the vast resources in need of reallocation. Who is going to make the reallocation possible?  The state.

The state becomes the place where all the calls for justice converge. The idol of the state rises and is carried on by the religionists in the name of equality. It is time to reject their idolatry.

 

 


[1] See Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (New York: Touchtone, 1982) pp. 74-80.

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