The other day Nicholas Kristoff published a satirical take-down of Paul Ryan and his budget priorities in the New York Times.  He imagines a conversation between Ryan and Jesus, in which Ryan pushes back on Jesus’ call to have mercy on those who are poor .  Such mercy, Ryan essentially argues, amounts to a policy of moral hazard, because it encourages the downtrodden to continue the same behaviors that led them into trouble.  Jesus, of course, demurs.

Kristoff got this imagined conversation partially right.  While recovering the opinions of the historical Jesus are beyond what we can know with much certainty, the Gospels tend to portray Jesus in a much more radical light than Kristoff suggests.  In economic terms, Jesus is portrayed less as a social democrat than as an anarchist: in this new age of God’s kingdom, money matters so little that the best path would be to give it all away.  As the new age dawns, the rich will be left behind – not because of anything they do or did, but simply because they are rich.

This anarchist streak in the New Testament (which is not the only voice we find there) has continued to echo through Christianity, especially in the practices of asceticism, monasticism, and vows of poverty.  Regardless of whether one agrees with it or not, though, it represents a genuine struggle with a perennial and enduring human problem.  We, as human beings, like to consider ourselves as better than animals if not quite divine.  And that leads us into all kinds of difficult questions about how we relate to the material world.  How do we behave in a way that fully realizes our distinctive humanity?  When we copulate and eat, should we do so like animals – which we surely have the ability to do – or should we seek to behave in a way that “transcends” our animal nature?  So too, do we seek to acquire as much as we can in the belief that to the strongest belong the most spoils?  Or is living the “good life” really about developing behaviors concerning our urge to accumulate wealth that allow us to live more fully human lives?

I have been working (slowly) on editing a collection of Jewish sources through the ages that grapple with this problem.  Kristoff’s column got me wondering how one might imagine a more “Jewish” conversation (okay, not one that really is confined to Moses and the Torah).  I am not as clever as Kristoff and so will not try to reproduce an actual conversation but will emphasize the three (out of many possible) points that “Moses” might make:

  • The poor and vulnerable must be supported, but only to the level of sustenance.  We – each and every one of us, as individuals and a community – are obligated to support the needy.  No one in our communities should die of hunger, lack of shelter, or access to health care.  Yet while traditional Jewish sources do not make a moral hazard argument, they also rarely recognize a need to extend that support beyond sustenance.  The poor are free moral agents and must work hard.  At the same time, though, there is no shame to being poor; it is a sign neither of their moral standing nor of their character.  The vicissitudes of life threaten to bring us all to poverty in an instant and our treatment of the poor should recognize that.
  • There are people who take advantage of poor relief, but they are not our problem.  It is our responsibility to help the needy but not our job to ascertain that every claim to our help has a basis.  Traditional Jewish texts recognize that there will be abuse but also that the fear of abuse has negative consequences (i.e., it will give us an easy excuse not to give) and that the scale of this abuse will be relatively minor.  Communal institutions do have a role in minimizing the possibility of abuse but ultimately it is better for us to err on the side of generosity.
  • Capitalism is a good system but it needs heavy regulation.  The Torah prescribes two economic “reset buttons.”  The first, every seven years, cancels all debts.  The second, every fifty years, is a full economic redistribution.  Neither are practicable, but they represent an economic ideal based on the recognition that markets lead over time, inexorably, to increasing inequality.  Jewish texts recognize the importance of a free-market but also the need to control the natural excesses that it engenders: merchants, for example, are not free to price gouge and communities have the right to levy taxes for the public good.

I don’t think that Moses, any more than Jesus, was a social democrat.  But I also don’t think that either one would have much sympathy for the budget plans on the table.  Now if only I knew what they would say about the NEA or NEH….