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Covetousness and Inequality

The argument over wealth in the U.S. quickly morphed with the Democratic takeover of the House and the start of the Democratic presidential nomination campaign. It’s not that the type of wealth at issue derived from injustice or that there are identifiable harms to wealthy individuals. Being wealthy, the suggestion now seems to be, should be a status offense. Status offenses do not depend on the person doing something wrong, but simply on having a given condition or “status.”

As an initial matter, everyone agrees that a person who obtains wealth by stealing from others can be disciplined. His or her riches do not justly belong to that person. And we need not draw this circle too narrowly. Concepts such as “rent-seeking” and crony capitalism broadly identify the unjust transfer of wealth from one person to another.

The problem, however, is that some people become wealthy by building a better mousetrap. While Proudhon might be partly correct—some property is theft—Locke’s observation is also certainly right, the farmer who takes a section of land and cultivates it has increased the world’s stock of property relative to natural output by a hundred fold or more. The farmer has conferred property and wealth on the world, not taken it away.

The complexity of social production in modern economies does not change this possibility. As Adam Smith suggests, we can let the rich have their pick of the baubles and trinkets, the rest of us still feast on what they leave of the pile after they are sated. Why begrudge the rich their baubles and trinkets? (And, yes, I anticipate the rich will want to pass their baubles and trinkets to their children as well. Calling it “privilege” does not make it unjust, and does not mean there is less for the rest of us than there would be otherwise.)

Conceding that if a person attains wealth unjustly entails that wealth can be justly expropriated, but that depends on individual circumstances that do not apply to wealthy people in general, then why the broad-based hostility toward the wealthy as a generic class?

Tocqueville observes there is a “manly” desire for equality, one that motivates the desire to raise oneself up to become equal to others. But there is also another type of desire for equality, an unmanly one that seeks to bring the other down rather than to raise oneself up. Can there be doubt that resentment motivates much of the political desire to redistribute what the rich hold?

I’d suggest there’s an old fashioned word for this desire—the word is “covetousness”—but it doesn’t quite work, if only because I don’t think a word that has never been in fashion can become old fashioned.

As a child my parents dragged me to church at least twice a year. (Hey, it adds up over a decade and a half.) As an adult I’ve gone willingly pretty much once a week. Plus Bible studies, prayer meetings, and individual religious conversations on top of that. In all of that time in all of those places I’ve never heard anyone cop to the sin of covetousness. Ever.

I don’t think I’ve ever even heard the idea mentioned in all those years except in passing, when someone was sweeping through the end of the Ten Commandments. You’d think as two of the big Ten—or one, depending on how one counts them—one would have hear more of the commands in religious circles. (Lutherans and Catholics count two of the Ten Commandments as forbidding different types of covetousness; Protestants wrap covetousness into one big commandment at the end and split an earlier commandment into two to get to ten.)

In English we take the word “covet” to forbid intensely desiring something that belongs to another. It’s an internal attitude. In the Hebrew, however, coveting is an action as well as a desire. Harkening to the Hebrew understanding, Martin Luther paraphrased it to command that “we do not scheme to get our neighbor’s inheritance or house, or get it in a way which only appears right, but help and be of service to him in keeping it.”

On this reading, expropriation for the sake of redistribution—that is, when there is no claim of justice or right that justifies the expropriation—is precisely the sin of covetousness.

It is not merely a personal sin; it can have a social and political dimension as well. The Jewish philosopher Philo noted the social and political implications of covetousness:

Is it not owing to this passion that relationships are broken asunder, and change the good will which originates in nature into an irreconcilable enmity? And are not great countries and populous kingdoms made desolate by domestic seditions, through such causes? 

We can debate and legislate the need for a broader social insurance system given the vagaries of the modern domestic and international economy. There is a pivotal change, however, when discussion shifts from the need to increase taxes to pay for the universally-available social insurance system to taxing a certain class out of an abstract desire to take away what they have. To be sure, the class has a lot of trinkets and baubles to begin with. But once we indulge the taste to take away simply because others have, there is no end. Its end, as Philo suggests, is desolation.

Reader Discussion

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on February 14, 2019 at 10:12:13 am

This is the oldest issue in the book. In any book. The contours of the issue have not changed over time. The Framers were well aware that in an unrestricted democracy the mob would eventually expropriate the wealthy, hence all of the limitations, checks, balances, etc. on its power to do so. Unfortunately, the Constitution was amended to install an income tax. More unfortunate still, the indeterminate meaning of the word "income" made it a poor choice standing alone. Here is a case where some prolixity would have been most useful (in hindsight one can say the same about the word "commerce").

Perhaps the greatest misfortune of all is the evolution of a federal judiciary that has aggressively exploited the Supremacy Clause in order to engage in serial "judicial interpretive updating" (as Posner styles it) of Constitutional words and phrases according to a progressive worldview (in this case, the conviction that, to paraphrase Balzac, behind every great fortune lies a great crime); even now we have a Chief Justice who bends to the will of the Left in such matters. Barring further change in the composition of the Court, we can be certain that the Roberts Court will find a rhetorical way around the limitations on taxation in the Constitution in order to uphold Warren's confiscation.

I am not a proponent of Freudian theory, but the relentless drive to bring Venezuela's fate upon this country by such a significant fraction of our population does seem to evidence his postulate of a death drive.

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QET
on February 14, 2019 at 10:38:08 am

Ahh, Yes - Thanatos. And as in an old Gothic Drama, Lord Thanatos is welcomed, indeed ushered in by Black Robed Seers whose incantations (read: dicta) provide both urgency and sufficiency to Thanato's exertions.

As for COTUS and prolixity, perhas we would benefit from pellucidity. how else have we come to understand that a 'person" does not emerge as a parson and gain protections until SOME TIME AFTER BIRTH?

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gabe
on February 14, 2019 at 11:08:30 am

"why the broad-based hostility toward the wealthy as a generic class?"

Because many of us are, actually, coming to believe that wealth in this country is normally now associated with some kind of injustice.

Folks like myself see our economy as well off course from a free market. Several years ago the WSJ printed that more people now work for the government than in agriculture, mining, and manufacturing combined.
We don't see crony capitalism as being an exception but the rule. People are garnering wealth and security by attaching themselves to government excess, and once in power they tamp down the legislation and agency regulation that perpetuates the system.

We now have a system pretty much predicted by Belloc. Regulation makes small industry, individual innovation and prosperity from it, very difficult. An elite group gains from near-monopoly and near-cartel enforced largely by the federal government, and they become very wealthy. In order to avoid revolution, disgruntlement, any kind of disruption to this system they pay off those they take from. So a CEO of a failing oil and gas company like Enron can earn $7 million while the man who drives the propane truck that keeps rural America going makes $35,000. Parkland school district superintendents make $165,000 and up, and are still in the job after allowing their students to literally be murdered because of bad management, but the people who pick your food and put it on the truck to get to you make under $30,000 a year. The government enriches a few at the expense of many, then takes some money from those few (and more by borrowing) and doles it out to the many as if it is some kind of gift that requires gratitude and indebtedness.

We're not covetous. We just want a free market.

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Marie P.
on February 14, 2019 at 11:57:25 am

Very nice re: government's role in wealth accumulation / maintenance.

May I also add that government jobs themselves permit many to enjoy rather comfortable life styles, i.e. the legions of "Diversicrats" infesting the university, secondary and in some instances primary education systems - and salaries that reach $350,000 per year. Plus, you cannot get fired from these politically distributed sinecures.

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gabe
on February 14, 2019 at 12:22:37 pm

All very persuasive. What I find not persuasive--and the commenter does not propose this--are the proposed solutions of some to give government increased regulatory role in the economy. That over time, demonstrated by many examples throughout history, promotes corruption and cronyism. Indeed, the demagogues typically appeal to the masses to take from the "wealthy" and give to the masses, in exchange for the masses giving them their political power, which the demagogues then use to reward new (and often many of the same) cronies.

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Wayne Abernathy
on February 14, 2019 at 12:44:11 pm

Wayne:

Upon "video review", you may be right. I did not read the above commenter to be advocating for MORE government intrusion. I saw only a rejection of the many present "favors" government bestows upon certain factions / individuals.

But that is also a possible reading of the lament.

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gabe
on February 14, 2019 at 12:56:16 pm

Absolutely.

The explosion of adminstrative jobs in schools is the main driver for the increase in tuition costs; the explosion of administrative jobs in medical offices and hospitals is a major driver for the increase in medical costs.

The left pushes for universal tuition-free education and expansion of public school funding and universal healthcare, while the right insists these are market forces and so the costs are reasonable and we just have to live with them. But most of this is caused or supported by government fiat. You have huge layers of bureaucracy that are unproductive but whose members draw substantial salaries, benefits, and have strong job security.

This is no way to run a capitalist country.

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Marie P.
on February 14, 2019 at 13:00:35 pm

Karl Polanyi observed that a true "free market" is an artificial state of affairs, and can only be maintained by government coercion. Which produces an antinomy.

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QET
on February 14, 2019 at 13:03:47 pm

No, I agree completely, the regulations are a huge part of the problem. Regulation in the end always favors the players who already have the power.

If you talk to any small producers you will hear stories about how much more heavily the regulatory burden falls on them than on their large, corporate competitors. It drives them to the niches, or out of business entirely.

An excellent example is health care. We already had a situation where small clinics and providers that worked outside of insurance were marginalized because of our insurance culture (triggered by FDR policies long ago), but there were still a few making it. ACA comes in and forces (or tries to force) every American to buy insurance -- unprecedented in the history of America, the government forcing private citizens to buy a commercial product just to exist in America. Destroys any business not interesting in working with the insurance behemoths.

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Marie P.
on February 14, 2019 at 13:56:15 pm

Any freedom can only be maintained by some form of coercion, if that's the word you choose. My freedom to continue living is dependent upon no one murdering me, and so I either have to coerce people into not murdering me or have a government authority act on my behalf in coercing people not to murder me.

The traditional fair use of government power in the market is making sure the scales aren't fixed. Police authority is correctly used to prevent the fraud and coercion that prevents a free market from operating.

In any action beyond this, government authority will always begin to favor those perpetuating the fraud and coercion. Examples everywhere -- e.g. the private rancher that can't sell his meat by the piece because it's not USDA inspected, even if his customers are all fine with that, and who can't call his meat "natural" because that is now an official government-appropriated word that only people following regulations can use; sharing the market with large corporations that can sell "Blueberry" cereal with a picture of blueberries on the box but nothing from actual blueberries anywhere inside.

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Marie P.
on February 14, 2019 at 14:08:33 pm

[H]ow else have we come to understand that a ‘person” does not emerge as a parson and gain protections until SOME TIME AFTER BIRTH?

This strikes me as an irreducibly religious question. And under many religious traditions (especially Protestant ones), someone must undergo at least a modicum of religious training (typically after birth) before being regarded as a parson.

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nobody.really
on February 14, 2019 at 14:28:39 pm

Are you sure? Church of England has made a lot of changes this century. . . ;)

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Marie P.
on February 14, 2019 at 14:47:34 pm

§ 41. ….The most specious thing to be said is, that he that is proprietor of the whole world, may deny all the rest of mankind food, and so at his pleasure starve them, if they will not acknowledge his sovereignty, and obey his will. If this were true, it would be a good argument to prove, that there never was any such property, that God never gave any such private dominion; since it is more reasonable to think, that God, who bid mankind increase and multiply, should rather himself give them all a right to make use of the food and raiment, and all conveniences of life, the material whereof he had so plentifully provided for them, than to make them depend upon the will of a man for their subsistence, who should have power to destroy them all when he pleased, and who, being no better than other men, was in succession likelier, by want and the dependence of a scanty fortune, to tie them to hard service, than by liberal allowance of the conveniences of life to promote the great design of God, “increase and multiply:” he that doubts this, let him look into the absolute monarchies of the world, and see what becomes of the conveniences of life, and the multitudes of people.

§ 42. [W]e know that God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God, the Lord and father of all, has given no one of his children such a property in his particular portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it: and therefor no man could have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want to affording him relief out of his plenty. [C]harity gives every man a title to so much out of another man’s plenty as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise: and a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at this throat offer him death or slavery.

John Locke, Two Treaties of Government (1689), Book I, Chapter IV.

Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, [provided] there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, [provided] there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst. And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.

John Locke, Two Treaties of Government (1689), Book I, Chapter V.

[The] disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition [is] the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.

Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

Civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776).

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nobody.really
on February 14, 2019 at 14:52:12 pm

'@Marie P.

making sure the scales aren’t fixed</em

to effect which necessarily entails a rather massive government bureaucracy in an advanced country of 350 million in 2019: DOJ Antitrust division, SEC, FTC, ICC, I could name others. Because, again per Polanyi, absent this kind of regime, private actors will make sure that the scales are fixed. . .in their favor.

So you are going to have to accept fixed scales no matter what regime you endorse. The only question is, is it preferable to have the scales fixed by large corporations or by government administration?

This is a simplistic presentation, to be sure. I am not keen on the mission creep of government agencies. But neither am I naive about how private actors really behave. My point is only that any market may start off as free but will eventually be gamed by the best players to give them even greater advantage; a government bureaucracy is not a necessary condition to that gaming. I would agree that the US has moved much too far in the direction of government-enabled scales fixing.

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QET
on February 14, 2019 at 14:56:35 pm

[E]xpropriation for the sake of redistribution—that is, when there is no claim of justice or right that justifies the expropriation—is precisely the sin of covetousness.

Fine by me. But the proviso "no claim of justice" just kicks the can down the road: What do you mean by a claim of justice? I largely subscribe to John Rawls's Theory of Justice. If you're interested, I discuss this in a serious of posts beginning here.

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nobody.really
on February 14, 2019 at 14:57:56 pm

Excellent.

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Marie P.
on February 14, 2019 at 14:59:17 pm

Exactly right.

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Marie P.
on February 14, 2019 at 15:11:58 pm

Locke's comments presuppose his own world of "needy brothers. . .perishing for extreme want." This is precisely what is not occurring today. Dickens' London and Engels' Manchester do not exist any longer.

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QET
on February 14, 2019 at 15:14:50 pm

I absolutely do not dispute that private interests will use whatever is at hand to increase their advantage.

Much of that is outside our sphere of influence once the interests become powerful enough, not all.

But we do still have, in theory, a representative democracy and so have some theoretical ability and likely responsibility to keep government out of their hands as a tool to increase advantage.

I'm not naïve about how private actors behave, but I'm also not naïve about how private actors behave regarding government power. Too many Americans (not here) feel like government and corporate interests balance each other, when basic logic dictates that unless we make them balance each other and stay eternally vigilante in keeping them balancing each other they will simply merge into one oligarchical group.

As regards how to keep the scales honest in a complex economy, that is a very big question. My understanding (which may have been influenced by rhetoric) is that in the last financial crisis one problem was that the regulating bureaucracy didn't understand the system they were watchdogging at all -- and most of us have seen it is the case that regulators often rely upon people in the industry being regulated to inform and educate them. In those situations, few are listening to the small businessman, they will be impressed instead by having the CEO call them directly on their office line and explain to them how things are. I don't know the answer here, but it seems clear to me that we have reached the point where more accretions of alphabet agencies only makes clear and useful regulation less likely, don't you think? It would be better to reduce oversight conscientiously, but if that is not possible, a slash and burn approach to government might be our only hope.

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Marie P.
on February 14, 2019 at 15:17:07 pm

Phooey, vigilant, not vigilante.

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Marie P.
on February 14, 2019 at 15:20:46 pm

You are confining the discussion to America and Europe?

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Marie P.
on February 14, 2019 at 15:31:50 pm

Socialism and it's followers usually break down to two types. 1st,the 99% who vote into power the socialist 1% "leaders" whose only interest is to obtain power. The 99% consist mainly of dreamers,losers and the envious. These voters are popularly known as the "useful idiots" who wish to tear down the economic successful entrepreneurs mostly because of a jealous rage that borders on the insane. With that said, 500 or a 1000 years from now when a objective historian writing about the decline and fall of the American Republic,when looking for reasons for its decline, will have to place much of the blame on the Federal judges who for over 100 years either misinterpreted ,changed,or allowed amendments to the U.S.Constitution that allowed for socialism to be sown into the American fabric. The end results are that all 10 Planks to the Communist Manifesto,albeit in modified form,are now the law of the land.

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libertarian jerry
on February 14, 2019 at 15:39:14 pm

The problem cannot be usefully described as "the regulators" this and "the regulators" that. The regulators are not a unified entity. A large government apparatus is its own economic system, with just as much competition as in the private sector. The 2008 crisis was precipitated in part by different regulatory agencies regulating at cross purposes with one another. If you have two scales and 20 different people trying to balance them in 20 different ways, then, well, what do you suppose happens?

Another problem is the theory problem. In theory, on paper, government can work just as nobody.really supposes it actually does work. It is not logically necessary that government overstep its bounds and become oppressive. But as Holmes said, the life of the law is not logic, but experience.

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QET
on February 14, 2019 at 15:46:38 pm

Yes, and mostly the former. The context for this discussion, which includes, as I see it, yesterday/s discussion in the Rappaport post, is the accession of the self-styled Democratic Socialists on the USA and their various proposals for bringing on Utopia in the name of "reducing inequality," most especially by confiscating the wealth of others. Right? There is no Platonic Form called Inequality. It exists in differing guises in particular times and places and must be understood according to its historical locus. It may be the case that there is a justification for Singapore to expropriate the wealth of of the ethnic Chinese there to redistribute to the ethnic Malays; I have no idea.

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QET
on February 14, 2019 at 15:52:15 pm

" If you have two scales and 20 different people trying to balance them in 20 different ways, then, well, what do you suppose happens?"

Well, I'd guess a lot of thumbs would be on those scales, some accidentally and some not.

But there is only one correct way to balance a scale, so if 2 people can do it properly and 20 people can't, isn't it the case that we shouldn't have 20 people?

The competition within government bureaucracy is a dysfunctional one, largely a competition to justify continued expenditures in one area over another, or increased expenditures across the board. It is a petri dish for perverse incentives, isn't it? That's just its nature, you can't eliminate it entirely, but surely it's important to reduce that as much as humanly possible.

As for theory vs. practical ability, I can't say that I do have any hope that our governing system can return to one that supports a free market economy. But I will at least keep screeching that it doesn't support it and we don't have one. Articles like the above presuppose a largely free market and meritocratic distribution.

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Marie P.
on February 14, 2019 at 15:53:43 pm

Fair enough.

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Marie P.
on February 14, 2019 at 16:28:27 pm

The rich are guilty of breaking the left’s most sacred commandment: Thou shall not have goods thy neighbors covet.

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Richard Fulmer
on February 14, 2019 at 17:47:11 pm
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gabe
on February 14, 2019 at 17:48:18 pm

But Marie;s is even funnier and more "potent" of a commentary!

Luvv'd it!

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gabe
on February 14, 2019 at 18:23:05 pm

nobody:

Were you to advance the theory of "Open Access" societies, as opposed to your apparent endorsement of an "equal justice" society, which you have repeatedly intimated, then i could accept your assertion that you are merely seeking consonance with Rawls proposition that "The first principle guarantees the right of each person to have the most extensive basic liberty compatible with the liberty of others. The second principle states that social and economic positions are to be (a) to everyone's advantage and (b) open to all." (stolen from Carnegie Mellon U.)

History, "small-h" history that is has demonstrated that the latter quite frequently conflicts with, or prevents the implementation of the former.

As R. Richard has noted numerous times (see the work of North et al) market systems, both capitalism and socialism, etc are but reflections of social arrangements. This is not the crucial element. What IS crucial is whether "access" to the levers of economic opportunity, capital accumulation, wealth etc. are open to all, i.e., NOT limited by artificial impediments / barriers as was common in the *ordered* societies of the past AND as Marie has noted becoming ever more present in our own now "closing" restricted access society.

Given, however, an Open Access society, one in which substantive barriers are NOT present, how would you, My Dear Parson (ha!) handle those who are "unequal" primarily as a result of their own shortcomings? And let us not deny that this may be so; nor let us not deny that there is present in many of these types an insuperable envy, especially amongst academics, whose skills / traits / accomplishments are not necessarily the same skills that are rewarded in the marketplace - Open or Closed Access.
Indeed, as Marie hints, Government service, the new Clerisy is increasingly to be viewed as a Limited Access Society / Market. Will you not lament the fate of Marie's tanker truck drivers, or my sheetrock workers. Surely, it would be, according to Rawls, far better, if these poor tradesmen had *access* to both the perquisites and status enjoyed by members of the Clerisy.

It has been said that many academic economists are able to sustain themselves only due to the "interlocking tribalism" of the university. If that ain't a "limited access' society, I am unable to find any other. So too for many other government factotems, however, richly compensated they may be

As for me, I don't accept any theory of Justice, a la Rawls, Kant, Hegl etc.
I buy a theory of "collisions", constant, adaptive change guided by an overarching tradition.
Some traditions, such as Western Political thought, in particular American political thought / practice (I know you will hate this) are clearly better and more adaptive FOR A FAR greater number of people than are others.

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gabe
on February 15, 2019 at 11:36:51 am

The entire M.O. of Progressivism is to get the people to ignore the 10th Commandment (Catholic version) as a means to get them to break the 7th...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on February 15, 2019 at 11:39:16 am

Rawls was simply creating a new form of injustice behind his "veil of ignorance". Where did the wealth and resources come from that he would "blindly" divvy up if not from the actions of other people?

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on February 15, 2019 at 11:45:46 am

Get rid of government. It's merely a criminal protection racket designed to sell privileges.

Until that happens, no one can be completely responsible for their economic position in life...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on February 15, 2019 at 11:51:53 am

Deuteronomy 15:11

For there will never cease to be poor in the land; that is why I am commanding you to open wide your hand to your brother and to the poor and needy in your land.

Mark 14:7

7The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them whenever you want. But you will not always have Me.

Mathew 25:35-36

35For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, 36 I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me.’…

No mention of a state confiscating property and then handing it out to the needy, just commands to be charitable to the poor as one can...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on February 15, 2019 at 14:53:14 pm

Does the Bible impose any duties to transfer wealth?

Exodus 23

10 For six years you are to sow your land and gather in its produce.

11 But in the seventh year you must let it lie fallow and leave it alone so that the poor of your people may eat, and what they leave any animal in the field may eat; you must do likewise with your vineyard and your olive grove.

Leviticus 19

9 When you gather in the harvest of your land, you must not completely harvest the corner of your field, and you must not gather up the gleanings of your harvest.

10 You must not pick your vineyard bare, and you must not gather up the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You must leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 25

3 Six years you may sow your field, and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather the produce,

4 but in the seventh year the land must have a Sabbath of complete rest — a Sabbath to the LORD. You must not sow your field or prune your vineyard.

5 You must not gather in the after-growth of your harvest and you must not pick the grapes of your unpruned vines; the land must have a year of complete rest.

10. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

That fiftieth year will be your jubilee; you must not sow the land, harvest its aftergrowth, or pick the grapes of its unpruned vines.

23 The land must not be sold without reclaim because the land belongs to me, for you are foreigners and residents with me.

39 If your brother becomes impoverished with regard to you so that he sells himself to you, you must not subject him to slave service.

40 He must be with you as a hired worker, as a resident foreigner; he must serve with you until the year of jubilee,

41 but then he may go free, he and his children with him, and may return to his family and to the property of his ancestors.

Leviticus 27

30 Any tithe of the land, from the grain of the land or from the fruit of the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD.

31 If a man redeems part of his tithe, however, he must add one fifth to it.

32 All the tithe of herd or flock, everything which passes under the rod, the tenth one will be holy to the LORD.

33 The owner must not examine the animals to distinguish between good and bad, and he must not exchange it. If, however, he does exchange it, both the original animal and its substitute will be holy. It must not be redeemed.

Numbers 18

26 You are to speak to the Levites, and you must tell them, 'When you receive from the Israelites the tithe that I have given you from them as your inheritance, then you are to offer up from it as a raised offering to the LORD a tenth of the tithe.

27 And your raised offering will be credited to you as though it were grain from the threshing floor or as new wine from the winepress.

28 Thus you are to offer up a raised offering to the LORD of all your tithes which you receive from the Israelites; and you must give the LORD's raised offering from it to Aaron the priest.

29 From all your gifts you must offer up every raised offering due the LORD, from all the best of it, and the holiest part of it.'

30 Therefore you will say to them, 'When you offer up the best of it, then it will be credited to the Levites as the product of the threshing floor and as the product of the winepress.

31 And you may eat it in any place, you and your household, because it is your wages for your service in the tent of meeting.

Deuteronomy 14

22 You must be certain to tithe all the produce of your seed that comes from the field year after year.

23 In the presence of the LORD your God you must eat from the tithe of your grain, your new wine, your olive oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the place he chooses to locate his name, so that you may learn to revere the LORD your God always.

24 When he blesses you, if the place where he chooses to locate his name is distant,

25 you may convert the tithe into money, secure the money, and travel to the place the LORD your God chooses for himself.

27 As for the Levites in your villages, you must not ignore them, for they have no allotment or inheritance along with you.

28 At the end of every three years you must bring all the tithe of your produce, in that very year, and you must store it up in your villages.

29 Then the Levites (because they have no allotment or inheritance with you), the resident foreigners, the orphans, and the widows of your villages may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work you do.

Deuteronomy 15

1 At the end of every seven years you must declare a cancellation of debts.

2 This is the nature of the cancellation: Every creditor must remit what he has loaned to another person; he must not force payment from his fellow Israelite, for it is to be recognized as "the LORD's cancellation of debts."

3 You may exact payment from a foreigner, but whatever your fellow Israelite owes you, you must remit.

7 If a fellow Israelite from one of your villages in the land that the LORD your God is giving you should be poor, you must not harden your heart or be insensitive to his impoverished condition.

8 Instead, you must be sure to open your hand to him and generously lend him whatever he needs.

9 Be careful lest you entertain the wicked thought that the seventh year, the year of cancellation of debts, has almost arrived, and your attitude be wrong toward your impoverished fellow Israelite and you do not lend him anything; he will cry out to the LORD against you and you will be regarded as having sinned.

10 You must by all means lend to him and not be upset by doing it, for because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you attempt.

11 There will never cease to be some poor people in the land; therefore, I am commanding you to make sure you open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are needy and poor in your land.

12 If your fellow Hebrew — whether male or female — is sold to you and serves you for six years, then in the seventh year you must let that servant go free.

13 If you set them free, you must not send them away empty-handed.

14 You must supply them generously from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress — as the LORD your God has blessed you, you must give to them.

15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore, I am commanding you to do this thing today.

Deuteronomy 23

19 You must also offer one male goat for a sin offering and two yearling lambs for a peace offering sacrifice,

20 and the priest is to wave them — the two lambs — along with the bread of the first fruits, as a wave offering before the LORD; they will be holy to the LORD for the priest.

24 When you enter the vineyard of your neighbor you may eat as many grapes as you please, but you must not take away any in a container.

25 When you go into the ripe grain fields of your neighbor you may pluck off the kernels with your hand, but you must not use a sickle on your neighbor's ripe grain.

Deuteronomy 24

14 You must not oppress a lowly and poor servant, whether one from among your fellow Israelites or from the resident foreigners who are living in your land and villages.

19 Whenever you reap your harvest in your field and leave some unraked grain there, you must not return to get it; it should go to the resident foreigner, orphan, and widow so that the LORD your God may bless all the work you do.

20 When you beat your olive tree you must not repeat the procedure; the remaining olives belong to the resident foreigner, orphan, and widow.

21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard you must not do so a second time; they should go to the resident foreigner, orphan, and widow.

22 Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt; therefore, I am commanding you to do all this.

[To see the gleaner laws in action, see Matthew 12:1; Mark 2:23; Luke 6:1.]

Deuteronomy 26

12 When you finish tithing all your income in the third year (the year of tithing), you must give it to the Levites, the resident foreigners, the orphans, and the widows so that they may eat to their satisfaction in your villages.

13 Then you shall say before the LORD your God, "I have removed the sacred offering from my house and given it to the Levites, the resident foreigners, the orphans, and the widows just as you have commanded me. I have not violated or forgotten your commandments.

14 I have not eaten anything when I was in mourning, or removed any of it while ceremonially unclean, or offered any of it to the dead; I have obeyed you and have done everything you have commanded me.

15 Look down from your holy dwelling place in heaven and bless your people Israel and the land you have given us, just as you promised our ancestors — a land flowing with milk and honey."

Arguably the New Testament is less prescriptive, but the gist is hardly concealed:

Matthew 25

34 Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,

36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'

37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?

38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you?

39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'

40 And the king will answer them, 'I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.'

41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels!

42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.

43 I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

44 Then they too will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not give you whatever you needed?'

45 Then he will answer them, 'I tell you the truth, just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me.'

Some people note that, while the Bible imposes multiple duties to transfer wealth, it does not specify that GOVERNMENT should be the vehicle by which these duties would be enforced. Fair enough—but that’s because, for much of the Old Testament, there was no distinction between religious leaders (typically Levites) and government. When the Israelites grew weary of being dictated to by religious leaders, they demanded a separate government. See 1 Samuel 8 for an amusingly cynical description of government.

But, but, but … what about the fact that some of us are so deserving of our riches, and others are so deserving of their poverty? You may not be surprised to learn some Biblical authorities are not impressed with this argument:

Romans 11

16 [I]f the root is holy, so too are the branches.

17 Now if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among them and participated in the richness of the olive root,

18 do not boast over the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you.

19 Then you will say, "The branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in."

20 …Do not be arrogant, but fear!

21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.

22 Notice therefore the kindness and harshness of God — harshness toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.

25 For I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited….

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Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on February 15, 2019 at 15:05:41 pm

Spoken like a mugger.

Anyone advocating anything beyond the rule of the jungle is simply creating a new form of injustice. Where do the wealth and resources come from to enforce any other kind of order if not from the actions of other people?

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nobody.really
on February 15, 2019 at 16:15:22 pm

OK, Preacher (presbytery, ?) now you have to pick on muggers. will not someone come to their defense?

BTW: Nice quotes below. I don;t think anyone will deny the Biblical commands / exhortations for charity. I DO notice however that these being MORAL commands are NOT accompanied by a corresponding penal code imposing severe punishment upon those who may fail to honor the moral commands so stated.

You must admit that some of the injunctions are more concerned with sustainable agricultural practices than with charitable actions. I commend both types of injunctions.

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gabe
on February 15, 2019 at 17:21:26 pm

I DO notice however that these being MORAL commands are NOT accompanied by a corresponding penal code imposing severe punishment upon those who may fail to honor the moral commands so stated.

Ok, I see that I omitted Matthew 25:46. After exhorting us to care "for one of the least of these," we are informed that those who FAIL to follow this command "shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal." If that ain't severe punishment, I don't know what is. Heck, that sounds as if we're talking about unconstitutionally cruel punishment. (But is it unusual punishment? At the risk of spoilers, The Good Place suggests that the answer is ... no.)

You must admit that some of the injunctions are more concerned with sustainable agricultural practices than with charitable actions.

One recurring theme of philosophy and sci-fi is how cultures manage to pass down useful injunctions to future generations. Typically, these injunctions become incorporated into a culture's mores, but the rationale may not. ("Avoid trichinosis" becomes "God forbids you to eat pork"; "Increase the labor supply" becomes "God forbids you to have sex except in a context optimized for producing and raising kids.") Eventually people begin to disregard the mores as mere superstitions--and sometimes calamity ensues.

Was the admonition to let your field lie fallow once every seven years a time-tested agricultural technique, converted into social mores? Could be.

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nobody.really
on February 20, 2019 at 01:02:15 am

[…] Covetousness & Inequality […]

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VVEDNESDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit
on October 13, 2020 at 06:06:58 am

That's how the wealthy got wealthy. By exploiting the worker, taking away benefits, revenue, shares and pensions. Then on top income tax, property tax, utilities, etc. All at the expense of the workers. So yes it has been unjustly covered. I don't care about the trinkets and toys, but I would like security and well-being or all. I believe we have earned it.

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Maggy May
on October 14, 2020 at 20:46:40 pm

A farmer adding value is a far cry from a vast, concentrated wealth invested in complex finances, or monopolies untamed, or the evolution of nobility through inherited wealth. The better mousetrap was copied and stolen before the inventor could get it to market. The economic system is a upward whirlpool, drawing all value to those entities and people at the top. People may harbor some covetesnous but this is not the true story. The idea of status wealth, and privilege is interesting to discuss, but casting aside grotesque disparity as mere jealousy is too clever by half.

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Image of Mark Flanders
Mark Flanders
on October 15, 2020 at 07:45:05 am

Another disingenuous article in favor of massive wastes of wealth at the expense if society. The handful of 'prosperity creators' is a rounding error to the wealth that is locked away and destuctively warped in favor if the ultra wealthy.

Extremely privilege is a core destructive force in the world and has been since the dawn of such concepts.

Redefining the debunked nonsense of 'trickle-down economics' and nonsense 'job creators' being allowed to continue to rig the system as ', prosperity creators' is just academic-speak for continuing destructive wealth inequality.

Focus on helping people rather than making nuanced excuses for 1%. I'd not be able to sleep at night making this pro-billionaire propaganda piece.

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Troy M Crayson
on October 16, 2020 at 11:14:27 am

This is a wholly myopic view of how wealth is acquired. Please expand your horizons, Mr. Rogers.

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Image of Christopher (Benton) Landry
Christopher (Benton) Landry
on October 18, 2020 at 21:49:50 pm

Everyone should pay taxes on income! FAIR LAWS THAT APPLY TO ALL AMERICANS! United states Freddie Mac just backed hundreds of millions dollars in real estate loans to presidents family.. ability to buy your Entitled child's education and promote them to unqualified positions???

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Image of Genna
Genna
on October 23, 2020 at 07:37:38 am

This author has not the authority to make any assertions regarding the inner motivations of masses of people as being covetnouss. Furthermore, he made an allusion to unjust expropriation and then left that idea undeveloped, inferring that that was a marginal corollary. For this citizen, and many that I know, it is precisely the unjust expropriation, particularly of the landed wealthy, who by no hard work of their own, in the case of inheritance, have myriad more opportunities and raw power than most who work twice as hard.
Furthermore, again with regard to inheritance, these individuals often become the ruling class, not by any particular merit save their unearned status.
What I believe the issue is, is that regardless the economic or political system at play, there should not be unearned grossly malignant rewards for those who begin with a lofty status. That reward system is unjust expropriation.

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Clint Densberger
on October 23, 2020 at 17:16:57 pm

Poorly written and not logical and easily refuted.

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Thomas m Smith

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