What about the “Rights of the Poor”? (Part 1 of 3)

Last fall, I came across a blog post on Matthew Tuininga’s blog “Christian in America” titled “Does the Christian tradition agree that property rights trump the rights of the poor?” Tuininga disagrees with the libertarian-like argument that he summarizes as follows:

My money is my own property that I earned. The government did not give it to me. Therefore, the government has no right to confiscate my property in order to give it to someone else, except for purposes of protection, national defense, or associated government functions. For the government to confiscate my property for purposes of poor relief is not legitimate taxation. It is theft.

Tuininga “take[s] issue with arguments that suggest people have absolute property rights that the government cannot infringe upon, not even for the sake of justice for the poor.” He then takes a quick trip through church history in an effort to show that Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin would not have supported that libertarian-style argument.

The sound-bite defenses of socialism, libertarianism, or conservatism that we often see in Facebook feeds, memes, and blogs have their limits. I think there are some problems with the view Tuininga is criticizing, as it is stated. But I think Tuininga is a long way from showing that the State has any role in welfare programs.

Ultimately, all property belongs to God. He created it, and He entrusted it to humans. He put rules on our use of it, and created institutions with authority over us to admonish and discipline us when we break the rules.

This means that a Christian cannot go along 100 percent with secularist libertarians who say that property is a natural and absolute right of the individual. We are stewards of someone else’s property, not the ultimate owner. That means the “therefore” in the libertarian argument above has problems. If God created property, and if God gave the civil magistrate just authority to tax, then the problem with taxation for welfare cannot be the fact that the taxpayer earned it. (Some of my Christian anarchist friends have given a lot of thought to their positions, and I have immense respect for their intellect, but I haven’t yet figured out how they get around Romans 13:6.)

The problem, at least for Christians who acknowledge any moral legitimacy at all for a civil magistrate, must be that the State has gone beyond the functions it has been given by God.

So, Tuininga is right to say that property rights are not absolute (for us mere stewards), but it is a non sequitur (it does not follow–A does not imply B) to move from that point to welfare programs administered by a civil magistrate. He would need to show that the State has biblical justification for coercing wealth from those who have it to give to the poor.

In a later post, Tuininga says that “government has a responsibility to make sure [the poor are supported].” But in taking this position, he unfortunately blurs some of the boundaries between the civil government and other biblical institutions (i.e., the church and the family).

I was also sorry to see that Tuininga puts welfare under the umbrella of the terms “justice” and “protection.” This is a common approach of the political left–and quite handy as it allows them to co-opt all the biblical passages that oblige the civil government to pursue justice for the poor.

In two future posts, I will deal with Tuininga’s comments on John Calvin’s view of welfare, those troublesome boundary issues, and proper and improper uses of the terms “justice” and “protection.” In the meantime, one of my earlier posts here might be helpful, on the matter of “rights.”

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