When I was about 14 I overheard a close family friend comment on another woman’s hair. “Such long hair! Quite expensive in terms of shampoo.” The involuntary exclamation illustrates a part of the world I grew up in. Some women really did view their hair from the standpoint of incurred expenses in shampoo, and kept it short as a result.
My family was better off than that, but we still lived along the U.S. poverty line. We didn’t own a house, car, or TV. My parents rented a three-bedroom apartment in a ramshackle compound, made us kids a big bookshelf out of plywood, and taught us how to type on a used Mac with a 1995 facing-smile logo that spent a lot of time looking at me above progress bars on the screen.
That life wasn’t bad. Or, at least, most of the bad parts weren’t caused by “poverty.” You see, we lived in a socialist country where the government allowed enough free enterprise to fuel economic growth but maintained firm control to ensure economic equality. President Xi Jinping described our government’s strategy: “We want to continuously enlarge the pie, while also making sure we divide the pie correctly. Chinese society has long held the value of ‘Don’t worry about the amount, worry that all have the same amount.’”
Previous instantiations of this long-held value meant pretty much everybody (except powerful Communist Party members) did not have enough to eat. But 1980s reforms aimed at enlarging the pie had improved matters a great deal, so the common people lived better every day. Kids of my generation had soft little jaws and even chubby tummies. We did not eat the leaves off trees. We lived in apartments with electricity and, in the cities, running water.
The bad part of life was that the government maintained such a firm control of everything. This meant no freedom of speech or of religion. A couple million innocents were ground through the labor camps while I grew up, and one or two family acquaintances subjected to physical torture, but it was the only way government could firmly control everything. Without this control, they could not ensure that the pie, instead of simply growing larger, would be correctly divided. No government can equitably divide what it does not first control.
From Poverty to People’s Ideas of Poverty
From this environment, I was grafted, at the age of 18, into the American Ivy League. I became interested in U.S. politics: wrote for the newspaper, attended debates, tickled my brain with honors classes and the popular books of the American elites.
Young American elites love to talk about income inequality. Last spring, a great lecture hall was filled with them, debating a proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy to fight poverty in America. The Left side of the room gave impassioned speeches on the moral necessity of fighting poverty.
One had a relative who earned only $10 an hour. This relative suffered greatly from her wage, and the speaker doubted she could survive if she weren’t living with her parents. There was a tremor in the speaker’s voice: “It’s immoral; it’s ridiculous,” she said, to have such immiseration in a country of so much wealth. We have a moral obligation to raise taxes on corporations and the top 10 percent.
These arguments are mainstream leftist. If you do not want the government to take rich people’s money for the poor, you are very selfish. The New York Times says Jesus rebukes you if you don’t. Now, the members of my team opposing tax hikes were eager to not be selfish, so they did not dare contradict the notion that $10 an hour was an immoral wage.
On the contrary, they agreed society must fight poverty. But they warned against high taxation’s dangers to the economy and deplored the ineffectiveness of simple income redistribution. The pie must be big, they argued. Jobs are what ultimately save people from poverty.
This debate reflected the perennial economic squabbles in Washington. This week, Sen. Bernie Sanders announced a plan for made-work guaranteed by the government that pays $15 per hour. Predictably, the center and right have argued it will make the economic pie shrink, which hurts the poor. But they do so without examining the moral framework that undergirds leftist economic policies like this. So let’s do that.
Expanding the Economy Won’t Fully Solve Poverty
I don’t believe that making a bigger pie will save people from “poverty.” Some people will always produce—and so earn—less than others do. If you really believe it’s immoral for one person to live on $400 a week while another lives on $4,000, then the obvious solution is to let pie-growth suffer a little, if need be, and start dividing people’s incomes among everyone.
Now, nobody really thinks herself morally obligated to give every poor person she meets half the value of their difference in income. This argument assumes morality is intrinsically a personal matter, and leftists do not believe this—at least, in China they don’t. In China it is generally understood that income inequality is wrong not because God or conscience declares you must give to those with less, but because utopia cannot be achieved when one person owns what another does not.
American leftist elites express things a little differently. They like the term “social justice” instead of “social morality,” but they adhere to the same premise that individual morals are the product of social organization, not the other way around. In other words, people do not do right or wrong things with respect to their income; they simply reflect the rightness or wrongness of the social structures that control them. Therefore, the path to being better people is to organize and vote for a better system.
Most of the leftists sitting on three sides of me at the Ivy League debate would have agreed that any notion of universal personal moral absolutes—a God-given obligation to be chaste, charitable, truthful, temperate, or virtuous in any way—was a dangerous fiction. They were devotees of socialized morality—“our” obligations to follow expert opinion in organizing our society, not “my” obligation to follow God or conscience regardless of society.
Within this framework of socialized morality, voting for the rich to give money to the poor really does make you “good.” So I had to start at square one when it was my turn to speak, with the very concept of individual morality. I had to advocate directly for private virtue and true charity.
Most of the people I was facing had no bonds of deep friendship or love with “poor” individuals. They could scarcely be expected to know that a great life can be started on $400 a week, or to understand that it doesn’t really help truly impoverished Americans—most of whom are paralyzed with laziness, loneliness, hurt, or depression—to send them off to a faceless federal bureaucracy that gives them little chunks of wealthy people’s income.
So We Talked about the Morality Underlying Poverty Relief
So I gave a lecture on charity to my leftist colleagues. I have never seen a room full of them more stunned or bedraggled. I talked about inviting homeless folks back to my place for dinner, which would not have been considered impressive at my West Philadelphia church.
See, the University of Pennsylvania perches on the edge of a big ghetto. There are always folks walking around begging for money, trying to make eye contact, saying they’re hungry. No conservative Christian conscience could always ignore them. So I asked the room a simple question: how many of them, who cared so much about poverty, had ever, even once, shared their time and a meal with one of those who asked?
I confirmed by show of hands that only three or four of them had. The status quo among the leftist elites does not include paying attention to someone who is not facilitating your interests or career. I was appealing to their conscience, giving them a little peek into the possibility that socialized morality isn’t just the smart person’s version of real morality, but a self-serving rejection of it.
Had I had time, I could have gone on to point out that the religious right consistently engage in much higher rates of charitable activity than the secular left does. They donated fully 100 times as much money in total, and 50 times as much to secular causes. They volunteer more of their time to help those in need. They give more blood. They visit more prisoners. They establish more hospitals. They adopt more children, and help foster youngsters stuck in awful, government-run orphanages.
Leftists Want to Mandate Their Personal Stinginess
I can put up with leftists being stingy. As long as Americans who do believe in personal virtue are allowed to freely associate, raise their own children, control their own earnings, and spread their own ideas, there will always be plenty of charity in our land.
But the problem is that leftists aren’t just stingy. Leftism does not simply negate personal morals, it replaces them with socialized ones. Income inequality, remember, is immoral. Since socialized morality is intrinsically, well, social, it cannot simply live and let live.
The Christian can give his own money to the poor, but the socialist must have the wealth of the rich. The Christian can preach in his own church, but the socialist must decide whether it is appropriate for anyone to maintain so extravagant a thing as a house to worship God. The Christian thinks it a duty and a right to school his own children, but the socialist must prepare every child to think and act in the interests of society as he understands them.
In China, this is frankly understood, and the consequences frankly implemented. Communist Party members are required to profess atheism in order to rule. Otherwise, as Central Committee member Zhu Weiqun put it in 2011, the party would be “divided ideologically and theoretically” between “idealism and materialism” and “theism and atheism.”
Notice the terms used: idealism is the belief that something is right or wrong inherently (usually because God said so); materialism teaches that right and wrong depend on social outcomes, such as standard of living. Everybody knows these two worldviews are not compatible, so in China, where leftists rule, religion is simply not allowed to exist in the government.
“All this is a lot of theory,” you may say. “A lot of talk about ‘isms’ and morality. What does it mean for the average person?”
What This Means for People in Need
Well, let me tell you. When I was little and went to the hospital it was not uncommon to see folks lying beside the hospital steps begging. I used to wonder why they picked that spot to beg. As I grew older, I learned the answer.
JinShui was 17 when I was 15, and I met her with her parents in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. She sat propped up on a low bed with a board for a mattress, her left leg swollen to three times its natural size. A month or so before, a member of our church had sat down next to her on the street to learn her needs. She needed money for hospital bills.
Our church, though poor, pulled together money within hours. But help had come late. The cancer had been curable early on, you see, but JinShui was from the countryside where the people are as poor as the good earth. Only party members could pay for cancer treatment there. And Chinese hospitals don’t give treatment to save your life, not if they know you can’t pay.
I remember sitting in a cold conference room a few weeks later, where we secretly gathered for JinShui’s makeshift memorial service. Her younger brother was sitting in front of me. His black “leather” jacket was draped over his trembling shoulders, the arms sticking out stiff and empty on each side. He kept rubbing his face with his hands and blowing tissues about his nose.
The police did not break up our meeting that evening, but they could have if they wanted to. We sang and prayed, and though the Chinese Communist Party does not forbid religious practice, it demands that all religions develop their ideas about God in accord with the “needs of society” first, and scriptures or conscience second.
Our little church just followed the Bible, which Chinese authorities, like some American authorities, think does not serve the needs of society. So people from the only widespread local organizations in the country, like us, whose members would sit down next to a dying girl on the street, were all law-breakers. We were poor, underground, always dodging the police, always excluded from the public square.
We could not publically open a church hospital or charity the way Christians do in America. We could not even walk out onto the street and preach Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan. We did our best under the circumstances. JinShui died, but many others lived. We tried. But under socialism with Chinese characteristics, how much really could we do?
You see, it’s all very simple in the end. People who want to help the needy will help the needy. People who want “society” to redistribute money to the “poor” won’t. People who want to help the poor aren’t going to divert their resources to jailing the innocent. But the folks who need to make others help the poor? Well, that’s a very different story.