It seems that every third line in any debate or speech by any candidate or advocate of public policy is about money. About the so-called bottom line. Who can and who cannot balance a budget? Who should and who should not pay taxes and how much taxes? What can we as a State, as a Nation, as a society afford to spend money on? Defense? Education? Poverty relief? How do we make these decisions? The overwhelming talk about the bottom line has been crowding out the conversation we should be having—a conversation about values and about justice.
Its not that the economic strictures of budgets or revenues are not important. We all live in a world in which the government cannot supply services—from defense to preschool—without paying for them. However, the economic voice should be neither the first nor the loudest voice in the conversation.
It seems that spokespeople (and just people) advocating for any cause are more and more frequently framing their advocacy in economic terms. “If everybody has access to preventive care the state saves money on emergency room visits.” “Preschool programs are a big factor in keeping kids off the street and out of jail—which ends up saving the country a bucketload of money.” “The death penalty costs way more than Life Without the Possibility of Parole.” We have monetized our morals.
It is not that any of these arguments are wrong per se. It is that the economic bottom line should not be the trump card in any debate over values and issues of justice. The issue should be: what is right and what is just.
This is not a new idea.
There is a law in the third century text the Mishnah (Baba Bathra 1:5) which obligates all residents of a city to pay a levy towards the building of a wall around the city. The question is asked in the discussion of this Mishnah in the sixth century Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra 7b): “How is this levy assessed?” Three different possibilities are offered: 1. Per capita. Each person is obligated to pay exactly the same amount. The bill is meted out evenly amongst the whole city. The claim here is that the obligations of the city should be distributed evenly amongst the residents of the city regardless of abiblity to pay. 2. According to the amount of money that each person has. In this argument, a richer person has more benefit from the wall than a poorer person since he has more to protect—therefore the wealthier person is assessed at a higher level. 3. According to the proximity of a given house to the wall. The closer one is to the wall, the more protection one needs and therefore assumedly one gets. Hence the closer one is to the wall, the more one pays. The Talmud, as is it’s way, does not provide us with a decision (or, more accurately, provides us with two decisions: either the second, based on the amount of money a person has, or the third based on proximity to the wall).
In the twelfth century in northern France, in the city of Dampierre, Rabbenu Tam, one of the greatest minds of the middle ages, questioned the justice of this arrangement. It would be okay if poor people who lived in closer proximity to the wall paid more than poor people who lived farther away from the wall. It would also be okay if rich people close to the wall paid more than rich people far from the wall. It would not be okay, Rabbenu Tam said, if a poor person would pay more than a rich person because the poor person lived in closer proximity to the wall.
Rabbenu Tam was not questioning the logic of the closer-farther algorithm. He was questioning the extent of its explanatory power. He was saying, in essence, that it cannot be that a poor person would have to contribute more to the city than a wealthy person. This type of regressive tax was unjust. While a rich person could afford to pay for the tax and also to buy food and obtain shelter and other necessities, it is not clear that the same is true for the poor person.
The underlying sentiment of this decision is that choices in the public realm, decisions of law and policy have to be based on a foundation of doing the right and the just. A society, to consider itself righteous, has to ground its decisions about allocations—and about sentencing, and about business practices, and about education and a myriad of other things—in the principles of: “And you shall do that which is right and good” (Deuteronomy 6:18), “So you may walk in the way of goodness, and keep to the paths of righteousness” (Proverbs 2:20), “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due” (Proverbs 3:27). These are all principles which the rabbinic tradition applies in the course of discussions on economic justice issues. We would be well served in our discussions to follow in their paths.
If you read a budget closely and do not see that it follows in the ways of goodness and the paths of righteousness, but rather balances the budget without care for the suffering of the poor and marginal, the excuse of political accounting will not cover the shame of our decisions.
My new book Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism is available for purchase here.
The introduction to the book can be downloaded as a free pdf here.