Stealing from the rich to give to the poor may be the misguided theme of the legendary tale of Robin Hood, but it is neither an exercise in justice nor righteous behavior.
The Bible enjoins favoring a person in a dispute, because he or she happens to be poor[i]. Maimonides[ii] explains[iii] some might seek to justify the imposition of liability on a wealthy individual, even if legally unwarranted. After all, people of means are commanded to give charity and why not employ legal artifice as a pristine method of causing charity to be dispensed to the person in need. However, the reasoning is flawed and it’s wrong to do so. While, it might be emotionally satisfying to see charity given in this more dignified fashion, as Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac of Orleans[iv], a 12th century French Tosafist, notes, being overly righteous at someone else’s expense[v] is nevertheless unjust. The institution of justice requires judgment be rendered fairly and impartially, neither favoring the rich or poor[vi].
It would appear that rendering justice and being righteous are mutually exclusive. Yet the Bible[vii] reports that King David was able both to execute justice and be charitable at the same time. How then was he able to accomplish this seemingly impossible feat? The Talmud[viii] offers a refreshing perspective on this apparent conundrum. It describes how King David would first objectively judge the matter and render a fair and impartial judgment. If he saw that he ruled a poor person liable, who was unable to satisfy the judgment, then he would personally pay the amount due out of his own pocket.
King’s David’s noble example of combining justice and righteousness[ix] in this manner is a paradigm for how an enlightened society can and should function. It is righteous to help those in need by personally performing charitable deeds; not by involuntarily burdening someone else. Moreover, no matter how well intentioned, righteousness should not be permitted to pervert justice and undermine its sanctity[x].
The Netziv[xi] extends this principle to warn against excusing a person’s wrongful actions because of his or her poor economic circumstances and, therefore, being overly lax in punishing the wrongdoer. Maimonides[xii] similarly notes, regarding the imposition of fines, the fact that the wrongdoer is poor and unable to pay the penalty is not a reason to excuse the crime. New York’s recent misguided effort at bail reform is just one recent example of the unintended and disastrous consequences than can ensue[xiii] from violating this precept. At the same time, it is also a perversion of justice to find an evil person and sinner[xiv] guilty of a particular crime that is unwarranted, reasoning it is likely the person committed other crimes that haven’t been charged. No matter the rationale, social or otherwise, it is unjust to dispense anything other than fair and impartial justice.
Social responsibility is another matter entirely. It is a foundational element in Jewish law and tradition. From an early age at home and in school, we were imbued with a consciousness that we could not be indifferent to the plight of others and were duty bound to help those in need[xv] . This ethic finds expression in so many aspects of our lives. It is hard to imagine a Jewish community that does not have a variety of charitable and benevolent organizations affording people the opportunity to volunteer and do good deeds. There are also many individuals who are personally engaged in helping those in need on a less formal basis. They do this work quietly and consciously avoid publicity.
The ethic of social responsibility is also an integral part of life here in the US. This is reflected in its many governmental social welfare programs and charitable organizations, which provide a safety net for those in need. Thus, our economic system is not pure capitalism. It might better be described as a free-market economy and social welfare system. While no welfare system is perfect and its effectiveness should be subject to regular review, its existence is indisputable and the desire to help those in need is unquestionably a part of the American psyche. It is, therefore, puzzling to hear that we have a barbarous system of hyper-capitalism and the only remedy is to replace it with socialism. The plain and simple answer is that, whatever the problem, socialism isn’t the cure.
Historically, the socialist system for governing the economic affairs of people has proved to be a total and abject failure. Moreover, the depravities it engendered are legion. Many millions in the Soviet Union died of hunger in the self-induced famine caused by Stalin’s program of forced collectivization[xvi]. Many tens of millions died of hunger in the self-induced famine caused Mao’s so called Great Leap Forward[xvii]. These tragedies of epic proportions were avoidable. They are the unfortunate but predictable results of central planning and socialism. The Venezuelan people are just the latest victims of this inherently dysfunctional system.
It is not just a matter of making a better central plan for the economy or properly executing it. No such man-made plan is inherently reliable for a number of cogent reasons. The economy and the interactions of humanity with it and each other are just too complex. No one has been able even to map the economy fully, let alone predict what will happen next. It would require an all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent being to prepare and execute such a plan. Socialism pretends to but can’t actually take the place of G-d. As the popular Yiddish expression goes, a person plans and G-d laughs. Indeed, would anyone really trust government bureaucrats, like the overlords at the VA, to meet this challenge? Most genuine experts recognize it’s just not possible.
It is also unrealistic to assume that somehow everyone will be transformed into selfless automatons and dutifully act in a manner that is incompatible with self-interest. Why would most work their hardest for the same reward as those who willfully determine not to do so? Inevitably, the lack of incentives leads to everyone doing less. The leaders and technocrats in charge of a socialist society are also not immune. They often just take more than others because they can. Human nature doesn’t change. As George Orwell cleverly illustrated in his book Animal Farm, some, inescapably end up being more equal than others.
Human nature is complicated. Each of us is a bundle of traits, experiences, desires, and skills. G-d also granted us free will and the ability to harness these qualities and sublimate them in support of some positive and gainful activity. This is a fundamental part of our mission on this world. The U.S. free-market system enables this to occur, by embracing our humanity, incentivizing positive behavior and reinforcing it with rewards.
There is nothing wrong with everyone freely striving to earn more and rewarding people for their creativity, ingenuity, or working harder or better. Why is sameness a worthy object? Indeed, one of the most majestic aspects of humanity is its diversity[xviii].
This is unlike the prevailing sentiment in many former communist countries like the former Soviet Union, where even as economic conditions under Gorbachev were improving, people were still unhappy. When asked why, the usual response was, notwithstanding life being better; it was still unsatisfactory because a neighbor was making more[xix]. This is a mindset that fuels failure, not success. It is characteristic of the worst instincts of humanity.
The Bible[xx] addresses this repulsive impulse in the Tenth Commandment. It enjoins us not to covet another’s spouse, house, property or anything else he or she possesses. The prohibition is not about desire in the abstract, such as wanting the same good things that another might possess. The sin is in wanting to take those very things away from someone else.
The socialist vision appeals to the base instinct of malevolent jealousy. Rather than enabling everyone to be raised up, by working harder and better and earning more, it just takes from those who have earned more, so everyone will ostensibly have equally less. Socialism also doesn’t trust people to make their own decisions in a free-market. It insists on control through some planning apparatus, which makes the decisions that really matter in people’s daily lives. Yet people, with the same human foibles, are put in charge of the planned economy, without the behavioral and other checks and balances implicit in the free-market system.
The term Democratic Socialism may sound noble; but it is anything but virtuous in practice. It’s just a paper-thin disguise for old-fashioned socialism. Instead of government ownership of the means of production, it substitutes the term social ownership. Instead of central planning, it uses the term decentralized planning. The language used is designed to obfuscate, rather than elucidate, but the result is the same; no private ownership of property and a planned economy. Bereft of property and under the intimate economic control of some planning apparatus, how is this anything other than slavery?
It is ironic to hear some politicians, who are millionaires and part of the so-called one percent, speak about the so-called evils of income inequality. Yet, the socialist system they urge be adopted does not permit or incentivize people to earn more. The contrived slogan about eliminating so-called income inequality is a misleading euphemism. Is not about empowering individual economic achievement, success and mobility, through equal access to economic opportunities. It is an artificial construct that requires no one make any more than others, because it is claimed that this is not socially just. It seeks to end income inequality by imposing a program of so-called ‘redistribution of income’. This benign sounding term means the wealth of some is forcibly taken and given to others, so that ostensibly no one has any more than anyone else.
Why then is it noble to say that the solution is for those who have more to be forcibly made to have less? What’s wrong with everyone having a lot relatively speaking and some having more than others? Is it really better for almost everyone to have less, which is what socialism assures in practice? Is self-imposed mutually assured suffering somehow more virtuous?
In stark contrast to the socialist dystopian vision, the free-market economy in the U.S. and throughout the world is an indisputable historical success. Never have so many lived so well[xxi]. We are the envy of much of the world because this material prosperity is even more pervasive in the U.S.[xxii].
It is reported that there were over 18.6 million[xxiii] millionaires, including 607 billionaires[xxiv], in the US in 2019. Many earned their wealth the old fashion way, by stint of personal effort and achievement and, of course, the blessings of G-d[xxv]. They have also given staggering amounts of charity and done much good[xxvi]. It is galling to hear some declare with pseudo-righteous indignation that they shouldn’t exist. I prefer the moral clarity of the Tenth Commandment; don’t covet what someone else has. Let’s live and let live and each have the freedom to achieve our own personal destiny.
It’s time to stop talking about fundamental and structural change as if it were some panacea. Shouting slogans or attending protests is no substitute for genuinely helping someone in need.
Let’s each focus on doing something positive such as seeing a person in need and personally giving them a helping hand. Consider, it may be one of the reasons we were put on this earth was to fulfill that very mission. Good hunting.
[i] Exodus 23:3 and see Rashi, Chizkuni, Ralbag, Beckor Shor, Haemek Davar and Shadal commentaries on the verse. See also Sifra, Kedoshim, Chapter 4:2.
[ii] Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Negative Commandment 277 and Sefer HaMitzvot, Negative Commandments 277. See also Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sanhedrin and the Penalities within their Jurisdiction 20:4.
[iii] Based on the Sifra, Kedoshim 4:2.
[iv] Bekhor Shor commentary on Exodus 23:3.
[v] See also Shadal commentary on Exodus 23:3, who notes that an individual may voluntarily and personally give charity; but forcibly taking it from someone else in this manner is wrong.
[vi] Leviticus 19:15 and Exodus 23:3.
[vii] II Samuel 8:15.
[viii] BT Sanhedrin 6b.
[ix] See also Shenei Luchot HaBrit (Shelah), Torah Shebichtav, Mishpatim, Torah Ohr 162.
[x] This requires that not only the results achieved but also the means used be just. See Deuteronomy 15:20 and HaKtav V’HaKabballah commentary thereon, as well as, BT Sanhedrin 32b.
[xi] Haemek Davar commentary on Exodus 23:3.
[xii] Mishne Torah, Laws of the Sanhedrin and the Penalties within their Jurisdiction 20:4.
[xiii] See, for example, DeBlasio admits NYC crime jump linked to bail reform, by Sam Raskin and Gabrielle Fonrouge, in the NY Post, dated 2/7/20.
[xiv] See Exodus 23:6 and Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Negative Mitzvot 278, as well as Sefer HaMitzvot Negative Commandments 278. See also Mechilta D’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 23:6.
[xv] See: Be Prepared to Save a Life; Don’t Shirk Responsibility, by the author, in the Times of Israel, dated 9/19/19.
[xvi] See The Man-Made Famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine, by Bohdan Krawchenko (Conflict Quarterly, Spring 1984), Kazakhstan: The Forgotten Famine, by Bruce Pannier, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, dated December 28, 2007 and How Stalin Hid Ukraine’s Famine From the World, by Anne Applebaum, in Atlantic Magazine, dated October 13, 2017.
[xvii] See China’s Great Famine; the true story, by Tania Branigan, in the Guardian, dated January 1, 2013; After 50 Years of Silence, China Slowly Confronts the ‘Great Leap Forward’, by Helen Gao, in The Atlantic, dated May 29, 2012; Remembering the Biggest Mass Murder in the History of the World, by Ilya Sonim, in the Washington Post, dated August, 3, 2016; and Mao’s Great Leap to Famine, by Frank Dikotter, in the New York Times, dated December 15, 2010.
[xviii] We all share a common genetic ancestry, as the progeny of Adam and Eve, and yet each of us is unique. As the Talmud (BT Berachot 58a) notes, no two faces, minds or personalities are exactly alike.
[xix] See ‘An American Family in Moscow’ by Jerrold and Leona Schecter (1975).
[xx] Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18.
[xxi] See ‘A global tipping point: Half the world is now middle class or wealthier’, by Homi Kharas and Kristofer Hamel, at Brookings, dated September 27, 2018.
[xxii] See ‘Where do you fit on the global income spectrum?’, by Leslie Shapiro and Heather Long, in the Washington Post, dated August 20, 2018.
[xxiii] Credit Suisse, Research Institute, Global wealth databook, October 2019, at page 147.
[xxiv] Forbes, Billionaires, The Richest People in the World, dated 3/5/19.
[xxv] See BT Kiddushin 82a.
[xxvi] See, for example, Forbes, America’s Top Fifty Givers, by Jennifer Wang, dated 11/20/19.