Monday, June 08, 2015

Legislating our way out of the world of Sodom

"There are four types of people. One who says, 'What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours' is of average character, though some say, this is the character of Sodom. [One who says] 'What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine' is unlearned (lit., [of] the people of the land). [One who says] 'What's mine is yours and what's yours is yours' is pious. [One who says] 'What's yours is mine and what's mine is mine' is wicked." - Pirkeu Avos Chapter 5, Mishna 13

Over the last few days we have been discussing wealthy people and their indulgences. Some say: let them do as they please. Its their money. They inherited it, or earned it or gained it via exploitation and robbery - whatever. The point is irrespective of how it got there, the money is now in their hands and none of us have any right to tell them what to do with it.

Others disagree. Others say that power and responsibility go together and that the rich have an obligation to use their money to alleviate the suffering of the less fortunate (especially if they caused that misfortune - directly or indirectly while the wealth was being accumulated)  To be sure, the mechanics are messy - how do we define luxuries? What is poverty? How can we be sure the people who need the help will actually get it? - but the principle is sound: If a child is drowning I must sacrifice my suit to save her. The things we don't need - luxuries like the suit in my example - should be traded to mitigate preventable evils. 

I think I'm on firm footing when I insist that the Sages* agreed with the second school of thought. In Pirkei Avos they teach that a world where everyone just does as they please regardless of how it effects the people around them is the world of Sodom. As I've said elsewhere, "It 's my money... I can do what I want... screw you isn't a Jewish ideal.

*Of course, the Sages were not a monolith who agreed  about everything and spoke in one voice. Wherever I refer to the Sages in this post, please understand me to mean "particular Sages at a p[
particular time"

When I approach questions like this, I find myself drawn to the utilitarian solution: The morally good action is one that helps the greatest number of people. But at the same time, I'm not some Robin Hood advocating that we rob from the rich and give to the poor. I agree that people have a right to be selfish boors if they wish to be selfish boors. I respect property rights and I'm skeptical of any bureaucracy's ability to solve anything.  I don't want to live in a society (take note meshichists) where unelected officials have the power to curtail my freedom and my happiness for the sake of their idea of "good".

Which is why I'm in such a quandary. 

To summaries my conflicting thoughts

1 -  We should sacrifice our luxuries and use the money we save to mitigate preventable evils. Some one who does not agree is exhibiting what the Sages called the character of Sodom.

2 - When making moral choices we should choose the course of actions that will bring the most people the most happiness. Those are our moral obligations, and though these obligations aren't written in the sky they can be determined rationally (ie we can often figure out which acts will make the most people happy) 

3 - While these principles are sound, the logistics are vexing. How do we define any of the important terms? What is rich? What is poor? What is a luxury? And - crucially - if we deny wealthy people their luxuries will the economy fail, creating more despair than we've healed?

4 - And what about freedom and property rights? If we let people do as they please with their assets, without considering the opportunity costs and negative consequences of that freedom we've entered the world of Sodom. But is it possible to legislate ourselves out of that world? I don't think so....

...and this is where I reach an impasse.

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