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Robert Reich’s Civil Savior

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Best known as President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich is currently a professor of public policy at the University of California (Berkeley). Last week, he wrote a blog post that attempted to defend the government’s giving of unemployment benefits to those who are currently out of work. He opposed Harvard professor Robert Barro’s belief that “long-term unemployment is the consequence rather than the cause of today’s extended unemployment insurance benefits.” Reich disagrees with Barro for a number of reasons yet he never fully articulates any of them. With a grandiose title like “Why a civil society extends unemployment benefits,” I was hoping for a far more comprehensive essay than the one-page diatribe I actually received. Reich admits that Barro is correct “in theory,” but claims that Barro isn’t operating in the “real world.” He writes: “Anyone who bothered to step into the real world would see the absurdity of Barro’s position.” I trust that readers will forgive me for not falling into Reich’s “real world” trap and taking a closer look at just what he is proposing.

While it is not my intention to discuss Reich’s entire piece, I think his last paragraph accurately summarizes the point he is trying to make:

A record number of Americans is [sic] unemployed for a record length of time. This is a national tragedy. It is to the nation’s credit that many are receiving unemployment benefits. This is good not only for them and their families but also for the economy as a whole, because it allows them to spend and thereby keep others in jobs. That a noted professor [Barro] would argue against this is obscene.

While I am not overly familiar with Robert Barro, I was able to find his Wall Street Journal article that had Reich in a tizzy. I was surprised to learn (OK, maybe not that surprised) that Barro nowhere states that he is against unemployment benefits in their entirety. In fact, Barro isn’t against unemployment compensation per se, his real issue is with the Obama administration’s extending of them from 26 to 99 weeks. Reich never bothers making this important piece of information known to his readers. He is content to portray Barro as a cold-hearted meanie who just doesn’t care if people have lost their jobs. He certainly never takes the following statement into account, which could well serve as the summary of Barro’s article: “The unemployment-insurance program involves a balance between compassion—providing for persons temporarily without work—and efficiency.”

Based on Reich’s article alone, one would be surprised to learn that Barro even knows the word “compassion.” Reich portrays Barro as one who is coldly logical in his assessment of economic issues and not as someone capable of distinguishing a human side to the money issues that plague America. What’s more, Reich doesn’t even bother interacting with Barro’s statistical data, which make up a large part of his argument. But this is exactly the point of Reich’s short article; he has no intention of making a logical argument, he is aiming at pure emotion.

Barro gets to the point—and obviously under Reich’s skin—when he states that “the current administration has been too focused on expanding government, redistributing more from rich to poor, and stimulating aggregate demand.” This is the primary antithesis between the two professors: Barro wants to contract government economic intervention, while Reich wants to expand it. Robert Reich can’t conceive of a federal government that doesn’t own and control everything—including  its citizens weekly paychecks. When Barro makes the point that more government control isn’t the answer, Reich’s only response is that Barro is no longer in the “real world.” If Reich truly believes that Barro is not in the real world for suggesting that we limit government unemployment benefits to 26 weeks, he would probably think I’m from another planet for suggesting that we reduce it even further—to zero weeks.

While Reich can’t conceive of a world where the government doesn’t own everything, I can’t conceive of a world where God doesn’t own everything; a world where He has specifically put His people—His church—in charge of benevolence and the welfare of others, financially and materially. My issue is not so much with Robert Reich’s liberal economic policies, as it is with his deceptive article title (“Why a civil society extends unemployment benefits”)—a topic he leaves completely unanswered. The closest he comes to answering it is when he waxes philosophical about lifeguards and firefighters:

In theory, Barro is correct. If people who lose their jobs receive generous unemployment benefits they might stay unemployed longer than if they got nothing. But that’s hardly a reason to jettison unemployment benefits or turn our backs on millions of Americans who through no fault of their own remain jobless in the worst economy since the Great Depression. Yet moral hazard lurks in every conservative brain. It’s also true that if we got rid of lifeguards and let more swimmers drown, fewer people would venture into the water. And if we got rid of fire departments and more houses burnt to the ground, fewer people would use stoves. A civil society is not based on the principle of tough love.

Huh? Does Reich seriously believe that being employed in a job is a danger in a civil society? One that is equivalent to drowning or a house fire? Reich seems to think that people only go swimming or use the stove in their house because they know that help will be available when these activities go horribly wrong. Reich fails to see employment as a necessity in a civil society, rather he views it as a risk that is only worth taking because the government has promised unemployment compensation. Notice that in these two scenarios, the government is equivalent to the lifeguard and the fire department. But Reich overlooks the obvious fact that lifeguards and firefighters get paid for the services they provide; they aren’t working primarily for the betterment of the civil society, but because the civil society finds value in what they have to offer. Would people stop swimming and using their stoves if all lifeguards and firefighters went on strike? Some might, but this is irrelevant to the point Reich is attempting to make. While swimming and using stoves aren’t essential to the functioning of a “civil society,” having a job is. Reich puts the cart in front of the horse by declaring that people will be less likely to look for work if they know unemployment benefits won’t be available, but fails to recognize the more obvious point that without workers, unemployment benefits will be non-existent. Like most fiscal liberals, Reich views the government as the host, rather than as the parasite. Although he claims to have the upper moral hand over Barro’s “principle of tough love,” Reich is deluding himself:

When the state assumes social functions [like compensating its out-of-work citizens], its purpose is statist; the state is more concerned with its survival than with the survival of some people, or a class of people. The statist assumption of social functions remove responsibility from the people and promotes social isolation. The statist talks largely about loving mankind but acts in actual contempt of man. He accuses the orthodox Christian of holding to a low view of man, because the Christian believes man is a sinner, but Christians hold that man is a responsible sinner, not a conditioned reflex. It is the Christian who requires man to be responsible, whereas the statist makes the state responsible. [1]

When the federal or state government is viewed as the provider for a society, the federal or state government becomes the sovereign for that society. American Christians have helped to lead this charge in recent years by accepting the state’s usurped authority of a church function. The civil government has no business getting involved in benevolence for its citizens; this is first and foremost a function of the church.

We are not our own; we belong to God and all our possessions and wealth are a trust from Him [and not from the state]. This trust means [that we have] a responsibility to care for our own, our families. We have a responsibility under God to care for our parents, and for our children. The family is the world’s greatest welfare agency, and the most successful. What the federal government has done in welfare is small and trifling compared to what the families of America do daily, caring for their own, relieving family distress, providing medical care and education for one another, and so on. No civil government could begin to finance what the families underwrite daily. The family’s welfare program, for all its failures from time to time, is proportionately the world’s most successful operation by an incomparable margin. [2]

And what the family is on the small scale, the church is on a larger scale. The church—as a family of families—is also expected to care and provide for the displaced and misplaced in a civil society. When a man loses his job, the first place he should go, after meeting with his own family, is to his local church. The fact that most citizens in a community don’t attend a local church is a big part of the problem, and the breakdown of the nuclear family is a major cause of the breakdown of the local church. Reich confidently tells his readers that “tough love” isn’t what a civil society is based on, but he never tells us what it is based on—mainly because he doesn’t know. His omnipotent view of government can only take him so far. But as Christians we must remember that

We have an obligation under God to bring all things into captivity to Christ, and under His dominion, to establish Christian order. Too many Christians are engaged in fighting a local, small battle, if they are fighting at all. But we are in the midst of total war and must be engaged with total dedication and a total plan. Without this perspective, we waste much of our time, activity, and money… Are you going to wait for the state to lower its taxes? The state will never lower its taxes, nor will the people permit it to, as long as the necessary social functions are left in the hands of the state. We have higher taxes because most people demand them, and they demand the services the taxes provide. People only oppose higher taxes for themselves; they favor “soaking” the rich, soaking the unions, the railroads, the oil companies, the telephone company, anyone and everyone except themselves. The problem most legislators face is the unrelenting pressure for higher taxes from people who are demanding new services for themselves at public expense, and this always means taxes. We cannot wait for taxes to be lowered. We must begin now, not merely to tithe but to begin Christian reconstruction with our tithe, to re-establish the necessary social functions as Christian action. [3]

Just as the state cannot operate without taxes,, neither can the church do its job when only a small portion of its people are paying God’s tax. Do you desire to see change in your community, town, state, and country? Then begin to pressure your church leaders to stop sending its people to the civil government for financial and material help. Robert Reich is the patron saint of the state system; he views civil government as the sovereign that makes it possible for you to venture out into the big bad world and get a job. If this doesn’t sit right with you—and as a Christian it most certainly should not—then may I ask what you are going to do about it?

  1. Powell and Rushdoony, Tithing and Dominion (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1979), 8.[]
  2. Powell and Rushdoony, 9.[]
  3. Powell and Rushdoony, 10.[]

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