John Locke and the Foodstamp Program

by Tom Wolpert on November 19, 2013

My mother used to say that when all else failed, ‘read the instructions.’  In the current political confusion, it helps to go back to primary sources.  John Locke is a primary source for American political thought, a British philosopher of the 17th century whose political writings were a major influence with the American revolutionaries.  Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration are a foundation for the political agitation which led to the American Revolution.  Much of what Locke argued for is now accepted as self-evidently true –  today, the premise that lawful government relies on the consent of the governed needs no explanation or defense.  Locke thoroughly demolished arguments for absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings; when we talk about monarchy now, it is generally for the same reasons we read the celebrity magazines in the supermarket checkout line.  The political and military acts of many people led to that result, but the theory under which they operated owed much to Locke.

Recently I was in church and guest pastor preached a sermon that was quite out of character in our congregation; he referenced politics in his sermon, and told us that Isaiah would have been in favor of the present day food stamp program.  Of course, many responses could be made to that kind of sermon: sarcastic retorts (thank you for providing a sample ballot prepared by Isaiah), indignant ones (how about all the other moral issues upon which the Bible speaks), grateful ones (I was getting bored with all the inoffensive sermons), etc.  In ten years or more of attending this particular church, you can count on the fingers of one hand any mention or hint of any pastor’s political leanings.  Mixing religion and politics is always perfectly awful when our adversaries do it, and completely justified when we anoint our own opinions with the holy oil of scripture.   Nevertheless, I go to church for a reason, and tend to give considerable deference to what any pastor says from a pulpit unless I have some well-thought out reason to disagree.

So that gave me some pause – being naturally inclined to conservative views, and the pastor preaching in a decidedly different direction, it made me think.  (Years ago there was a basketball player for the Philadelphia 76ers whose name was Darryl Dawkins, and whose nickname was ‘Thunder’ – given the vagaries of team ownership, management and coaching in the NBA, from time to time Dawkins was quoted as saying “It makes Thunder wonder.”)  This sermon made Thunder wonder  – should I relax my normal defensive posture toward politics from the pulpit?

WWJLT – What Would John Locke Think?

As it happened, I was reading John Locke.  In the midst of shredding his adversary’s position on whether or not men were naturally free, and whether or not the monarchs of 17th century Europe had their powers legitimized by descent from Adam, the first king (that really was the argument of Robert Filmer), Locke suddenly breaks off his argument to take up a wholly different thought, which I quote:

But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please:  God the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; to that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it: and therefore no man could ever have a just power of the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty.  As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much  out of another’s plenty as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise: and a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal, by withholding that relief God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat offer him death or slavery.

 Hard to miss the point of that – with “a dagger at his throat offer him death or slavery.”  Strong language from a philosopher.  It’s worth parsing Locke’s writing on this point, as a kind of starting point for discussions about where we ought to be going as a society, as a collection of people politically joined by our respective constitutions – and I mean both federal and state.  (More on the Pennsylvania Constitution in a later post).  Locke holds that no one can starve another at will, because the needy brother has a right.  Charity is not simply a sentiment – it asserts a legal right, and can press a claim for a legal title, but only to the “surplusage” or “plenty” of another, based on “pressing wants.”  Those are slippery terms, but it does defeat a certain kind of libertarian theorizing.  Locke certainly believes in the right to private property – each man has legal title to the product of his honest labor (compare Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address – whether “any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces”).  These are not redistributive concepts.  Men even have good title to the fair acquisitions their ancestors descended to them.  Locke sees good title in the right of a child to his father’s property, and spends considerable time in explaining and discussing the right of a child to inherit – not because he is concerned by death taxes, so much as he is asserting the right of individual private property against a feudal notion that all properties and rights come first to a monarch, and then only through the monarch to individual citizens.  Locke has no use for the view that a monarch (or state, or government) owns everything and parcels it out as it or he sees fit. Private property is an answer to tyranny.  But having said so, Locke will not have the rights of private property extend to the point of a ‘dagger at the throat’ of another.  It’s not simply wrong – good title does not go so far, and a civil society has the moral right to assert the claim deriving from the needy brother’s pressing wants by levying upon the surplusage.  All pretty vague in its own way, and one man’s opinion of surplusage may overlap another man’s opinion about the product of honest labor, in contradictory ways – but the theory is clear at least, if the practice is not.  Nor will anyone continue to produce surplusage if it keeps being subjected to a sheriff’s levy, but that is a different type of problem.

In evaluating my visiting pastor’s sermon, one must concede that his exegesis of Isaiah and application to a contemporary political issue is accompanied by many admonitions of scripture, and it would be absurd (at least to me) to suggest that one’s religious beliefs should not influence his civil political opinions.  See Isaiah (what do you mean by grinding the faces of the poor? 3:15), Job (If I have kept my bread to  myself, not sharing it with the fatherless – 31:17) or Jesus (There was a rich man clothed in fine purple, and a beggar named Lazarus . . . Luke 16:19-31.)  Picking out scripture verses to support a predetermined political opinion is easy work, but when it comes to caring for the poor, the Bible is extraordinarily rich in such admonitions.  Although there are many sins that I am stuck with and will no doubt answer for on the appropriate day, to the extent I can reduce their number, it would be wise to do so.  If there is any type of discussion with God of my shortcomings in a world beyond this one, I think it would go better if a few poor or otherwise disadvantaged people were to stand up and put in a good word for me.  Some people find all that preposterous, but I do not.

So that leaves us with the Food Stamp program, with all its warts.   According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families.  According to Wikipedia, more than 15% of the U.S. population, over 47 million people, receive benefits annually.  Politically, funding for this is intertwined with the federal farm bill.  Benefits are being cut in a way that would amount to $36 a month less for a family of four.  Since the year 2000, costs for the plan have increased more than 358%.  In just the years between 2007 and 2012, SNAP grew 110%.  The current cost is about $80 billion a year.  Now comes the hard part, bringing the program under control.  What is a fair way to do that?  Citing Isaiah never quite tells you how to resolve that problem.  One area of controversy is whether able-bodied adults with no dependents should receive food stamps.  If we are to use John Locke as our guide, the test ought to be ‘extreme want,’ but I’m not sure that adds a great deal to the specifics that we need for answers.  The temporary benefit that was enacted in the 2009 economic stimulus boosted food stamp dollars, and that has recently expired.   The House of Representatives and the Senate, controlled by different parties, are miles apart on how much should be cut from the program.  The House wants to cut $40 billion, the Senate wants cuts of only a few billion dollars.  America’s national debt stands at about $17 trillion now.  Left unattended, interest on the national debt, growing at its current rate, will devour every other federal program.

Do any of these numbers assist us?  My visiting pastor’s sermon recited his personal experiences with a few participants in the SNAP program – would it be an answer to reply with statistics?  Of course, disregarding the numbers is how we got into our current dilemma, and I feel rather certain the our visiting pastor does not handle his own family’s checkbook or finances with a blithe disregard for ‘the numbers.’

Ordinary bargaining techniques often involve ‘splitting the baby,’ which has as a chief drawback that each side is rewarded for making the most extreme demands at the beginning of the negotiation, since splitting differences thereafter always benefits the side the starts the most outrageously first.  Of course, one could wish for Congress to work together responsibly to reach a rational compromise, but that has developed into something of a pipe dream, and angry assignments of the blame for that state of affairs are in no short supply.  The American people like to download the responsibility for this bitter and hyper-partisan state of affairs onto their Congressional representatives, which is as convenient as it is irresponsible.  We elect our representatives, and they are responding politically to the pressures they sense from their own electoral districts.  It’s our responsibility to direct them.  So, fully cognizant that the science of my method is no more justifiable than picking numbers from an Ouija board, and cheerfully acknowledging that I have arrived at my recommendation by the crudest sort of difference splitting, my recommendation is to cut $10 Billion from the SNAP program, but to do so over an extended period of time, like five to ten years, while also cutting about $5 billion from federal farm bill.  Moreover, in my political daydream, I will insist that funding for the SNAP program be disconnected from funding for the various farm price supports and the transfer payments controversies, which benefit affluent agribusiness most, which comprise the federal farm bill.

What would John Locke say to my proposed cuts?  What would Isaiah say?  It might be observed that by suggesting any cuts at all, I was contradicting the sense of my early thoughts in this post.  It might also be observed, that if the U.S. cannot balance its checkbook at some point, eventually no one gets anything.

[The quote from John Locke is found in Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, Yale University Press, Ed. by Shapiro, 2003, section 42.  The rest of the information and statistics were plucked from various internet sources, including Wikipedia entries].






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