Friday, September 30, 2005

The Obsolescing Right

Thursday, September 29, 2005, the Cato Institute’s “Daily Dispatch” ran this item concerning the debate over President Bush’s choice of John Roberts, Jr., as the seventeenth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court:
In “The Key Issue for the Court Isn't Abortion,” Edward H. Crane, founder and president of the Cato Institute, writes: "[A]bortion is a serious issue. . . . But the fact that the abortion debate so controls the debate over judicial philosophy is unfortunate. There are more important issues out there, such as federalism and private property rights, the cornerstones of our liberty."

The Cato Institute is a libertarian or “market-liberal” organization, stressing Constitutional freedoms along with a laissez-faire economic philosophy. As such, it tends to uphold individual rights as understood by the more conservative, constructionist jurists, though not exclusively (for instance, its support of medical marijuana runs counter to many conservatives’ positions).

It is in this light that we should see Crane’s comments regarding the “right” to abortion versus private property rights. That a woman should be free to kill her fetus was never even remotely contemplated by those who attended the Constitutional Convention, while property rights were front and center, since many of the representatives were wealthy landowners. They were there to embed basic rights and protections regarding property ownership in the very bedrock of American government. They understood that private ownership of property, particularly of land and of businesses, was a bulwark against tyranny and autocracy.

However, over two hundred years later, private property rights in the U.S. are slowly being abridged and are creeping toward obsolescence. Perhaps the greatest blow to this essential freedom occurred just a few months ago, as Crane notes, in “Kelo v. City of New London, where in a 5-to-4 vote the Supremes ruled it was fine for a local government to use the frightening power of eminent domain, not for public use as stated plainly in the Fifth Amendment, but for private gain that would generate added tax revenues for the city.” In response to the groundswell of opposition to this foolish decision, perhaps Congress, in concert with the states, will soon act to reverse Kelo.

Beyond this singular decision, property rights have been increasingly eroded as long as socialism has expanded in American government and culture. On its face, socialism—the, to some, outwardly beautiful, natural child of communism—emphasizes the larger group, in this case, the state, at the expense of the individual. It engulfs a person under wave after wave of restrictive laws and social programs that make him both increasingly subject to and dependent on the state, since his wages are confiscated through heavy taxation and government services are proffered in return.

As the socialist state approaches outright communism, it further curbs private ownership and simultaneously nationalizes both land and critical business sectors (utilities, communications, transportation, etc.). Though the U.S. has not reached this point—and fortunately the American psyche is highly sensitive to restrictions on private ownership—the process is underway, as growing federal holdings, extensive environmental building restrictions, and numerous centrally planned “growth” schemes indicate.

While some try to see a biblical basis for socialism in the experience of the early church (for instance, Acts 2:44), the overwhelming perspective of the Bible upholds private property rights. As early as Abraham (Genesis 23:17-18), God’s people are shown buying and selling all manner of property. Moreover, the laws God gave to Israel concerning property assume individual ownership—indeed, one could say that the tenth commandment (Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house,” etc.) makes property ownership a sacred right. Each person is to be satisfied with what God has blessed him and not crave what his neighbor owns.

Bits of biblical property law appear throughout the Old Testament, as in Deuteronomy 19:14, “You shall not remove your neighbor's landmark, which the men of old have set, in your inheritance which you will inherit in the land. . . .” Simply put, each individual or family owned specific plots of land whose boundaries were not to be violated. God later promises terrible retribution on Judah for doing just this: “The princes of Judah are like those who remove a landmark; I will pour out My wrath on them like water” (Hosea 5:10).

A main feature of the Jubilee was the repossession of land by its original owner, even if he had been forced to sell it due to debt in the intervening years (Leviticus 25:13-17). God set down rather strict rules regarding the sale and purchase of family lands so that Israelite society would have its base in individually owned properties that remained within families through inheritance. For example, when Ahab pressures Naboth to give him his vineyard, the Jezreelite responds, “The LORD forbid that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you!” (I Kings 21:3). After Naboth is dead through Jezebel’s machinations, and Ahab has taken possession of the vineyard, God harshly condemns their blatant abuse of authority, cursing them to ignominious deaths (verses 17-24).

In the New Testament account of Ananias and Sapphira’s sin, Peter voices the basic, biblical principle of private property ownership: “While it [their land] remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it [the profit] not in your own control?” (Acts 5:4). Even while the brethren “had all things in common” (Acts 4:32), private property rights were not set aside. The entire New Testament operates under this view, to the point that the Mark of the Beast involves abolishing true Christians’ right to buy and sell (Revelation 13:17).

God believes in ownership: “For the world is Mine, and all its fullness” (Psalm 50:12). He allows us to own things under Him to teach us wonderful lessons pertaining to stewardship and authority so that we can learn to be more like Him and eventually exercise great responsibility in His Kingdom (see the parable of the minas in Luke 19:11-27). Sadly, the ever-weakening right to property in this nation is another state of affairs that exposes just how far America has drifted from God and biblical principles.

Friday, September 2, 2005

The Thin, Frail Line

In the huge water bowl that is the city of New Orleans now, the looting began not long after the worst of Hurricane Katrina had passed. Some of those who had stayed behind to weather the storm ventured out into the still wet and windy streets and began plundering grocery, electronics, clothing stores—anywhere unguarded items sat "free" for the taking. Authorities were overwhelmed by rescue operations and damage assessments to pay much attention to the millions of dollars of merchandise being pilfered in plain sight.

On Wednesday, TV viewers across the nation woke up to the news that someone had taken a potshot at one of the rescue helicopters near the Superdome, and that several pilots refused to land after they saw gun-toting individuals in the crowd below them. That same day, a sniper interrupted a patient evacuation at Charity Hospital with several shots, and someone opened fire at the rear of the hospital not long thereafter. The same hospital had earlier been forced to move its patients to higher floors to escape looters down below. New Orleans police informed CNN that groups of armed men roamed the city at night, and that officers were removing ammunition from gunshops to keep it off the streets. Only 2,800 National Guardsmen were available to restore order in the city on Wednesday, though as many as 24,000 were expected by next week.

The situations at both the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center became tense and potentially explosive as the days wore on. Authorities promised food, water, medical assistance, and basic hygiene supplies, but there was little to go around. They pledged buses to take the refugees to other shelters, but the slow process and frequent disruptions ratcheted frustration and anger to the breaking point. Dead bodies, crying infants, sickness, and human feces added nothing helpful to the growing discontent.

Consider these conditions in contrast to a mere week before. In one day, a thriving city of a half-million people endured nearly complete devastation. Its infrastructure was destroyed to the point that even basic services—electricity, water, sewer, transportation, communication—functioned at a bare minimum, if at all. Relief of any sort had to be trucked in from hundreds of miles away, as the 75-mile swath of the hurricane’s destruction stretched far to the north. Yet, Katrina's almost unfathomable power had cut or clogged many nearby land and watery arteries, making movement of goods and services almost impossible. As London's Telegraph so succinctly phrased it, New Orleans swiftly descended into a "pre-industrial" condition.

Almost as quickly, the thin, frail line between civilization and anarchy began to crumble. The suddenly primitive conditions brought out many individuals’ basest natures. The book of Judges describes a similar situation in Israel before a monarchy brought order to the nation: “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25; 17:6). Any thoughts of “all for one, and one for all” were quickly submerged under loud and insistent cries of “each man for himself.”

How far is any one of us from acting out of pure selfishness? In reality, that is all that lawless behavior is; it is base human nature desperately trying to preserve itself and get as much for itself as possible without concern for anyone else. It falls at the far end of the spectrum from God’s way of life, the way of give and loving concern for one’s neighbor (Matthew 22:39; I John 3:16-19). This is why the apostle John defines sin as lawlessness (I John 3:4); it is failure to consider and conform one’s actions against God’s standard of behavior. Paul informs us that “the carnal mind [human nature] is enmity against [hostile to] God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7). Anarchy, as we have seen in New Orleans, occurs when the majority of human conduct devolves to each person deciding for himself what is best, despite any recognized standard—and the Devil take the hindmost!

Now is a good time to consider how a disaster like Hurricane Katrina would change our behavior. Would we continue to abide by the laws of the land—and the laws of God—or would we become a law unto ourselves? Would we rise to the occasion or sink into the chaos of disorder? Would we lend a hand to others suffering with us, or would we be like Ishmael, “his hand . . . against every man” (Genesis 16:12)? Would we cooperate or compete?

Each of us would like to think of himself as a good person, one who would always do the right and honorable thing. But perhaps the looters and shooters in New Orleans thought of themselves in the same way just a few days ago, and look how they are behaving now! Severe trials can pressure a person into doing things he never imagined doing before they hit, and this is why godly behavior is a matter of character. One’s true character surfaces in tough times, and to be effective, it must be developed before the calamity strikes.

The crisis at the close of this age “is nearer than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). What kind of character will we have to work with when it arrives? Will we endure on the strength of faith, hope, and love, or will we buckle under the onslaught of selfish human nature and let out the ravenous, depraved beast of lawlessness? Now is the time to thicken the veneer that separates us from the depths of human carnality, and we do that by strengthening our relationship with God (James 4:7-10).