For three hours, the famous “standoff at the schoolhouse door” riveted the country’s attention. Alabama Governor George Wallace physically blocked the entrance to Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.* His intent was to prevent two students from registering for classes. Why?
It had nothing to do with the content of their character and everything to do with the color of their skin. The students were African-American.
The confrontation ended when Wallace backed down. Years later, he expressed regret for his actions and was embraced by many Alabama blacks. Repentance, forgiveness, fairness, and opportunity prevailed.
The Ethic of Reciprocity
On that tense June 11 in 1962, President Kennedy watched the scene on a black-and-white television in the White House. Relieved that violence was avoided, he made a snap decision to speak to the nation about civil rights that very evening. Here’s part of what he said:
The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him; if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place?
The president had invoked what philosophers call “the ethic of reciprocity,” a moral principle—an ideal, actually—so universal that you can find it manifested in virtually every culture, religion, and ethical tradition. In Christianity, it is known as the “Golden Rule.” It’s a concept that just about everybody everywhere will tell you they admire even when they don’t live up to it.
The Golden Rule as an Ideal
I didn’t mention it in my recent Prager University video, “Was Jesus a Socialist?” but Jesus himself spoke the Golden Rule, recorded in Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12 (“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets”). He expressed it another way in Mark 12-28-34 when asked what the greatest of all commandments were. Second only to loving God, it was vital, he said, to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Human beings are not God, so we’re far from perfect. We break commandments, as well as our own word. By our behavior, we sometimes make it very difficult for other mortals to love us. Among us are a great many who lie, cheat, steal, and even assault the innocent. No significant faith or tradition suggests we are to ignore these evils or deny ourselves the right of self-defense against them. So again, think of the Golden Rule as an ideal—a very lofty precept we should set our minds to and one that is only compromised or abrogated when another person initiates its violation.
Amazing, isn’t it, that some people think because Jesus favored helping the less fortunate, he would support compulsion to do it?
Wouldn’t you want to live in a perfect world where everybody practices the Golden Rule all of the time instead of just most of the time? What would such a world look like? It would, I believe, be a world of peace and productivity. You could go about your business without fear that your life or possessions would be taken from you because no one who might take them would want such a calamity to happen to them. No bullying, for any reason or purpose.
That puts a negative spin on the Rule (“don’t do such-and-such”), but there’s also a positive side to it. If another person is sick or “down and out” in some other way, and you’re in a position to help as a parent, relative, friend, or philanthropist, you would probably assist—in part because you’d want others to help you if you were in a similar situation and in part because you might be instinctively sympathetic, anyway.
Help Each Other Voluntarily
This is why the Samaritan who helped the man in need is regarded universally as “Good.” Jesus frequently urged people to help each other, but he never, ever—repeat: never, ever—suggested that this be done through third-party coercion. It was to be personal and voluntary, always. How can we otherwise know what’s really in your heart? The Good Samaritan wasn’t “Good” because he forced somebody else to help the man. In that famous parable, none of these things are present: politicians, force, taxes, bureaucracy, debt, or vote-buying demagoguery.
One Facebook friend, Ted Kucklick, put it this way in a comment on one of my posts: “Jesus told YOU to walk the extra mile. He NEVER told you to hire the Romans to force your neighbor to do it for you.”
Another Facebook friend, Jim Kress of Michigan, took the matter a step further:
Jesus’s imperatives to us are individual responsibilities, not collective ones. Using government force to steal from some of us and then distributing that stolen property to others does not satisfy those imperatives. As a matter of fact, that is offensive to Jesus because the so-called 'charity' resulting from theft is a sin, a clear violation of the Golden Rule and the Tenth Commandment.
I challenge anyone to find a passage in Scripture in which Jesus called upon any government—Roman, Jewish, or other—to tax some and give to others as a method of assisting the needy.
Amazing, isn’t it, that some people think because Jesus favored helping the less fortunate, he would support compulsion to do it? What a leap! He also favored eating, drinking, sleeping, washing, fasting, and praying—but he never remotely implied that those things required government programs and taxes to pay for it.
If Jesus was at all sympathetic to what we know today as the compulsory redistribution aspect of socialism, surely he would have somewhere said, “Thou shalt use the force of the State to take from Peter and give to Paul,” or “Demand that your magistrates and rulers relieve you of the responsibility to assist your fellows in need,” or “Eliminate the middleman and just take it yourself as long as you intend to do good with it.” He said no such thing, ever.
The Economics of the Golden Rule
Adam Smith, admired for his influential 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, deserves just as much admiration for his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It was in that 1759 book that he postulated a version of the Golden Rule as a foundation for the evolution of generally accepted moral standards. As we enter adulthood and slowly jettison the exclusive focus of our infancy on “self,” we begin to judge our personal behavior the way a third-party “impartial spectator” would, as elucidated by Smith scholar James Otteson in “Adam Smith: Moral Philosopher”:
We have all experienced the unpleasantness of being judged unfairly, that is, on the basis of biased or incomplete information (people who do not know our situation thinking poorly of us). This leads us to desire that others refrain from judging until they know the whole story; but because we all want this, our desire for mutual sympathy of sentiments subtly encourages us to adopt an outside perspective, as it were, in judging our own conduct.
That is, because we want others to be able to “enter into” our sentiments, we strive to moderate them to be what we think others will sympathize with; but we can only know what that is if we ask ourselves what the impartial observer would think. The voice of the impartial spectator becomes our second-nature guide of conduct. Indeed, Smith thinks it is what we call our “conscience.”
The great capitalist philosopher and economist Smith demonstrated, as Otteson puts it, that “a person’s (largely unconscious) adoption of general rules, development of a conscience, and employment of the impartial spectator procedure are motivated by a fundamental, innate desire—the desire for mutual sympathy.” That’s the Golden Rule in action.
Standards of conduct can be enforced by man-made law, but the law itself is not their origin. The most the law can do is recognize and uphold what men and women have come to generally accept through a spontaneous, organic process. As the French economist and statesman Frederic Bastiat wrote in The Law:
Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.
At the core of the moral universe is our innate desire for “mutual sympathy.” Christians, and many people of other faiths, as well, believe that such sympathy is implanted by God as an element of our nature, but a belief in God is not actually necessary to accept the notion itself. You can be of another faith, or of no faith, and recognize that humans progress to the extent they get along and work together for mutual benefit.
The Golden Rule and the Decalogue
Whenever you think it might have first happened, and whether you believe it was God-inspired or evolutionary happenstance, it was a great day in human history when individuals decided to treat others the way they themselves would want to be treated.
The first four of the Ten Commandments involve the individual’s relationship with God. The last six deal with the individual’s relationships to other individuals, and all six of those are, in fact, extensions of the Golden Rule.
We are to honor our parents. We hope that our children will honor theirs.
We are to refrain from murder. We want others to regard life with the same respect.
The very essence of a free marketplace is voluntary, mutually-beneficial exchange.
We are advised that adultery is wrong. We are grievously offended when someone else commits it with our spouse.
Commandments Eight through Ten warn against stealing, lying, and coveting. We don’t like it when others steal from us, lie to us, or regard what’s ours with an envious eye.
Is the Golden Rule relevant to matters of business? You bet it is!
Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore and the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership. When I asked him that very question, he replied:
Successful corporations, such as Southwest Airlines, Cisco, and L.L. Bean, have learned that making the Golden Rule the foundation of their corporate culture is a key to success. You can’t earn profits if you don’t treat your customers right by meeting their most pressing needs. And you can’t meet customers’ needs without the ability to empathically see the world through their eyes. Make the Golden Rule your way of life and sell great products, taught Leon Leonwood Bean, the founder of L.L. Bean, and your customers “will always come back for more.”
The very essence of a free marketplace is voluntary, mutually-beneficial exchange. Though some small fraction of all trades may involve mistaken judgments, outright deception, or buyer’s remorse for any number of reasons, most transactions are wins for everybody. Each trader believes that what he’s trading for is worth more to him than what he’s giving up. This is only true when trades are entered into freely. If a party is forced to trade, he almost certainly believes he’ll be worse off after the fact.
Compulsion is as incompatible with the Golden Rule as fraud. In the marketplace, we offer each other something of value. If another party says, “No, thank you,” we don’t pull out a gun and demand that he trade. If we did, we certainly wouldn’t be doing to him what we would like him to do to us.
Socialism Is a Stick, Not a Carrot
This is why socialism nullifies the Golden Rule. Socialists proclaim “solidarity with the people.” They say they only want to help others. The problem is how they seek to do it. If their plans were in the realm of friendly advice, helpful hints, and requests for voluntary participation, they wouldn’t be socialists. Capitalists invite and offer advice, hints, and participation all the time—with carrots, not sticks. There’s abundant truth in the popular internet meme that says, “Socialism—Ideas So Good They Have to Be Compulsory.” If socialists actually help some people (and that is itself debatable), they do so only by hurting others.
The Golden Rule is as golden as ever. It’s just that some people earnestly think they have something better in mind for their fellow citizens.
The Golden Rule demands that we respect each other’s differences, find common ground, and deal with each other voluntarily. It stresses a mutuality of benefit as measured personally and subjectively by each party to an interaction. By its reliance on force, socialism tells us, “You’re going to be drafted into this whether you like it or not because we think it’s good for you, or at least good for somebody.”
If you’re a socialist, you need to ask yourself why you want to handle so many issues and problems at gunpoint. Why must the cops (government force) be involved in everything? Where’s your faith in and respect for your fellow citizens? You’re so certain that forcing others to bend to your will is a good thing; would you mind if we turn the tables and do the same to you? If not, then I want to know why you get to do these things but we don’t. What makes you so special? As Bastiat bluntly stated it:
If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?
The Golden Rule is as golden as ever. It’s just that some people earnestly think they have something better in mind for their fellow citizens.
For further information, see:
“Was Jesus a Socialist?”—a Prager University video
“Rendering Unto Caesar: Was Jesus a Socialist?”—and the essay by Lawrence W. Reed
“Business and Ethics” by Edmund A. Opitz
“Jesus on Wealth Redistribution: What He Said and Didn’t Say” by Randy England
“What It Means Politically to Imitate Jesus” by David Gornoski
*Correction: The original version of this article stated Gov. Wallace physically blocked the entrance to Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. The university is located in Tuscaloosa, not Birmingham.