Statues of Lady Justice hold up scales to weigh fairly testimony from competing parties. Since the 15th century, Justice often wears a blindfold symbolizing impartiality. Justice does not favor the rich and powerful. But often overlooked is another aspect of justice espoused more than 2,500 years ago. Some well-meaning people may find it disturbing.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (rules), offers a commandment that always strikes me as exceptional. “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute” (Exodus 23:2–3). Leviticus 19:15 and Deuteronomy 1:17 present the same view.

What were the writers of Torah thinking? Exodus 23:2–3 is preceded by a number of laws protecting the poor from avarice, sexual debasement, slavery and physical harm. It’s easy to preach honesty and integrity when your belly is full. Why not cut the poor some slack in the courtroom?

The Talmud (Chullin 134a) finds a balancing point between empathy and impartiality. It proposes that judges give the poor the benefit of the doubt not by rendering false verdicts but by helping the poor out of their own pockets.

I propose that tilting the scales in favor of the poor harms the nation. It assumes that the wealthy are undeserving at best, criminal at worst. A class-oriented dogma dismisses intelligence, ambition, skill, risk, hard work, the willingness to forego short-term pleasure and, not to be discounted, just plain luck. The mantra becomes “pull down” instead of “lift up.”

Don’t get me wrong. Unlike Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, I wouldn’t spend my life pursing the escaped prisoner Jean Valjean because, hungry and penniless, he stole a few loaves of bread. An objective judicial process can acknowledge a person’s poverty, find guilt where it exists and still arrive at lenient sentencing. But when we plead that the poor are innocent solely because they are poor, when we yield to a cult of victimization that excuses criminal acts, we mock justice and those who adhere to the law. We also help maintain the poor in their unfortunate place by expecting so little of them.

The matter is complex to be sure. America continues struggling to find a balance between the rights of the rich and the needs of the poor. What can government do? What should it not do? A while back, Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor, proposed that the highest federal tax rate be raised to 70 percent. That revenue would help the poor. Reich’s suggestion fell short of the top tax bracket during the Eisenhower years—92 percent on income of over $400,000 ($3.44 million today). I’d still describe it as punitive. We’d do better to eliminate tax code loopholes that offer the wealthy unfair advantages. What are the odds Congress will act?

I’m no archconservative. I just call them as I see them. And as I see it, our society fails the poor in many ways—to our shame. But we ill serve the nation when we excuse people from their responsibilities before the law. Doing so makes all of us poorer.

My new novel FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS is now available at Amazon (e-book and print). I’ll have soft cover copies to sell—and sign—in two weeks.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.


  1. Carolyn Perlstein on February 13, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    The tax issue has long been controversial. I like the idea of taking an percentage of income from upper middle and higher income earners and definitely doing away with loopholes for the rich. There is no good reason for anyone in this prosperous country to be hungry or in ill health. Shame on us all if can’t find a way to tackle this problem.

  2. Tracy on February 13, 2015 at 11:54 pm

    I don’t think any rational person would argue that the poor should get lighter sentences simply because they’re poor. However, there is the idea of variable sentencing, which can take into account socioeconomic factors as well as past conduct and severity of the crime. As for the tax code, the vast majority of “loopholes” do NOT exist to “favor” the rich per se. Most “loopholes” actually favor the less wealthy. Witness the AMT, the 2% threshold for many deductions, the Obamacare tax, etc. etc. etc. Suffice it to say American companies remain the highest taxed entities in the world.

    • David on February 14, 2015 at 12:32 am

      As a libertarian, your point reflects one view. I understand it. But there are people who consider themselves quite rational and believe that the poor should be treated differently. Usually found on the far left, they see victimization as necessitating different standards. As to the tax code, I don’t have to tell you how complex it is. Is mortgage deduction a loophole? To renters, perhaps. Not to millions of homeowners. But people with wealth, because of the complexity of their assets, enjoy write-offs not necessarily available to the vast majority of Americans. And corporations along with whole industries have persuaded Congress—persuasion equaling campaign funding—to enact favorable tax legislation of which most Americans have no knowledge. But that’s another story.

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