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.
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