Acton Institute Powerblog

Who is My Brother’s Keeper?

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Back in February 2008, then candidate for president Barack Obama addressed a crowd at a General Motors Assembly Plant in Janesville, Wis. He said,

…I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper– that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue out individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. E pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

It is ironic that Obama preached a “we’re-in-this-together” economic philosophy yet three years later, Main Street is carrying Washington’s debt burden.

Debt negotiations are currently at a deadlock in Washington over taxes. President Obama doesn’t want to follow through with $4 trillion in spending cuts without a $1 trillion tax increase, while Senate Democrats are asking for a whopping $2 trillion in new taxes. Democrats also do not want to sacrifice entitlement programs. Top leaders worry they will not be able to reach a deal in time to avoid a government default. With the predicted default deadline of August 2 creeping around the corner and unemployment on the rise at 9.2 percent, citizens feel a sense of urgency about the debt crisis.

When Obama said “I am my brother’s keeper,” what did he really mean? If the government is to act as our brother’s keeper, this means it should be accepting responsibility for the welfare of all citizens. Raising taxes to cover up Washington’s nasty spending habits is certainly not accepting any responsibility.

If the government was really acting in the best interest of its citizens, it would stop raising taxes. According to the Tax Foundation, Americans will need to work from January 1 to April 12 before they have earned enough to pay off their taxes. Tax increases may seem like a quick way to reduce the deficit as opposed to spending cuts alone, but the bottom line is that Washington has a spending problem, not a revenue problem. A Goldman Sachs report found that tax increases usually fail to correct fiscal imbalances and are damaging to economic growth while spending cuts correct fiscal imbalances and boost growth. Milton Friedman explains in his essay titled Fallacy: Government Spending and Deficits Stimulate the Economy why government spending does not mean “stimulus”:

Getting the extra taxes, however, requires raising the rate of taxation. As a result, the taxpayer gets to keep less of each dollar earned or received as a return on investment, which reduces his or her incentive to work and to save. The resulting reduction in effort or in savings is a hidden cost of the extra spending. Far from being a stimulus to the economy, extra spending financed through higher taxes is a drag on the economy.

The $2 trillion tax increase Senate Democrats are pushing has the potential to suffocate economic growth and job creation, which would not be good news for 14 million unemployed Americans. Today, the Great Recession now has more idle workers than the Great Depression. An article in The Fiscal Times claims the employment level is nowhere near where it should be for a typical recovery:

In a typical recovery, we would have had several hundred thousand more hires per month than we are seeing now—this despite unprecedented fiscal and monetary stimulus (including the rescue of the automobile industry, whose collapse would likely have lost a million jobs).

If spending binges don’t work for a family, why would they work for a government? When a family spends more than they are making, the only sensible solution would be to cut spending. Bureaucrats should take House Minority Leader Eric Cantor’s advice and be willing to share the sacrifice:

Everyone understands that Washington has been on a spending binge of late and we’ve got to start spending money the way taxpayers are right now and that’s learning how to do more with less.

The debt crisis is not just an economic hazard but a prodigious moral issue of poor stewardship as explained in an Acton commentary by Jordan Ballor and Ray Nothstine titled The Fiscal Responsibility of Mall Rats and Bureaucrats:

Responsible stewardship of one’s material resources is a consistent and recurring biblical theme. At the conclusion of a parable on stewardship, Jesus said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10 NIV). We shouldn’t be duped into granting the use of greater and greater portions of our paychecks to a federal government that has been unfaithful with what it has already claimed.

Our economy will continue to hobble along until Washington is willing to truly act as a brother’s keeper in showing that it too can share the sacrifices necessary for getting spending under control. Until then, we will pay the price for Washington’s fiscal irresponsibility and millions of Americans will continue to struggle.

Elise Daniel Elise Daniel is a freelance writer and communications consultant in Washington, DC. Previously, she served as the Press Secretary for the House Committee on Natural Resources, a senior writer for the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, and has also worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Values and Capitalism Project at the American Enterprise Institute, and the Acton Institute. She graduated from James Madison University with a BBA in Economics. She is the editor and co-author of Called to Freedom: Why You Can Be Christian and Libertarian. Her articles have been published in RELEVANT Magazine, Real Clear Religion, the Gospel Coalition, The Federalist, Patheos, and the Daily Caller, among others.


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  • “Keeper”….interesting word when you think of it.  Especially when one appreciates just exactly where in scripture the reference comes from. 

    I’ve been thinking (dangerous past time sometimes).  Perhaps the statement you quoted at the beginning of your article is the problem with the Obama world view.  He views himself as a “keeper”.  Another word for “keeper” could be said to be “jailer” responsible for assuming control over every single aspect of another person’s life. “Keeper” is not an “enabler”. Nor does it imply “liberty”….and are we one single “American family”?  And if God is not the Father of our American Family (separation of church and state, don’t ya know), then does that make Obama the “Father” of this family…and if that “father” is a “keeper” are we not perhaps talking about “tyranny” and a “dictatorship”.  Just askin…..
    A big problem is that all of the laws passed last year embrace this world view in its entirety.  The health care act was the keystone to all subsequent legislation.  With the stroke of a pen when Obamacare was signed into law the federal government took total authority away from families and gave the responsibility for the adult formation of children to the state. The state really is now the “keeper” of every child in this country. Pay attention as more and more research begins to justify the state’s role and a parent’s failure and the need for the state to “protect” “our children”.  (By the way, just exactly when did we begin to accept the notion of every child in every family being “our children”? — that itself is also an interesting progression!) 

  • I am open on other views on this, but I think the rhetorical question Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” has, just as he meant it to have, the very answer that he meant to imply, “No.”  Moreover, I think he attempted to hide behind _because_ the answer was plainly, “No.”

    The problem wasn’t that he was incorrect in the abstract, but that he clearly meant to deceive.  He knew exactly what had become of Able, and pretending otherwise was a lie, no matter how it could be phrased.  I think it is sufficient that he murdered and then he lied, without attempting to wring a complete social policy based on reversing the implied answer to his chosen lie.

    The interpretation used by President Obama, which is very common, is guilty of fallacious logical “bootstraping.”  Cain murdered and therefore was evil.  Cain attempted to avoid blame for his crime by dodging behind a rhetorical flourish.  He–being evil–must necessarily have evily posed his question with an evil answer, ergo the “good” answer to his evil question must be exactly the opposite of his [implied] evil answer.  QED.  Or put another way, the answer he gave is evil because he is evil, so the good answer must needs be the opposite of his evil answer.

    The problem with that reasoning (pervasive as it is) is that the evilness or goodness of Cain doesn’t bear upon the true answer to his question at all.

    Now, I admit, his answer _could_ be evil, it just is not _necessarily_ so.  The concern is, of course, that the common interpretation would leave everyone to the tyranny of infernal, but well-meaning, “keepers” with no obvious bounds.  Everyone well kept, as it were, just never one’s own to keep.

  • I know what a zookeeper does. He provides food and housing for the animals. He also controls nearly every aspect of their lives. They are without freedom or choice. They live wherever he puts them and have must eat whatever he gives them.
    I know what a beekeeper does. He provides housing for the bees who are free to come and go as they please. They go about their business without his interference EXCEPT that he comes around periodically to take all the fruit of their labors.
    I don’t know exactly what our president has in mind by “brother’s keeper.” If, however, it is anything along the lines of either of the above, I would like to opt out.
    In other speeches, Obama has been more specific that he thinks he is quoting the Bible. “It is like the Bible says, I am my brother’s keeper.” This a deplorable and ignorant attempt try to use Scripture to promote his agenda.
    I have an article about the president’s brother’s keeper thing and the Biblical record at my website: