Acton Institute Powerblog

Back to Budget Basics

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In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Back to Budget Basics,” I argue that the public debt crisis facing the federal government is such that “All government spending, including entitlements, defense, and other programs, must be subjected to rigorous and principled analysis.” This piece summarizes much of my analysis of various Christian budget campaigns over the last week (here, here, and here).

There are things that are more or less central to the primary task of government, and our spending priorities should reflect that relative proximity. Things like defense spending, whether or not these funds could be spent better and more efficiently, are central to the role of the federal government. Various kinds of social spending, whether or not they are good and effective, are not clearly so central.

I cite the example of Abraham Kuyper as a model to follow in attempting to outline the various responsibilities of social institutions, especially the church and the government, with respect to poverty. Kuyper first says that any resort to government aid for the poor is “a blot on the honor” of Jesus Christ. This relief is first and foremost a task for Christians, not the government. But he also adds that if and when Christians fail in their charitable callings, the State must intervene, “quickly and sufficiently” (snel en voldoende). The “sufficiency” of this response lies at least in part in its ability to address the need and move on, stepping in quickly, addressing the problem sufficiently, and stepping back out.

We have gotten to where we are in this country in part, at least, because private and Christian charity did not fulfill its mandate, at least not completely. But the whole point of “sufficient” government intervention is to be a stop-gap, a last and temporary resort, that provides space for other institutions to step back in and resume their basic responsibilities. It is thus not a permanent and primary purpose of government, particularly at the federal level, to provide direct material assistance to the poor.

My fear is that the social spending at the federal level has moved far beyond intervening “quickly and sufficiently,” and has increasingly crowded out other subsidiary institutions from meeting needs more locally and less centrally. What we need now is not to privilege such government intervention as a fixture of our society, but to reinvigorate and empower other institutions to relieve these burdens from the government. Otherwise government intervention often becomes an obstacle to, rather than a servant of, true justice.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Roger McKinney

    “if and when Christians fail in their charitable callings, the State must intervene, “quickly and sufficiently”

    Who will decide that Christians have failed? Socialists will never under any circumstances be satisfied with what Christians give to the poor.

    “We have gotten to where we are in this country in part, at least, because private and Christian charity did not fulfill its mandate, at least not completely.”

    How do you know? Does an objective standard of how much we should give the poor exist somewhere that I’m not aware of? Before the creation of the welfare state can you show me a period in history when people starved because of a lack of charity?

  • Roger,

    First of all, thanks for your consistent and thoughtful engagement of these issues here and elsewhere.

    I would say that as long as there are poor the church has, in one way or another, a responsibility to meet material needs, particularly in service of spiritual ends.

    As for who decides, I think that in large part depends on the context. Things are different under a monarchy than under a form of republican democracy.

    Is there a period in history where you think Christian charity has ever been insufficient to meet the needs of the poor?

  • Roger McKinney

    I agree we have an obligation to meet some material needs of the poor, but how much? Should we try to eliminate all inequality in wealth?

    And what if the church is a small part of the population, say 1% as in Muslim countries. How can such a small number of people meet the needs of the other 99%?

    Why does the form of government matter? Whether the government is a monarchy or a democracy, you still have just two choices: either the people decide for themselves or the government decides for them. In a democracy, the poor and middle class will gang up on the rich and force them to give more than they would have without coercion, as happens today, while the middle class will give less.

    When the majority decides for the minority how much to give, envy and covetousness turn ugly.

    I’m not familiar with all of history, but from what I have read about the recurring depressions in the US I would say no, I don’t know of a period in which charity has been insufficient. Do you have a period in mind?

    My experience and my reading suggest that even non-Christians are very sympathetic to the poor. I would only expect Christians to be more so.

  • Roger,

    You are right to point out that “poor” is a relative term and I think that we definitely should not be attempting to eliminate all wealth inequality. Another way of putting it positively would be to talk about wealth diversity, which corresponds to all kinds of other diversity which we celebrate!

    And you are right to point to the contextual exigencies where the Christian population is a very small minority. I don’t think Kuyper has that context in mind at all, and is really speaking from a kind of still vaguely identifiable “Christian society” in the Netherlands at the end of the 19th c. and before WWI.

    I suppose the form of government only matters in a very practical fashion because it answers the basic question of “who gets to decide,” but only in a very “might makes right” sort of way, as you observe.

    With regard to the sufficiency of charity, I suppose I had in mind a longer stretch of history rather than something in the industrial and post-industrial age, although I can see some reason for limiting our discussion to say, the last 200 years or so, or basically the American experience. So then the question would be whether in the domestic American experience there has been a period characterized by needs of the poor (legitimate needs) that have not been met in a systemic and ongoing fashion by private charity. I’d have to think about that…certainly Olasky’s argument in The Tragedy of American Compassion is relevant, and it may well be that only the supplanting of charity by the welfare state has undone that in any lasting and systemic manner.

  • Roger McKinney

    I have been reading “Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100” by Fogel. One passage struck me. He wrote that before 1700 about 20% of the population didn’t have enough food to provide the energy for work. The most they could accomplish with the food they had was a short, slow walk.

    If that was true in 1700, we can project backwards in time with some certainty that it was true throughout history before 1700 because of the lack of economic development until then. That’s a very sad condition and nothing could help but charity. All the bottom 20% could do is beg because they didn’t have the energy for any kind of work.

    The book is a kind of tribute to the amazing reduction in poverty in the West since 1700. I think we can safely say that by the standards of 1700 we have no poor.

    The UN sets the world poverty level at $3/day and there are many poor outside the US. But by that standard we have no poor either.

    Before 1700 the world gave to the poor and accomplished nothing. After 1700 capitalism effectively eliminated poverty with very little help from charity.

    Charity is a good and essential thing, but I can’t see making it the heart and soul of Christianity, the state and economics. Job creation is far more important and effective in helping the poor.

  • “Job creation is far more important and effective in helping the poor.” I agree, especially insofar as I have argued before, “the regular means that God has graciously ordered in the world for meeting our physical needs is the realm of work.”

    But even this order of preserving grace is affected by sin, and short of the second coming we will always have sin as a feature of our individual and institutional lives. So there will always be a need to “bind the victims” of the unjust ordering of society, as Bonhoeffer put it.

  • Nic Van Engen

    We can argue politics, principles, and economics all day long but when it comes to saving lives, showing compassion, and God’s Kingdom, I’ll choose results over ideals every day.

    One important part of this entire discussion that may be lost on some of us is that the Call does not address only the needs of the poor within the US, but abroad. The budget passed by the House of Rep. for example, does relatively little to address domestic spending on the poor in comparison to cutting what is currently being provided to assist the extremely poor abroad via discretionary spending. That is to say, even though we basically “have no poor among us” within our borders, there are much larger concerns abroad. While we quarrel about whether our welfare program should provide $8 or $10 or none at all, there are those in third-world countries who would literally starve without $0.01 and that is where the proposed cuts would take place.

    Even if it isn’t within the proper role of the government to take our tax dollars and give to those whom they declare “needy”, this has been the case for many years. To advocate cutting it off suddenly with no clear plan for contingency is a literal slap-in-the-face to our fellow members and clergy who have worked so hard for decades to further these causes and procure funding to support them, not to mention there are those who are dependent on that support and would die painfully without it.

    Jobs? What exactly are you looking for? Here is one example of what the Call wants to continue:

    So IMHO we are at a point where compassion can be shown not by giving in the literal sense, but by leaving aside our political agenda in order to allow this work to continue.

  • “Government is already doing it. No backsies.” That is not a sufficient response.

  • Roger McKinney

    Nic: “there are those in third-world countries who would literally starve without $0.01”

    Why do socialists always claim that someone will die if we cut some government program. Do you really expect us to believe that? Everything is a matter of life and death with socialists these days. If the state doesn’t keep spending at ever increasing rates people will die!

    If you find that people are deaf to your pleas, you might consider the credibility such hysteria destroys.

  • Nic Van Engen

    I’m just trying to raise some contradictory points to provoke some thought, not trying to be hostile or argumentative.

    IMO clearly the church needs to make a move towards self-funding these aid programs wherever our tax dollars should not within the “proper role of government”. This cannot happen overnight, what do you propose we do in the interim while the government funding is lost and the church isn’t “able” or isn’t prepared to provide the funding overnight?

    The Call does not address our concerns with what the proper role of government is, but does it need to? I could be wrong, take the point as to maintain funding where it is needed (even if “temporary” in our minds), not to fully encompass in detail the position of all churches on all things welfare-related, hence the vague references.

    As a separate but related point of discussion, is it within the proper role of government to pay the church for services rendered (to “maintain orderly society”) – assuming that the church would not provide them otherwise? How does one judge whether or not the church should be responsible for a given service vs. the government, certainly the church cannot begin to manage the woes of the entire world (although we should strive to). What if my church wanted to do a fundraiser where members volunteer their time as “citizens on patrol” and the city pays the church for providing this security, is this outside the proper role of government?

  • Roger McKinney

    Nic, if people will truly die because the US government cuts funding to a program, then they should advertise that fact to people and ask them to step in voluntarily and make up the difference. I have no doubt that if people were about to die Americans would respond, as they did in the Haiti earthquake.

    What is the proper role of government? The best debate on the subject took place during the Reformation when kings were murdering their subjects. Theologians debated a lot. Some of the Catholic scholars at Salamanca decided the role of the state was to protect life, liberty and property, nothing else. Taxes raised for anything other than these purposes were theft.

    BTW, by “protect life”, they didn’t mean provide food, clothing and shelter for the poor, either. Charity was still considered the job of the Church. They meant by the phrase to protect the lives of people by punishing murderers.

    Many Protestant theologians agreed. John Locke adopted it and promoted it, then Jefferson changed the formula to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, whatever that means.

    And if you look at the only government that God ever designed you will see a very, very limited government. God clearly intended governments to pursue justice, peace and national defense, but not much else.

  • Nic,

    To your first point, my basic claim is that cuts to social spending should be on the table, along with everything else. The Call, in my view, privileges certain kinds of spending and programs and says they should not be cut (in one place it seems at all, and the another is just says they need to be “adequately” funded). But I appreciate your point. How about if we don’t eliminate the effective programs, but simply trim their budget by a certain percent? Would that be ok? What if we draw them down so that funding decreases over a period of years, and we implement some kind of privatization or localization effort for these “effective” programs? To me that would be a worthwhile endeavor, but the Call seems to not provide that as a way forward.

    And what might this mean for the role of organizations like the OSJ and other church-related groups? It seems like they would increasingly have to focus on speaking to their church-members about the value of their own denominations programs, rather than serving as advocates of political programs and efforts. That would be a great thing, in my view. It would be great if more groups were really focused on relieving the federal government of many of its current social spending choices.

    I think a good start would be preaching the tithe.

  • Ron Sider: “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”

  • Roger McKinney

    I would like to see how Sider made his calculations because I think he vastly underestimates the costs of providing healthcare and education to the earth’s poor.

    Quick estimates: If all American could be considered Christians, assume annual gdp of $15 trillion. 10% is $1.5 trillion. If pastors and staff received no salary and buildings were free, we could give all of it to the world’s 5 billion poor. That’s $300 for each poor person every year, assuming no administrative costs and no corruption by the governments where poor people live.

    After tax tithing would be about half that amount.

  • Roger McKinney

    PS, and what would we have accomplished by doing that? We would have made the entire world dependents on US charity. Why not emphasize the Chinese model and provide the poor with jobs?