Acton Institute Powerblog

How Conservatives Fight Poverty

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At Public Discourse, Ryan T. Anderson reviews Lawrence Mead’s From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor:

The loudest voices in our national debates about political economy tend to be libertarians and social welfare statists. To our detriment, most public policy discussions are filtered through these two lenses. At the same time, we tend to conflate the policy issues facing our nation as if they were one and the same.

But consider the range of America’s political-economic challenges: How to balance our budget; how to reform the major entitlements of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; how to get the economy growing again; how to increase employment; how to increase social mobility; how to help the poor.

Though related, these issues are profitably examined one at a time. Poverty, for example, is undoubtedly linked to our debates about government regulation, taxes, and budgets. It is certainly tied to our debates about income inequality, social mobility, and unemployment. But poverty in America is not primarily about any of these issues. And political commentators of all stripes perform a major disservice when they mesh them together.

Read more . . .

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Roger McKinney

    Anderson: “A sound political philosophy would hold that the state should be concerned about the welfare of all people.”

    Lev 19:15 “‘You shall do no injustice in judgment: you shall not be partial to the poor, nor show favoritism to the great; but you shall judge your neighbor in righteousness.

    Like socialists, Anderson confuses roles. The state has a different role than the church. The church’s role is different from the family. If the roles are not different, why have different institutions? What about subsidiarity?

    Caring for the poor is first and foremost the responsibility of the family. When the family fails it becomes the church’s job, but it never becomes the job of the state. God never intended even the poor laws of the Torah to be enforced by the state. That is clear from the fact that the poor laws are not included in the case law. No one could take someone to court because the defendant refused to give the plaintiff money. The primary job of the state is to settle disputes between people regarding life, liberty and property.

    Anderson: “…any legitimate care for the poor has to be paternalistic.”

    That is also the libertarian solution. Libertarians agree with Anderson that poverty is complex and helping the poor requires more than just giving them stuff. But paternalism requires intimate knowledge of poor individuals, not just seeing them as a class. That’s why care for the poor is best left to churches and families.

    Hayek pointed out that family and tribal values are good for helping the poor because the members of the tribe and family know the poor intimately. They know exactly what the poor need because they know the poor.

    Family and tribal values fail at the state level. The state does not know the poor at all. State help is about one stranger taking something from another stranger and giving it to a third stranger. That’s all you can expect from the state.

    However, libertarians do see a role for the state in helping the poor. As CT pointed out in a current article on the reduction in world poverty, the state helps the poor best by freeing markets that lift some out of poverty. With a large middle class created through free markets and job creation the middle class has money and time to give to the churches to help the poor. Churches, like states, don’t have their own money. They get it from members who have money. The richer the church members the better able the church is to help the poor.

    Anderson and Mead need to learn more about true libertarian thought before he criticizes it.

  • Roger McKinney

    PS, Roman emperors used to feed the poor in order to prevent them from rioting. It was an extortion payment. In the early modern era when governments began helping the poor only lthe wealthy voted because only the wealthy paid taxes. So when they voted to help the poor, the wealthy were voting to give their own money and use the state to distribute it.

    Under our modern democracy, the wealthy who pay most taxes are a tiny minority. The poor and middle class vote to take money away from the wealthy and give it to themselves through the state. How else can you characterize that other than theft by state?

    As Bastiat said, modern government is all about someone trying to live at the expense of someone else.

  • LIBIntOrg

    Thanks for the article. Libertarians are much farther along in a guranteed income than many realize with projects based on endowments, not taxation, such as the Alaska fund. For more on voluntary solutions see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization.

  • Phocion

    Anderson: “A sound political philosophy would hold that the state should be concerned about the welfare of all people.”

    Yes – all sound political philosophy must operate within the dictates of morality and religion.

    • Roger McKinney

      But what constitutes the “welfare of the people”? Does forced redistribution of wealth?

      Morality and religion dictate that the state be blind with regard to rich and poor. The state’s purpose is to provide legal justice. Laws must apply to all equally and the state must treat rich and poor alike. It should take no more from the rich than it does from the poor. The state should limits its activities to protecting the life, liberty and property of its citizens.

      Economics and history demonstrate that the state that sticks to its purpose causes the people to flourish the most and provide for their own welfare the best.

      It’s a paradox, but the state that is most blind to the condition of its poor provides for the poor the best.

  • Phocion

    I guess my short point was that that comment of Mr. Anderson was simply innocuous.  Yes, all sound political, economic, and other social philosophies must have a concern for the welfare of the people for at least two reasons:

    a) because they are subject to the higher authorities (Eternal, Divine, and Natural Laws under which a concern for our fellow man is inherited and inviolate).  In fact, outside of these boundaries is not just unsound, it is evil.

    b) because we all know that ‘the state’ is a body instituted by the people as servant to the people (and thereby for the benefit of the people is implied by logic). 

    Ethical minimalism includes the silver rule (do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you) – even Bentham managed to get his moral calculus filled head around that.

    The problem is as you state – so what?  I endorse that nothing about that philosophical evaluation tells us where to go from there and certainly creates no moral justification for large, paternal government.  And as any ‘sound’ Christian will tell you, the systemic confiscation and redistribution of material wealth is materialism, not charity (the heart of our golden rule).

    • Roger McKinney

       I agree.