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Armstrong on Government and Charity

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John H. Armstrong tackles the question, “How Should Government Deal with Poverty?”

He writes, “A regular argument made, at least from some evangelical political voices from the political left, is to cite numerous Old Testament texts about poverty and then suggest that one of the central concerns of a just government is to solve the problems associated with poverty.”

He cuts to the heart of such fallacious reasoning, recognizing “No one who has an ounce of compassion disagrees that Christians should care about poverty and its associated social ills. The issue here is not ‘Should we care about poverty and the problems related to it?’ Rather, the question is, ‘What is the best way to respond to poverty?'”

Armstong narrates what the “profound” influence of Ronald Reagan on his point of view, and concludes: “The solutions to poverty are to be found in the free enterprise system and the sooner we stop bashing business and wealth making enterprises the better will be our overall response to poverty in America.”

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.


  • As someone who spent years in the Third World, I beg to differ. The problem with Capitalism and the Free Enterprise System is that it has winners and losers. The deck is stacked in favor of the strong over the weak. And then the strong are asked to reach into their pocket to help the losers. They are notoriously slow to do this. Apart from the arrival of the Parousia, I see no real help for the losers coming from the winners, because that would not be to their advantage and, following one’s own advantage is the whole principle of Capitalism. Ronald Reagan, who loved the wealthy and served them well, is probably having a tough time explaining the nobility of his position to God. Bill Taylor

  • q.j.h thompson

    Mr. Taylor,

    The problem with the third world is corruption. Remove the corruption and benevolence will surely follow.

    Why would any reasonable or logical thinking person give money to crooks? The evidence is very clear, after 50 years of aid, money is not the problem.

  • q.j.h thompson

    Mr. Taylor,

    With all due respect you arguement is bogus.

    Capitalism and the Free Enterprise System does not violate choice, freedom, or the rights of people in the Third World.

    Sir, explain to me why Africa the richest mineral resource land on the planet is the poorest continent in the world. Its not because of capitalism. If the freemarket was the economic system being practiced, Africa would be the wealthiest place in the world.

    Here is a little insight from Ghanian economist George B.N. Ayittey:

    The African story is also maddening because there is no earthly reason why a continent, rich in mineral resources should be in such dire straits. Name the mineral and it can be found in Africa: gold, diamonds, titanium, palladium, col tan, oil, among others. But the mineral wealth of Africa has not been utilized to lift its people out of grinding poverty.
    Africa is a continent that seemingly defies analysis. Its prospects for the new millennium are grim. The least-developed region in the Third World while all other regions have made some, albeit difficult progress, sub-Saharan Africa continues to be mired in crushing debt, poverty, squalor and social destitution. Economic success stories in Africa are pitifully few.

    War, disease, state terrorism and wanton carnage have devastated a continent that once had hope and continue to sap the vitality of its resilient people. (Senseless wars) have disrupted economic activity — especially agriculture — uprooted people, and sent refugees streaming across borders. Africa’s refugee population has risen sharply in recent years. These wars have nothing to do with Western colonialism or imperialism. Nor do they have anything to do with artificial colonial borders or ancient tribal rivalries. These wars are over one thing — POWER: Power to allocate resources to oneself, cronies and tribesmen; power to crush one’s enemies; and power to perpetuate oneself in office. (The Broken Continent, George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D., President, The Free Africa Foundation, Distinguished Economist, American University)

    Although this is one example, however the symptoms are the same elsewhere. Political tyranny, corrupt NGOs, cronyism, and the lack of freedom are the culprits in the dilemma of under develop nations. Sir, for those that are better informed about the political and market system in the 3rd world know that you are not covering the whole truth.

    You are looking from the perspective of the individuals at the top, such as Mugabe, Chavez, Castro, or Jong Ill). These folks are always finding favor with people masquerading as intellectuals. Whose purpose is to demonize freedom, free economy, capitalism, or the USA. Vladmir Lenin labeled such people “Useful Idiots” in his day. And history has proven that there are many, willingly and unwillingly, waiting join his fan club.
    A well known Harvard economist, Joseph A. Schumer, proclaimed years ago that there will be people such as yourself that will drag capitalism and entrepreneurship through the mud. An excert from ENCARTA:

    Schumpeter predicted the sociopolitical disintegration of capitalism, which, he maintained, would be undermined eventually by its own success because it would create a class of intellectuals who would attack it. In addition, government controls would destroy the entrepreneur and innovation and would lead to a form of socialism. (Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia)

    I am not surprise that an element of Religion, regardless of faith, wants to blame another for other’s problem. This new religion wants to make Government their guard. Government intervention and coercion are the new schools of thought, instead of teaching self responsibility and self governance The blame game is the new religious doctrine of the times. It is more popular to blame capitalism for the moral and economic woes of the world.
    Using the government as god to interevene in bringing equality is not new, According to Murray Rothbard:

    Some writers are astute enough to realize that the market economy is simply a resultant of individual valuations, and thus they see that, if they do not like the results, the fault lies with the valuations, not the economic system. Yet they proceed to advocate government intervention to correct the immorality of individual choices. If people are immoral enough to choose whiskey rather than milk, cosmetics rather than educational matter, then the State, they say, should step in and correct these choices. Much of the rebuttal parallels the refutation of the knowledge-of-interests argument; i.e., it is self-contradictory to contend that people cannot be trusted to make moral decisions in their daily lives but can be trusted to vote for or accept leaders who are morally wiser than they.

    Probably the most common ethical criticism of the market economy is that it fails to achieve the goal of equality. Equality has been championed on various “economic” grounds, such as minimum social sacrifice or the diminishing marginal utility of money. But in recent years economists have recognized that they cannot justify egalitarianism by economics, that they ultimately need an ethical basis for equality.

    Compulsory equality will demonstrably stifle incentive, eliminate the adjustment processes of the market economy, destroy all efficiency in satisfying consumer wants, greatly lower capital formation, and cause capital consumption—all effects signifying a drastic fall in general standards of living. Furthermore, only a free society is casteless, and therefore only freedom will permit mobility of income according to productivity. Statism, on the other hand, is likely to freeze the economy into a mold of (nonproductive) inequality. (March 2004, Murray N. Rothbard, Ten Ethical Objections to the Market Economy)

    Moral ethics, not capitalism, is the greatest shortcoming.

    Yes, capitalism is competitive. Its suppose to be. The purpose of capitalist productivity is to maximize efficiency in the production process inorder to provide the lowest or at least a reasonable low price to the consumer. Without competition, product price will be at the higher, rather than the lower. In layman economics competition favors the consumer. It is the entrepreneur that will bring economic prosperity to deprave economies in the 3rd world. African analyst Moeletsi Mbeki states:

    Economic growth in Africa, as in the rest of the world, depends on a vibrant private sector. Entrepreneurs in Africa, however, face daunting constraints. They are prevented from creating wealth by predatory political elites that control the state. African political elites use marketing boards and taxation to divert agricultural savings to finance their own consumption and to strengthen the repressive apparatus of the state. Peasants, who constitute the core of the private sector in sub-Saharan Africa, are the biggest losers.In order for Africa to prosper, peasants need to become the real owners of their primary asset — land — over which they currently have no property rights. {April 15, 2005, Moeletsi Mbeki, (the brother of South Africa’s President Mbeki), CATO Institute, Foreign Policy Briefing no. 85}

  • David

    You point out that the effect of “compulsory equality” will be “a drastic fall in general standards of living.” I want to point out that there is nothing intrinsically immoral about such a prospect. You also argue that “only freedom will permit mobility of income according to productivity.” However, I wonder if this is a lesson that is evident in China–a state with a booming economy but with relatively few freedoms for the average citizen.

    While justice is an ethical consideration and not an economic one, there is a “logic ” to capitalism which must be tempered by a moral standard. While the evidence does not show that capitalism is intrinsically evil, neither does its practice breed proper ethical conduct.

    My point is this: as policy should be the meeting ground between power and morals, government is the obvious and best choice for regulating the economic system. The Vatican has recognized this in recent encyclicals.