On Sunday Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren appeared on ABC’s This Week and was asked if he agreed with President Obama’s economic gospel. As Kathryn Jean Lopez says, “I’m thinking the president probably wishes he picked a different pastor for the inaugural prayer.” Warren’s answered the question by saying:
In a world in which experience and reality drove political decisions on the economy, the claims made in the recent op-ed by Sen. John Kyl would be considered too obvious to warrant publication. Unfortunately, we don’t live in such a world, which is why it’s important to have politicians willing to point out the obvious:
Whether the lottery is, as the old adage states, a tax on people who are bad at math, it is most certainly a tax on the poor. Those who have the least spend an inordinate percentage of their income every year on lottery tickets (estimates vary from 4-9%). Yet while it is irrational for those in poverty to waste their limited resources on a one in 176 million chance, there is something almost rational in the reasoning for doing so. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson points out:
Thanks to George McGraw, Executive Director of DigDeep Right to Water Project, for his kind and thoughtful Counterpoint to my original post. He and his organization are clearly dedicated to the noble cause of providing clean water and sanitation to all, a cause which everyone can and should support. It is also a very sensible objective that would aid the world’s poor much more than trendier causes such as “climate change” and “population control” which tend to view the human person and his industriousness as fundamental problems to be solved through central planning, birth control, sterilization and abortion.
McGraw is certainly right to say that the Holy See does not believe that water should be free for all, despite the purposely provocative title of my post. And the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace document does indeed presuppose market mechanisms for the distribution of water resources. My fear, however, is that while paying lip service to the validity of market economics and the role of profit, many religious-minded people still have a low opinion of business and fail to recognize that markets have been and remain the best way to allocate resources, especially absolutely necessary ones such as food and water. The profit motive may not be the most high-minded way of caring for the poor, but it has proven to be the most reliable and effective one. No one claims that markets are perfect; they are still more likely to meet human needs that the alternatives, whether these are government services or private charity.
I agree that there are circumstances in which food and water must be provided to those who cannot pay for them, but this does not make them “free” or without cost. Someone else still has to produce and deliver them to the poor, and it will be the government who does the commanding at some level. This is necessary in emergency situations, though still not always the best solution, as the relief efforts in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath proved. My main concern is that introducing a legally-recognized “right to water” shifts the focus from the rights and duties of the private sector to those of the government, and away from the individual and toward the collective. It should also be recognized that the public, subsidized provision of a good often displaces or “crowds out” private sector providers, to the detriment of the development of local businesses, a sine qua non if countries are to escape poverty.
Having worked for the Holy See at the United Nations, I witnessed all sorts of perverted thinking on the issue of human rights. The UN was where, for instance, the Soviet Union and its satellites continually pushed for “economic, social and cultural rights” at the expense of the political and civil rights promoted by the West. This was yet another cynical ploy to deny individual rights and collectivize society. Since the end of communism, many of these “new” rights, also called “second- and third-generation” rights, have become less obviously ideological but remain problematic. As the very notion of “generational” development makes clear, there is no clear standard by which to measure or order these rights. This is the “progressive” rather than the truly liberal understanding of human rights and it ought to be rejected as such. Two of my graduate-school professors, Clifford Orwin and Thomas Pangle, put it well in a 1982 essay on “The Philosophical Foundation of Human Rights”:
[Economic, social and cultural rights] are merely things that most people want, and that the poorer countries wish they could persuade the richer ones to give them. They are open-ended and hence often unreasonable. There is no way, for example, that an underdeveloped country can provide adequate education or medical care for all its citizens. By proclaiming these as universal human rights, however, such countries arm themselves with the most respectable of reasons for pressing for global redistribution of wealth. No one can blame them for that; but we can question the status as “human rights” of what are, in a sense, letters to Santa Claus.
I have to admit to being a bit surprised by the Catholic World News report on my blog post that placed me in opposition to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. It’s not every day that I have to prove my Catholic bona fides, so I should clarify my understanding of what the Church means by the “right to water.” (The RealClearReligion website may have contributed to the problem by titling its link to my piece “There is No Right to Water.”) All Catholics and indeed all people of good will should believe that human beings are entitled to the necessities of food and water as human beings; in no way do I support depriving anyone of these at any stage of life. And the Church is not wrong to identify “rights” that are due to the person as a result of his ontological dignity. My point was that calling for a legally-recognized international human right to water may not be the best way to ensure that everyone actually has access to it; results should matter just as much as putting some nice-sounding words on paper. The difficulty results, in my opinion, from the long-standing abuse of the term “human rights” that I previously mentioned and a lot of subsequent incoherence, not least coming from academics looking for justification for their soft-left-wing policy preferences.
The Church is, nevertheless, a pre-modern institution that has a different understanding of human rights and human nature than liberals and progressives do, and the presuppositions of Church teaching on human dignity are crucial. As the late Cardinal Avery Dulles once put it, “The Catholic doctrine of human rights is not based on Lockean empiricism or individualism. It has a more ancient and distinguished pedigree.” Without emphasizing the presuppositions made by this pedigree, any call for new rights is likely to be misconstrued and misapplied. We need to recover the fullness of Catholic moral and social teaching without exacerbating the problem, while also appreciating the role that private enterprise has within the liberal tradition.
Not surprisingly, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (PCJP)’s latest document on water has garnered scant media attention. Why, after all, would journalists, already notorious for their professional Attention Deficit Disorder and dislike of abstract disputation, report on something named “Water: An Essential Element of Life,” especially when it is nothing more than an update of a document originally released in 2003, and then updated in 2006 and 2009, with the exact same titles?
Back then, First Things editor-in-chief Fr. Richard John Neuhaus mischievously remarked, “There is an unconfirmed report that under discussion at the UN is an International Year of Air. If that ambitious step is taken, informed observers say, the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace will be ready with a major statement, ‘Air, An Essential Element of Life.’” If nothing else, the PCJP, where I worked from 1999 to 2004, needs to hire a marketing specialist to come up with snazzier titles for their publications.
So you could be forgiven for thinking that reading such a document would make a spiritually-beneficial type of intellectual mortification during this Lenten period. But skipping it altogether would also mean neglecting the serious questions contained therein on how the Holy See thinks about important matters such as human rights and economics. In fact, one may wonder if those responsible for the document have taken them as seriously as they should have.
Thanks to the invaluable Real Clear Religion website, I came across this analysis by George McGraw of DigDeep Water. It’s a mainly positive appraisal of the Holy See’s call for an internationally-recognized “right to water” but it also draws attention to some problem areas:
[T]here is one aspect of the Vatican’s position on water that makes its international intervention decidedly controversial. In this year’s “Water, an Essential Element” the Holy See will defend water access as an essential human right, one still hotly debated in international law.
When legal human rights were first introduced in 1948, the right to water wasn’t included in either the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or in the treaties derived from it. Many scholars believe that water was considered so basic, that it was quite simply overlooked. Since then, other water-related obligations have found protection in international law, but the closest thing we have to formal recognition of a human right to water is a (non-binding) 2010 UN resolution.
It seems states have generally failed to acknowledge the right to water for two reasons: either due to a concern that it would make them liable for water provision (a costly endeavor), or because such a right might challenge traditional property rights.
The Vatican’s position is doubly controversial because it’s couched in a criticism of “an excessively commercial conception of water” which the Holy See insists isn’t just another “for-profit commodity dependent on market logic.” This language was used to announce the new position paper at last week’s World Water Forum in Marseille — a gathering that suffered criticism for allowing corporate interests and dissenting states to weaken consensus on the human right to water.
So, assuming the importance of water and sanitation has not been simply neglected, there are at least two reasons why the “right to water” doesn’t exist: 1) States are neither able nor willing to pay for “free” water, and 2) it would interfere with the property rights of those who, for example, own land with abundant supplies of water. These would seem to be quite understandable, but not insurmountable, concerns for those who care about the common good. There are many ways for necessary goods to be produced, distributed and consumed through a novelty called commerce, the supposed “excess” of which is criticized by the Holy See. In fact, the Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen has argued that calamities such as droughts and famines are most devastating where local markets and effective protections of private property do not exist.
One has to ask: Does the Holy See really believe that water is any less of a commodity, or any less necessary to human life, than food, normally considered the most common form of commodity? If markets don’t exist for important things like food and water, why should they exist at all? Wouldn’t markets be truly useless if they only traded “non-goods”?
If States are reluctant to recognize the “right to water,” why does the Holy See insist on it so regularly? One likely explanation is that most States and the Holy See have very different understandings of human rights. Does a right fundamentally entail freedom from state coercion or entitlement to a government-provided benefit? Should all human goods and needs, which obviously go beyond basic rights such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” be considered human rights? If so, who will protect and provide them, i.e., the State, civil society or individuals? Is accommodation or synthesis possible among these divergent understandings of rights, some of which would limit the scope and reach of governmental (and ecclesiastical) power while others would expand them? More basically, aren’t these notions of rights and government based on fundamentally different understandings of human nature, on which we are unlikely to agree at anything approaching a universal level?
It ought to be clear that such questions are central to our understanding of the liberal human rights project, much larger than that of providing “free” water for all. But I wonder if the idea of limited government that allows individuals and voluntary associations to provide for needs beyond those ensured by certain enumerated rights is adequately understood by those who promote previously-unrecognized human rights. Some will say that these new rights are proof of an increasing awareness of human dignity, but I am not convinced. Many of these “rights,” in fact, are not based on a fixed idea of human dignity or human nature, but a denial of it; man is nothing more than a historical, “progressive” being whose wants and needs are constantly evolving. And it is, of course, these “progressives” who are constantly calling for new “rights” to be delivered by the state, rather than the private sector (exhibit A: Obamacare).
In my opinion, the continual expansion and discovery of new “rights” to cover all human needs have a particular appeal to religious believers because it institutionalizes and universalizes our social obligations to care for our fellow human beings. But we must also realize the particular, albeit partial, truths of liberalism and economics, especially with regard to the distribution of resources such as water. (The socialist paradise of Cuba, after all, recognizes the “right to water” as well as those to “health”, “religious freedom,” etc.) God did indeed create the world with enough goods for all. He also gave us the freedom and responsibility to cultivate and share these goods with each other, though we all too often fail at doing so. But let’s not assume He commands us to toss international law, private property, and economic good sense out the window as well.
Which does a better job helping the impoverished people around the globe—free trade or fair trade? The American Enterprise Institute recently held a debate on that topic at John Brown University entitled “Free Trade vs. Fair Trade: What Helps the Poor?” Click here to watch the debate between scholars Claude Barfield, Paul Myers, and Victor Claar.
In the debate Dr. Claar raises concerns about both the logic and economic reasoning underlying the fair trade movement. He also expands on that theme in his recent monograph, “Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution”, the latest volume in the Acton Institute’s Christian Social Thought Series.
Related: On April 11, Dr. Claar will be visiting Acton on Tap to deliver a talk on “Envy: Socialism’s Deadly Sin.” To learn more about Acton on Tap and other Acton sponsored lectures, visit our events page.
In The American Spectator, Acton Institute’s Michael Matheson Miller throws his hat into the ring as he launches a tongue-in-cheek candidacy for World Bank president, but also raises serious questions about the institution’s poverty fighting programs. Miller is a research fellow at Acton, where he directs PovertyCure, an initiative that promotes enterprise solutions to poverty. Jeffrey Sachs — are you listening?
Here are some planks from Miller’s campaign platform:
I don’t believe that foreign aid is the solution — or even a solution. It has subsidized corruption and delayed the development of local business. In short, it is generally part of the problem. And I’m not alone in thinking so. There are growing numbers of Africans, Latin Americans, and Asians who are saying no to aid and instead want the chance to have free and fair competition.
I also don’t believe the developing world is a lab for Western scientists and technocrats to test out their various utopian theories on others. When I am president of the World Bank, none of these people would be given support to experiment with the lives of others.
In this connection, I should mention that I don’t believe in a “scientific” solution to poverty. Nor do I believe that I or anyone else can end poverty “forever.” There will always be some poverty because there will always be human weakness, human error. There will always be a need for human love and caring.
Read “Here I Come to Save the Day — How I would lead the World Bank” by Michael Matheson Miller on The American Spectator.
Rudy Carrasaco, US Regional Director for Partners World Wide speaks today at the Acton Lecture Series about Business as Mission 2.0.
Take a look at this short video of Rudy on Business as Mission and Transforming Communities that we did for PovertyCure. Rudy will be featured in the forthcoming PovertyCure curriculum.
Rudy will discuss the guiding principles of Business as Mission (BAM) which affirm human dignity and provide a foundation for businesses that seek to honor God.
2012 marks the launch of the 2nd Global Think Tank on Business as Mission as part of the Lausanne Forum for World Evangelization. This consultative process will reach every corner of the globe, invigorate the movement with case studies and lessons learned, and explore innovative development in sub-fields like BAM and Human Trafficking, BAM-in-a-Box, and BAM that alleviates U.S. poverty.
Michael Matheson Miller, Acton’s Director of Media, recently made an appearance on NPO Showcase, a community access show here in the Grand Rapids area, to discuss the PovertyCure initiative. The full 15 minute interview is available for viewing below:
Acton’s Director of Media Michael Matheson Miller joined host Dave Jaconette this morning on WJRW Radio in Grand Rapids, Michigan for an interview touching on a number of subjects including 3rd world poverty, Kony 2012, entrepreneurship in the developing world, and even a discussion of the HHS mandate issue.
The interview lasts about 20 minutes; Listen via the audio player below: