Category: Effective Compassion

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.

Blog author: mmiller
posted by on Wednesday, March 21, 2012

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.

Visit Rudy’s Voices page at PovertyCure and learn more about the PovertyCure Project here

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Galatians 2:10 reads, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” This is the conclusion to the Jerusalem Council, in which Paul and the leaders in Jerusalem are reconciled and unified, and where is decided that Paul and Barnabas “should go to the Gentiles, and they [James, Peter, and John] to the circumcised” (v. 9).

The concluding point that both groups are to keep in mind in their respective ventures is that they “remember the poor.” This will have some important significance for Paul and the Jerusalem Christians later on, as Paul brings the gifts of support from the Gentile churches to relieve the suffering of the church in Jerusalem (see Acts 24:17).

The first volume of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series includes Galatians, and includes some interesting considerations from various reformers on this text. Luther observes that “it is the task of a good pastor to be mindful of the poor. Wherever the church is there will be poor people, and more often than not they are the only true disciples of the gospel.” Wealth can be a powerful temptation.

WolfgangMusculusBut in the account of Wolfgang Musculus (a little-known reformer with whom I am well familiar) on this text, we find too that poverty has its own temptations. Musculus writes, “There was a great need of this advice concerning both the earthly life of the faithful poor and the nature of religion itself. There was a real danger that not only would their bodies succumb to hunger but also that their souls would succumb to the temptation to defect and revert to Judaism. Hunger is a dangerous persuader and the one most closely linked to poverty” (emphasis added).

This recognition of the relationship between bodily needs and spiritual goods reminds me also of the following from the Puritan Richard Baxter, in a treatise on Galatians 6:10:

Do as much good as you are able to men’s bodies, in order to the greater good of souls. If nature be not supported, men are not capable of other good. We pray for our daily bread before pardon and spiritual blessings, not as if we were better, but that nature is supposed before grace, and we cannot be Christians if we be not men; God hath so placed the soul in the body, that good or evil shall make its entrance by the bodily sense to the soul.

Blog author: jcarter
posted by on Monday, February 27, 2012

What are the best ways to help the poor in developing countries?

Answering that question is not as straightforward as you might assume, says development economist Bruce Wydick in Christianity Today. As Wydick notes, most relief and development organizations carry out self-assessments and measure impact based on self-studies, methods that are neither unbiased nor empirically rigorous.
(more…)

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, February 16, 2012

I’ve tried to stay on top of the federal government’s response to natural disasters here at Acton. I’ve written a number of commentaries, blog posts, and a story in Religion & Liberty covering the issue. “Spiritual Labor and the Big Spill” specifically addressed the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. For extensive background on this short clip of Bobby Jindal at CPAC 2012, see my post “Bobby Jindal on Centralized Disaster Response.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, January 6, 2012

In last week’s Acton Commentary, “Food Fights and Free Enterprise,” I take a look at the food truck phenomenon in US cities, sometimes called a “craze.”

In the companion blog post, “Food Trucks and First Steps,” I refer to Milton Friedman’s observation that there is a difference between being pro-market and pro-business. Art Carden has more on this over at Forbes.

As I note in the piece, the fight over food trucks is not just the stuff of big cities. The Carolina Journal has been following for some time the various dimensions of the political fights over food trucks in North Carolina, in both Raleigh and around the state.

One of the pieces of particular interest shows how political lobbyists for established businesses, in this case restaurants, can use legislation and regulations to squeeze out competition. But as Sara Burrows writes in “Regulations Hinder Food Truck Ministries,” these actions have negative impacts on faith ministries that would otherwise be helping to put people to work and getting them off the government aid rolls.

As Pastor Michael King says,

“But it’s obvious there is not a will in government to help the folks that don’t have jobs to create their own jobs,” he said. “They talk about wanting to create jobs. But it appears the folks they’re concerned about are only those who can go to the bank and borrow a bunch of money and put money in the ground.

“We don’t want them to be on government assistance,” he continued. “But the government is putting these rules in place and forcing the people to go on government assistance. How are you going to bring down government spending if you are putting rules in place so even if people want to create a job for themselves, they can’t?”

Acton On The AirActon Research Fellow Jordan Ballor – who also serves as Executive Editor of the Journal of Markets and Morality – took to the airwaves in the Houston, Texas area last night to discuss the ecumenical movement, his book, Ecumenical Babel, and Christian social thought with the hosts of A Show of Faith on News Talk 1070 AM.

To listen to the interview, use the audio player below:

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Acton On The AirActon’s Director of Media Michael Matheson Miller was in-studio this morning on The Tony Gates Show on WJRW Radio to talk about global poverty, PovertyCure, and his recently completed trip to London to speak about those issues at an Acton conference. To listen to the interview, use the audio player below:

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Over at Patheos’ Black, White and Gray blog, where a group of Christian sociologists “share our observations and research and reflect on its meaning for Christian faith and practice,” Margarita A. Mooney writes about “Faith-Based Social Services: An Essential Part of American Civil Society.”

Many of the points she raises echo the principles of effective compassion that have long animated the Acton Institute’s engagement with welfare reform and social service. Be sure to check out the Hope Award program sponsored by WORLD magazine and the American Bible Society, which carries on this legacy of emphasizing effective compassion carried out by private faith-based organizations.

Mooney points out that long before the last few decades of welfare reform and faith-based initiatives at the federal level, faith-based social services were alive and vigorously engaged in charitable activity. As Mooney writes of the 1996 and 2002 federal efforts, “most research shows that these initiatives did little to change the size or focus on faith-based social services. Why? Because most of these faith-based social services existed long before recent federal programs, and because some of what religious organizations do best in social services focuses on deep personal transformations, goals best pursued without government support.”

She quotes Robert Wuthnow on the faith-based social service organization’s vision of the human person. For religious organizations, the human person is more than just a material being with material needs. As Marvin Olasky notes, this older model knew that “true philanthropy must take into account spiritual as well as physical needs.” On this, writes Wuthnow,

…the research that has been conducted among faith-based organizations, although quite sparse, suggests that it is probably their ability to forge encompassing whole-person, personally transforming relationships with clients that accounts for any special success they may have.

Mooney goes on to examine some compelling particular instances. All of this leads to the key question: “Aren’t there ways to allow government support for large faith-based organizations that neither lead to government support for proselytizing nor impede religious organizations from carrying out their missions as they define it?”

On this question, be sure to check out the review essay by David A. Wagner on Lew Daly’s book, God’s Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State, which appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality, “A Liberal ‘Welfare Conservative’ Boldly Explains Why Nineteenth-Century Popes Are Relevant to Twenty-First-Century Welfare Reform.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Over at the Economix blog, University of Chicago economist Casey B. Mullin takes another look at some of the recent poverty numbers. He notes the traditional interpretation, that “the safety net did a great job: For every seven people who would have fallen into poverty, the social safety net caught six.”

But another interpretation might have a bit more going for it, actually, and fits in line with my previous analogy between a safety net as a trampoline vs. a foam pit:

Another interpretation is that the safety net has taken away incentives and serves as a penalty for earning incomes above the poverty line. For every seven persons who let their market income fall below the poverty line, only one of them will have to bear the consequence of a poverty living standard. The other six will have a living standard above poverty.

Of course, most people work hard despite a generous safety net, and 140 million people are still working today. But in a labor force as big as ours, it takes only a small fraction of people who react to a generous safety net by working less to create millions of unemployed. I suspect that employment cannot return to pre-recession levels until safety-net generosity does, too.

The conclusion ought to be that policies that provide incentives for people to not seek out work as vigorously as they otherwise might, even if such incentives are unintended consequences, are morally suspect and economically questionable.