Kishore Jayabalan, Director of Istituto Acton in Rome, recently interviewed with the BBC to discuss Pope Francis’ views on poverty and economics as the pope enters the second year of his papacy. Enjoy the report via the audio player below.
Why do liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree so often about economic issues? This is the second in a series of posts that addresses that question by examining 12 principles that generally drive the thinking of conservative evangelicals when it comes to economics. The first in the series can be found here. A PDF/text version of the entire series can be found here.
In my first post, I covered the first four principles (#1 – Good intentions are often trumped by unintended consequences; #2 – Our current economic and historical context must be taken into account when applying Biblical principles; #3 – To exploit the poor, the rich need the help of the government; #4 – We love economic growth because we love babies). In this post I want to consider points #5 (The economy is not a zero-sum game) and #6 (Poverty in America is more often a matter of personal choice than structural injustice).
5. The economy is not a zero-sum game.
In a zero-sum game, one person’s gain (or loss) is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the other participants. If the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. It’s similar to dividing a pumpkin pie between five people: someone can only get a larger slice if someone else’s portion is smaller.
Many progressives in America, including far too many (though not all) liberal evangelicals, believe economics is a zero-sum game. They believe wealth, like a pumpkin pie, is fixed and that “there must be one winner and one loser; for every gain there is a loss.” This may be true in some economic systems, but it does not apply in free markets.
Helping people get out of poverty is hard, dirty work. It isn’t glamorous. Most of those involved do not get to wander around the developing world wearing cool blue shades and giving sound bites. In fact, the Campaign for Boring Development is so insistent on this, they’ve written a manifesto to drive home the point: development work can be…boring.
- Development Does Not Photograph Well. Watching a family till their land does not make for riveting video. It’s just plain ole hard work.
- “Making the Lives of the Poor Better” is not the same thing as ”Fighting Poverty.”
Can the current model of humanitarian aid generated by networks of large philanthropic foundations, NGOs, and Western governments actually alleviate global poverty? The latest Liberty Law Talk podcast asks Acton’s Michael Miller, director of the new Poverty Cure Initiative, to address that question and to explain what conditions can lead to prosperity:
As Miller discusses, the prevalent humanitarian aid model frequently uproots the very beginnings of the circles of exchange that must exist for wealth to be created in these societies. Frequently missing as well in the current approach is understanding how crucial the rule of law, property rights, and markets are in the uplift from poverty, and that frequently, these economic and legal orderings are absent in regions of hardship. Consequently, the conditions for human flourishing don’t exist and cannot be created by large philanthropic interventions, which everywhere substitute parental relationships between the donor and recipient in the place of real human flourishing in these communities.
Click here to listen to the podcast.
There is no reason to assume that the preferential option for the poor is somehow a preferential option for big government, says Acton research director Samuel Gregg. Gregg writes that lifting people out of poverty — and not just material poverty but also moral and spiritual poverty — does not necessarily mean that the most effective action is to implement yet another welfare program:
What does living out the option for the poor mean in practice? We must engage in works of charity — those activities that often address specific dimensions of poverty in ways that no state program ever could. And this means giving of our time, energy, and human and monetary capital in ways that bring Christ’s light into some of the darkest places on earth.
Yet this does not mean that Catholics are required to give something to everything, or even that Catholics must give away everything they own. As Fr. James Schall, SJ, writes, “If we take all the existing world wealth and simply distribute it, what would happen? It would quickly disappear; all would be poor.” Put another way, living out the option for the poor may well involve those people with a talent for creating wealth doing precisely that.
“We need transformation, relief, and opportunity…in that order,” says AEI’s Arthur Brooks in a new video on conservatism and poverty alleviation. “Transformation starts with culture. Transformation is faith, family, community, and work…That’s the beginning of getting people into the process of rising.”
While serving in an inner city ministry, Ismael Hernandez began to have doubts about whether he was effectively serving the poor. “For the first time in my ministry work I felt dissatisfied with what I was doing,” says Hernandez. “I saw that I was simply a ‘stuff-giver’, a bureaucrat of compassion, and under the weight of the free stuff I was dumping at the poor was their spirit, slouching aimlessly, awaiting.” He realized that the human person is not only called to change but also to choose:
Christian anthropology asserts that from the beginning of our lives we are created as subjects, not objects moved by forces; even if these forces are well intended. In pursuit of the safety that a parasitic life offers, some find comfort in the boredom of meaningless life or on the pity of others. The truth is that much of what we were doing for the poor was about ourselves and how it made us feel. We began and ended in moral posture that justified our endless call for resources to pass on to others; never daring to challenge the poor themselves, as that was blaming the victim. We had become the brokers and middlemen of a flow of goods passing from a set of hands to another but barely making a dent in the condition of those who ended up with the loot.
Read the rest to hear Hernandez’s five essential principles of poverty-alleviation.
“Why, if we have made such great strides reducing poverty,” asks Scott Winship, “is there such widespread belief that, to quote Ronald Reagan, ‘We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won’?”
We won the War on Poverty in the sense that the prevalence of material hardship has declined. According to Meyer and Sullivan, just 8 percent of Americans live at the low standard of living endured by a third of Americans in 1963. But it was a limited and costly victory. Elderly entitlements will bankrupt the country moving forward. Great Society-style no-strings-attached welfare may have had behavioral and cultural impacts that have hurt child opportunity at the bottom. Upward mobility has not expanded. The conservative turn toward welfare reform after 1980 and the limited embrace of a work-promoting safety net by New Democrats produced an important shift in anti-poverty policy, but historically conservatives have not been constructively engaged in formulating a positive opportunity agenda for children at the bottom. That this is changing is the most hopeful sign in domestic policy in some time.
The New York Times unwittingly highlights many of the points from the Acton Commentary, Maria Shriver’s Big, Big Government Rescue Plan For Women. In a piece entitled “Sarah’s Uncertain Path,” the Times takes a look at poverty in America, focusing on a pregnant 15 year old girl.
Sarah’s family certainly has a rough go of it. And the Times would lead us to believe, just as the aforementioned Government Rescue Plan, that Sarah’s family and those like them are victims:
There is a myth in America: if you have a strong moral compass, work hard and make good choices, you will have equal opportunity. But after two years of listening to and documenting low-income families in rural America…we have witnessed a starkly unequal playing field.
Michael J. Totten has a new piece on his travels through Cuba, this one focused on rural Cuba. “Most of the Cuban landscape I saw is already deforested,” he writes. “It’s just not being used. It’s tree-free and fallow ex-farmland. I’ve never seen anything like it, though parts of the Soviet Union may have looked similar.”
Economists refer to this sort of thing as “the tragedy of the commons,” and nobody does it well as the communists.
Parts of the travelogue are surreal:
Castro’s checkpoints are there to ensure nobody has too much or the wrong kind of food.
Police officers pull over cars and search the trunk for meat, lobsters, and shrimp. They also search passenger bags on city busses in Havana. Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote about it sarcastically in her book, Havana Real. “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”
If they find a side of beef in the trunk, so I’m told, you’ll go to prison for five years if you tell the police where you got it and ten years if you don’t.
No one is allowed to have lobsters in Cuba. You can’t buy them in stores, and they sure as hell aren’t available on anyone’s ration card. They’re strictly reserved for tourist restaurants owned by the state. Kids will sometimes pull them out of the ocean and sell them on the black market, but I was warned in no uncertain terms not to buy one. I stayed in hotels and couldn’t cook my own food anyway. And what was I supposed to do, stash a live lobster in my backpack?
The full essay is here.