Originally posted at the Values & Capitalism Blog.

The idea that churches can tackle national poverty, take care of those who are ill, and rebuild communities after natural disasters requires a spoonful of bad moral theology and a cup of dishonesty.” – Robert Parham

In a recent blog post, EthicsDaily.com editor and Executive Director of Baptist Center for Ethics Robert Parham claimed that churches and charities could never do enough to alleviate poverty. I agree.

Poverty will never be “tackled” because it is a relative term; a moving target. If you could describe the plight of America’s poor today to a poor person in another country, or an American 100 years ago, they would conclude that poverty had been eliminated. The standard of living among the poorest Americans today is incredible by world and historical standards. Yet we still wage the war on poverty, even in America. This is not a bad thing – helping the down and out can be wonderful and is something Christians are called to. But when we aim at targets like the “end” of poverty, there is no end to what we can justify in order to reach this impossible goal. “The poor will always be with you.” The question for Christians is how best to reach them, spiritually and materially.

The second reason I agree with Parham’s claim is that, to the extent that poverty can be reduced, the church and private charity alone are simply too small to do it. The incredible gains in social and material welfare of the poor in America have not primarily resulted from charity, churches or governments. They have resulted from (mostly) free-market economies.

If we look at poverty in a vacuum as Parham does and ask how private charity compares to government efforts, we could conclude that private efforts are too small. But if we look at government and private efforts combined compared to the power of the market, they would be dwarfed so as to make them hardly important in the big scheme. Charity is a targeted and short-term salve for the wounded; its value is far more in its spiritual nourishment than any material progress it brings. A vibrant free-market is the only institution powerful enough to bring about the kind of dramatic increases in standard of living that most of us wish to see.

Public Choice

Jumping from the premise that private charity is not enough to the conclusion that government must do something places a blind, sometimes idolatrous faith in government that counters logic and experience. The incentive structure in government departments is to perpetuate and grow regardless of their effectiveness or the need for their services. There is no check on whether or not they are effective. In fact, the less effective a bureau of poverty relief is, the more they are rewarded with bigger budgets. If poverty is on the rise, and they will always claim it is so as to increase their importance, the last thing to do is cut the department of poverty relief!

Government programs are also subject to “capture” by interest groups and politicians. Scratch the surface of any government program and you will find that it is not the “general welfare” being promoted, but the welfare of a very small and politically connected group at the expense of the general welfare.

To examine private efforts and claim they cannot tackle a problem is only half the analysis needed. We must also examine government efforts and ask if they can tackle the same problem before we charge them to do it. The field of Public Choice Economics does just this, and you would be hard-pressed to find a case where the market is not providing something and getting government involved makes it better. If Christians have a duty to help the poor, they also have a duty to use their brains to discover ways that actually work. Intentions and actions are not enough, we need to understand how to be effective. This requires some knowledge of economic and political systems.

Wrong about Rights

The most damning and least supported claim in Parham’s article was that it is wrong for a Christian to value other people’s property rights:

“[L]ibertarian morality values property rights over human rights. For a Christian, that’s bad moral theology.”

I beg to differ. What Parham leaves unexplained is how human rights are to exist absent property rights. Private property is not some sacred dogma for its own sake; it is important because there is no other method of peacefully settling competing demands for limited resources. Such resources include food, water, shelter and other necessities of life. Common definitions or human rights include the right to be free from hunger. How can you have this right if you have no right to the very food you need to survive?

If Parham means by human rights the right to food, shelter, health care and other positive rights, this poses an incurable conundrum. Positive rights are a logical and practical impossibility. They cannot coexist with negative rights, or even with other positive rights.

A positive right is a right to something. A negative right is a right from something. A positive right obligates another person to take action. A negative right prohibits another person from taking action. A right to life, liberty or property is a negative right. You are free to live and act and justly acquire property, and no one can prohibit that so long as you are not violating their rights. A right to health care is a positive right. If you have the right to receive health care, someone else has an obligation to give it to you. If I am a doctor and you say you need my services, I am obligated to assist you in a world of positive rights. But what if at the same time I am hungry and need to eat rather than assist you in order to maintain good health? Our positive rights to health care cannot both be fulfilled, and in order for one of us to fulfill them we’d have to violate the other’s negative right to liberty and property.

Indeed, it is not possible to have any moral theology whatsoever without an acceptance of private property. One cannot give generously what one does not own, and one cannot help another by stealing from him.

Means and Ends

To sum up the argument, the author couldn’t imagine the church doing a task to his satisfaction, so his response was to ask men with guns to take money from people who presumably wouldn’t part with it voluntarily, and give it to causes he valued. Everything government does is backed by threat of force. Indeed, that is the only thing that distinguishes government from all other institutions. Let’s remove the intermediary agents (IRS, law enforcement) and revisit the argument with the author as the principal actor:

Churches can’t or won’t do as much to help the poor as Parham wants so he takes a gun door to door and says, “donate or else.”

That’s clearly a barbaric and inhumane way to a more civilized and humane world. Yet voting for people who will appoint people who will hire people who will send threatening letters promising agents with the ability to use lethal force if money isn’t sent to some other agents to spend on social causes is no different in moral terms. The means of the kingdom of God are service, sacrifice, grace and love. The means of all earthy kingdoms are brute force and the threat of it.

When the rich man refused to sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, Jesus did not send Peter and John after him to extract a percentage on threat of imprisonment. He let him walk away. We are to do the same.

Isaac Morehouse

Isaac Morehouse is an entrepreneur, thinker, and communicator dedicated to the relentless pursuit of freedom, and is an advocate of self-directed learning and living. He is the founder and CEO of Praxis, an intensive one-year program combining real-world business experience with personal coaching, professional development projects, and interdisciplinary education for those who want more than college. When he’s not with his wife and kids or travelling the country and building his company he can be found smoking cigars, playing guitars, singing, reading, writing, getting angry watching sports teams from his home state of Michigan, or enjoying the beach.
  • David

    While I more or less agree with the premise behind this article, I do somewhat disagree with him on voting. Only because finding someone in the political arena who does not ever want to use the government for any coercive purpose is almost impossible (Absolutely impossible if you count even basic minarchism as coercive) but to vote for someone who supports far less of it than anyone else I feel is a valid defensive measure. I would qualify this, however, by saying that this is not always a wise choice. I find it to be bad strategy unless that candidate is at least nominally libertarian, or at the very least, a constitutionalist. I could, and would, vote for an imperfect candidate under those circumstances. I would have voted for Gary Johnson in 2012, and Chuck Baldwin in 2008 (Bob Barr really fit more into “Taking some democratic and some Republican positios” than he did any solid Constitutionalist, let alone Libertarian, ideology, while Baldwin was a solid Constitutionalist) had I been old enough to vote in either of those elections, and if I had had the views I have today in 2008.

    And regarding the Constitution, I get the argument that the Articles of Confederation were better. I tend to agree, possibly with a tad more Federal power, at least enough to ensure that the state-borders stayed open so people could “Vote with their feet” easily, and to ensure a common (Gold-backed) money system. Allowing for direct taxation (Rather than asking the states for money), eminent domain, and the ease in which Congress can declare war, are mistakes. That said, strict constructionism is a heck of a lot better than what we have now, and a candidate who supported it would be worth voting for. At least nine of every ten things that Federal leviathan does is unconstitutional.

    I would also qualify my statement about “Nominal libertarians” that I am not referring to the pro-war “libertarians” that use and abuse the name. I’m talking about actual libertarians who support peace most or all of the time, but may have an erroneous position on a few issues. I have guys like Gary Johnson or Rand Paul in mind here.

    As for the Republican and Democratic parties, barring Ron Paul, to a lesser extent his son, and any other libertarian or constitutionalist Republicans that don’t immediately come to mind, they are not worth voting for. Voting for them just increases the assumption that most people are in fact satisfieid with the immoral two party system. But voting for an imperfect libertarian or constitutionalist, even if they support some unjustified government intervention, seems justified as an act of defense.
    I should also say regarding voting being a “Civic Duty” I don’t really think it is. I think not voting is a morally neutral act, while voting for a warmonger is a definitvely evil act. I would much rather not vote than vote for either of the war parties. Not voting is better than voting for evil. That said, I think voting for a candidate like one I described above who, even if imperfect, is committed to peace, liberty, and the constitution, is probably a morally positive act, and is better than just sitting there and doing nothing.

  • Gabe’s Mom

    I don’t mean to sound simplistic or insensitive when it comes to the plight of the poor, but they have the same access to Jesus Christ, who is the fulfillment of every need, and who shows no favoritism, as anyone else. As Christians, “we have the mind of Christ” which means when it comes to raising people out of poverty, raising oneself out of poverty, we don’t have limited resources ~ we have endless solutions. Looking to the state to provide what only God can provide has only created more poverty, in my opinion. A poor person with a full belly, clean water, proper sanitation (things the Church can provide), and the” mind of Christ” is free to explore all the solutions at hand and raise himself and others out of poverty. I could be wrong, but I am guessing most churches, when approached by the poor, make sure the poor are fully informed of the various state agencies available to meet their needs, reinforcing the idea that the state ~ not God ~ is our “provider.” The Church could be so richly fulfilling the physical and spiritual needs of the poor, if we only just believed, that instead of living in perpetual poverty, the poor would quickly rise above it and break the chain of generational poverty such as we have in the US.

  • Christiana Horn

    Beautiful, well-thought-out, excellent article. Thank you.

  • hansolo

    ” That said, I think voting for a candidate like one I described above
    who, even if imperfect, is committed to peace, liberty, and the
    constitution, is probably a morally positive act, and is better than
    just sitting there and doing nothing.”

    Who says non-voters are doing nothing?

    And why assume that voting is doing something other than legitimizing a corrupt process/institution?

    What if the followers of Jesus stopped wrestling with the distasteful and distracting task of who to vote for and spent that time investing the the Kingdom of God?

    I believe the following quote is attributed to Emma Goldman –

    “If voting made any difference, it would be illegal”

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  • JW Ogden

    One thing that people like Parham seem to ignore is that most charity is within families and among friends and is not measured.

  • David

    That’s true, you can be doing something without voting. That said, its really not that hard to vote (Assuming a potentially viable candidate) and not doing so gets the whole “You don’t have a right to complain” card played against you, which also might inhibit progress in some ways. A non-vote shows, even if that’s unjustified, apathy. A vote for a Libertarian shows that you care, but won’t vote for thugs.

  • hansolo

    “That said, its really not that hard to vote (Assuming a potentially viable candidate)”

    My objection to voting isn’t how hard it is, but whether its a moral action or even a practical one.

    “…and not doing so gets the whole “You don’t have a right to complain” card played against you, which also might inhibit progress in some ways.”

    As for the argument about a “right to complain”, see the following:


    “A non-vote shows, even if that’s unjustified, apathy.”

    Perhaps many, committed to the system of coerced violence over others, would think so. But their minds won’t change due to how I vote. They will change their minds when they come to terms with the corruption and evil of the system.

    “A vote for a Libertarian shows that you care, but won’t vote for thugs.”

    To me, any vote shows that you believe in using the state to to further the cause of liberty and violence to produce peace. Seems a bit oxymoronic.

  • David

    Kramer has a point, but I disagree with him. I’m a minarchist, not an anarchist, but even if I were an anarchist I suspect I would take Rothbard’s position that in the same way that if you are a slave and are allowed to choose between Overseer Baddy who beats and abuses his slaves as much as he can, and Overseer Goody, who is much more restrained, that to choose Goody is not to accept the slave system at all, but merely to say that you prefer Goody over Baddy. In theory, a vote even for Romney or Obama as a lesser evil than the other would not really be accepting the rule of either one, but I see nothing that could be gained whatsoever from such a vote.

    Not voting is probably more useful than a vote for the status quo. At least not voting shows either apathy or discontentment. Voting third party is more specific, it rules “Apathy” out.

    Regarding whether voting is moral, I think it is morally neutral, and that Murray had a realistic grasp on the situation. Admittedly, I would consider a candidate who truly wanted to create an extremely limited goverment that did no more than police, courts, defense, and infrastructure, to not really fit the role of “Overseer” but rather a benevolent force for good, but as this is extremely unlikely (The possibility ended in 2012 after Romney beat out Ron Paul in the GOP) any possible choice would be a vote for a lesser evil of some sort. Still, a candidate like Gary Johnson, were he to get elected, would not likely make any given policy of our government worse, and he would likely improve in many areas. More importantly, he isn’t going to win, but voting Libertarian is a good educational tool.
    As for its practicality, I see no good reason NOT to vote unless you absolutely cannot stomach any of the candidates on the ballot. If you have a choice between Hitler and Stalin, you don’t vote. If you have a choice between Hitler and Ron Paul, any sane person would vote for Ron Paul. Our current situation doesn’t fit either of those extremes, you mostly have a few third party candidates who are a mixture of good and bad, a semi-solid libertarian candidate, and the two hardcore statists of the major two parties. I admit that one vote doesn’t help a whole lot, a lot of votes could potentially change the system, but even one vote, why not put one tally next to someone who’s actually fighting for liberty, even if flawed?

    For the record, I do actually reject the arguement that if you don’t vote you’ve got no right to complain. Our system sucks and I don’t blame anyone for not participating in it if that’s what their conscience says. Personally, however, I think voting is better than not voting under certain conditions.
    Would you have refused to vote for Ron Paul?

  • I haven’t read Parham’s article. But I suspect there is another motivation behind the demand for government to step in and “tackle” poverty: the suspicion that rich people are rich because they have taken an “unfair” share of the wealth in the world. This suspicion is true in a world where government rewards its allies and supporters. This suspicion is false in a free market economy.

    Wealth is not in limited supply. The poor are not poor because the wealthy have taken something from them.

    I suspect a lot of Christian charity is given with an undefined feeling of guilt – that wealthy Christians aren’t wealthy because they’ve worked hard, saved, learned foresight, and been blessed by God. That somehow they are wealthy because they’ve taken something from other people. I don’t think this feeling is what Paul meant when he said that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9:7).