Archive for free market
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.
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.
Tags: capitalism, charity, free market, public choice, society
G.T. asks a great question on the Christian Libertarian FAQ:
It’s one thing for adults to be left to make their own choices and live with the consequences, but when it comes to children, does society not have certain responsibilities for their proper care (if parents are unable/unwilling)? For libertarians who believe that education should be privatized, how does this practically work for these “forgotten” children?
Candidly, if I knew how a market in X works in practice, an accurate and comprehensive answer would be the most valuable proof that statism would work. Knowing how things work in practice ahead of time is impossible. We can guess and offer possibilities, but if education were privatized, it would probably look very different from what we now expect. At the same time, we don’t have just theories or principles of economics to look to for answers on how education could work without the state. We have a history of markets with millions of examples of how goods and services “work in practice.” We also have a history of markets that show us how the poor are provided goods and services that in prior decades on the wealthy could afford or have access to. While it will always be true that the wealthy will have access to the best, since the advent of freed markets the poorest have had access to reliable and quality substitutes for those products or services. In the early 1990s, “car phones” seemed to be the envy of the wealthy, completely out of reach to the poorest. Cellular phones are now ubiquitous and nearly universally affordable. A computer used to cost thousands of dollars in 1980s money, but now are merely a few hundred dollars in today’s money. These are but a few examples.
Education is one of the most complex social phenomena throughout history because of its rather fundamental nature of life. The bare minimum of learning is for mere survival, and so broadly speaking, education has always existed where survival was necessary! Just as there have always been many ways to learn, there are many ways to acquire education—apprenticeships, schools, labor market, reading, to name just a few. The first thing to keep in mind with education is that what we usually think of as “education” today is relatively new. Schools as we think of them are a recent historical practice.
The most difficult endeavor in proposing a society that operates completely on the foundations of peaceful interactions is to imagine a world nearly upside down from today’s experience. Examples throughout history are full of those who objected to social change. Certain industries may thrive in new conditions and leave old industries obsolete, yet life continued and humanity adjusted. It moves on. And most of us are the better for it. But social change is not without its hurdles. The biggest one is opening the imagination of others who cannot see what ought to be done. This takes courage and perseverance. It doesn’t happen overnight.
For most who question the privatization model of education, the children who will presumably be “left behind” (i.e. they fail to get adequate education) are the focus of concern. Add to this the Christian responsibility to concern themselves with the wellbeing of what Jesus calls “the least of these,” and the question becomes a bit more important. If Christians advocate something that leaves the poor behind, it might need to be reconsidered.
A Honda Civic will get me to work just as well as an Aston Martin. An iPad will send emails, but so will the cheapest tablet on the market that costs a fraction of the price. You can buy expensive cabinets made of exquisite wood shipped from exotic locations around the world, or you can shop at IKEA. Both add functionality to your kitchen. Markets have a proven track record of providing reliable and socially acceptable goods and services for those who have very little. In many areas, even those who were very wealthy could not afford such things a decade prior.
Once we keep in mind that education is not just “schooling,” we can begin to imagine ways that educating the poorest in a free society is not just a prediction but is feasible.
The question isn’t really about who owns and operates the school system. The question is, “What kind of ‘system’ do we need in order to see access to education to as many people as possible?” Do we even need a formal system, or does an emergent order of educational providers make more sense (the Hayekians among us would have plenty to say here!)?
It is often stated that it is the job of “the church” to assist the poor and not the job of anyone else. But for the same reason I reject the idea that “schooling” equals “education,” I would also reject the idea that “Church” equals “institutionalized Christianity.” Those who follow Jesus should be pushing the way forward that helps those in need, by whatever peaceful means necessary. That could mean starting a school funded by donations from those who have extra to give. That could mean starting a business that provides apprenticeships to the poor in exchange for inexpensive labor. That could mean working in the political system to privatize schools as we now know it. It could also mean working toward dismantling the current system so that it reflects a less institutionalized approach to educating.
A remaining concern to address is the neglectful parenting that can happen, leaving children “behind” the rest of society. What I would caution against is considering “society” as an entity with a purpose as if it were an individual. If by society you mean “the people living in society,” consider this: when a society is ready and willing to “go private” with education (face it, that’s a long way off!), that society will be ready to take care of those who are being neglected without a need for a federal or state institution to do so.
(UPDATE: Mises.org Wiki has a great page called Private Alternatives to Public Goods.)
Tags: children, economics, education, FAQ, free market, free society
Book review of Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness by Jordan J. Ballor. Christian’s Library Press, 2010. Grand Rapids, MI.
Many Christians go throughout their lives never hearing of the large ecumenical organizations, such as the World Council of Churches, that try to bring a greater sense of unity to the plethora of denominations throughout the world. Nonetheless, these organizations still retain some semblance of power, although greatly reduced in the past decades, through their supposed ability to “speak for the Church” in various ways. Jordan Ballor has exposed many issues with these ecumenical organizations in Ecumenical Babel, especially those that relate to unsound economics promoted in their statements.
Ballor, in my opinion, has three main purposes in the text: (1) describe how these ecumenical organizations make their pronouncements, (2) describe what they are saying and the problems with their pronouncements, and (3) offer some corrective measures. He certainly does not think he is giving “the last word” on these issues by any means, but he brings needed critical engagement to some difficult subject matter.
First, the status of ecumenical organizations and their places within the church universal is an unusual topic that has been discussed for over a century. Ballor poignantly reminds us of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Is the ecumenical movement, in its visible representation, a church?” Bonhoeffer asks us to consider what an ecumenical organization is actually empowered to do. If it is indeed “a church” in some institutional sense, then its pronouncements take on an entirely new meaning as it pertains to the authority of the church to speak to the people within it. Such authority would require much greater critical engagement than is typically given to what these organizations do. If it is not “a church,” then how do the organizations “speak for the church” in a meaningful way? If these questions intrigue you then I encourage you to look further into Ballor’s work.
Second, what the ecumenical movement is indeed saying through their council statements is very troubling to the proponent of liberty. The influence of neo-Marxist “liberation theology” (note: not libertarian!) has become dominant throughout their doctrine. Such theology is utterly statist and, in my opinion, promotes nothing but violence insofar as it encourages governments to become increasingly interventionist throughout the world. Although the circumstances are quite different, it reminds me of the book of Jeremiah when the priests are saying “Peace! Peace!” but of course “There is no peace.” In their attempts to promote “social justice” to relieve poverty and to “protect” the environment, the ecumenical movement unintentionally promotes the exact opposite means of getting there by asking the State to do it all. (Here at LCC, Doug Stuart has done amazing work describing how the ultimate “social justice” paradigm is actually one that promotes liberty, free markets, and limited-to-zero government intervention in the economy.) The ecumenical movement has sacrificed the ability to speak great things to the church in favor of a pathetic appeal toward greater statism in the world today.
Finally, Ballor describes ways to reform the ecumenical movement. Currently the movement is in sad shape: “The ecumenical movement’s social witness has become obsolescent, marginal, irrelevant, or worse” (Ballor quoting E.W. Lefever). What can be done? In short… First, returning to Bonhoeffer’s question, the ecumenical movement could simply abandon the pretension to being a institutional form of the church. Second, the ecumenical movement could embrace a distinction between its own social witness and what its members actually do, politically/socially/etc., throughout society already. Instead of giving particular judgments on policy and politics, it might give more general guidance to the church itself. Third, the ecumenical ought to abandon the neo-Marxist liberation theology and correct its understanding of economics.
I do not presume to convince everyone reading LCC to go out and buy Ecumenical Babel. It is a very niche topic that may seem initially to be of low interest to many. But what is of particular interest to me is how the intellectuals of the church, i.e., the ministers/clergymen, are increasingly making pronouncements about the economy, trade, the State, and “social justice” that are completely at odds with sound economic principles. I think you ought to be aware of this as well. If we are to promote a better theology of government and liberty, it behooves us to pay attention to what those who teach the church are actually teaching, and what those who claim to speak for the church are actually speaking. Just as we hope to affect the world at large through intellectuals in universities teaching the next generation of thinkers and doers, so we can also make a difference through the ministers and teachers within the church.
Interested in learning more? Check out Ecumenical Babel at Amazon.com. Remember that you support the work of LibertarianChristians.com every time you make a purchase at Amazon for 24 hours after clicking an LCC link!
Tags: book review, Christianity, economics, ecumenism, free market, free trade, left and right, world council of churches
Check out this amazing short film by the Competitive Enterprise Institute based on “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read:
The free market is a beautiful thing.
Tags: economics, free market, Leonard Read, markets