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.