Thursday, August 18, 2011

Means and Ends 2: Christian Thinking on Economics & Poverty

I thought I would follow up on my post two days ago on ends and means, particularly when it comes to care for the poor.

When it comes to taking care of the poor and needy, all Christians should believe that it is important. The early church was marked by its care for the sick and more.

However, as I noted, not all Christian agree on the best way to meet these needs. It is quite possible for Christians to have different ideas of the role of government in taking care of the poor. Some argue that it is therefore the Christians duty to insure that the government takes this role seriously, others think that it is largely not the governments role.

Now Scripture makes clear that the government is to enforce just Laws. In the Old Testament kings were not to pervert justice for the poor or for the rich. Abuse of power to oppress the poor was wrong and so was power abused against the rich. Favoritism can cut both ways.

But the Bible spells out very little if anything that speaks directly to current policy, the limits of spending and taxation, and the welfare state. One the one hand the Bible tells us stealing is wrong; but on the other hand, Caesar is given by God the power to collect taxes. The Bible may warn about the individual getting into debt (which may have implications for government but only at secondary level of wisdom, not binding commands). But plainly put the Bible says very little about what types of economic policies I should support or condemn, other than obvious condemnations of stealing and such.

So the Christian is left to general revelation to makes arguments for which is most consistent and even the most effective. These then becomes a discussion of means. The preacher from the pulpit should be very careful not to bind the conscious of the Christian where Scripture binds the conscious. We can bind the conscious on certain ends: we should have compassion on those in need. We should be concerned with orphans and widows, etc. But what is the best means to show this compassion? Who and in what ways should one be the shower of compassion? To what degree should different social units show compassion? Is my book club obligated to take a collection for the poor? How much should the government give?

So my original contention in the first post was to say a Christian needs distinguish between ends and means. We should agree on the ends of helping the poor (we're not talking about the legitimately lazy here). But when it comes to means (particularly on the political level) we should be clear on the difference but neither means are binding upon the Christian when they are not specified or regulated by Scripture alone.

So a Christian wrestling with these issues has to wrestle with the fact that the case can be made that the government is not the best place to take care of poverty issues.

For example, consider this statement from CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank, based upon their research and documenting evidence:
Private charities are able to individualize their approaches to the circumstances of poor people. By contrast, government programs are usually designed in a one-size-fits-all manner that treats all recipients alike. Most government programs rely on the simple provision of cash or services without any attempt to differentiate between the needs of recipients.
The eligibility requirements for government welfare programs are arbitrary and cannot be changed to fit individual circumstances. Consequently, some people in genuine need do not receive assistance, while benefits often go to people who do not really need them. Surveys of people with low incomes generally indicate a higher level of satisfaction with private charities than with government welfare agencies.
Private charities also have a better record of actually delivering aid to recipients because they do not have as much administrative overhead, inefficiency, and waste as government programs. A lot of the money spent on federal and state social welfare programs never reaches recipients because it is consumed by fraud and bureaucracy…
Another advantage of private charity is that aid is much more likely to be targeted to short-term emergency assistance, not long-term dependency. Private charity provides a safety net, not a way of life. Moreover, private charities may demand that the poor change their behavior in exchange for assistance, such as stopping drug abuse, looking for a job, or avoiding pregnancy. Private charities are more likely than government programs to offer counseling and one-on-one follow-up, rather than simply providing a check.
My point is not to agree or disagree with this statement or way of thinking about government welfare, wealthy, poverty, and aid to the poor. My point is to say that nothing in Scripture mandates that because Christians should care for the poor that the Christian most vote for favorable government policies that aid the poor. In fact, in the early centuries of the church is was Christians who were aiding the poor and sick and putting the government to shame.

Yes, Christians should see that the government is fair and justice. And by "see" I mean we should live as citizens and exercise our rights to continue to ensure things are fair and just. The Bible does not endorse the church bearing the sword to keep the government in line. And yes I think Biblical justice is retributive and restorative. However, the means of restoring people to dignity and aiding them and meeting their needs is not necessarily a mandate government.

When it comes to government welfare as care for the poor one has to try to make the case that the Bible mandates a modern government to do these things and then make the case that current policies (especially more left leaning ones) are actually and effective way to do this. Equally one has to examine the effects of said welfare. What if welfare rather than being restorative to the human individual actually makes him or her dependent, enslaved and crushes the human spirit. Not all would agree but we have to ask: what are the unintended consequences of my economic position?

It is impossible to make the case that the Bible mandates a modern government to do things to the extent that some on the Evangelical Left would have one believe. Similarly it is impossible to make the case that the Bible mandates a full laissez-faire capitalist society (as some have tried to turn Jesus' parables into lessons on economics). Both sides can engage in their fair share of Scripture twisting.

We are back to general revelation--and you have to respect the arguments as such. Clearly certain principles are going to sounder. Certain programs and means are going to be shown to be more effective when the evidence is weighed fairly. But we should be far more cautious. These areas fall under common grace--which means some (many?) non-Christians may have better understanding of these areas of general revelation than Christians.

Sadly sometimes Christians make their case for political action, economic theory and poverty based on combinations of over-extending Scriptural argument, egregious eisegesis, and lack of attention to general revelation and the realm of common grace. 

I shouldn't condemn a brother in Christ with being against the ends of care for the poor, if he does not advocate the same means. Criticisms should be fair and civil.

No comments:

"The Voyages..." Forays into Biblical studies, Biblical exegesis, theology, exposition, life, and occasionally some Star Trek...