Thursday, June 5, 2014

Unless the Lord Builds the House: Poverty and Morality (Throwback Thursday Edition)

This piece was originally published on February 17th 2014 under the title "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain" (I've done some minor updating for this new posting).  It is a sort of companion piece to my more recent post, "In Mother Jones, of All Places" [here].  Where "Mother Jones" deals with a left-wing perspective on poverty, this post discusses the views of an economist looking at poverty from the right.  Despite differences in rhetoric and proposed solutions, they come to some similar conclusions.

Economist Walter Williams 
     Walter Williams published a piece earlier this year called ”Dependency, Not Poverty” [link] that immediately brought to mind the brouhaha over Pope Francis’ supposed condemnation of capitalism in Evangelii Gaudium. You might recall that in said brouhaha the “smoking gun” brandished by gleeful leftists is the following quote:

"In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably  succeed in bringing about greater justice and  inclusiveness in the world". (Evangelii Gaudium 54)

     As I pointed out in an earlier post [link], this statement fits in perfectly with over a century of Magisterial teaching by popes (Leo XIII, Pius XI, John Paul II) who were in no way friendly to socialism.  One could argue that it is simply common sense.  William’s article provides a perfect, real-world example of the truth in the Pope's statement: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The United States of America.

     Williams offers some intriguing facts taken from a report by Dr. Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, “Understanding poverty in the United States” [link]:

*80% of poor households have air conditioning

*Nearly three quarters have a car or truck (31% have two or more)

*Two-thirds have cable or satellite TV

*Half have one or more computers 
*42% own their own home

*“Poor Americans have more living space than the typical non-poor in Sweden, France
    or the UK.”

     Williams also points out that, while the poverty rate among American blacks in general is 35%, “the poverty rate among black married families has been in single digits for more than two decades, currently at 8%.”  Williams concludes that, rather than simple material deprivation caused by factors beyond the reach of the sufferers, “What we have in our nation are dependency and poverty of the spirit, with people making unwise choices and leading pathological lives aided and abetted by the welfare state.” 

     In short, while “economic growth, encouraged by a free market” has indeed created enough wealth and more for every person in the United States, it certainly has not succeeded “in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness.”  The question is what, as Christians, ought we to do?

     This is a very complicated question, to which I, at least, could not do justice in one blog post, even if I had all the answers.  I expect to return to it in the future.  For today, I’d like to sketch out a brief outline.  First, those on the economic left (including many of those who style themselves “Social Justice Catholics”) advocate more government redistribution, accomplished by taking wealth from those who produce it and giving it to others who consume it.  Walter Williams (and many others) argue that it is just such redistributionist policies, which separate wealth from work and incentivize dependency and indolence,  that are largely responsible for the “spiritual poverty” that is, is many ways, more damaging and demoralizing than ordinary material poverty (and which ultimately creates material poverty as well).

     Common sense and human experience bear him out.  Benjamin Franklin famously said:

I am for doing good to the poor, but . . . I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, it is leading or driving them out of it.  I observed . . . that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer.  And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

Benjamin Franklin

Most of us Christians would not want put the matter quite so harshly; after all, Christian Charity demands that we do much more than simply letting the poor enjoy the benefits of the Law of Consequences.  Still, Mr. Franklin has a valid point: if doing nothing pays as well as or better than working hard, what incentive is there to choose the more difficult road?  And St. Paul himself said: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” (2 Thess 10b-11

     As Catholics we also recognize how important work is to our dignity as human beings.  Saint John Paul the Great says:

Work is a good thing for a man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being.”  (Laborem Exercens 9)    

We could truly say that it is uncharitable to induce otherwise capable people not to work, because we are robbing them of a part of their human dignity.  Pius XI said that “it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.” (Quadrigesimo Anno 79 – italics mine)  This same Principle of Subsidiarity holds as true for individuals as it does for groups and organizations.

     So what are we to conclude?  Again, just a couple preliminary conclusions.  First, while it’s true that the market economy’s ability to generate wealth is not sufficient to create a just society, and does not of itself eliminate poverty, it is certainly a necessary condition; welfare state policies, on the other hand, create no wealth at all and, at least in some cases, discourage people from making choices that could lift them out of poverty.  This doesn’t mean that we ought not to help the needy, but it does mean that such assistance, whether private or public, ought not to make dependency more attractive than work.

     Also, no system, no program and no amount of wealth can save us from the effects of original sin; whether we’re looking to welfare state programs or the market economy for salvation we’re going down the wrong road.  I can’t help but think (not for the first time) of another quote from Saint John Paul II said: “It is not therefore a matter of inventing a ‘new program’. The program already exists: it is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living Tradition, it is the same as ever.”  (Novo Millenio Ineunto 29)

   Clearly this is true on the eternal level: the permanent disposition of our souls far overshadows our material circumstances in this world. But it is also true on a more mundane level. To the degree that poverty in the United States and other Western nations is the fruit of what Walter Williams calls “unwise choices and  . . . pathological lives aided and abetted by the welfare state,” (what we used to call “immorality” and “living in sin”), it can be corrected by wise choices and healthy lives.  Men and women who put Christ at the center of their lives, and therefore live according to Christian moral norms (such as traditional monogamous marriage) are likely to live in a way that leads to a better economic outcome.

     My final thought is this: Christian morality is not simply one “lifestyle choice” among many; it is the truth, based on the reality of human nature as God created it.  The so-called “culture wars” are not a diversion from more important economic and political matters, but are in fact the key to solving problems in the political and economic realms.  After all, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.” (Rom 8:28)