Charity and Economics, part 1

Okay, let me start off by admitting a few things here….

First, I was raised Catholic as a boy, but I’ve switched denominations, converted religions and become far more eclectic in my beliefs since my boyhood days of yore. But I still hold great respect for Priests, Pastors, Rabbis, Monks and any religious leader who serves his or her  G-d and congregation with sincerity.  Second, I don’t actually read or speak Italian or Latin. So, I don’t actually know first hand what Pope Francis wrote or said about economics. I read some conservative sources that suggested the Pope had been mistranslated in headlines about the “tyranny of markets” and the Holy Father’s alleged “condemnation of an economic system that favors the rich at the expense of the poor.” And I’ve read some progressive sources, usually critical of the Catholic Church for its “backward” teachings on marriage, women’s health, etc, that recently praised Pope Francis for his comments against markets and in favor of the poor.

Now let’s take a moment and think critically about this. If there were no rich people, who would give to the Church? Who would patronize the arts? Who would endow hospitals and museums and universities? Who would hire people into jobs? And who would care for the poor?

After all, who actually pays for the Pontiff’s modest apartment and the Swiss Guards? G-d. Right. But He provides thru the donations of faithful Catholics and Christians who happen to have enough wealth and income that they aren’t worried about where their next meal is coming from. These donations to the Church are called the tithe (10%) in many Christian congregations. God provides for the Church through the voluntary charity, tithing, of people with the means to give. Ten percent of a $1350 pay check goes much farther than ten percent of a rabbit and of a bushel of kale greens.

All the teaching in Scripture about caring for the poor would be tough to carry out if there were no rich. But the real truth about the Scriptural teaching on caring for the poor is that individuals are responsible to care for the poor. No where in Scripture do the Prophets or Moses or Jesus or the Apostles say that government should take from those who work to feed those who won’t work. Here are a few of those teachings from Scripture.

  • He who gives to the poor, lends to the Most High.
  • Strengthen the poor man.
  • Give alms to the lame and the cripple.
  • Leave the gleanings in the fields for the widows and the orphans.
  • Do not harvest the corners of the field, so that the poor may also eat.

All of these instructions are written to individuals. Not to governments. Of course, the Sunday School A-students out there will remember that the first century congregation in Jerusalem under St. Peter, St. James and St. John had all things in common. This was a voluntary choice. Peter didn’t threaten his parishioners with an audit. James and John didn’t go around and take from the wealthy to feed the widows. Those who had the world’s goods voluntarily brought what they had to the Apostles.

Now back to the thought of government taking care of the poor. Look how “well” the poor in the US are doing. Yes, granted that with the alphabet soup of Federal poverty assistance — AFDC, TANF, SNAP, Section 8, ACA, Medicaid, SSI, utility bill assistance, etc. — the “poor” in the US are better off than what passes for upper middle class in most countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But look past the pantry and the air conditioning and the heat in the winter. Many poor in the US are miserable, not unlike the poor in Africa or Latin America. Some are miserable with envy over those who have more than they have. Some are just miserable because of the choices and opportunities denied them. No amount of charity, whether its given voluntarily or under threat of an IRS audit, can make up for dreams, and hopes and putting to use the talents G-d gave people.

Capitalism (and its derivative, authoritarian capitalism) are the only economic systems to offer men and women the opportunity to pursue the talents God gave him. In a socialist economy testing determines what job the government will assign to a citizen. Never mind their hopes and dreams and how hard they’re willing to work. Remember the movie Gattaca? Uma Thurman, Jude Law and Ethan Hawk starred. Andrew Niccol wrote and directed. It’s the story of a man who dreamed of space flight and had find someone to lend him an identity, including blood samples and flecks of skin, in order to pursue that dream.

The human spirit knows no bounds.

Ethan Hawk’s character trained and studied and performed exceptionally well. Jude Law’s character was paralyzed, though he had superior genetics. A socialist society would have consigned both men to misery. In fact, I think the society in the movie tried to do just that. But Jude Law and Ethan Hawk cooperated and Ethan Hawk crewed the flight to Titan. Or Alpha Centauri. Or where every they were going. A free market and a free society would have allowed both men to pursue whatever dreams they had, employing the talents and abilities they were born with (that is to say given by G-d).

Furthermore, as Dr. Walter E. Williams of George Mason University says, capitalism is a moral economic system precisely because one must serve one’s fellow to get paid.

In a communist society poverty is everywhere. Everyone is entitled to 1800 calories per day and meat twice a week, or what ever may be writ in the constitutions of places like Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela. But how many actually get that? Without private property and the right to own the product of one’s labor, where is the motivation to work hard and achieve? If whatever you grow, or build or create is taken from you by force and divided amongst everyone regardless of whether or not they work, then you don’t own the product of your work and you won’t get ahead by working harder.

All Biblical teaching about charity is directed to the individual.

But not just Scriptural teaching, also economic teaching that has been forgotten. Adam Smith wrote the book on capitalism, literally. It was called ‘The Wealth of Nations.’ But before he wrote that book, he wrote another book called ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments.’ Adam Smith asserted ideas like individuals should voluntarily lend to the poor and those with wealth should hire those without. Scripture says that individuals are to voluntarily care for widows and orphans. Nowhere does the Scripture or Adam Smith call for an all-powerful, leviathan government to seize and redistribute wealth by force from those who work to those who won’t. Adam Smith pointed out that in order for someone to hire the poor and care for widows and orphans they first have to have some wealth. But Scripture also says that if an able-bodied man refuses to work, no one is under any obligation to feed him (or by extension, house or clothe him). Adam Smith wouldn’t have advocated all the benefits the US government passes out today. He would have agreed with former President Ronald Reagan who said, “The greatest social program in the world is job.” A job allows a man or woman to stand on his own and eventually give to charity or Church and help someone else.

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The opinions expressed in my writings are my own, unless otherwise cited or attributed, and not necessarily those of my employers.

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