What Would Jesus Cut?

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Recently
by Shawn Ritenour: The
Immorality of Government Inflation

 

 
 

That is the
question asked by the left-leaning Christian organization, Sojourners,
in its campaign of the same name. Sojourners
claims that, despite record budget deficits and national debt, reducing
subsidies for things like vaccines and bed nets in Africa, school
lunch programs, early childhood education, and income maintenance
in the United States is immoral. Indeed, such subsidies, Sojourners
says, “are dollars we can’t afford to not invest.”

What are we
to make of these claims? Certainly we are called to love our neighbor
as ourselves and this love, when directed toward the poor and needy,
must manifest itself by providing real material help to those who
truly need it. It is not enough merely to wish a suffering soul
to be warm and well fed. We must be willing to put our money where
our mouth is.

It is a mistake,
however, to treat as materially poor those who merely have
lower incomes than others. For example, the average officially “poor”
American has more living space than the average person living in
Paris or London. Sixty-two percent of officially poor American homes
have satellite or cable television and nearly 75 percent own an
automobile. In the United States, what passes for poor certainly
does not imply destitution.

Most important,
we need to remember that the ends never justify the means, especially
for the Christian. Good intentions are never enough to establish
an action’s ethical validity. Scripture not only ordains ends
we are called to pursue; it also guides us regarding the means that
are acceptable to use in achieving those ends.

We should keep
these principles in mind when considering Sojourners’ campaign.
The campaign correctly notes that societal righteousness is not
measured by GDP or military spending; also one of the good works
demonstrated by righteous people is charity to the poor. This is
all true.

Yet, a fundamental
problem with Sojourners’ program is the assumption that what
“we” do must be done by the state. It is a large and not
logically necessary leap from “We are called to be charitable
to the poor,” to “A righteous society will have an extensive
welfare state.” Consider:

In the first
place, it is not clear at all that the programs mentioned above
have been proven effective. There is much literature documenting
the ineffectiveness of foreign aid in producing sustainable development,
which is the best way to reduce poverty in less developed nations.

Domestically,
the link between welfare programs and personal development is so
tenuous that even Bill Clinton thought that welfare reform was wise.
Like it or not, institutional entitlement payments to the poor encourages
idleness, one of the primary reasons that many households earn low
incomes. Along with an absent father, one of the main reasons for
impoverished children in this country is parents who do not work
much. Subsidizing idleness through the federal budget is not going
to solve this problem.

The message
from Sojourners also errs by assuming that money spent on these
projects is investment. In fact, the money spent resembles government
consumption. Investment is the voluntary directing of saved income
toward capital accumulation and the employment of that capital in
its most productive use. Calling government spending “investment,”
when that spending is funded by coercive taxation or monetary inflation,
is doing violence to language.

For that matter,
forcing taxpayers to pay for such programs, even if worthwhile,
likewise does violence to the citizenry. It is a violation of the
Christian ethic of property and, hence, cannot be accepted as a
truly Christian approach to ministering to the poor. If Christ wishes
us to adhere to the ethics He has revealed to us in Scripture, perhaps
Jesus would want us to cut a lot more government spending than Sojourners
assumes.

A better solution
would be for the church to be the church. Local congregations should
fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering
to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconate should
be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise
in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they
seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the
Gospel to everyone, making disciples of all people.

This two-pronged
approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor,
and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not
know Him.

May
7, 2010

Dr. Shawn
Ritenour [send him mail]
is professor of economics at Grove City College, contributor to
the Center for Vision &
Values
, and adjunct professor at the Mises Institute in Auburn,
AL. He is the author of Foundations
of Economics: A Christian View
.

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