Today, many people blame poverty on the free market and personal liberty. But that’s like blaming malaria on modern medicine and environmental engineering. Both poverty and malaria were far more widespread and common in the West a hundred years ago than they are today. As a result, when we see either of them now, they are much more noticeable due to their stark contrast with widespread prosperity and health.
I bet most of you don’t know a lot about the history of malaria eradication in the United States. It’s a complex and interesting story, but the sum of it is that it happened as a result of our society implementing some key engineering, chemical and medical ideas that uniquely addressed a very old problem. To put it in perspective, over 30% of the population in the South had malaria in the early 1930′s. Today? Almost none.
There’s a similar story with poverty. From a historical perspective, it was the growth of the free market and Christian views of liberty that radically reduced poverty in the West. But, as the economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, we are victims of our own success. Anyone living prior to 1800 would look at the economic growth in the Western nations from then until now as nothing less than divinely driven.
Yet, unlike malaria, the cures for poverty have been more easily misunderstood or forgotten. This may be because they are a combination of spiritual, economic, and political ideas. That’s where a book like Calvin Beisner’s Prosperity and Poverty is so useful.
In it, he lays out a Biblical structure whereby Christian principles can be brought to bear on what seems to be an intractable problem. He explains:
We must avoid pursuing destructive policies with compassionate motives; instead we must pursue constructive policies with compassionate motives. Our goal as responsible stewards, accountable to God, is to identify Biblical and effective ways of allocating the world’s scare resources of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services so that true justice prevails and human needs are met in every nook and cranny of society.
It’s an important book for a number of reasons.
First, it is not platitudinous. Instead, Beisner digs down into economic principles and shows why some things work and some things don’t. As he explains in his section on monetary policy, if a government-run central bank is inflating the money supply, then the purchasing power of individuals goes down over time, no matter how much they try to save. This is stealing on a national scale, but with very individual results. Poverty increases when purchasing power goes down, but most people don’t understand why it’s happening.
Second, it is throughly Biblical. Beisner explains how our daily work is part of our relationship to God, and that everything begins with Creation. Furthermore, theological doctrines like Providence, Justice, and Stewardship are shown to be everyday concepts that direct how we should live and work and give.
Third, he shows the importance of individual vs. governmental solutions. The problem with the government is that it’s not designed to solve many of the things it’s being asked to solve. The results are like requiring soldier suited up for battle to cook a gourmet five-course meal. Best case, the food gets burned; worse case, someone gets shot.
Finally, he identifies the spiritual issues behind the economic issues. In chapters like “The Nature and Causes of Poverty” and “How Churches Can Help the Poor”, he gives specific and useful methods for addressing what has become a political/governmental albatross that hangs heavily around our collective necks. Unless we find real, workable solutions to long-term poverty, we’ll all end up poor ourselves.
In sum, I recommend you buy a copy of Prosperity and Poverty if you want to understand these issues better. In light of our current policies, they will only get worse in the years to come. We are like a city with a new malaria epidemic that decides to dig trenches and fill them with water in hopes it will stop the problem.
Yet, as every mosquito will tell you, such methods can only make a bad problem worse.