Universal Poverty

Every Christian knows, or should know, that part of what it means to be a Christian on earth is to help those in material need. We’re to focus most of our efforts on our brothers and sisters in Christ:

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Many in the early church were poor, but poverty was the lot for most people in the ancient and medieval world. The average man was a subsistence farmer, barely growing enough to survive. Depending on the age, he may have been a tenant, or he may have owned his own land. His life, and the life of his family, depended on his ability to produce a good harvest. There’s a reason much of the imagery in Scripture is agricultural. Everyone would have understood it.

You should immediately comprehend that you are not a subsistence farmer like most of your ancestors. Neither do you know one. Unless you have visited a very poor country, you’ve probably never even seen one with your own eyes. Something peculiar happened to divide us from the universal poverty of those who came before us.

The Zero Sum Myth

Much of what passes for intellectual economic debate is really just old myth dressed in pompous, moralistic language. “The rich steal from the poor” says the rich celebrity who wears a baseball cap to pretend he fits in with his audience. “Vote for me and the rich will pay their fair share!” says the extremely wealthy politician who uses envy to procure a majority of votes from his less wealthy constituents who outnumber the few millionaires he represents.

One of the most common and egregious myths is that wealth is zero-sum. Wealth, in this view, is finite. There is X wealth in the world, and it will be distributed evenly or unevenly. The spirit of the age is one of envy which justifies itself in egalitarian language, and so it is presumed without argument that an even distribution of this finite wealth would be more moral and just than an uneven distribution.

That no one can define “even” is of no consequence to the advocates of this view. Indeed, no one has any idea what the term means. Is a man who works 16 hours a day entitled to twice as much as a man who works 8? He’d be wealthier very soon. Is a man who has a large family entitled to the same amount of money per person as a man who has no family? Is the quality of work performed relevant? How about experience?

We needn’t answer such questions because the premise itself is wrong: wealth is not zero-sum.

Wealth Creation

Suppose I want to buy a board game to play with my family. I value the experience at $50. If I have to pay more, I’d consider my money best spent elsewhere. I visit a hobby shop and the owner has a collection of games for sale. I find one that looks good, and it costs $40. The owner purchased the game for $30 from a distributor. Myriad other businesses got it to the distributor, but we will ignore these steps for now, incredible as they are. I hand over $40 in cash, take the board game, and go home to play it with my family. This seems mundane, but something very important has happened: $20 of wealth has been created.

I value the game at $50, and so spending $40 on it, the difference is $10. The shop owner, who bought the game at $30 (which is what he valued it), has earned $10 from my purchase. Both of us walk away from the exchange $10 wealthier. Wealth, contrary to the myth, is not zero-sum. It is created every single time there is a free exchange between two people. If either of us valued our current situation (the shop owner with an item on his shelf and myself without the game) more than the new situation, we wouldn’t have entered into the agreement.

An Abundant World

We are extraordinarily wealthy in the first world today. My own great grandparents grew old in a home smaller than my first house. At the time it was the best they could afford; today, I can afford far more. Not because I’m smarter or better at business (the opposite is almost certainly true). I can afford more because I am wealthier. And I am wealthier because so much wealth has been created since the time my great grandparents were my age that it’s hard to believe.

If wealth were zero-sum, we’d expect a flat line of gross domestic product per capita over world history. And during the majority of our history when most people were subsistence farmers, that’s exactly what happened. But then, something changed. Markets became free, governments became limited, and wealth exploded into the stratosphere:

2,000 Years of Economic History in 1 Chart

As Wayne Grudem explains in his book “The Poverty of Nations”, there are several dozen conditions that help produce this sort of exponential GDP. Christianity, most of all, provides the worldview that makes this likely. There’s a reason it took the advanced Christian West to get here.

Christian Anti-intellectualism

What does all of this have to do with remembering the poor? It has everything to do with it.

Christians of the past were some of the most thoughtful, intellectually sophisticated (in the most positive sense) thinkers in world history. And yet, the modern, Western church has sacrificed this birthright, trading it for a watered down, soft, effeminate substitute. Whereas Christians of the past changed the world, we often have to be satisfied by Christian leaders who simply move further left at a slower pace than their secular counterparts. I think we ought to reject this.

It is one thing to love your poor neighbor by helping him with his next meal or giving him a place to sleep for the night. We can do those things. We should do those things. But it is quite another to help our poor neighbor out of poverty altogether. We can look around the world and evaluate which economic and political systems do this, en masse, and which don’t.

With our anti-intellectual blend of Christian worldview, anything more than the most simplistic solutions to poverty (e.g. dealing with immediate needs in the most straightforward way possible) are deemed too political or philosophical. This is not to say we ought not deal with immediate needs. It’s to say that if you want to help the poor, you ought to do more than meet their immediate needs. At the very least, you should have a firm grasp of economics, the deeply Christian philosophy of limited government and true liberty, and you should vote in accordance with that understanding.

I have found, unfortunately, that many in the church want to avoid the difficult task of thinking. Reading books is hard. Reading books on economics is boring. It feels good to hand some food to a homeless person. If we want to get really sophisticated, it even feels good to run a homeless shelter. There’s nothing wrong with either of those things; in fact, I think both are great things to do. But the feelings are taken to be spiritually affirming, and since no such emotions follow reading Thomas Sowell’s “Basic Economics” or critiques of Marx’s abysmal philosophy, these are seen as less pious.

Problem is, many of these same people vote for policies that create homelessness and poverty. They vote for rent controls that create housing shortages. They vote for price controls that create food shortages. They vote for punitive taxes on the wealthy and then decry the poverty in the wake of the flight of the wealthy to greener pastures. They vote for wealth redistribution that makes some people dependent on government instead of creating wealth.

To live in obedience to Christ is more than doing those things which make us feel pious. It means developing a Christian worldview and acting in accordance with it. In practical terms, it means Christians have no excuse not to study the greatest wealth-creation system ever conceived that brought untold billions out of the poverty that defined the whole mass of humanity before the 17th century.

Remember the poor, and study the God-given, Biblically-grounded economic and political system that brought so many of them out of their poverty.