Handling Poverty in a Christian Libertarian Frame

I think I’m going to write a series of posts on Christianity and libertarianism. (I say, having written two already. I guess three makes a definite series.) There are a lot of corners to flesh out here, and I continue to find interesting issues I hadn’t considered as I research.

For this post, I’m going to assume a libertarian frame in which the state has withdrawn involvement in any kind of social welfare programs, and then take a look at what kind of support for the poor we could rationally expect.

One reason this is sort of hard to discuss in a ‘libertarian’ sense is that I tend to find after engaging with libertarians that they report themselves to be infinitely fractured, and therefore impossible to speak generally about. I’ll accept that this is true. But since that’s the case, I’m limited to discussing either a) ideas that have been submitted by self-proclaimed libertarians or b) ideas that are at least fully consonant with the tenets of libertarianism. In this case, I’m doing both.

So, if we suppose that government has withdrawn all or most social welfare programs and we agree that Christians have an obligation to support the poor, what do Christians do?

It’s been hard for me to find any programmatic answer to that question. (See: ‘we’re infinitely fractured’ dodge.) But I’ve been able to hunt down some broad suggestions. Father Robert Sirico goes for the same old ‘it’s not charity if it’s something the state wants, too’ bit that I’ve already handled, but in doing so seems to argue that support of the poor should be the province of individual Christians. He uses the Good Samaritan example; since that example is one-on-one and we have more than one poor person in the world, I’ll just assume he’s scaling up: in that case, we’re looking at large-scale giving by groups of Christians.

And Christians group in churches. Sirico doesn’t use the term ‘churches’, but no question is posed to him that would warrant him using it, so it’s not unthinkable to imagine his strategy would be along those lines. Anyway, even if he would shy from an actionable plan, Norman Horn comes right out with it:

First off, we must recognize that many, many resources are being used in the form of “charity” for people who can and SHOULD help themselves. When those resources are freed up and those people who can work do, then production takes place and wealth can be saved. This is the only way in the first place (further savings) for how charity can ultimately take place.

With these savings in place, individuals will be able to choose adequately where to be charitable. I suspect that, just as we have now, many churches (like my own) will be able to minister actively to those people who cannot help themselves. There will probably continue to be charitable organizations supported by multiple groups (including religious groups) that work these things out. Furthermore, the families of those “helpless” ones – assuming that they do care for them – will likely be active as well in pursuing their well-being.

Emphasis mine. So, first things first: libertarian Christians seem very upset about the notion of having to help the poor, as you can see from his first paragraph. They tend to imagine a morally unimpeachable poor person as being someone who literally cannot work, e.g. someone who is physically disabled. The NT is actually much less strident on that front: Jesus doesn’t delve deeply into legitimizing certain forms of poverty and deriding others. So, the illegitimate v.s. legitimate poors argumentation would all dissolve to me on those grounds, and the lasting commandment would still be to support the poor. As Jesus put it in Luke 6:32-36:

 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”


So suppose we support the poor in the libertarian frame. In that case, we’re looking at, as Horn says, churches carrying out ministries to the poor. Now, this immediately presents a problem: what about the non-Christian poor who do not wish to be involved in a ministry-style outreach program? (Remember: care for the poor, not care for the good-and-Christian poor. So Christians are just as obligated to care for the non-Christian poor as the Christian.) Even if a libertarian were to argue that ministries could be styled as to be content neutral, there is the issue of internal ethics: see the running battle between LGBT organizations and the Salvation Army.

But even if we background those problems, there are marked income inequalities between different denominations, which would severely impact their ability to carry out a project like the one Horn envisions. Check out this 2009 Pew graph detailing the incomes of various religious groups:

In case it’s too little for you to make out: the shades of blue denote the incomes of that denomination/group in ascending order from lightest to darkest. The palest shade denotes an income of less than 30k yearly, the next shade is 30 – 49.9k, then 50 – 74.9k, then 75 – 99.9k, and finally to 100k and over. The graph is clearer on the Pew page, and the report in .pdf form there is good reading too, if that kind of thing excites you. To quote from it:

“Catholics make up about an equal proportion of adults making over $100,000 per year and of those making under $30,000 per year. But there are proportionally many fewer members of historically black churches (3%) and evangelical churches (20%) in the top income bracket…majorities of members of evangelical churches, historically black churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims earn less than $50,000 per year.”

In other words, different denominations have different concentrations of rich and poor people. Christianity is not a monolith, and the borders between denominations are not necessarily fully permeable. It’s not reasonable, for instance, to expect that mainline protestants would step in to aid the poverty eradication efforts of historically black churches — R. Drew Smith had a good 2001 article on this kind of phenomenon in Sociology of Religion called “Churches and the Urban Poor: Interaction and Social Distance”, if you’re curious about the history there. But even if ‘mainline protestants’ as an entire denomination decided to engage in a project like that, how? Geographical distance and the trouble with establishing regular engagement among so many diverse groups would seem to pose immediate irresolvable problems under the libertarian frame. Denominations with less would simply be left less able to care for their poor, and denominations with more would be better able: but this is antithetical to our overall goal of extending relief to the poor at large.

So again I return to my preference for state-run welfare programs, though Christians are by no means limited to the cheerful payment of their taxes toward that end. Because the state separates giver from receiver, it prevents the sort of prejudice and exclusion based on doctrinal disagreements (e.g. LGBT issues, religious differences) that I described earlier while still allowing a person to provide aid to others. This is amazing: by lowering a veil between the payer and the paid, our good will to provide for the poor is stripped of any ill we might wish them if we knew who they were, or vice versa. This is closer to the message of Jesus in Luke 6:32-36. And when the state taxes, it does so with sensitivity to where wealth is concentrated (albeit not to the levels some of us would prefer), which is a step toward avoiding the problem of relegating the poorest communities to paradoxically spare more for their own members. This better suits our goal of providing relief to the poor at large.

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