Should Christians support wealth redistribution as a way to alleviate poverty?

Here is an article by Jay Richards for the American Enterprise Institute.

First, his introduction:

If you’re like me, when you think of wealth and poverty, you picture its material manifestations. To have wealth, we imagine, is to have money, stocks, real estate, or valuable commodities, which, in turn, gives us the means to achieve various material ends, such as food, clothing, cars, housing, and healthcare. Poverty, in contrast, is the lack of such goods, which, in turn, leads to a lack of food, shelter, basic medical care, and other such items. These mental associations can make it hard to discover the preconditions of wealth creation, many of which are immaterial, even spiritual, rather than material.

For most of human history, discovering the sources of wealth creation would have been devilishly hard, since most economies, such as there were, tended to be static. If a Mesopotamian farmer or Greek shepherd in the second century BC ever asked, “Where does wealth come from?” he would have assumed that wealth came from rain, common labor, good luck, or some combination of these. He probably also would have assumed that to get really wealthy, you need to plunder other people.

But we now have concrete examples of cultures that have created vast new wealth, moving the majority of their citizens from poverty to relative prosperity. And when we look at these cultures retroactively, we discover answers that, for most of us, are counterintuitive. I’ve argued elsewhere that we’re able to discern ten crucial features allowing such cultures to alleviate poverty and create wealth. The more of these a culture has or does, the more likely it is to be prosperous.

The Top Ten Ways to Alleviate Poverty

  1. Establish and maintain the rule of law.
  2. Focus the jurisdiction of government primarily on maintaining the rule of law, and limit its jurisdiction over the economy and the institutions of civil society.
  3. Implement a formal property system with consistent and accessible means for securing a clear title to property one owns.
  4. Encourage economic freedom.
  5. Encourage stable families and other important private institutions which mediate between the individual and the state.
  6. Encourage belief in the truth that the universe is purposeful and makes sense.
  7. Encourage the right cultural mores.
  8. Instill a proper understanding of the nature of wealth creation and poverty.
  9. Focus on cultivating your comparative advantage rather than protecting what used to be your comparative advantage.
  10. Work hard.

There is a striking correlation between societies that exhibit these traits, or some subset of them, and the large-scale wealth creation. But notice that only one of them describes a material good. All the others are intangible, immaterial, spiritual. You can’t find economic freedom or cultural mores on a map or put them in a safe. You can’t bottle diligence or weigh the ingredients for stable families and voluntary institutions on a scale. These goods involve beliefs, social conventions, institutions, commitments, virtues, and creativity. Having listed them in brief, now I want to hold each of the ten immaterial ingredients up to the light and consider how each helps a society move from poverty to prosperity.

If someone has a spiritual or moral sickness that is preventing them from working, then the solution is not to hand them someone else’s money. That’s not going to make them happy. They need to earn their own pay and be responsible for their own independence.

Family Research Council lecture

Here’s a lecture that Jay Richards did for the Family Research Council, on the topic of Christianity and Economics. It’s a very good lecture that discusses some basic economic principles and some common economics myths. You can also listen to the MP3 file, but it’s 60 megabytes.

UPDATE: Letitia also put up a post on Christianity and socialism today.

12 thoughts on “Should Christians support wealth redistribution as a way to alleviate poverty?”

  1. Wintery, interesting post. I like these kinds of discussions.

    Do you think unemployment benefits should be given to an 22 year old who has just graduated from university but cannot get a job?

    And how do you expect someone born into a very poor household with non-skilled parents (who work in factories) who barely have enough to get by to be able to pay for good schooling, quality healthcare or even the huge cost of university for their daughter?

    I’m not sure how hard and fast you carry your principle of no wealth redistribution whatsoever.


    1. I think that the government should provide tax incentives for individuals and corporations to give money to private charities, and force charities to disclose all of their finances publicly. I don’t think that government should redistribute wealth in any capacity. And I think that it is BETTER for the poor that the government NOT redistribute wealth. I do NOT assume that government wealth redistribution helps the poor more than private charity, for many reasons – one of them being the unhappiness and risk-taking that subsidizing poverty causes. E.g. – single motherhood.


      1. Right, I agree with you about single motherhood. The Republicans running for office, though, never campaign on making divorce much more difficult, radically reducing benefits for single parents and simultaneously giving significant tax breaks for married couples. That’s because it probably wouldn’t be as popular as telling people they’d cut their taxes so they would have more to spend on their own themselves.

        But why do you think govt should subsidize charity giving?? Is that not also then govt subsidising poverty causes?

        If you are against govt hand outs to those who can’t get jobs and the poor, then how would charities’ handouts subsidised by govt be significantly different?

        And anyway, I didn’t mention single mothers or anything like that, I asked about a young person temporarily unemployed, looking for a job but unable to find one. You really wouldn’t have government provide a single cent for him?


        1. Well, I think that people who give private charity will only give it when the person really wants to change and work their way out of poverty.

          For people who are unemployed, they should be able to negotiate with a bank for a loan to go to school and then pay it back. Or they can do what I did, volunteer for 3 months in order to first show that I could do the job, then get hired. Also, there are other policies – suspending employer payroll taxes, lowering minimum wage, de-regulating firing to make it easier to fire bad employees, etc. As businesses what they want and then do that!


          1. If you have a market on which there is excess workforce available (as is the case) such measures would impoverish the lower income people; and then lower consumption; increase competition between workers; increase working hours and increase the gap between wealthy and poor.
            Work for free in a company is no guarantee. I worked for 1 month as part of an internship. They liked me but they were not hiring, their working necessities were complemented
            What is the meaning of “working hard” for you people? Is it work until exhaustion? IS it work with quality for a limited number of hours? What is it?
            The govt. shouldn’t give anything away? Nothing?! Even to retirement pensions and handicapped people?!


          2. If you want to continue to hold to economic views that blames business then of course you will be unemployed. It’s amazing that socialism is so popular in countries with high unemployment. Naturally none of you will have jobs! You all vote to punish the people who would hire you as you pontificate about the evils of profits!


            That’s socialism. If you want work, then you need to be a capitalist.


          3. Teralek asked: “The govt. shouldn’t give anything away? Nothing?! Even to retirement pensions and handicapped people?!”

            Would you want me to steal from you to give to the poor? Would you want Robin Hood to steal from you to give to the poor? Why would you want goverment to steal from you and give to the poor?

            Goverment should not give away, as they should not take more than needed to keep up safety (police and military) and justice.


  2. Ah Retha! So we must return to the Middle Ages when the poor, invalid and unfortunate lived in miserable conditions and could only survive through help from charity and church. Only those who crawled desperately for little crumbs ate, all others starved – It was not mandatory to help people.
    Handicapped lived miserable just because they had the bad luck to born that way.

    Before 1974 my country, Portugal, lived under a far right dictatorship. There were no retirement pensions, my grandparents worked hard all their lives in agriculture, and they lived very poor and stayed poor until their deaths.

    The problem here is that you think of institutions and not on people. The state in democracy IS, or SHOULD be the will of the people; the state is not some evil entity. Why is the state Satan and the church God?

    Saying that “big Govenrment” is an evil thing is just plain stupid. I can give you a lot of examples where isn’t so. There is no correlation between “modern socialism” and unemployment.

    Big govt is (or should be) the more power of the people over (call it directional economy if you must) the country’s affairs as in economy. The opposite of that is the jungle economy and survival of the fittest, chaotic economy were money is power.

    Everyone able MUST work, I agree. But work is not only a duty, it is a right! There are people on the USA who want to work and can’t find one!
    Work hard you say… I tell you, in this system, if I had half a million I could sleep all day and live only with bank interest… when other people work until exaustion to earn miserably, only to survive.
    Is that fair? No! I hate this never-ending and outdated left/right rhetoric! We must change the economic system radically, or it will change us… mark my words! It’s already happening.


  3. “Socialism has always failed and left in its wake the same financial need, hunger, and poverty that it was implemented to fix, if not more. As a system, it is one that consumes and never generates the resources and wealth that it seeks to redistribute to the poor. Contrast the results with that of the U.S. record of charitable giving for all entities both public and private. In the current non-socialist system, the high wealth generation that exists has allowed Americans to fund relief work on a global scale unmatched by any other country in the world. For Christians, the command is to minister to the poor actually, not potentially. Therefore, believers should think carefully about the kind of amelioration to the poor in which to invest support.”


  4. “Jesus explicitly places the believer under personal moral obligation to show compassion and make a difference toward the poor, hungry, and imprisoned. By saying it this way, He undercuts substitutions to third party providers.”


  5. It is simple, no where did Jesus or any of the apostles ever preach forced wealth redistribution. It was always VOLUNTARY. That is something that liberal Christians, and liberals in general, don’t understand.

    Our current system is set up in such a way that people’s mentality is “that’s the government’s job”. That thinking is dangerous because the government, due to greed and corruption, can’t do the job well. And when you have the people of our society thinking that is government’s role, it alleviate them of any personal responsibility to help.

    Getting the government out of the charitable business would give incentive for others to help. Liberals don’t like to hear that but that is because they have their own agenda at play.


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