Coercive vs. Voluntary Poverty Alleviation

I am opposed in principle to all government transfer programs.  Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, welfare, all of it.

People who hold to these positions are often accused of a lack of charity, of compassion toward the poor.  John Kasich, a long-shot Republican contender, has been declaring that people who are opposed to the Medicaid expansion need to read their Bibles, that it tells us how to treat the poor.


What does it say about you as a person if you think someone’s only in favor of an activity if they are in favor of compelling people to participate in that activity by force?

But what does the Bible actually say?

12 For if there is first a willing mind, it is accepted according to what one has, and not according to what he does not have. For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack– that there may be equality. (2Co 8:12-14 NKJ)


6 But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. (2Co 9:6-7 NKJ)

In both of these passages, voluntary giving is the model.  Now helping the poor isn’t really voluntary in the Christian system.  God commands it, and it is a matter of obedience to God.  But it is voluntary from the perspective of human authority.  Human authority is not to compel it.  This is not a matter of the role of the church versus the state.  The church could certainly use the power that God has given it to compel charity.

Socialists and progressives sees the problems of the world as essentially material in nature.  It is all a matter of the distribution of resources and power.  Get the distribution right, and the just and fair society will result.  But the Bible recognizes that the problems of the world are spiritual in origin; they are a matter of people’s wrong view of themselves, of their money, of earthly happiness and the like.

So the statist (the one who favors state solutions to problems, which includes socialists, progressives and liberals, along with many others) and the Christian both favor the activity and the result, that the poor should be alleviated in their suffering and that wealth inequality should be combated.  The difference is that one wishes to do so through the coercive action of the state and another wishes to encourage people to act voluntarily.

If you think the world’s problems are material in nature, then it makes sense.  Just redistribute the materials, and the problem will be solved.  But people have been trying for this for a long time, and good results have been, shall we say, elusive.  The more extensive the redistribution attempted, the more bloody the results.

It is helpful to be clear about what we are talking about.  All state action is backed by force.  So state-directed welfare is the forcible and unwilling transfer of some people’s money to other people.  Let’s say for the sake of argument that a state is actually able to accomplish this in an efficient and just way; there is a minimum of corruption and inefficiency, and the recipients are truly worthy.  But you have still only addressed material problems, meaning the relative size of the bank accounts.  You have not helped to address any of the fundamental spiritual issues on either side.  In fact, you have probably made them worse.

The recipient of government largess learns all the wrong lessons, that he is deserving of forcibly seizing other people’s property, that he is a victim of injustice, that he has a right to be resentful and angry about his situation.

The one who has his property taken learns that society is hostile to him, does not view his wealth as rightfully his, and resents the one taking and the one to whom it is given.  He learns to be selfish, that the government who is seizing his property will take care of the poor, and therefore he has no obligation to do so.  He also learns that there is no principled objection to using the power of the state to enrich yourself, since this is exactly what the welfare process does- uses coercive state power to enrich some at the expenses of others. And if you object that this is designed to help the poor, not the rich, well, those are relative terms, and there are always those richer than him anyway, and the man will very likely regard himself as a more deserving recipient than all these lazy bums anyway.  If people doing nothing should get money from the government, then why not hardworking businessmen, union workers, bankers, etc?  This very process of coercive state power to achieve an ostensibly good end inevitably corrupts the whole society.  And this is to say nothing of the inevitable corruption and inefficiency that always attends this process.

But if people are encouraged to give willingly and cheerfully to the relief of the poor, then they learn an entirely different set of lessons.  They learn that their money is a gift from God, and to be used for His glory.  They learn to have compassion on others.  They learn the joy of using God’s gifts for the good of others instead of for selfish ends.  They learn not to be prideful, because our status of wealth or poverty is from the Lord.  They learn to trust God for the provision of their needs, since “He who gives to the poor lends to the Lord.” (Prov. 19:17)  They learn a great many good things.  But poverty alleviation through coercive state power, shoving a gun in my face to take my money to give to the poor, completely distorts this process, sidesteps all these benefits and introduces whole new evils.

The state should be in the business of protecting borders, enforcing contracts and preventing crime, and not much else.  This is what the Bible gives them the business of doing, of protecting the innocent and weak, and punishing the evildoer.  The state is naked force, and when you use force and compulsion to achieve even good ends, the results are never pretty.  You compound the spiritual problems that are the real problems we face.  But when we pursue voluntary and truly cooperative solutions to our problems, then we are trained in the ways of righteousness and truth, and the world truly becomes a better place.



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