Monday, November 15, 2004

On target about church and social justice 

Margaret Marteen has written an excellent piece on something I've been debating with my own pastor about: What on earth do we mean when we sing in church about "social justice"?
There is a Christian response to today's situation and it isn't to turn your back on the poor. It isn't to use government as a surrogate for charity. Advocating for the redistribution of wealth won't help. We would be better off trying to find a way to help people become more productive as individuals, helping them acquire the basic skills they need in order to work. The poor we may always have with us, but the Christian thing to do is to see them as individuals not as Marx's great "reserve army of unemployed." It is no accident that evangelical churches, with their emphasis on individual salvation and salvation through good works has captured the imagination of increasing numbers of people from poor countries and among recent immigrants in the US.
I joined the Lutheran church only a few years ago; I have met and talked at length with evangelicals, and while individualism means a great deal to me I find myself thinking there is more. A book that helped persuade me of this, which I shared with my pastor, is Saving Adam Smith by Jonathan Wight. Many economists have never read Smith, and most that do read only The Wealth of Nations. What Wight does it place WN in the context of Smith's earlier Theory of Moral Sentiments, and does so within the context of a novel. The fiction writing is barely passable -- the only one economics-con-fiction I've ever enjoyed as fiction is Russ Roberts' The Invisible Heart, unfortunately -- but the economics and moral philosophy within it are excellent. WN alone, though showing how self-interest guides society to create maximum wealth for itself "as if guided by an invisible hand" doesn't tell us what makes people happy. And it's not to be left for experts to figure -- people know what makes each other happy through their "sentiments", the ability to identify with the emotions of others.

While that is not a rejection of individualism, it does emphasize the role that a community of faith can play in helping others to also identify those emotions. And it may lead to people realizing, as Margaret says, that many in poverty are there do to choices made by them and by society. "[I]f they get money, it probably won't stop them from making bad choices and engaging in behaviors that are destined to keep them behind. They'll just have more money." And helping them to understand how to work with the market system strikes me as part of the means by which we get the poor to make better choices.