Pope Francis, the ex officio leader of the Catholic Church, has much in common with the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the U.S. civil rights leader whose life and legacy we celebrated this week.
A champion of the poor and downtrodden, Dr. King spoke of the need to eradicate poverty, writing in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, that the goal of society should be the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty. Today, Pope Francis carries Dr. Kings message forward, writing in Evangelii Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel, that Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor.
The Reverend Dr. King and Pope Francis have another important thing in common: economic illiteracy.
It is one thing to stress the moral imperative of helping the disadvantaged. But going beyond, into the realm of public advocacy, requires policy approaches that might actually reduce, if not solve, the problem. And here they fail.
During his final years, Dr. King was a proponent of a guaranteed annual income for every American, which would require increased government taxation and massive redistribution of wealth. In his last major speech at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., given just days before his assassination, he criticized the War on Poverty, calling it not even a good skirmish against poverty.
Pope Francis, in a 2014 U.N. address, similarly has called for redistribution of economic benefits by the State. Francis more recently has characterized private philanthropy as crumbs, and equates avoiding taxes with stealing from the poor.
While King and Francis are not alone in viewing government redistribution as legitimate and necessary to combat poverty, decades of experience show this approach to be a moral and practical failure.
Government redistributionwhether through domestic welfare programs, foreign aid, or other meansis neither giving nor charity in the strict sense of these words. Government redistribution, in fact, is the opposite, requiring government to first take somebody elses money, either through taxes or borrowing (future taxes). This requires coercion or force, violating the commandment Thou shall not steal.
Jesus, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37), said people should follow the example of the Good Samaritan, who spent his own time and money to help a man in distress. True compassion is self-sacrifice, to suffer with. Theres nothing compassionate about using government to seize one persons money to give it to someone else.
Government redistribution does not nurture a caring society or compassionate people. Instead, it pits one group against another, tearing apart the social fabric and creating disharmony.
In contrast, private charity involves the willing transfer of resources from one individual to another, a compassionate act of free will, personal responsibility, and moral integrity.
While it may be that the $390 billion that Americans donated to charity in 2016 are just crumbs, as Pope Francis puts it, the $15 trillion the United States has spent since 1964 to end poverty is not crumbs. And it hasnt worked. Indeed, the more than 80 federal programs these massive expenditures support should be described as poverty maintenance, not poverty reduction programs.
In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt warned that government support programs could create a culture of dependency: Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.
The truth is that massive government programs to fight poverty, the preferred approach of Dr. King and Pope Francis, are impersonal, inhumane, and counterproductive, undermining true compassion in the process.
Only a flawed zero-sum view of capitalism could lead Dr. King and Pope Francis to see government as the savior of the poor.
Wealth must first be created before it can be used to help others. Capitalism is the greatest wealth creator the world has seen, lifting billions of people out of abject poverty over the past two decades alone. Capitalism is one of the greatest blessings in human history.
Pope Francis should channel his fervor into unleashing capitalism worldwide to boost effective voluntary giving. And then those who cherish the memory of Dr. King should honor his legacy by cheering Pope Francis on.