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Don’t Just Care – Think!

For people of faith, compassion for the poor is a non-negotiable. Compassion alone, however, doesn’t help the poor. In fact, many poverty programs exacerbate the very problem they were intended to solve. So how do we ensure that we not only mean well, but also do good?

We have to learn to think economically . Don’t worry. At its base, economics isn’t supply/demand charts and complicated math. Rather, the “art of economics,” as Henry Hazlitt puts it, “consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

Ignoring unintended consequences (and inevitable trade-offs) of actions is one of the most common ways in which a well meaning program can actually do harm. Some other common fallacies are:

  • The nirvana fallacy - in which a system like capitalism is contrasted with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its historical or actual alternatives.
  • False extrapolations - such as the claim that human population will increase exponentially and without end, thereby exhausting the earth’s resources.
  • Assuming that “rich” and “poor” are static categories rather than categories through which many individuals pass during their lifetimes.
  • The zero-sum game fallacy - in which a dollar gained in one place means a dollar must be lost someplace else.
  • The many-headed materialist fallacy - in which trade never involves the creation of wealth, but is merely the exchange of some pre-existing material resource.

Each of these mistakes is easy enough to see through in the abstract, but also easy to forget in practice. Remember them, however, and you’ll be immunized against a lot of economic misinformation, even if you never take a course on economics. More importantly, you’ll be much more likely to advocate policies that not only have good purposes, but also good results.

Learn Economics to Better Understand Poverty

From Samuel Gregg's Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded:

Christians are called upon to form unique bonds of solidarity with the poor, the destitute, and the lonely, and to help those who cannot help themselves. Christians do not interpret in narrow or materialistic terms the Lord’s commandment to love the poor. Moral and spiritual poverty are, in many senses, more crippling than a dearth of material goods. Nonetheless, throughout the centuries, Christians have sought to give effect to the Lord’s exhortations to help the materially poor by engaging in a variety of charitable activities. Pagans in the Roman world (where life was notoriously cheapened) were astounded not only by the reverence for life displayed by Jews and Christians but also the care offered by Jewish and Christian communities to the materially underprivileged. We know, of course, that the effects of sin will not be fully reversed prior to the Lord’s final coming. Nevertheless, Christ calls upon his people to minister to those who suffer any form of undue deprivation now.

Yet, if we are to understand poverty properly, it is surely true that, among other things, a grasp of economics must first be acquired. Not all poverty proceeds directly from economic deprivation, but we will fail to comprehend completely the causes of poverty and its persistence without such an understanding. The Christian who wishes to comment and act responsibly – rather than in an emotivist manner – when dealing with such issues surely requires some knowledge of essential economic theory.

Debt Forgiveness in Developing Nations

A cure for poverty

Learn more

Want to learn about organizations that apply principles of effective compassion?  Visit the PovertyCure global network. Get the PovertyCure DVD Series to better understand what causes poverty in the developing world.


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