All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 1990

A Reviewers Notebook: Religion, Wealth and Poverty

Gilbert Chesterton, who is the mentor of Jesuit Father James Vincent Schall, the author of Religion, Wealth and Poverty (Vancouver, B.C.: Fraser Institute, 202 pages), was a distributist. But this doesn’t mean that he wanted to divide the wealth into equal shares. He wanted everybody to own property, to have land, a home, and tools. He was willing to let people who had brains, take it from there.

The Chesterton commitment was to free will. If you believe in it, you come out in your attitude toward poverty in one place. It is not a static resting point. You have powers of imitation, and you don’t have to accept poverty for yourself. But if ideology rears its ugly head Chesterton won’t save you. Let us say the ideology is socialism. In asking the simple question of why are the poor poor, socialism implies that it is bemuse the rich have the money. In a non-free will world this means that poverty must be eternal.

But we know this can’t be true. A century ago practically everybody was poor. Today this isn’t so. The world’s stack of wealth is increasing all the time, even in the midst of debilitating wars.

Father Schall wonders how once-fertile countries can fall into poverty. Tanzania in tropical Africa perplexes him. It could be as prosperous as Kenya next door. But ideology interferes. “The best way to discover why Tanzania . . . remains poor,” he says, “is not to examine its soft or its rainfall, but to read the collected speeches of Mr. Julius Nyerere. He may be a very good man, but he chose the wrong theoretical ideology to explain his country’s poverty to itself. He gave some of these speeches to religious groups which have spread the doctrine widely. And this has promoted coercion—with poverty as the inevitable result.” Tanzanian farmers are compelled to raise crops collectively. There is no individual incentive. The practical result is that there is nothing in the storehouse.

Father Schall doesn’t like the idea of sharing. It implies that there is common ownership of the wealth. He wants to promote giving. As to sharing, he writes, “I have always held the unorthodox view that it is more difficult to receive than to give.” He quotes Chesterton as saying that “if I were a poet writing a Utopia . . . if I were a God making a Planet, I would deliberately make it a world of give and take, rather than a world of sharing . . . . I want Jones by one mystical and godlike act to give a cigar to Brown, and Brown by another mystical and godlike act to give a cigar to Jones.”

The world, so Father Schall sums up, “is made up of givers and receivers, while those who merely share, I suspect, remain locked up in a very little world in which everything belongs to everyone else and nothing to each.”

Father Schall thinks there is plenty in the world for everybody. He quotes Norman Macrae in The Economist as saying that we could easily produce a glut on the international food market “so great it would dwarf all other issues. The Ganges Valley in India, the Yangtze in China, the Mississippi Valley in the Midwest, and even the smaller San Joaquin Valley in California can by themselves come fairly close to supplying the world’s basic food needs if farmed with the intensity and skill of the Dutch or Japanese. What causes insufficient food production are fundamentally the theories, values, and ideologies that interfere with or fail to foster those means of achieving the planet’s capacity in this area. Some seem even to welcome starvation in order to prove their theories.”

Schall asks rhetorically “What is taught in many religious circles today?” He gives as his answer “mostly this: the poor are poor because the rich are rich. The poor are getting poorer because the percentage gap between the rich and the poor is slightly increasing. The rich are rich because they exploit the poor. The only way to change this is to alter the consciousness of the exploited people to be ‘aware’ of their condition, to become angry or even violent. A new order based on political, socialist-oriented principles must be instituted soon to redistribute worldly power and wealth. This process is called ‘justice’ and has practically co-opted any other meaning of the word.” As Westbrook Pegler might have said, “’T ain’t right.”

By carefully following all this “religious pedagogy,” says Schall, “the net result would be that the poor remain forever poor.” What we ought to be doing, says Schall, is not sending “our easily manipulated nuns, college students, and sem-inarians to slums and barrios” to have them routinely return reciting “canned ideology in the name of faith without a clue about the difference.”

Instead of heavily laden socialist theological texts, our “young ought at least to have a look at . . . Norman Macrae, Irving Kristol . . . Paul Johnson, P. T. Bauer, and The Economist. For an early reflection on faith and justice, instead of Marx and the Bible, they might try Barrington Moore’s Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery and Certain Proposals to Alleviate It or Jacques Ellul’s Betrayal of the West . . .”

There ought, says Schall, to be ways of making the widening of state power palatable. The Christian distinction between the things of God and Caesar suggests the idea of the limited state in which Caesar does not control everything, “especially the most important things.” But the interpretation of the Constitution’s general welfare clause is taken to mean that the state has a moral duty to provide and guarantee just about everything. It is a totalitarian view of modern natural rights theory, and it just won’t work, as Schall notes.

“No doubt the state need not be our enemy,” he says, “but who is to save us when even the clergy seems to suggest it is our salvation?”

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.