Many well-meaning young adults think free markets are hard-edged and callous toward the poor. At Summit, our approach is to help students learn how to be economically productive and caring based on two key principles:
- Brokenness. Psalm 51:17 says, “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Against worldviews proclaiming humans to be God-like and perfectible, Christianity says we bear God’s image but are broken through sin. As Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert point out, if we fail to grasp the biblical approach we’ll make things worse for the poor, reinforcing their feelings of inferiority and shame, and also worse for ourselves because of the unintended consequences of trying to play God. 1 Simply wanting to do good is not enough, as seen in the example of one popular company with a noble aim of giving away one pair of shoes for every pair a customer purchased. A recent critic, however, has painted the company as a vanity project — enriching its owners by making customers feel less guilty about buying its high-priced products. We shouldn’t dismiss this criticism too quickly. Maybe what people in poverty-stricken countries need is not shoes but jobs. Why not let them make the shoes and earn a living instead? Plus, shoe giveaways might actually make things worse, putting local shoe-sellers out of jobs and making them more dependent on aid. 2 Good motives do not always produce good results, and sometimes they produce bad ones. 3 If we fail to understand our brokenness, we risk hurting more than helping.
- Servanthood. Jesus said if you want to be first, you must be the very last and the servant of all (Mark 9:35). It’s true for all of us — rich, poor, and in between. Joseph Remenyi, a professor at Deakin University in Australia, has found that the only projects that actually alleviate poverty do so by “seeking to improve output per person.” In other words, you help the poor not by giving more to them, but by getting more from them. 4 Saying that the poor are helped by becoming more productive sounds almost impossibly naïve. How can people who have almost nothing produce something? According to secular worldviews, which believe humans are only matter in motion and everything has a natural explanation, they cannot. But if we truly have minds and souls, our ideas matter more than our natural resources.Contrary to socialist accusations, people in a free market can only succeed by serving. George Gilder says, “Not from greed, avarice, or even self-love can one expect the rewards of commerce, but from a spirit closely akin to altruism, a regard for the needs of others, a benevolent, outgoing, and courageous temper of mind.” 5
Hand Up Instead of Hand Out
Here’s an example of how brokenness and servanthood can change lives. The Paradigm Project makes efficient, low-cost cooking stoves to be used in third world countries where respiratory illnesses linked to inefficient cooking methods are a leading cause of death. Paradigm Project stoves are made by AIDS orphans in a factory in Kenya, where workers learn to support themselves through a useful trade. Efficient technology enables users to save up to 35 percent on their fuel costs, freeing up money for more productive use. The hours formerly spent hunting for wood are also reclaimed. Mothers and children are being restored to health. Carbon emissions are reduced. Trees are saved. And most remarkable of all, investors in the company make money on their investment and are thus motivated to expand the project to even more countries. This isn’t just a win-win. It’s a win-win-win-win-win-win-win.
In economics, as in life, it is better to give than to receive. We must get this message across to students before leftist professors indoctrinate them into developing a redistributionist God-complex and dooming the poor to even greater misery.
- Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts (Chicago: Moody, 2009), p. 65.
- Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts (Chicago: Moody, 2009), p. 147.
- Referring to the Joe Remenyi study, Where Credit is Due (London: Intermediate Technology, 1990); Herbert Schlossberg, “Destroying Poverty without Destroying Poor People,” in Christianity and Economics in the Post-Cold War Era (Herbert Schlossberg, Vinay Samuel, and Ronald J. Sider, eds.) (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), p. 119.
- George Gilder, Wealth and Poverty (Washington DC: Regnery, 2012), p. 27.