“How is poverty to be addressed without legislation?”
This is the question often posed to me when discussing a Christian ethic of helping the poor and serving others. Legislation is also quickly brought into the swath of solutions to social injustice. Without legislation, so the argument goes, social justice cannot and will not be realized in our lifetime, or in any generation soon.
But legislation (which has its rightful place) needs to be used sparingly due to its mechanism for providing incentives: weapons. The would-be murderer refrains not due to a inner realization that the hated person is actually made in God’s image and deserves to live, but because there is a violent consequence at the end of the road. The would-be tax evader pays his taxes not out of a charitable spirit, but out of compulsion: if he continues to refrain from paying taxes, and resists the series of consequences for not doing so, he will find himself staring at the barrel of a gun.
This isn’t to say that there is no place at all for some assistance for the destitute. It simply means that legislating something has an ethical and moral component to it that most people do not consider. It’s one thing to protect everyone by protecting their right and will to freely exchange and pursue their own ends. It’s quite another to impose upon some—at the point of a gun—a presumptuous program for the poor as if a bureaucrat (or group of them) knew exactly what was better for the poor than the poor themselves.
Christians who favor legislating justice seem to ignore this component, which is entirely absent the gospel of the Kingdom as presented by Jesus, and espoused by the Apostles and by Paul. Jesus came into the world not to wield a sword and build a Kingdom, but to establish peace through servanthood and sacrificial love. The power of the gospel of peace will not need a sword. If you have no alternatives to seeking peace in society than legislation, perhaps your gospel and your Jesus isn’t as powerful as you believe him to be.
The other problem with legislation is that it is often assumed to be the all-encompassing solution to a social problem. Such a conceited approach to solutions not only lacks imagination, it lacks the knowledge and is ultimately unable to adapt creatively to the ever-changing factors of social conditions. Living under the assumption that legislation will solve all of that is neither imaginative nor Christian.
Those of us who don’t advocate legislation to end poverty do not live as though our specific ideas to alleviate it are the solution to poverty. Our ideas about compassion, justice, and morality are merely single ways to address some of the problems within society. Contrary to popular belief, no serious libertarians believes that complete economic freedom will “solve everything” because libertarians don’t believe any single solution will “solve everything.”
We live in a world where our ideal future is pursued under the banner of hope and liberty. That doesn’t negate the need for laws and boundaries of moral order; rather, it gives meaning to rules and regulations: free people to do that which they believe is best for their own lives, and prevent people from aggressing one’s neighbor (or punish them for doing it). Eventually, in a perfect world (which we hope we will have someday), legislation will fade as people naturally do that which is right. But we’re a long way from that, of course.
As followers of Jesus, the Prince of peace, we are to seek and utilize peaceful and nonviolent means of establishing justice and eradicating things such as poverty. As I have written earlier, ”Our passion for creativity is the pathway to social justice.”