Can ‘Social Justice’ Be Saved?

There are folks fighting for the phrase “social justice” by seeking to serve those words with policies that make it a bit more authentic than it can sometimes be, and with some consistency. That’s what a project at the Acton Institute, PovertyCure, is about. I mention it in my syndicated column this week, and talked to Acton president Fr. Robert Sirico a bit more about it:

What is PovertyCure and what’s different about it?

PovertyCure is a network of organizations which agree that it is time to rethink our assumptions about wealth and poverty and that it is time to change the focus from aid to enterprise and from paternalism to partnerships. We often ask, why is there so much poverty? But the real question is, why is there wealth?

PovertyCure is different because it places the focus on the human person, created in the image of God, with dignity and creative capacity as the source of wealth. The dominant model among both secular and religious agencies has been one of aid or charity. PovertyCure shifts the focus to unleashing the entrepreneurial capacity that already fills the developing world. Long term sustainable development does not come from aid or charity but from helping to foster the conditions where people create wealth and prosperity for themselves, their families and their communities.

Who is its network a resource for?

It is a resource for anyone who want to help and is looking for an organization that supports and understands the principles of PovertyCure. If someone wants to work to help orphans we have organizations who do this with a long term development approach that fits with the ideas of the network.

What is “social business”?

Of course, in one sense there is no business that is not a “social” business. But there are new initiatives to promote social business or social entrepreneurship that use business and enterprise as explicit models for providing solutions or helping the poor. In some ways this is good because it recognizes the value of business. But this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and contribution of business to society. Social business is redundant. Business is inherently social and many of the challenges that face people in the developing world, for example the lack of clean water, are best solved by business. What people in the developing world lack is not the entrepreneurial spirit. What they lack are the institutional, cultural, legal, and economic foundations that will enable them to create wealth and prosperity for themselves.

Is entrepreneurship really a useful word to someone who is starving?

Of course. It is most important for them. Entrepreneurs take risks and solve problems. They create new ways to provide goods and services that people want and need. They discover things others have missed. People who are starving need entrepreneurs more than anyone else.

But when people are starving it is usually because the political and economic conditions are unjust and people are prevented from taking care of themselves. There is often no private property, no rule of law, no freedom of association, and no free exchange. Exchange goes on, as it were, ‘over their heads”. This stifles business and prevents entrepreneurs from emerging and generally leads to extreme poverty. There are cases of emergencies where people need food assistance but this is rare and an unfortunate and unintended consequence of some food assistance is that it can often distort local markets. People in need of food require a legal, moral and economic framework that allows businesses to emerge and allows people to produce food and create wealth in their communities.

Why isn’t pretending competition will help the poor delusional?

Because history shows that those countries who have engaged in competitive trade and that have an expansive division of labor have lifted themselves out of poverty. Further, and equally important is this — it is the poor who most need free and competitive markets . It is delusional and a refusal to take history seriously to pretend that competition is bad for the poor.
We want the poor to have private property rights, we want them to have rule of law and justice; we want them to have the right of free association and not have to jump through hundreds of hoops to start a business because they don’t know the government minister or have friends in high places. We want them to be able to sell their products in local and global markets without having to sell to the government at a set price below market price or to have to pay tariffs to get their products in the United States or Europe. These are issues of social justice that are essential and often neglected and this is one of the key elements of PovertyCure

Isn’t the Catholic Church part of the problem on the AIDs front, not wanting condoms to help spread the disease.

No. Aside from the fact that the Catholic Church houses and ministers to more people infected with the HIV virus than any other organization in the world, it is also the case that condoms are not a solution that is radical enough. When people come to a deep understanding of their dignity and are helped to act in accord with that dignity, they no longer will be seen like animals who live solely by their passions, rather than as human beings who act based on their highest ideals and their reason.

How is it relevant to statehouse lawmakers?

It is relevant to lawmakers in the developing world who need to create legal systems that are “friendly to poor people,” as Hernando DeSoto might put it, and allow for private property and ease of starting a business. This is relevant to U.S. lawmakers because we need to change the way we do foreign aid. A good example is the way we currently subsidize agriculture, put up tariffs against imports and then send our surplus to foreign countries that distort their local markets. Haiti is an example of this. Bill Clinton himself has recently said that the rice policy of the United States may have helped some Arkansas farmers but has done a lot of damage in Haiti

What about global bodies and aid groups?

They will not like PovertyCure because it is about empowering the poorest to take responsibility and puts the locus of responsibility for development on people and not on the poverty industry. But for those people who have a real heart for the poor, I think they will find this encouraging and will help develop new ways of thinking.

How can a pastor or any church official trying to help the poor make use of this?

Christians have a heart for the poor, but we also are called to have a mind for the poor. PovertyCure does not offer a single solution to poverty — one does not exist — what it offers is a coherent way of thinking about questions of poverty and can help shape the way people work in missions, volunteer groups, and generally working with the poor. There are already some groups who have made changes to their operations based on the ideas of PovertyCure.

But your site also suggests there’s something there for everybody? What’s there for the everyday busy American?

If we have a heart for the poor and want to do something — we want to connect our good intentions to things that actually work. PovertyCure helps people think clearly about these things. People are busy and they want to help but they don’t know what to do or whom to support. PovertyCure gives a coherent framework and helps to identify organizations who support its ideas and people can research them and decide if they want to support them

You have so many spokesmen up on your site — from the president of Rwanda to the president of the Acton Institute and so many more. Do you have one in particular you’d love everyone to know about — and his message?

There is no single solution to poverty and there is no single voice. PovertyCure is not a celebrity campaign we have interviewed over 100 people from development economists to entrepreneurs to people working with orphans. The voices page of the website is varied on purpose and I encourage people to go and listen. But for one overall video I suggest the promo video that is on the front page of the website. This conveys the key themes and the fact that people are not the problem but the solution to fighting poverty

The seventh billion baby was recently born, according to the U.N. Is that the problem some — including many at the U.N. –- insist it is?

People are not the problem. People are the solution. There is no correlation between poverty and population. We spend billions of dollars trying to limit population. Now, we need to shift the focus from seeing people as burdens or just consumers to producers of wealth. People are a source of wealth. What they need are the conditions to create prosperity.

Is there something here for the Occupy crowd?

Yes. The first is for them to realize that there are disadvantaged: millions of people living in poverty who would love to have the chances they have. The second is that many of their complaints are actually against crony capitalism – not free markets – in which the government colludes with big, well-connected businesses to unfairly tilt the playing field and freeze out competitors. The Occupy Wall Street crowd doesn’t appear to understand this, and PovertyCure could help them make this crucial distinction between cronyism and true economic freedom for all.

I would strongly encourage you to take a look at the PovertyCure site, it has a lot of terrific content. And when we talk about our obligations as Catholics in the public square — as citizens, as businessmen, as consumers — this is how we can better discern our roles, with viable alternatives to a lot of the conversations we tend to have about poverty and economic policy and business. We need to expect more from our public conversations and can help move things along by encouraging better models.

Again, I may not agree with much of what the bus-riding sisters have to say about Paul Ryan and his budget, but I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about these things. And maybe informed Catholic voters can encourage some of this competition that is going on — to make our debates about these things better. Paul Ryan is certainly an elected official trying to do his part, as his bishop acknowledges and others have as well.

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4 thoughts on “Can ‘Social Justice’ Be Saved?

  1. Kathleen says:

    I find this assumption about poverty disturbing. I agree that finding a “cure” is good but it not that simple. I do think we need to find better ways to speak about issues and feel both sides need to be respected. This includes how we talk about Pres. Obama, as well as Paul Ryan. I will do my best to have constructive discussions. Thanks.

  2. Nicholas Fitzgerald says:

    I think I wrote something like this once, just not even remotely as well. Thank you, that was brilliant.

  3. Mara says:

    Kathryn, the following passage; “Long term sustainable development does not come from aid or charity but from helping to foster the conditions where people create wealth and prosperity for themselves, their families and their communities,” is so on the money. It touches on human creativity and long-term solutions. Assisting people to be productive and successful is inspiring to them and to the teachers. I love it. Thank-you!

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