Home > Primacy of Society, Public Service > The radical idea that poor people are people

The radical idea that poor people are people

My ongoing skepticism of “public service” is well-known, but J.E. Dyer, a writer on Christian social thought, drives the point home very well in a post on Patheos.

After many years, we have learned what happens when we seek to “redistribute” income or wealth. The goal of “redistribution” becomes more important than actually helping the poor. The abstract idea of removing income or wealth from some and transferring it to others trumps everything else. Seeking to “redistribute” income or wealth is not, in fact, a very good method of helping the poor; it is better characterized as a method of wielding power and seeking to control outcomes.

…”Redistribution” is an abstract goal, focused on numbers rather than people, and based on an invidious and theoretical dissatisfaction with material conditions. “Helping the poor,” by contrast, is focused on the people involved, and is a goal that can only be satisfied through personal attention and observation.

Of course, thinking that we can eradicate poverty totally is dangerous utopianism, but it is dangerous precisely because of the institutional structures that such thinking is wont to produce and not because it is wrong to attempt to make a person’s situation better without payment.

It is no secret that poverty has not been ameliorated by government programs before or since Lyndon Johnson’s cynical “War on Poverty.” It is also no secret that, as people become generally better off thanks to the march of market progress, the political definition of poverty is “defined up.”

And while it is certainly true that there will always be people in dire straits, isn’t it much healthier for us as a society of equals under the law to treat those people as people?

If we want to help those who are in need – and we should – the most efficacious and moral way to do so is through free action, not through government coercion. The latter reduces people to numbers and fosters a cynicism, correct in many instances, that the people being helped are not truly needy.

At worst, a system of government coercion removes all moral reasoning from the basic moral agent, i.e. the individual. Rich or poor, people qua people are what really matter. Such a system of coercion is inimical to a free and prosperous society.

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