[Link to Part 7]
The Dark Side of Benevolence
Critics of market economies rightly point out that markets alone will not achieve a perfectly just society. We have investigated why this is so. We do not leave people completely at the mercy of market forces. Doing so would be an economic version of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” determinism. You can almost hear Ebenezer Scrooge, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? If the poor are to die, better that they get on with it and decrease the surplus population.” Human beings cease to be God’s image bearers and become mere animals. They are objects. Critics of free markets like to tar and feather advocates of free markets as Social Darwinists but as we have seen, markets have been essential to our modern phenomenon of widespread affluence and economic freedom is essential to legitimately practicing stewardship. Still, the danger that we might dehumanize others with indifference to their economic plight is very real. Benevolence must be nurtured.
Yet, what many who are critics of market economies fail to appreciate is that benevolence has a dark side. Robert Lupton, writes in his excellent book Compassion, Justice, and Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor:
Exchange is remarkably invigorating process. The very thought of acquiring a new treasure motivates us to calculate value, rearrange priorities, juggle finances, analyze past performance and make predictions about the future. And ultimately, it pushes us to the risky edge of letting go of something valued in the hopes of gaining that which will be of greater worth to us.
However, when the labor you offer is unneeded in the marketplace of when your abilities area worth less to employers than the amount of your welfare check, you are exchange-less. Indeed, poverty may be defined as having little of value to exchange. And when society subsidizes you for being a noncontributor, it has added insult to your already injured self-esteem. (43-44)
Human community normally includes economic production and exchange for able bodied and able minded folks. When we are exchange-less, our dignity as God’s stewards. We were made for stewardship. We were made to be integrated into human community of stewardship.
The challenge for benevolence, private or government, is that it can become every bit as a objectifying and dehumanizing as Social Darwinism. Caring for the poor simply becomes an exercise in making sure the poor get to consume at some minimal standard. The co-creative stewardship quality, so central to our humanity, is ignored. Arthur Brooks points out in his book Who Really Cares that the demographic group that is most generous with its time and money (as a percentage of income) is the working poor. The least generous is people making the same amount as the working poor but living entirely on assistance. Social bonds become dramatically weakened. “Benevolence” of this type is really dehumanization.
Activism aimed at championing benevolence toward the poor can also become dehumanizing. Many middle class and wealthier folks are seeking to establish an identity that presents them as a caring and compassionate. The actual outcomes for the poor from the measures being championed are less consequential than the impact of A) being seen as compassionate, and B) not being seen as one of the evil greedy business people who caused poverty in the first place. It is really a form of consumerism where activists organizations market causes people can join to meet their felt need for a compassionate identity. “The poor” cease to be human beings to be restored as co-creative stewards and become objects for the identity market. Even our church mission trips too frequently fall into this. Over a summer, six different youth groups visit the same church in Mexico and repaint it six times. It serves no practical benefit to the poor but was that ever really the issue? (See Lupton’s piece on Religious Tourism.)
Market economies are tremendous advance in creating large societies with widespread affluence. They are remarkable integrators that help match people with wants and needs with those who want to supply them. They are far from perfect. They are just as effective at meeting the legitimate needs that are feed into them as they are meeting the illegitimate ones. They will not usher in the Kingdom of God and they have their dark side.
We need benevolence. It is among the highest virtues. It is the central counter-balance to injustices and misfortunes that happen in the world. But we also need to hear that benevolence has its dehumanizing dark side as well. Just as markets can be bent toward destructive ends, sometimes in spite of the intentions of the people involved, so can benevolence also result in destructive ends. We must think clearly about both markets and benevolence, not pitting one against the other as virtue versus vice.