How Much Do We Really Need Big Brother for Disaster Relief?

In Finance and Budget, Life, People, Politics, The Big Picture by E. Calvin Beisner

Screen shot from Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board website.

USA Today reports that 80% of disaster relief aid following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma comes from faith-based organizations—denominations, individual churches, non-denominational charitable organizations.

For anyone familiar with Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion, that’s no surprise.

In what Bill Bennett called “the most important book on welfare and social policy in a decade. Period,” Olasky first gives the amazing history of how well charitable organizations—the vast majority of them Christian—met the needs of America’s poor, the sick, and those devastated by natural disasters, crime, or substance abuse.

Then he documents how the secularist “social work” movement, from the late 19th century through the late 20th, intentionally pushed charitable organizations off of what it considered its “turf.” The basis of its actions? Contrary to Biblical teaching, it defined “social justice” as the right to equality, or some approximation of it, not of process but of outcome.

For the “social work” movement, this meant calling help for the poor “charity” was an insult because it failed to recognize that they had right to whatever help they received. It also meant that the time-tested practice of religious charities of distinguishing between the “worthy poor,” who suffered through no fault of their own, and the “unworthy poor,” who suffered as a consequence of their own choices and needed not (or not only) material gifts but also moral reform, had to be abandoned.

If helping the poor was not charity but justice, it followed that it was government’s job. And since the Progressives who touted “social justice” were mostly Marxists with an expansive vision of the state, that was just fine.

What has been clear throughout the history of such government efforts is that they are far more expensive and far less effective than private charitable efforts. Government welfare programs consistently result in people’s remaining poor long term, while private charitable efforts consistently result in their rising out of poverty. That’s been documented in book after book, but Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980 and Walter Williams’s The State Against Blacks are good places to start. The performance of religious charitable disaster relief efforts following Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—providing four-fifths of the aid—is just one more demonstration of that.

Big government inevitably has big overhead. It does less with more. For its key tasks—tasks that really can’t and shouldn’t be done by the private sector, like law enforcement and national defense—that’s just something we have to put up with.

But we shouldn’t put up with it when government does what the private sector can do better. If, despite government’s consuming 36% of America’s GDP (three-fifths of that on pensions, health care, education, and welfare), it consumed only 14%, that would free up over $4 Trillion that the more efficient private sector could use to meet the same needs, but better.

How much of that $4 Trillion would go to charitable disaster relief efforts? No one knows without testing, but one thing’s clear: every dollar of it would be better spent by the charitable sector than by government.

Originally published on The Stewards Blog.

Dr. Beisner is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance; former Associate Professor of Historical Theology & Social Ethics, at Knox Theological Seminary, and of Interdisciplinary Studies, at Covenant College; and author of “Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate” and “Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future.”