Wealth, Poverty and the Welfare State

Books reviewed:

Christianity & Social Service in Modern Britain by Frank Prochaska

For the Least of These edited by Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley;

God and the Evil of Scarcity by Albino Barrera

Neither Poverty nor Riches by Craig Blomberg

Public Good by Private Means by Rhodri Davies;

The Poverty of Nations by Wayne Grudem & Barry Asmus

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes

Wealth, Poverty and Politics by Thomas Sowell.

 

Christian viewpoints:

We have reviewed three books that consider the appropriate Christian response to poverty:

For the Least of These edited by Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley (published 2014). This is a collection of essays mainly from a US viewpoint addressing the question how Christians should address poverty. It is not a systematic treatment of this subject and it has deficiencies (including, in some places, an overly polemical style) but it is challenging and interesting and should inspire reflection and further reading.

Neither Poverty nor Riches by Craig Blomberg (published 1999) is described by its author as a “biblical theology of material possessions”.   It is not an easy read and its analysis of every single New Testament passage relevant to its subject may leave the reader feeling exhausted but it is an important book that deserves to be read even if this takes time.

The Poverty of Nations by Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus (published 2013) sets out, in the words of its authors, “to provide a sustainable solution to poverty in the poor nations of the world”.  It is a flawed book and its defects may well alienate some readers.  Nonetheless, there is enough that is good in the book to make it worth reading.  It contains a robust defence of the free market (including its moral benefits) whilst also stressing the institutional aspects of any solution to poverty.

God and the Evil of Scarcity by Albino Barrera (published 2005) addresses a timeless question: why would an omnipotent and benevolent God permit evil? Barrera is both a theologian and an economist and he interacts with Malthus and others, viewing material poverty as a moral evil that God wants us to eradicate through the redistribution and transfers of wealth to the poor. It assumes some prior exposure to metaphysics and is heavy going in parts but it is important in seeking to understand economics in the context of God’s will.

 

Secular viewpoints:

We have reviewed two books that consider the underlying reasons for wealth and poverty from an economic and historical perspective and one that considers philanthropy:

Wealth, Poverty and Politics by Thomas Sowell (revised edition published 2016) is overlong and largely repeats things that its author has been saying for many years. However, it is worth reading as a robust and systematic attack on the prevailing liberal approach to the tackling of poverty that is supported by a wealth (but not an overwhelming quantity) of quantitative and qualitative material. It could be read alongside Saving Capitalism: For the Many, not the Few, which presents what might be called the standard left of centre approach (see our reviews relating to “Capitalism”).

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes (published 1998) is a modern day classic (and our review is thus an exception to our normal principle of not reviewing the “classics”).  It considers what makes nations and peoples rich and what makes them poor from an historical perspective, focusing on culture as a key determinant.  All subsequent discussions of this subject have had to interact with it (e.g. it is frequently referred to in Wealth, Poverty and Politics and The Poverty of Nations). It is a “must read” for anyone who wishes seriously to consider the causes of wealth and poverty and, fortunately, its style and approach makes it accessible to all serious readers.

 

The Welfare State:

Christianity & Social Service in Modern Britain by Frank Prochaska (published in 2006) looks at the voluntary provision of social services by Christians in the UK in the nineteenth century and the decline in that provision and of Christianity itself since then.  It has a number of failings but it is engaging and an eye opener in relation to the historic extent of voluntary action. Any discussion of the Welfare State today needs to take account of what Prochaska describes and interact with his arguments.

The subject of Public Good by Private Means by Rhodri Davies (published 2016) is much narrower. It considers issues associated with UK (and, to a lesser extent, US) philanthropy and its main (though not exclusive) focus is on philanthropy as a means of tackling poverty. It contains a good historical overview of its subject and is worth reading, not least in order to understand the attacks on philanthropy and philanthropists that have, rightly or wrongly, been made over the years. Some of its underlying assumptions are unstated and it needs to be read with care but it is both interesting and important in the context of our overall response to poverty.