An Economist Takes on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Who will help those in less-fortunate situations when everyone believes that someone else will do the job? This is the question that Ted Bergstrom addresses in a new paper published in the American Economic Journal: Microeconomics entitled: “The Good Samaritan and Traffic on the Road to Jericho“.

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The Poor are Poor because…

Tim Hoiland, a fellow theology/development/general stuff blogger, posted a piece last week entitled, “The Church Among the Poor“. In it he quotes Jayakumar Christian (Christian development scholar) who says, “The poor are poor because someone else is trying to play God in their life”.

Now, there are a lot of so-called axioms that start with “the poor are poor…” To list a few (in no particular order):

“The poor are poor because they lack capital (money).”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of human rights.”
“The poor are poor because they are dependent on the rich.”
“The poor are poor because of the rich.”
“The poor are poor because poverty traps.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of foreign assistance.”
“The poor are poor because of foreign assistance.”
“The poor are poor because of political corruption.”
“The poor are poor because of extractive political and economic institutions.”
“The poor are poor because they are unlucky.”
“The poor are poor because they make bad decisions.”
“The poor are poor because they are lazy.”
“The poor are poor because they have poor soil productivity.”
“The poor are poor because there are no markets.”
“The poor are poor because of geography.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of freedom.”
“The poor are poor because they are discouraged.”
“The poor are poor because of misguided policies.”
“The poor are poor because of mal-investment.”
“The poor are poor because they hyperbolically discount the future.”
“The poor are poor because of culture.”
“The poor are poor because of colonialism.”
“The poor are poor because of capitalism.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of labor specialization.”
“The poor are poor because of a lack of technology adoption.”

…and so on… some of these are more right than others, some overlap with others, and of course, there are many that have been left out.

It strikes me that Jayakumar’s axiom is probably one of the most-right among this list. (Excluding, of course, Acemoglu and Robinson’s theory, which almost no one argues against.) Jayakumar’s axiom is both nuanced and simple. Razor sharp and remarkably general. The idea that we may be “playing God in someone else’s life” is immediately horrifying for those of us who strive to help others in any sort of capacity, and it’s easy (perhaps natural) to say, “I’m not ‘playing God’ I care about the people I serve”, dismissing the potential tort entirely.

I think, however, we all need to think about what we do and (more importantly) how we do it and ask, “Am I playing God?” Consider the following video of Financial Times journalist and former World Bank economist, Tim Harford:

Kuyper’s Politics Today

Retrieving Calvin’s emphasis, Kuyper stands in the tradition of placing attention on creation and God’s sovereignty. A Reformed understanding of politics—as opposed to Anabaptist, Lutheran or secular perspectives—has traditionally recognized God’s sovereignty in the political realm and suggests that our political activities ought to mirror and glorify God as they rectify God’s creational purposes (in that arena). Kuyper’s brilliant political organizing and national public positions put teeth on these ideas. He often encouraged the average Dutch citizen to be engaged in politics year round, not just on election day. He even argued politics could be viewed as an “elevated pursuit.” We don’t hear that sentiment anymore.

A few years ago, I was teaching an upper-level international development course at Calvin. The vast majority of students in this particular class had a distaste for politics, particularly macro-level institutions such as the US government, the European Union, the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund. In their eyes, the latter were hegemonic, inherently unjust, and economically imperialist. Maybe, maybe political activity could be pursued at the local, grassroots level, but certainly anything beyond that was a waste of time.

On the one hand, the conundrum my class was facing was a good one. My students weren’t writing off all political engagement, just macro-level political activity. And they were pointing to a serious flaw within modern institutions, namely that the free market hegemony found within contemporary political institutions often benefits the economically privileged. It’s precisely here, in the thick of conversations like this, that Kuyper, and others in his tradition, can revitalize a Reformed understanding about the role that politics, in all its complexity, at all its levels, can play in our society. If it’s true that the power of unregulated markets often dictates the actions of powerful political actors, a blurring of two spheres if you will, what is a wise response on the part of Christians—to dismiss macro political institutions as unredeemable, or to look for opportunities of reform or at least opportunities to diminish the power of markets? Can’t the power of unbridled capitalism and/or hegemonic interests find its way into local, political arenas as well—and if so, what does a discerning Christian response look like in such situations? These are just a few of the questions that can be explored given Kuyper’s political theorizing.

This is part of an excellent article written by a former professor of mine, Tracy Kuperus. Abraham Kuyper is a tricky intellectual role-model for many Reformists. While a large swath of his ideas are indeed powerful and seem to pertain to a faith-centered public life today, some of his ideas and the political responses to them – the atrocities of many Kuyperians in apartheid South Africa – act as a deep stain on Kupyer’s intellectual legacy. Prof K continues:

Kuyper’s ideas about religious pluralism were, in many ways, ahead of their time. We continue to wrestle with the appropriate response regarding religion in public life today. Resistance to the idea of religious pluralism comes from the same two sides that existed during Kuyper’s time: secularists, for lack of a better word, who are very suspicious of religion (witness Quebec’s recent call to ban government workers from wearing “overt and conspicuous” religious symbols) and traditionalists who would privilege a certain kind of religious belief in public life (witness a US Congressional delegation’s recent visit to Egypt which praised the military’s takeover because it removed the threat of “the bloodthirsty Muslim brothers”). There’s still a lot of work to be done regarding the need to respect religious pluralism in the public sphere! Kuyper was there first.

Kuyper’s ideas about appropriate church-state relations and the need to respect different confessional communities apply most easily to Western style constitutional democracies among fairly homogenous societies. They can apply to non-Western contexts as well, but things get murky quickly. What if the country has a hybrid regime that places strict limits on religious association (think Egypt today or under Mubarak)? Does religious pluralism promote the recognition of all confessional communities, even Boko Haram in Nigeria? Should confessional community be broadened to refer to more than religious pluralism, for example, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender? What if the confessional commitments of different religions or confessional communities violate the state’s constitution or the beliefs of other religious/confessional communities?