Schall on wealth and poverty
Religion & Liberty Online

Schall on wealth and poverty

The Jesuit journal In All Things devoted its Winter 2005-06 issue to the question of poverty in the United States. The issue brings together a number of perspectives from Jesuits, both liberal and conservative. The Rev. James V. Schall, S. J., contributed an article titled “On Wealth and Poverty,” one which the journal editors have described thematically as “choosing not to be poor.”

Here is Schall’s article in its entirety:

The most famous book in economics is The “Wealth” of Nations, not The “Poverty” of Nations. Yet, Christ says, the “poor” will always be with us. Not a few still are. No one needs to learn to be poor. It is easy. Do not make, develop, invent, or concoct anything productive. Someone had to invent the wheel, plumbing, tooth brushes, hybrid corn, and computers The question of poverty implies “how not to be poor.” Unless we talk about the latter question, it is useless to talk about the former one. If we do not know how to produce wealth or if we choose not to learn or effect those things that actually work to produce it, we will be poor. We will likewise make or keep others poor. Not all “good” ideas work for the good.

All existing societies, as Plato told us, are divided between rich and poor, usually antagonistic to one another. The notion that everyone need not be poor, need not be antagonistic, in their wealth making, is a modern idea. Wealth production and distribution were things that had to be invented. Not everyone invented them, or learned how to use them that did work. Certain famous ideas about wealth production, like socialism, will not and cannot work.

What we mean and even feel to be poverty or riches refer to the relative riches of the society in which we live. Poor people can envy those not quite so poor. Both are, by our standards, simply poor. Rich people envy those richer than they. Both seem rich by our standards. The question of poverty is a “compared to what?” situation.

A certain amount of property or wealth is necessary to practice virtue, as Aristotle said. He also said that the greatest crimes do not arise from a lack of means or sustenance. Riches are often the worst environment in which to practice virtue. “Woe to you who are rich.” Yet, the poor are not necessarily virtuous simply because they are poor. The rich are not vicious simply because they are rich.

Not everyone wants to be rich. Socrates, for example. The philosopher Thales told us that he was too interested in higher things to concern himself with riches. But to prove that he could be rich if he wanted, he cornered the market on wine and oil presses. He made a bundle. Ever since, though not always admirably, monopolies have been a source of riches, both for governments and private individuals. The monastic vow of poverty, like the vow of chastity, was not intended to imply that wealth-creating or marriage was wrong. It was meant to say that both are good.

For the “rich young man” to give up his riches is senseless if the reason for doing so was that riches were intrinsically evil. Otherwise he would have been morally obliged to follow Christ, not free to do so. Following Christ only made sense if riches were good. The young man did not go away sad merely because he had “many riches,” which he evidently did. He could have said to the Lord, “Look, I will use my income for some charitable purpose; you name it.” He still would have gone away sad.

The reason the poor are poor is not because the rich are rich. The only way that the poor will be not poor is for them to lean how to be rich from those who have learned. The main reason that people are poor today is the political, moral/religious system in which they live. Most of the poverty in modern times is caused by ideologies, usually ones proposing the eliminating poverty by government control. They cannot do so, and do not do so, because they followed a theory that violated basic tenets of human nature. Aristotle already understood that common property would not be cared for. Governments that reduce or eliminate the incentive of the people through faulty tax policies produce neither wealth nor the satisfaction of people responsible for their own lives.

A going economy, with free enterprise, democratic political systems, rule of law, and fair courts, with control of corruption, governmental and private, is the chief mechanism for the elimination of poverty. Poverty that is caused by human disaster, physical or moral deficiency, is the proper arena of benevolence or charity. Every decent society will have some voluntary or governmental mechanism to meet extreme needs.

But the main question raised by poverty is about the knowledge and energy necessary to engage a whole people in the productive work that causes wealth. In modern times, the question of poverty on a wide scale is largely a result of not having chosen the right political, economic, and moral systems in which poverty can be eliminated. No ideological alternatives have worked. At this, we should not be surprised.

John Couretas

is a writer and editor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.