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What Jim Wallis, Chicago, and Free-Market Economists Can Teach Us About the Common Good

After the tragedy in Boston last Monday, Americans came together. The sports section of the Chicago Tribune ran a graphic that stated, “We are Chicago Red Sox. We are Chicago Celtics. We are Chicago Bruins. We are Chicago Patriots.” For a day, the people of Chicago laid down their staunch sports loyalties to embrace a more important loyalty: one with their fellow countrymen. Such showings of camaraderie are inspiring and much-needed. But sadly, it seems to take a tragic event for Americans to set aside their differences and come together in this way. BostonThis disheartening reality is the topic of Jim Wallis’s recent book, “On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good.”His general thesis is an honorable one: He argues that rather than claiming God is on our own political or ideological side, we should make sure that we are on his side. This approach takes humility and thoughtful reflection, which are hard to come by in today’s partisan political atmosphere. The obvious predicament we then face is figuring out what God’s side is, exactly. We know a few things for sure: God is both loving and just; he cares deeply for all of humanity, especially “the least of these”; he calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves; and as a community, we are called to pursue the common good. But how are these truths to be carried out day-to-day and what is government’s role? Wallis attempts to offer a “balanced” approach to these questions—that is the purpose of the book, after all. For example, he emphasizes that both civil society and government are needed to combat poverty. Ideally, civil society (families, friends, churches, communities) will care for the poor, sick and needy, but government must step in when that system fails. In theory, I agree with Wallis here. He also argues that both liberals and conservatives champion values that are necessary for America’s prosperity: social responsibility and personal responsibility, respectively. Although I would argue that social responsibility ought to be a part of our personal responsibility, Wallis has a point. Individual people should step up and take care of themselves and their families—something that conservatives consistently emphasize. But people also need to selflessly care for others, especially the poor and vulnerable—a point that liberals champion. Again, I agree with Wallis about this. At least in theory. How these ideas will be applied is far less clear—and here is where the real debate begins. At a recent event at the Brookings Institution, Wallis’s comments were less guarded. At one point, Wallis described—in his opinion—the purpose of government: to ensure fairness and protect the needy and vulnerable—noting that “anyone who disagrees with me here is not biblically sound.” I know quite a few Christian libertarians who would have fits at the scope of that second stated purpose. Wallis advocates for a robust role for government. If one of the state’s central duties is to protect the vulnerable, one can imagine that taxes will be high; money will be redistributed to the poor; and protectionist regulations will be staunchly in place. As a conservative Christian who also cares deeply about “the least of these,” I would argue that it should only be government’s job to care for the poor as a last resort. Poverty is better alleviated at the local level, in partnership with the free market—which sets the stage for more lasting solutions: namely, economic growth and human liberty. Values & Capitalism’s newest monograph, entitled “Economic Growth: Unleashing the Potential of Human Flourishing by Edd Noell, Stephen Smith and Bruce Webb, compellingly argues this point. As a result of free-market principles—including globalization, free trade, rule of law, private property and industrialization—”the average income in the United States (expressed in contemporary values) went from approximately $1,980 in 1820 to $43,200 in 2000.” These effects have also been felt internationally: billions of men and women have been lifted out of poverty in the last century; infant mortality rates have dropped exponentially; and both literacy and life expectancy have increased by large margins across the world. You can read the book for yourself, but this data alone makes it demonstrably clear that through economic growth, the common good has been served. On the other hand, Wallis’s well-intentioned policies are aimed at helping the poor. But in reality, high taxes and redistribution always end up hindering long-term economic growth. So while government should certainly be interested in protecting society’s most vulnerable, sometimes it serves that purpose best by getting out of the way—or at the very least, by limiting assistance, especially to able-bodied persons who can be unintentionally disincentivized from working by programs like Supplemental Security Income, Disability Insurance, and even Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Of course, the purpose of Wallis’s book is not to get into “nitty gritty” details about how our common goals will actually be achieved. Instead, it is simply facilitating debate—reminding us that we do have common intentions, and that we need to civilly listen to one another if we are going to accomplish anything in politics. In this respect, Wallis’s call for open-minded, respectful conversation is a welcome one. Certainly those of us who believe in the power of free enterprise to help the most people live the best lives, have nothing to fear in reading—and engaging with—this book. One great way to do so is to join us at AEI on May 23 for a lunchtime discussion of these issues with Jim Wallis and AEI President Arthur Brooks. RSVP or watch live here.