Is it possible to work for social justice and the poor and not be controversial? Can we offer people good “tips” on ministry or service without talking of foundational premises? Can we really find solutions without honestly discussing the premises of the welfare state?

I recently offered a training to some non-profit organizations where the questions I pose here came rushing up to the forefront. I was told directly that issues such as the role of the state were off limits because “different people have different opinions about this.”

Some people react negatively when the underlying assumptions residing in the nook of their belief system are challenged. However, it is simply impossible to offer truly meaningful assistance to those working on behalf of the poor if we think that certain issues are irrelevant to poverty-alleviation efforts. Reasoned inquiry on the problems associated with poverty has shown me that if you are not controversial in your work with the poor, you are part of the problem.

The question of government intervention becomes heated because some people read “Republican” or “Democrat” when it comes to discussions on the relative place of the state in civil society. Even more, some immediately read, “for Obama” or “against Obama.” However one tries to go around party politics or individual politicians some will close their minds, preferring instead the unchallenging periphery where they can hide in plain view.

Why can’t we just get along, forget about “theoretical” and political questions about government and just help the poor? Because the said lofty goal is not impervious to the question of means. Moreover, the very nature of human freedom demands an answer concerning the question of state intervention. Yes, the business of poverty alleviation is not for wimps.

Friedrich von Hayek’s definition of liberty in his 1960 text, The Constitution of Liberty, is useful to us here. For Hayek, liberty is “that condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as possible in society.”[1] If the task of those trying to help the poor has as one of its primary goals helping people to become autonomous agents of choice capable of molding their own lives, the degree of state intervention cannot be set aside. As the powers to regulate, confiscate, and enforce are inherent to the power of government, its relative place in the affairs of civil society is directly linked to the degree of coercion existing in that society.

To avoid the question amounts to say that “freedom” is liberated from question of external coercion, remaining only a psychological or “inner” reality; making, I believe, the meaning of freedom in society unintelligible. Although we must never dispense from the idea of freedom as self-mastery, that is not the end of our pursuits. That inner freedom can be difficult to actualize if the coercive powers of the state impede human action. If we are to grow as self-reliant and autonomous beings but are impeded at every term by government preemptive powers, the task of poverty-alleviation that avoids the question of interventionism is self-defeating. If we obviate the discussion of where the line of individual freedom is drawn, someone else will be drawing it and we will simply follow.

In merely utilitarian terms, for the moment, social progress is indelibly linked to individual freedom, ergo, the role of the state in civil society cannot be avoided when trying to find practical solutions to poverty and want. Moreover, as Dr. Samuel Gregg tells us in his book On Ordered Liberty, “Defining the limits of state power requires a clear grasp of its purposes.”[2]

There is simply no escape to controversy here and neutrality is impossible. Those who want to play the politically correct game of avoiding shaking the tree of politics are perhaps unwittingly cooperating with the open-ended expansion of government power we are experiencing in America.


[1] Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960) p.1.

[2] Samuel Gregg, On Ordered Liberty: A Treatise on the Free Society (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003) p. 70.

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