Wednesday, January 21, 2015

There Was No Poor Among Them

In a recent post I discussed the topic of Zion, focusing on the first part of Moses 7:18 that discusses unity and righteousness. The third characteristic of Zion mentioned in that verse states, "...and there was no poor among them." I felt that this topic warranted separate treatment; hence, this post.

Many have romanticized about eliminating poverty. Some harbor very puerile ideas about how this is to be achieved, when almost all of their simplistic ideas have been repeatedly tried without substantial success, or else would require conditions that defy incontrovertible laws.

It turns out that poverty is a very complex matter. While common themes can be found, the causes of poverty are varied and exist in endless degrees. Poverty is so deeply entrenched that Jesus said, "For ye have the poor always with you..." (Matt 26:11).

How did Enoch's society and the Nephite society described in 4 Nephi 1:3 manage to get rid of poverty? The scriptural record offers only a few words that can be interpreted in many ways. Some extrapolations promote collectivist certainty that flies in the face of verifiable economic laws that are as inviolable as gravity or other natural laws.

World-renowned expert in the economics of social capital Lindon J. Robison offers a fairly cohesive view in this 2005 article. Robison weaves scriptural principle together with a lifetime of economic scholarship to postulate how poverty can be righteously eliminated without violating economic laws. I find this approach refreshing because it does not require the suspension of evident laws; only a change of heart.

The scriptures seem to suggest that poverty can be eliminated only when people stop focusing on the material/status side of the equation. Except for the requirement to meet everyone's basic needs, the mental distinction of economic class would simply become irrelevant.

One way this can happen is when everyone is poor and there are no prosperous folks with which to compare the relative level of poverty. (How often have you heard someone say they never realized as a child that they were poor. Or that they were happy because they were poor.) However, it seems obvious from the scriptures that it pleases the Lord to help his children prosper economically as well as spiritually. Thus, it appears that a more divine way of eliminating poverty would be through a general increase in prosperity.

Robison notes that economists generally agree that the three essential ingredients for economic prosperity are "specialization, trade, and freedom of choice." He goes on to discuss how in a righteous society these three elements are used to achieve "at-one-ment" among people and with God. He discusses two types of at-one-ment that lead to economic equality:
  • Complete at-one-ment occurs when hearts are knit together in righteous unity (the subject of my previous post). Members of such a society lose the desire to do evil and want only to do good (see Mosiah 5:2). They love their fellowmen as themselves are are vitally interested in the welfare of their fellow beings (see Luke 10:27).
  • Equality before the law occurs when people are willing to be governed by just laws, where life and property are protected, and where laws are equitably administered without regard for status.
One might counter that if everyone is knit together in righteous unity there would be no need for laws. But I think this goes too far. Unity in overall matters does not imply complete agreement on every point. People with finite understanding are bound to see some matters differently. But in a righteous society they agree upon necessary just laws and graciously accept their equitable administration. They accept accountability for their own choices.

Robison provides a fascinating discussion of how inhibition of one of more of the three economic principles listed above (specialization, trade, and accountable freedom of choice) fosters various levels of separation and inequality.

Coercive approaches to achieving economic equality are ineffective and take a much too materialistic view. Indeed, "nonmarket methods to force people to live as economic equals have destroyed incentives to work hard and smart and [have been] unsuccessful in producing economic equality or economic prosperity."

Furthermore, "The only successful effort to reduce economic inequality while maintaining economic prosperity appears to be a result of voluntary redistributions that depend on at-one-ment, the same characteristic required for economic prosperity."

In other words, the way to maximize economic prosperity happens to also be the way to eliminate poverty. For both of these things to happen, individual and general righteousness is required.

Given that we live in a society that has different interpretations of what righteousness means and where many use their freedom of choice in unrighteous ways, we aren't going to eliminate poverty anytime soon. (Although some would say that if we weren't constantly revising the meaning of the term poverty upward, we would realize that there are a lower percentage of truly poor on the earth today than at anytime in history.)

This means that for the time being we will have to be satisfied with growing prosperity and reducing poverty on a smaller scale, within our capabilities. Some things we can do include:
  • Improving our personal righteousness.
  • Teaching and helping others within the scope of our influence to better pursue righteousness.
  • Doing what we can individually to help the poor while maximizing their dignity and industry. Consider Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's October 2014 general conference talk titled Are We Not All Beggars? in which he promotes solutions to poverty as diverse as the problem itself.
  • Properly observing the fast, including donations for the benefit of the poor.
  • Helping with and properly applying the Church welfare and humanitarian programs. Bishop Dean M. Davies recently counseled that such programs are "intended to support life, not lifestyle."
  • Doing what we can to protect the rights of specialization, open trade, and freedom of choice coupled with accountability.
This means that we have an individual responsibility. Elder Holland put it this way: "I don’t know exactly how each of you should fulfill your obligation to those who do not or cannot always help themselves. But I know that God knows, and He will help you and guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment He has given us again and again."

On our own we are unlikely to bring about sweeping societal change. But we can be humbly content with our station in life (see Alma 29:3). And as Elder Holland counseled, each of us should "do what we can to deliver any we can from the poverty that holds them captive and destroys so many of their dreams."

We may not see a City of Enoch-like society and an economy free of poverty and class distinctions in our day. But by following righteous principles we can know that our offering to relieve suffering is acceptable to God. Perhaps that should be enough for now.

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