Foreign Aid: Missing the Point and Making Bad Arguments

“We cannot let others suffer simply because times are tough in the U.S.” – Richard E. Stearns

I  picked up an article over at the Wall Street Journal this weekend by Richard E. Stearns titled “Evangelicals and the Case for Foreign Aid” – from whence the lead quote is taken. If Stearns had stopped with that quote I suppose he would have done alright. Rather, there is an entire article that badly misses the point on foreign aid (though he gives a head-nod to the fact that he missed the point) and goes on to recycle some standard useless arguments to defend a missed point.

The thrust of the article, which is rather short, is that conservative christian evangelicals (and that would include me) misunderstand and are otherwise misinformed on the need for and goodness of U.S. foreign aid, and therefore oppose it when they should not. He softens the audience with a good argument, playing to the morality issues in relief to poor nations with this quote from one John McCullough: “responding to hunger and poverty is not a partisan issue. . . . It is a moral issue that people of faith, across the political spectrum, agree upon.” I couldn’t possibly agree more with Mr. McCullough. This is not a partisan or political issue, it is a moral issue and people of faith do fundamentally agree. Well, we fundamentally agree that there should be a response, a benevolent, kind, giving, grace-filled response to human suffering. Perhaps we disagree on the meaning of benevolent and grace-filled, but, holding to our own definitions, we would agree (more on that in a second).

He then immediately counter-punches with a “non sequiter” logical flaw: “This is largely true, but a Pew survey earlier this year found that 56% of evangelicals think ‘aid to the world’s poor’ should be the first thing cut from the federal budget.” (emphasis added) Did you like that? He threw in a “but” to get you thinking in his direction. The implicit claim is that these two conditions run counter to one another – that a majority of evangelicals wanting to cut foreign aid from the federal budget is somehow contradictory to the notion that we fundamentally agree that responding to hunger and poverty is a moral issue.

It’s a common ploy amongst liberals and progressives. If you oppose a federal solution then you must also oppose any solution. This is absurd.

With that, and before hitting Mr. Stearns’ next weak argument, let us clarify our position on benevolence. Benevolence is a moral and personal issue. The description of the final judgment in Matthew 25 shows the Lord separating those who have cared for “the least of these” from those who have not. But this benevolence, to which we are all called, is benevolence with what is our own.

In 2 Samuel 24:18-25, David makes an offering to the Lord. When Araunah tried to give him the materiel for the offering, David refused, declaring “I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Sam 24:24). Each of us is free to give our own resources to the poor and needy at any time we wish. (Well, we’re mostly free to – the federal government does insist on getting a piece of the action if we give any individual more than $12,000 in a year, but that’s a point for a different post.)

This is not foreign aid though. In fact, this is not the way of any federal benevolence program. No, federal benevolence (and it may well be benevolent) is an exercise in giving away other people’s money. And of course, money is simply a proxy for time, life, and freedom.

Somehow this has become quite the rage in democracies; using the government as a means to enforce morality (benevolent, sexual, or substance) on our neighbors. This ought to be the role for our preaching, not our legislature. The reasons for the problem are simple – it’s a whole heck of a lot easier to convince 51% of the people to enforce a rule on the rest than to implore everyone to freely choose to do the right (and accept that they may not). The problem is that this runs clearly counter to the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule would clearly demand that I not use the power of government to enforce a decision on you that you would not otherwise choose for yourself … presuming I don’t want you to do the same to me (and I don’t).

Mr. Stearns then goes on to add some nonsensical argumentation. For instance, he notes that many evangelicals misunderstand the scope of foreign aide. “Poverty-focused” foreign aid makes up only 0.5% of the budget, though polling data shows people believe it is much, much higher. As though there is some rational defense of a bad policy based on “it doesn’t cost that much in the grand scheme of things.” The same defense is often employed in favor of pork spending by Congress. “If we cut all pork spending it would only save us a small fraction of the deficit.” This is true – and we should do so anyway. The fact that you can bribe your political cronies with only a fraction of the money you take out of my pocket is no kind of justification.

He then goes on to make a rather interesting defense that I have seen before from Obama confidant Jim Wallis. Allow me to quote at length: “One objection that I often hear from evangelicals is that while aid is good, it is not the government’s job. Yes, individuals and churches play a vital role in aid and development. But governments play a unique and vital role that private organizations cannot. The poverty-focused programs in the foreign-aid budget are facing cuts of between $1.2 billion and $3.2 billion from 2010 levels. In comparison, the largest American Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has a budget of $308 million for its missionary and aid organization.”

Simple question: how many U.S. federal governments are giving out poverty-focused foreign aid? One – there is only one U.S. federal government. But how many American charitable organizations are giving out poverty-focused foreign aid? You can sure bet it’s more than one.

To that end, I also found a study from 2006 that breaks down foreign aid by governments and private citizens. The results are rather impressive, though dated. As a percentage of the total “from the United States” outflow to “developing” countries, the federal government comes up with 22%. This fall just behind the total from foundations (3%), corporations (5% – those evil bastards!), volunteer organizations (10%), universities (2%), and religious organizations (5%) – a total of 25%. Another 6% comes from direct investment. By far the largest single contributor category is “individual remittances” – 48%. This would include people who live and work in America and send money “back home” (even if they’re not really from there) to help relatives.

Some like to make the argument on the grounds that the federal government is the only place that can aggregate sufficient resources to do the job. But the federal government doesn’t produce anything. All the resources it gets to use for benevolence, it gets from us. If we have shown that we are more than willing to provide aid to the poor and needy on our own (72% from “the people” versus 22% from the “the government, on behalf of the people” – with the final 6% from investors), then what really is the remaining argument for federally directed benevolence? Is it efficiency, or wisdom, or clarity of purpose? Surely these don’t pass the snicker test. Individuals who put their own skin in the game are far more committed to making the most impact, and will work hard to do so.

Yes Mr. Stearns, we evangelicals oppose foreign aid. We don’t oppose aid, just mandatory aid forced on us by the government (our neighbors) and directed inefficiently by a bureaucracy. Give us the money back, and watch how much better we can manage it to useful and truly benevolent ends.

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