Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur, has an answer to income inequality. He says, “A basic income needs to be introduced in Europe and in America.” Basic income is the distribution of cash to citizens, regardless of their employment status.
Branson goes on to say, “It’s a disgrace to see people sleeping on the streets with this material wealth all around them.”
The fatal flaw of Branson’s argument, and he’s not alone in making this argument, is that he assumes that the primary problem that causes people to sleep on the streets is a financial one.
Let’s put Mr. Branson’s argument to the test.
Assume that every American citizen was given an income of $20,000 a year from the U.S. government. There was no training to go along with that distribution of cash. There was nothing done to address other problems that may have led to the lack of wealth. This was strictly a financial transaction. Nothing less, nothing more.
In many cases, within a year, that cash would be right back in the hands of the wealthy people from whom it was taken. If you don’t believe me, pay attention to who’s buying lottery tickets and what happens to them when they win big.
Cash alone is not the answer.
Thankfully there is a better one. To find it, we need to look to the first century church. Here’s how Luke described it.
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:34-35 (ESV)
Here you have the redistribution of wealth. But rather than happening by government force at the end of a gun, it happened by compassion because of a work in individual hearts. The answer to poverty is not greed. That much is obvious. Less obvious but just as true is the fact that handouts don't help either. The answer to poverty is compassion with discernment.
Here lies the problem with modern progressivism. The left spends a lot of time and energy telling us how corrupt the government is. In many cases, they are correct. But out of the same mouths we hear sermons about how we need to give our guns, our wealth, and our liberties to that corrupt government. Many protest the separation of families at the border by the government, as well they should, but only to turn around and assume that the same government can handle a family's income. Somehow, the government knows best, progressives assume. In reality, what the government knows best is how to be compassionate with other people’s money. But no problem is ever solved with his approach.
When the individual citizens who Mr. Branson would like to take wealth from demonstrate compassion, things get done. We’re not as likely to hear about these acts as we are the greedy CEOs who make billions of dollars a year but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. They do. J.J. Watt and LeBron James are just two examples from pop culture. There are thousands more.
In their excellent book When Helping Hurts: How To Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert break down three areas that must be addressed with discernment when dealing with poverty. They are relief, rehabilitation, and development. Much harm is done, and has been done, by those who fail to differentiate between the three needs when attempting to help. Most frequently, this shows up in the form of paternalism—doing things for people who really don’t need anything to be done for them.
Government and those espousing the idea of basic income are fantastic at paternalism. That’s because paternalism often leads to votes which leads to more power and wealth for those allegedly fighting for the poor. Paternalism is big business. That’s why you should never trust a socialist, especially one with a second home.
Compassion is different. Rather than simply handing out money, it honors human dignity. It takes the time to know specific needs and how to address them. It’s working for something bigger than a vote.
In one sense, Richard Branson is right. It is a disgrace to see people sleeping on the streets with material wealth all around them. But it’s an even bigger disgrace to assume that taking material wealth from those who have it and giving it to those who do not will solve poverty.
All it will do is create even more poverty and opportunities for progressive paternalism.
A compassionate and discerning citizenry does far more to alleviate poverty than a paternalistic government could ever do.