Kent A. Van Til’s first book, a work of constructive economic ethics, makes a compelling case that basic sustenance for all is mandated by a Christian understanding of the human person created in God’s image to share in God’s work in the world. When forty percent of the world’s people live on less than two dollars a day, Van Til argues, Christians can be said to have failed in their responsibilities. The aim of the book is to convince Christian readers who may be supportive of charity and mission work but suspicious of the need for structural change that political action is called for by Christian faith. Van Til is especially effective at making this case because he skillfully weaves together biblical analysis and economic theory.
The book’s early chapters are devoted to sketching the inadequacies of the free market system. Though Van Til understands the virtues of a free market system and does not want to abandon it entirely, he shows that contemporary economists working in the free market tradition have replaced Adam Smith’s original vision of a better life for all with the far lesser goal of “Pareto optimality,” or consumer satisfaction with market exchanges for the problem, says Van Til, is that the forty percent of the world’s population who live on less than two dollars a day are not able to participate in the market economy. While governments are busy protecting the property rights of those who do participate, “Those without initial endowments may be not able to satisfy their preferences or even meet their basic needs” (38). Van Til goes on to show that the free market system itself will not necessarily provide for the needs of the poor because it is not designed to deal with initial inequalities and does not respond to needs.
Two middle chapters present the mostly familiar biblical case for responding to the needs of the poor. However, after showing how biblical concern for the marginalized is directed toward those denied social participation, Van Til makes a creative move in arguing that, “Providing people with the means to function in their society today thus seems analogous to the biblical demand to care for the widows, orphans, and aliens of Scripture” (107). Further, he claims that the positive duty of Christians to aid the poor implies the moral right of the poor to basic sustenance (112).
The final chapters rely upon 19th century theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper and contemporary political theorist Michael Walzer to show that it is possible to respond to the need for sustenance within a free market system. The key shift is from a value-neutral economic system in which the highest goal is a fair system of preference satisfaction, to a “value-directed” economics that acknowledges sustenance for all as a driving concern (150). The constructive case is thorough and compelling.
The book’s final chapter is less satisfying. First, Van Til’s presses the idea of sins of omission, arguing that distance does not remove all responsibility, and thus that not contributing money to the needy is immoral. Yet, he allows that distance makes some moral difference. But what sort of responsibility do we have to distant poor neighbors and how do we decide how much to spend on ourselves? This is an enormously complex issue, and deserves more extended treatment than is provided here. Second, Van Til relies on the Millennium Report of the World Bank to claim that those in the developed world need sacrifice very little to solve the problem of world poverty. A donation of $200 per adult per year would be sufficient to meet the basic needs of all. This prescription seems to overlook substantial problems involved in providing sustenance for the world’s poor. Moreover, asking for just $200 per person (less than most of his readers most likely already give) seems to trivialize the challenge of the book and locate the problem in the realm of charity, when Van Til has argued that poverty is a social problem requiring political solutions.
The book would serve as useful text in graduate courses in social ethics and as thought-provoking reading for those in this increasingly inter-disciplinary field, though it is probably too complex for undergraduates. If Van Til does not offer adequate specific solutions, his book nonetheless raises all the right questions and challenges Christian readers to allow concern for the world’s poor to shape not only their charitable giving, but their political philosophy, their votes, and their lives.