#94 Bread and Circuses

the christian economist dave arnott

# 94 Bread and Circuses

The US Government is giving money to the populace in an attempt to buy votes with bread and circuses.  This is not Biblical and it hurts instead of helps the poor, as Christians are commanded to do.

“Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt.”  The phrase originates from Roman poet Juvenal who stated that the Roman government used this method to win votes by popularity. Bread and Circus refers to the strategy of giving citizens what they want to distract citizens from what is going on in the government and economy.

In Ancient Rome The Roman empire centered around emperors. As the emperors and their power grew stronger, the citizens role in government became less prominent. Juvenal stated “The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddle no more and longs eagerly for just two things — bread and circuses.“

Roman Entertainment Circus Maximus was a stadium built for chariot races.  The Colosseum was a amphitheater that was home to the gladiator contests, animal hunts, public executions, and naval battles.

Roman Government gave Free grain to the poor to win the lower class.

Caring for the Poor

I’ve often said in class, “Food comes first.”  But, we are such a rich society, that food is taken for granted.  As a matter of fact, the Wall Street Journal Editorial board this week wrote an article titled, “The Democratic Food-Stamp Boom,” subtitled, “The average family of four will get more than they spend on food.”

The article points out, “A family of four will get up to $835 per month after adjusting for inflation. The average four-person household in the U.S. spent only $537 per month on food at home in 2019.”

I’m the Christian Economist.  Christians – well, a person of any religious persuasion – cares about the means, while Economists care about the ends.  Most Christians are conservative, and I explain why in podcast #13 No Crash Diets.”  For today, let me explain that all reasonable Christians want to care for the poor.  Here’s the difference: Conservative Christians believe individuals and churches should care for the poor.  Liberal Christian skip over the “how” part of the equation and simply want the poor cared for, and they don’t care how it happens.  The government has no money.  It must take before it can give.  There are multiple Biblical commands to give, but there is no command to take.

In the last chapter of Biblical Economic Policy, Sergiy Saydometov and I explain the Christian’s Economic role for individual, churches and government.  Most Bible-following Christians understand that HOW we care for the poor is important.  Liberal Christians don’t care how it gets done, and so they favor government largess as explained this week by the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

The hero for caring for the poor among individuals is the Good Samaritan, or the Capitalist Good Samaritan, as I call him.  That’s because he used his own goods to care for the man who was robbed while going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  The church gets their commission when they are ordered to care for widows and orphans in their distress in James 1:27.   

For more on this, Dr. Saydometov and I have included both “Be a Good Samaritan,” and “Take care of Widows and Orphans,” as two of the ten Biblical Commandments of Economics in our book, Biblical Economic Policy.

Crowding Out

Either the Government has stolen our Biblical duty to care for the poor, or we have failed and allowed them to take our role.  I’m not ready to argue either of those possibilities today.  I’m only making the conclusion that we’re doing this wrong.  The Bible calls for individuals and churches to care for the poor, and the US Government is now doing it.  In economics, we call this “crowding out.”  Either individuals and churches care for the poor, or the government does.

Early in his Presidency, Mr. Biden stared into a camera  and boasted, “People are hurting, and we’re helping them.”  A large swath of American agree that government should help.  But that’s not what the Bible says.

In their book For the Least of These, Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley state, “The Government should punish evil but not do good.  The church should do good, but not punish evil.”  Although I don’t think that’s an absolute, I do agree that in general, the government should not help the poor.  I’m sorry if that’s a radical statement for you, but it’s Biblical.  As I’ve often stated, “I’m just the boy at the edge of the crowd shouting, “The Emperor has no clothes.”  I’m not responsible for who feels naked as a result.

Here’s a personal example of being crowded out.  Ginger and I made a monthly contribution to Manna House, a very fine organization that provides food for hungry people in our community.  Their work is overseen by the Pastor’s alliance in our little burg.  After reading the statement that the government is going to give $835 worth of food to a family who consumes only $537, I asked Ginger, “So why do we continue to donate to Manna House?”  See where this is headed?  The Bible commands Ginger and I to give.  But we’ve been crowded out by the Government, so we’re not able to fulfill our command to give.

Giving or Helping

We help the poor when we make them able to care for themselves.  We enable them when we give to them and dis-able them from caring for themselves.  This is explained more completely in When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fickert.

Back to the Wall Street Journal’s comments about increasing food aid to Americans.  They write, “The USDA hilariously says that Americans need to consume more calories because they are fatter. According to government data, food-stamp recipients spend about 20% of their allotment on sweetened beverages, desserts, salty snacks and candy.”  A study in the 2018 Journal of the American Medical Association found that low-income food-stamp non-beneficiaries ate more healthily than food-stamp beneficiaries, and their diets also improved more over time.

Like other Great Society programs, food stamps have done nothing to reduce poverty and little to improve public health. They have encouraged government dependency, which is the Democrats’ political goal.

See, here’s why churches do it better.  It’s because they have a personal relationship with the needy person.  Churches tale a more holistic view, and see the poor person as made in the image of God –  as I explain in podcast #32 – so they are able to care for the poor while enabling them from mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual angles.  The father of one of my freshman explained his son’s skipping my class as a spiritual problem.  Ok, that’s interesting!  I would have said that he made a commitment to come to class and didn’t keep it, so maybe that’s a moral problem.  But, do you see the variety of needs that his father and I can diagnose?  The government would just give him some money.  That’s not solving the problem.  That’s hurting him, not helping him.  Just as the government is hurting people by encouraging them to buy unhealthy food.

The reason the Bible endorses individual and church-based help is because they can more personally diagnose the problem and provide the help that’s necessary: Mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual.

Buying Votes

President Trump was derided for claiming “America First.”  But, in the fiasco that is unfolding in Afghanistan this week, President Biden’s main purpose for doing so was his explanation that it was costing millions of dollars.  So, if he’s taking millions from Afghans – and stepping on NATO in the process – that sounds a lot like an “America First” campaign.  It’s very clear: He intends to take those dollars from military exploits and give them to Americans, so they will vote for him.  In economics we call this the trade-off between guns and butter.  So, let’s see….he’s obtaining butter for the bread he’s giving Americans.  Sorry for that disastrous mixing of metaphors.  But really, what else is he going to give them?

Food and circuses buy votes.  The Democrats know this.  In an article titled “Hooked on Federal Checks,” Nick Stehle explains that he will take the $948 that the IRS put in his bank account, but he will feel bad about it.  He got the money from the Advanced Child Tax credit.  Problem is, only 36% of these new payments are going to families in poverty. The rest of the money is going to middle-class families like his.  How will he vote in the next election?  Rational economics states that he will vote for the party who gave him the money.  This has become so rampant and so blatant, that they don’t even try to hide it anymore.  They have skipped the bread and circuses and just made automatic deposits to the accounts of voters.

Where does that money come from?  Well, Kerby Anderson writing in his book Christians and Economics, explains that it must come from higher taxes, greater national debt, or from the Fed’s printing presses.  Sergiy Saydometov and I have written complete chapters on all of these topics in Biblical Economic Policy.  Just briefly today: National debt passes the bill to the next generation who has not voted yet.  That means it is taxation without representation.  Printing more money causes inflation, which hurts the poor more than the rich.

But, if you’re nothing thinking about what Henry Hazlitt calls “The second level” in Economics in One Lesson, you simply accept the automatic deposit to your account and vote for the party who put it there.  This is not in line with the Christian Worldview, and it’s not economically sustainable.  Thus, it fails on both Christian and the Economics rules.

Tax the Rich

A couple comments about paying for these vote-buying schemes by raising taxes.  I his article “America Looks More Like Europe All the Time,” Josef Joffe points out that in some ways, US taxing and spending exceed those in Europe that have significantly curtailed their economies.  President Biden wants to raise the long-term capital-gains tax from just below 24% to above 43%. Switzerland has no such tax. In Britain, inventor of the welfare state, it is 20% and in Germany 26%.  I want to ask the President what he has against elementary-school teachers in Nebraska.  You know that the state does not keep their retirement funds in a big vault under the capitol building in Lincoln.  It’s in stocks that President Biden wants to tax.

“Somebody always pays,” writes Mr. Jofee.  “The laws of economics still apply. Why is inflation climbing on both sides of the Atlantic? The same adage: too much money chasing too few goods.”  As I’ve often said, “You can change economic policy, but you can’t change economic laws.”  And, the one thing that separates rich from poor nations is  Policies that Promote Production, as I’ve explained in podcast #27.

The New York Times reports, “The Biden budget promises to reshape the government’s role in the economy.”  But not in a way that’s consistent with Biblical principles.

Mr. Jofee points out, “As government expands and hands out more goodies, it also tightens its grip on the economy. It shrinks the private sector, the engine of U.S. wealth creation. It is no accident that Europe has grown more slowly over the past 40 years as government spending, regulations and taxes have increased.”  They are using bread and circuses to buy votes.  Let’s hope it doesn’t work.

What if the Rich Refuse?  Emal Aken writing in the Epoch times this week reports that nearly 61 percent of U.S. households paid no federal income taxes in 2020, up from 44 percent in 2019.   Ok, we had this pandemic thing.  But she goes on to predict that the number will be 57% in 2021.

If you don’t understand the bumper sticker that asks, “Who is John Galt?”  You need to look it up.  That’s because, it is rational economic behavior for people to vote for the party that gives them money.  It’s also rational economic behavior for the 43% who pay the tax, to leave the country.


Read Along with The Christian Economist:

Biblical Economic Policy 

For the Least of These 

When Helping Hurts 

Economics in One Lesson 


Watch the full episode here