Liberation Theology and Economic Development. (Religious Foundations of Social Policy)

Article excerpt

JAMES M. DAWSEY (*)

Introduction: Economic Disorder

LATIN AMERICAN LIBERATION theology has earned the world's admiration for its heroic stand on behalf of oppressed, marginalized people. But also, from its incipience around 1968, liberation theology has been surrounded by controversy because of its often-unabashed association with Marxist analysis. Today, twenty-five years of oversimplified economic rhetoric, especially concerning dependency theory, the recent disintegration of the Soviet bloc, and the loss of confidence in command economies, even in Cuba, have caused liberationists to re-evaluate the economic theories that underpin much of their thought (Ellis and Maduro 1990:10, 77-93, 209-210). In the following pages, I plan to address this small and, I think, fortuitous crisis by suggesting that the American economist Henry George has much to offer liberation theology.

Liberation theology is rooted in commitment to the poor, not just in Latin America, but throughout the world. The greatest poverty in the world today is in Africa. Africa's share of the Gross World Product is a paltry 1.2 percent. Moreover, Africa's share of GWP has dropped since 1980, from 1.9 percent to 1.2 percent. In that time, Sub-Saharan Africa's external debt has tripled to $174 billion (Morrow 1992:42). This translates into devouring poverty for hundreds of millions of people and extreme hunger and malnutrition during periodic famines.

Even the United States, which accounts for 25 percent of the Gross World Product, faces tremendous problems (Time, June 1, 1992: 42). (1) An uncrossable gulf separates those who are destitute from those who are rich in American society. While a few sports stars bring in millions of dollars each year, a survey shows that 27 percent of the dwellers of East Los Angeles go to bed hungry at night because they do not have enough to eat (Harter 1993). In fact, according to a 1991 study, approximately 20 percent of U.S. children went hungry sometime in 1991, the worst hunger rate being 34 percent, in Mississippi (Smith 1993:A-3).

These are just a few of the massive problems that this generation faces. And with them in mind, we have a proper backdrop against which to trace the connection between the North American economist and social reformer Henry George and Latin American liberation theologians. Let me posit two similarities between Henry George and Latin American liberation theologians and argue for a third. They agree (1) that there is something basically wrong with the way that society is structured, and 2) that unjust institutions cause much suffering among people. They also have a similar view 3) that concentrated land ownership lies at the heart of social injustice.

The Injustice of Social Structures

BOTH HENRY GEORGE (in the late 1800s) and Latin American liberation theologians (since the late 1960s) have concluded that there is something unjust about the way that society is structured. Thus, much of people's poverty, George and liberationists have reasoned, results from an oppressive, dehumanizing, enslaving, evil economic system.

The structures of injustice can be found in any society. They are most visible, however, in societies that are undergoing major transitions, especially on a new frontier where the rules are changing. As the following example shows, when the Brazilian government decided to develop the Amazon Basin, the result was not only ecological disruption, but the displacement of millions of people from their homes:

Between 1967 and 1985, the Brazilian government's Superintendency for the Development of Amazonia (SUDAM) opened 8.4 million hectares for new development in the Amazon. "The most recent tally has 631 ranches, whose average size is 24,000 hectares, given the go-ahead by SUDAM. The biggest ones were Liquigas (678,000 hectares), Suia-Missu (560,000), Volkswagen A.G. (139,000), and the ArmourSwift/King Ranch (72,000). …