My Take on Basic Christian Economic Principles

This week I’ve been reading further into the views of those who claim to want to see government, particularly in the United States, run according to more strictly biblical principles, and in the process I’ve had to plow through some of their particularly distasteful economic theories. I must confess that this has caused me to mutter to myself some particularly un-Christian exclamatives at times, but I believe God has forgiven me. But it occurs to me that rather than simply ranting to myself about these matters and waiting to eventually channel all of my disagreements on such into my dissertation, I should take the trouble here to lay out the basic structure of what it is I disagree with and what I see as a more “godly” and rational approach on the matter. (Warning: This gets rather long and theoretical.)

I have written before here about the problems inherent in an Ayn Rand “objectivist” approach to economic theory, and with assuming that this is in some way compatible with basic Christian doctrine. Rand’s own mistakes did not include assuming that her views were faith-compatible. In fact she was rather dogmatically opposed to being associated with Christianity, or even traditional morality, but that’s rather beside the point. Those who have made “moral issues” their core political rallying cry have rather broadly chosen to associate themselves with laissez faire economic positions reminiscent of Rand –– actually borrowing from Rand far more than they realize: letting the rich decide for themselves what, if anything, they want to do to help the poor, and leaving it up to market forces to distribute the bounty that the earth and human ingenuity have to offer. How this came about is a long sad story unto itself, involving more than a little bit of unproven speculation along the way, but the sad fact of the matter is that many have come to think of this laissez faire approach as the “proper Christian position” on economic matters.

ECP coverThe book on the subject that I’ve been trying to finish this week is called “Explicitly Christian Politics,” edited by a guy named Einwechter (1997, Hopeland, PA: Christian Statesman Press). It’s not intellectually heavy reading, but it is somewhat emotionally draining. It’s written by the sort of Calvinists who honestly believe that America would be a finer country and the world would be a better place if they were (literally) allowed to stone gays and adulterers to death. They’re the ones who believe that they have a direct rational understanding of what God wants for humanity based on their interpretation of the bible, and from there their job is to find ways of progressively taking over the culture in order to bring about this divine mandate. “Mainstream” Religious Right representatives who do the actual “king-making” within the US Republican Party these days try to publically distance themselves from this group even more thoroughly than they do from Ayn Rand, but like Rand, this is the sort of material that those in the Religious Right secretly read and occasionally pass on ideas from.

Anyway, between the chapter on taking the Old Testament literally as a source of civil law and the one on eliminating public education (honestly, literally) comes the chapter on the glories and godly mandate of the free market system, written by a fellow named Tom Rose. Like other writers in the book in question, Rose doesn’t bother too much with investigating the historical context of the “proof texts” he quotes from the Bible. That would effectively kill their whole argument. Thus he takes both Psalm 118 about princes (and by extension all government workers) not being trustworthy and Romans 13 about obeying government authorities as God-appointed ministers of the good as being equally normative for Christians today. This schizophrenic premise leaves him to decide where government should be trusted and where it shouldn’t according to the premises of his school of thought: Government should be trusted to protect the property of those who have lots of property to be protected. Government should be trusted to kill off those who we can justifiably label as “evil doers”. Government should not be trusted to protect and provide for the needs of the poor and the outcast.

Rose_TomAs Rose puts it, “God’s purpose in establishing civil government is to foster a climate of peace, godly freedom and honesty so that man’s freedom to act self-responsibly before God is maximized. Such a climate of principled freedom… fosters the free and spontaneous economic interaction of men through mutually beneficial voluntary exchange.”

He goes on from there to claim that, “A spontaneous and dynamic increase in productive economic activity can be observed throughout the world in countries where civil rulers move from state-controlled economies towards free markets.” His list of historical examples of such a dynamic is pretty thin –– limited in fact to Douglas MacArthur’s role as the occupying governor of Japan after World War 2, where after thirteen years he left “as a beloved benefactor because of the godly policies he implemented.” The assertion that the whole reason Japan was doing so well economically in the late twentieth century was because MacArthur established more “godly principles of government” there than their competitors had deserves to be pondered for a moment.

The whole ideal of voluntary cooperation rather than coercive oppression sits rather awkwardly with the Calvinist emphasis on the completely sinful –– totally depraved –– nature of mankind. Other chapters in the book in question emphasize how we need to have threats of capital punishment not only for murder but for “sexual perversion”, juvenile delinquency and other “grievous crimes”; but when it comes to free market exchange somehow we don’t need so many regulations, because we can believe that somehow in this area people are more capable of peaceful cooperation with each other. How can this be? Well, according to Rose this is because “God has instituted [a] deterrent to the general outworking of evil in society… by infusing a self-interested nature in man.”

This deserves yet a longer ponder. The factor that we can trust to protect us against other people’s sinful greed is their self-interest?! The mix of “objectivism” with Calvinism here is getting more than a little funky.

From there Rose turns to the authority of the nineteenth century French nobleman economist, Frederick Bastiat. He quotes Bastiat as saying, “[M]en will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work… It is evident, then, that the proper purpose of law is to use its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to work.”

Rose misses the historical irony of this entirely. Bastiat was only able to write these words by excusing himself from working life through what Marx later termed “control of the means of production.” Bastiat was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and with great luck and moderate skill he managed to maintain his bite on that spoon for all of his 49-year life. In the latter half of that life, after his parents and grandparents had died, he gave up all pretense of economic productivity, hiring others to manage his family holdings for him and dedicating his time to theorizing as to why the revolutionary forces of his day should not be allowed to curtail or restrict the means by which he maintained his privileged lifestyle. So for Bastiat to have preached that the government’s job is to limit the extent to which people take the easy way out of working life involved a fair amount of hypocrisy to say at the least.

But taking Bastiat’s perspective as godly wisdom, Rose goes on to argue that the “misuse of government power” needs to be prevented in the forms of:

  • Minimum wage and price control legislation
  • Licensing laws limiting access to particular professions
  • Market restriction mechanisms such as tariffs
  • Government support for businesses and for the poor and needy.

hegel50In condemning these practices he sites G.W.F. Hegel as a prime example of ungodly thinking in social policy: “He [Hegel] viewed men as having social rights rather than God-given rights, and he viewed the state as the entity that prescribed rights and duties… This is an excellent picture of what many modern humanist-oriented states… have devolved into… as they have deviated from God’s clear instructions that rulers are limited in power by the guidelines God has laid down in the Bible.” One of his co-authors puts it, cynically rephrasing Job’s lament, the Hegelian position is that “The State giveth and the State taketh away. Blessed be the name of the State.” Whereas in the “proper order of things” mankind is supposed seize dominion over available resources (as justified by Genesis 1:28) and only God is allowed to take from those who have those who have so seized to give to those in need.

The selective way in which Rose trusts in the virtue of mankind and in the function of government –– with the self-interest of those in positions of economic power being the primary exception to the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity that he follows –– makes me uneasy for reasons beyond its intellectual inconsistency, its blind fideism and its similarities with “objectivism”. In terms of encouraging innovation, hard work, creativity and social harmony I just don’t see such a system as stable and workable in the long term. The idea that extreme economic polarization can be anything other than harmful to society strikes me as absurd, and the idea that whatever wealth a person is able to seize needs to be treated as his “divine right” even more so. But lest I be labelled as a Marxist or some other form of heretic than what I am, I should follow this up by taking the trouble to lay out my own basic views on wealth and its proper distribution in line with my religious and ideological commitments. Take what follows for what it’s worth. I only ask that if you slap some sort of label on my ideas you do so without associating me with those who would not want to be associated with my ideas.

Essentially I would define wealth primarily as the capacity to acquire important forms of happiness for oneself. This too goes back to my “Five Cs” theory that I was talking about here again last month: Happiness basically comes by way of comparison, comfort, control, confidence and/or connection. Most often wealth is defined in terms of control: the power to get others to do what you want them to, or give you what you want to have, by paying them enough to make it worth their while. As important as that part of it is, I wouldn’t limit it to that. Nor would I want to determine who is truly wealthy merely on the basis of how much they have in the bank. I could go on about this matter of definition for a couple pages, but I suspect that most of you get my point.

So on the basis of this definition then, I would say that there are essentially seven basic categories for means of wealth acquisition –– three which need to be protected for the economy to remain functional, two which are to be permitted as mostly harmless in most cases but not defended as essential rights, and two which need to be prevented as much as possible by people taking collective action against them.

Means of acquiring wealth to be protected:

The Commons:  The most basic factor in maintaining life and happiness is being able to freely have access to “what God has given” without government and corporate interests blocking this access. This would include basic fresh air, sunshine, companionship and many other important resources, which actually vary from place to place and culture to culture. Here in Finland my “commons” rights include the right to freely go out into the forest and pick blueberries this month, so long as I don’t destroy other people’s possibilities of doing the same. No one is allowed to establish a monopoly on the bounty that nature provides in this regard, and there are legal restrictions over anyone attempting to do so. The same applies in Finnish law regarding simple hook-and-line fishing (at least in areas where the fish haven’t been stocked as part of a professional service to be paid for). More efficient means of gathering fish, reducing the amount available for other common folk, does require a license here, but the simple system I used to catch three big breams last month is fully covered under “everyman’s rights” here.

june2013 030Obviously not every country can guarantee free access to fish and summer berries for all of its residents, but variations on the same principle apply in all places. When Gandhi was fighting to protect the common rights of the people of India against the abuses of the British Empire he did so by collecting salt from the ocean, in defiance of unjust laws monopolizing production in that commodity. The law he was breaking was unjust, not because salt per se is something that every person in the world has a natural right to, but because the attempt to monopolize a freely available natural resource is inherently unjust. Every person should have a right to the plenteous natural resources of their local environment, providing they don’t exclude the same right for others in the process. In theological terms, these resources are God’s gift to all mankind, not just to the greedy and the powerful.

One item that I believe should be included in this category very generally, but which I realize might not be fully applicable in all areas of the world still today, is access to clean drinking water. But even if there are cases where there isn’t enough clean water freely available to fully meet the needs of the local population, I believe that the rights of the common person to a just share of what resources there are is a far higher moral priority than enabling those who would commercially exploit this resource to turn a higher profit. In brutally concrete terms, no child in arid lands should have to die of dehydration because Coca-Cola or one of its competitors owns rights to the primary regional water supplies. I believe that the blocking or monopolizing of access to such basic resources for purposes of increasing the power of the powerful is fundamentally immoral, and one of the chief tasks of government is to protect access to such basic commodities for all of the people of the nation.

Productive labor:  Many of the things which contribute to our overall thriving and sense of happiness cannot be freely gathered; they have to be produced, indirectly or directly by human effort. In this regard people need to be encouraged and rewarded for producing means by which others can maintain life and build their personal happiness, which can in turn be exchanged for the sort of goods and services that enable the laborer to keep pursuing his or her own preferred forms of happiness in life.

garment factorySometimes this process gets incredibly complicated and abstract. In fact the vast majority of productive laborers these days perform the sort of tasks that play some small hidden role in complex processes of providing happiness for others, which they cannot take out onto the open market and sell to the highest bidder, as libertarians would like us to believe that they can. Someone who has worked for over a decade at some simple basic task –– like sewing the size tags into t-shirts that I might buy –– plays a very minor but recognizable role in my day-to-day happiness, that I indirectly pay for; but I am not in a position to make sure that what I pay for the service she provides to me actually reaches her, and she is not in any position to individually negotiate with the factory manager to make sure she gets a fair price for her role in contributing to my happiness. Thus there need to be collective mechanisms in place to protect the rights of individual workers to fair compensation for their efforts. Sometimes this needs to be done by trade unions; other times, by government agencies. The important thing is to insure that those who play a role in productive processes get enough back out of it so that those processes which are truly important to our collective happiness are able to keep going without treating those who enable them as disposable.

The form of happiness that these efforts contribute to can me many and varied, but I would tie them to my five pet categories still: helping us feel like we can favorably compare ourselves with others (comparison), helping our basic biological processes to function smoothly and enjoyably (comfort), enabling us to feel like we’re somehow in charge of our own lives and able to influence things beyond ourselves (control), feeling like we’re somehow making the world a better place (confidence), and/or having a sense of being part of someone or something beyond the confines of one’s own skin (connection). Some of these are more important than others in the big scheme of things. Some are more dependent than others on the goods and services we are able to acquire from other people. In many cases we all try to get as much as we can from others while offering as little in return as we can get away with… unless we stop to consider those we are interacting with as important individuals unto themselves. Then it becomes important to my happiness to keep those others from being abused, and I am even willing to pay others to help protect them from abuse, including by way of trying to hire government officials that share my priorities in this regard. In fact I believe that having this sense of connection with others –– loving our neighbors as ourselves –– is at the core of all Christian economic ethics, properly understood.

Distributing goods: Besides the process of producing the items and services needed to preserve life and enable happiness for all of us, there is also the challenge of getting the commodities in question to those who want and need them. In the ever-increasingly complex world in which we live this action within the economy takes on a greater and greater role all the time. Those who play important roles in the distribution of means of happiness include merchants, delivery personnel (drivers, sailors, pilots, dock workers…), broadcasters, publishers, bankers, business managers, salespersons, secretaries, advertising agents, talent agents, literary agents, travel agents, purchasing agents, tax collectors, librarians… The list is really endless. Without such people, I must admit, the computer on which I’m writing this, the particular room in which I am sitting, the food in my refrigerator and the clothes currently on my back probably never would have become available to me.

gerrits milk cartThese people are actually not spoken of to any significant extent in the Bible, or in the Qur’an for that matter, because those books were written in a logistically far simpler time: as a rule producers of goods did their own marketing and delivery, like my great-grandfather’s milk business still a century ago. Capitalism, industrialism and consumerism hadn’t really become social phenomena worth mentioning yet. To the extent that such people are mentioned in scripture the comments made about them are generally not that favorable. It is fair to say that for all of the abuses inherent within these developments though, they have increased our overall freedom, our personal safety, our lifespans and our sense of brotherhood and interconnection with people all over the world. Thus it would be fair to say that on the balance these post-scriptural structural developments have been a good thing for the world. But like all new cultural and technological developments, these complex means of distributing goods and services need to be carefully regulated.

Those who come between the t-shirt sower and myself enable her work to benefit me and my money to benefit her, but they more often than not charge me far more for bringing the fruits of her labor to me and demand more from her in turn for the pay they give her than is necessarily justifiable. More than a few people have gotten obscenely rich not by making anything that increases the happiness of others but by controlling the extent to which those who actually produce useful commodities have access to the fruit of each other’s labor –– more often than not exponentially increasing the prices paid in the exchange. By enabling more extensive trade many of these middle men earn their money fairly quite fairly, so it’s not fair to label all of them as crooks, but enough of them are crooked and abusive so that government has a major role to play in keeping a watch on these middle men and preventing them from abusing their power. It’s not enough to have nominal competition between distribution services; there needs to be an oversight system with more power than even the biggest business interest, answerable directly to the people in need of the protection.

Of all the people who cry foul when their extreme wealth is taxed by the government, those who acquired this wealth by more than quadrupling the prices consumers pay to the producers of particular services have the least right to complain. When these businesses become bigger and more powerful than the governments whose job it is to keep their abuses in check then we’re all in trouble. This is a situation that the writers of scripture never would have imagined, but which they certainly would have condemned if they could have seen it.

Means of acquiring wealth to be permitted

Gleaning: The Bible’s book of Ruth is actually the most touching religious love story that I know of. It is based primarily on the principle of gleaning: poor people being allowed to pick up the leftover products of mass-production. In particular if there was a poor girl who didn’t have enough to eat, she could freely go around to big farms after all of the produce had been harvested and pick up what scraps there were left in the fields for her own needs. As it happened in the story of Ruth a rich farmer happened to fall in love with a girl he noticed gleaning in his fields in just this way.

Book_of_Ruth_Chapter_2-1_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)Unlike rights to “the commons” mentioned above, gleaning involves taking advantage of other people’s labor without paying them for it. This is justifiable only in the case where it’s actually not costing the producer anything for the poor person to take advantage of his work. Those who build careers as abusive middle men would argue that in a market economy this is never the case: if anyone gets anything that they would otherwise have to buy for free, it drives the market price down and that in turn decreases the return to the producer (or more likely, to the middle men). There are many cases, however, where this amounts to nothing more than excessive greed. This is particularly relevant to the defense of “intellectual property.” It is one thing to prevent someone from the Far East to steal the ideas in question and flooding the market with knock-off copies of the product –– whatever it is –– thus preventing the innovative thinker from getting any substantial reward for his/her ideas. It is quite another thing for someone who has already profited handsomely from an idea he has come up with to prevent poor children in India or Africa –– who never would have been able to pay for the use of the idea in any case –– to freely benefit from the idea being “out there” once a fair and motivating amount of money has been made on it. Gleaning plays an important and respected role in biblical economics. Not shutting down gleaning operations out of pure greed to maximize middle man profits is a distinctly ungodly way of doing business.

CrapsTableOldGambling: Another means of acquiring wealth is through various variations on games of chance. These games can easily become dangerously addictive and economically destructive to those who make a habit out of playing them, and as such they are broadly discouraged by moralists of many sorts, but in fact the Bible has surprisingly little to say directly against such practices, as long as they are conducted with a modicum of honesty. For many businessmen this is a good thing, because what they are doing in the process of “playing the market” amounts to little more than gambling with other people’s money. This process is morally acceptable as long as all of those whose money is being wagered are fully informed about how the game works and what their risks are. What is not acceptable is when these folks lose their bets and then expect the government to bail them out, especially when they are not willing to surrender any of their previous dishonest “winnings” in the process. Those who have paid even the slightest attention to what the Occupy movements of the past decade have been saying don’t need me to explain this situation to them though, and the rest probably aren’t interested in understanding it any further, so I’ll move on.

Means of acquiring wealth to be forbidden

Enslavement of others: There are biblical precedents for allowing slavery, but there is a universal moral outcry these days against allowing such practices to continue. In fact the most honorable thing do be done in the name of Christianity in the past few centuries was the movement to abolish the slave trade worldwide. The problem is that many still don’t take the risk of enslavement that many face –– and the moral equivalent of enslavement for the working poor –– as serious moral issues. Any form of employment which treats human beings as disposable production apparatuses –– not paying them at least enough to cover the housing, nutritional and medical expenses for a small family, so that “the bosses” are able to get richer off of selling the products of their labor –– is dehumanizing and immoral, and their need to be laws to prevent such de-facto enslavement. If customers aren’t willing to pay enough for a particular product so that there’s enough money being made off of it to provide a livable wage to all of those making the product in question, then the economy would probably be better off without the wasteful exercise of producing such valueless garbage. That excuse aside, there is no real justification for legally allowing businesses, especially within “developed countries”, to disregard the standards set in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with regard to their employees’ basic dignity. A fortiori, we need to forbid the import of products that are made by explicit slave labor, or under conditions that result in the unnecessary death and blatant de-humanization of people in third world countries, regardless of how many powerful men within our societies are benefiting from such practices.

Plunder by means of deception and non-democratic force: Regardless of Bastiat’s hypocrisy in saying so, it is true that if people have an alternative to working (contributing to the happiness of others in order to have something to fairly exchange for the means of gaining happiness they expect others to provide them with) that gives them the same personal benefits for less of an effort, they will frequently take advantage of such an alternative. For some short-sighted individuals various forms of legalized gambling seem like the best means of avoiding work. For many, however, there are convenient forms of cheating and bullying available to them that involve less effort than honest work, and less risk than the various gambling rackets. These include, but are not limited to, embezzlement, extortion, armed robbery, burglary, kidnapping, hijacking, con schemes, resource monopolization and blackmail. It is part of the essential role of government to protect citizens against such abuses at the hands of their immoral neighbors. This much should be obvious.

This would not, however, include democratic institutional structures requiring higher tax contributions from those who have benefitted most extensively from the societal structure for the maintenance of that structure and for the protection of the most disadvantaged within that structure. Regardless of what libertarians and “objectivists” have to say about the subject, democratically regulated wealth redistribution for the basic protection and stabilization of the society in which that wealth was generated does not count as plunder. To equate the rich in modern industrialized countries having to pay over 25% in taxes with the guillotining of the French aristocracy and the nationalization of their property back in Bastiat’s time is more than a little absurd –– especially when that income so often comes not from working in the sense of contributing to the thriving of others, but from blatantly “working the system”.

—————————————————

So if we are going to try to manage national economies according to genuinely Christian principles, I strongly believe that these are the ones we have to be prioritizing. If you believe we should manage economies strictly on the basis of Herbert Spencer’s survival of the fittest theory and as Dickens’ Scrooge said, allow the poor to die off to decrease the surplus population, I can respect your intelligence but not your morality. If you believe that the best interests of the poor are really served by allowing the rich and powerful free reign in operating according to their own self-interest, I can respect your moral intent but not your intelligence. I deeply and sincerely respect the intelligence of some who disagree with me on this matter, and the moral integrity of others, but I find it very difficult to respect both. Feel free to attempt to change my mind on the matter.

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2 Comments

Filed under Economics, Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Religion

2 responses to “My Take on Basic Christian Economic Principles

  1. Thanks a ton for using time in order to compose “My Take on Basic Christian Economic Principles | Huisjen’s Philosophy Blog”. Thanks a ton again ,Tyler

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