Questions for a “Christian” view of economics (Acton 3)

With the lecture on economics, I entered new territory, since like most theologians, I have very little background in economics. (I like money, though, so I think that helps.) So, rather than walking through the whole lecture, which I don’t think I could do meaningfully, let me highlight a few areas in which I have some questions.

1. Private Property

The lecturer argued that secure private property rights are necessary for effective economics. For example, unless I’m convinced that you rightfully own that car, I’m not going to give you any money for it, because I don’t want the real owner chasing me down later. So, for consistent and predictable economic exchange, you need to have secure property rights.

I have several questions here that maybe some of you who have reflected on economics more than I have can answer. First, and most importantly, how does this right to private property connect with the Christian anthropology articulated earlier. The lecturers here have posited several times that there is a necessary connection between these two, but I have not yet heard any meaningful explanation of what this connection might be. Does a truly Christian anthropology necessitate private property? Wouldn’t this entail the existence of private property in the eschaton? Are we willing to go that far? Indeed, the closest that I’ve heard to a biblical argument for private property so far are the various commandments not to steal. But, it seems like a more robust defense is necessary for such an apparently important concept.

Second, the lecturer made a distinction between private property, which includes the property of corporations, and governmentally owned property. But, with the rise of mega-corporations in the modern era, is it that easy to make such a distinction?

Finally, even if we agree that private property is divinely intended, how will we determine what constitutes legitimate rights of possession? Who gets to make the rules that govern right of possession? Or, do we need to argue that these particular rules are also somehow grounded in the creation order?

2. Consumerism

The lecturer made a point of arguing that the free market is a “consumer sovereignty system.” In other words, the whole point of a free market is to provide people what they want. If enough people want low-priced shoes, the market will produce them. And, that’s great as long as our wants are appropriate. But, if enough people want pornography, the market will produce that as well. So, she argued that a free market needs to be tempered by “Christian realism and Christian morality.” (Could we still call such a market “free”?) So, we utilize the power of the free market, but we make sure that it is guided by Christian convictions to produce those goods in accord with Christian morality.

Setting aside for a moment the seeming impossibility of such a task, doesn’t this simply capitulate to an understanding of economics that is inherently consumeristic? Even if we succeeded to developing such a Christian market, it would still be a “consumer sovereignty system” oriented around producing and consuming goods based on personal desires, perpetuating the idea that humans are defined primarily as producers/consumers. Wouldn’t we be better off focusing what it really means for human persons to flourish in the world and then consider how best to create economic realities that contribute to that kind of flourishing?  Maybe that’s naïve in a broken world, but it seems like a good place to start.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 18, 2010, in Anthropology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. colin mattoon

    Marc,
    I think another important point on consumerism is that the free market system is dependent upon the foundational concept that humans are rational actors and will make rational choices. Sin corrupts the mind and our rationality though, which presents a problem for free market economics. Greed will drive people to make choices in a free market system that are inherently bad for them at times. Its a big part of why we have gone through the current recession.

    Colin

    • Yes, that’s part of the reason why most of the people at Acton continue to affirm a limited role for government in all of this. It’s necessary because we can’t always be trusted to do what’s in our best interests. Of course, government needs to be limited because it’s full of broken people who can’t be trusted either.

      Overall, though, there seemed to be a greater sense of optimism in the Acton approach that properly formed human persons, though still sinful, can act in virtuous ways that will lead to a flourishing society. Although I have a very high view of the human person, I think I’m just fundamentally more skeptical on this point.

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