“Governments should protect the people,” John declared, pounding the table for emphasis. “I’m tired of hearing about Americans struggling to make ends meet. I wish there were enough jobs and money for the whole world, but that’s a pipe dream. The hard reality is that we need a government that will protect Americans and American jobs. That’s what government is for.”
Alex was already shaking his head. “You just don’t get it. That kind of protectionism will destroy us.”
He pointed out the window to the small store across the street. “You see that? That’s a great little business. What if we could create four more? Or ten? Or a hundred? Think about all the jobs that would mean. We need to do more than protect existing jobs, we need to create more jobs. And to do that, we have to be fully and freely involved in the global economy.”
He hesitated briefly and then said, “And, we need to support the banks so we have enough money to invest in these new businesses.”
John and Alex both jumped slightly at this outburst from the third person at the table. Visibly agitated, Tom glared at Alex. “You want to give even more power to government and the banks? That’s insane! They’re the ones who got us into this mess to begin with.”
He took a deep breath before continuing, “You’re both missing the point anyway,” he said. “Our problem is that we’re too focused on money and jobs in the first place. It’s not a question of how many jobs we need, but what kind of people we should be. Jobs, governments, banks, all of that is secondary. We need them, of course. But they can distract from the real task of living fully human lives.”
He looked sadly out the window at the bustling city street. “We need to get back to simpler ways: less government, less busyness, more humanity.”
What is government for? What does government have to do with business? And, how does any of this matter for life and ministry today?
These are some of the questions that I’ve been chewing on since attending John Pinheiro‘s paper at Acton University on “The Political Economy of the American Founding.” The point of Dr. Pinheiro’s paper was that economic realities lay at the heart of early American history. And, I was fascinated to see how economic factors drove so much of the story. You really can’t understand the American Revolution, the development of the Constitution, or the factors leading up to the American Civil War, without understanding the economic dynamics at work.
But, as I listened to the lecture, I was struck by how competing views on government and economics are really competing views of human flourishing. That is, they are really arguments about what true human living looks like, what factors are necessary to sustain it, and what role (if any) government has in promoting those factors.
3 Views on Politics, Economics, and Human Flourishing
Consider the fictional conversation above. One one level, it was a discussion of government and economic policy. But, as Tom argued, these should be means to a greater end. So, their perspectives were really just different views of the goal, the means, and the proper relation between them. And, these three views have been with us for a while.
John (John Adams) argued for a form of mercantilism, the dominant economic model of the British Empire. On this view, wealth is a relatively fixed commodity, and everyone (individuals and nations) compete over this finite wealth. So, the role of government is to establish economic policies that will keep as much wealth as possible within the nation to promote the well-being of its own citizens. So, in this model, human flourishing requires wealth, and the government promotes human flourishing by increasing their share of the world’s limited resources.
Alex (Alexander Hamilton) offers a perspective more influenced by Adam Smith, who argued for economic policy based on creating wealth through the astute investment of capital. For Smith, wealth is not finite, but can be increased through economic policy. As in mercantilism, this approach believes that human flourishing requires wealth and that governments should, therefore, work to increase the wealth of its citizens. But, it has a different view of how governments should do this. Rather than establishing protectionistic policies aimed at retaining wealth, this view promotes open policies aimed at creating wealth.
Tom (Thomas Jefferson) represented the approach of the French physiocrats. They were much less concerned with creating or even retaining wealth. Instead, they focused on promoting the kind of living that would produce free and virtuous citizens, their view of human flourishing. And, for many of these thinkers, the best way to do this was through simple, agrarian, productive living. The growth of urban industrialism and wealth-oriented business practices were problems to be countered, not positive developments to be protected or (heaven forbid) increased. So, on this view, human flourishing does not require wealth creation. Instead, human flourishing requires stable, productive living. The role of government, then, is to make whatever policies necessary to facilitate such living, and nothing more. .
Idealism, Greed, and Human Flourishing
I don’t want to go into which of these is right, or even what it means for an economic system to be “right.” But, to each of these systems I want to say “yes” and “no.” On the one hand, I’m deeply sympathetic with Jefferson’s notion of a simple life that focuses more on becoming the right kind of person than on creating and/or protecting the right amount of wealth. Jefferson’s ideal appeals to me: the simple farmer, intimately tied to the land, unencumbered by governments, banks, and big businesses, and growing into human flourishing in small, local communities. But, at the same time, Jefferson’s ideal seems overly idealized. Most of the “simple farmers” I know work far too hard and rarely know if they’re going to have enough money to make it to the end of the season. And, that’s just in America. Move outside this country, and the life of the simple farmer is even more difficult. When you spend all day just trying to get enough food to survive, it’s difficult to find much time for human flourishing. Jefferson’s view of the simple life was probably colored by his experience as a wealthy plantation owner. It’s easy to say that wealth-creation is unnecessary when you already have more than you need. And it’s easy to tell government to get out of the way, when you already have the resources necessary to do what you want.
So, on the other hand, I also appreciate the goal of wealth creation promoted by the other two views. “Wealth” and “greed” are not synonymous. If we define “wealth” as the material goods that promote and sustain human flourishing, then we can see that wealth itself is not the problem, and promoting wealth can be helpful, even necessary, for promoting human flourishing. But, there are problems here as well. First, both of these systems can easily make wealth an end in itself. This isn’t necessary to these systems, but so much attention gets paid to increasing the wealth of a country and its citizens, that the broader questions of human flourishing easily get lost. If asked, I’m sure they would say, “Well, of course all of this wealth is for human flourishing.” But, by sidelining human flourishing and focusing on wealth creation, they’ve made a fundamental mistake that disorients the entire system. And, when that happens, both end up promoting greed. As I said earlier, wealth and greed are not the same. But, a system focused on wealth creation as an end in itself can only encourage greed as the system strives for “more,” either by taking from others (mercantilism) or by creating more (Smith). Either way, separated from a higher goal, wealth-creation lapses into a constant drive for more that can never be satisfied. And, as a result, both tend to promote competition over cooperation. Rather than highlighting human flourishing as the cooperative production of human communities, wealth-creation untethered from a higher goal creates the perfect context for the most destructive forms of economic competition.
All three of these systems, then, have something valuable to say about how government, economics, and human flourishing relate to one another. But, each manifests some limitations as well. And, they’ve been competing for primacy in American identity from the very beginning. There was no “winner” in the debate among the Founding Fathers. Instead, they compromised by including elements of each in our founding documents and policies. So, like me, many Americans have a conflicted, and possibly contradictory, view of these issues.
Two Fundamental Questions
In the end, I found this all to be very helpful in highlighting the need to press beyond discussions of economics and governmental practices to more fundamental questions:
- What is human flourishing?
- What factors are necessary to promote and sustain human flourishing?
These are core questions that should interest any human, but especially those of us involved in Christian ministry, because they’re the same questions that we’re asking. Only when we’ve offered our answers to these questions will we be in any position to have meaningful discussions about the best economic and political policies and practices for fostering them.
- Mark Stevens comments on Barth as a pastor-theologian.
As ironic as it might seem to anyone who would dare read his 14 volume Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth’s entire theology stood as a testament to his time as a parson. Barth was first and foremost a preacher and felt all theology should be done from the viewpoint of the preacher.
- Richard Beck shows how he led his class through an interesting discussion of economic complicity and original sin.
For my part, I tend to think of Original Sin socially and systemically. Basically, you can’t ever get clean. Systemically clean. The human condition is to be complicit, to have blood on your hands
- David Fitch argues that the New Calvinism is really the New Fundamentalism: insular, culturally suspicious, and exclusive.
To me, these are symptoms of a beginning fundamentalist posture towards culture: We have the answers, we distrust everything about everything that is not us.
- There’s an interesting discussion on how to translate pistis Christou going on over at BibleGateway’s Perspectives on Translation forum. Tom Schreiner and Mike Bird have both weighed in with helpful comments (along with a very brief one from Darrell Bock). I particularly liked this comment from Bird:
The problem is that I am familiar enough with Greek grammar and syntax to know that a genitive modifier restricts the head term but does not fill it with radically sophisticated theological content.
- And, there is now a new, giant Jesus statue in Poland.
Here are all of the posts from my recent trip to the Acton conference:
- In the beginning there was work. And it was good?
- Thoughts on human dignity
- Shouldn’t a Christian anthropology be noticeably Christian?
- The inadequacy of a “Christian” anthropology (Acton 1)
- What makes a view of government/law Christian (Acton 2)
- Questions for a “Christian” view of economics (Acton 3)
- Thoughts from Acton
- Free market economics through the lens of sin, power, and human flourishing (Acton 4)
- Creation theology and human flourishing (Acton 5)
- Sustainable stewardship (Acton 6)
- Concluding reflections (Acton 7)
[Oops. I wrote this while I was at Acton, but neglected to publish it. So, before anyone comments, yes I know that 4 comes before 7.]
One of the consistent themes here at Acton has been the idea that economics is not a zero-sum game. Rather than trying to determine how to divide up a finite pie of economic resources (wealth re-distribution), we should be focusing on how the proper use of capital resources creates more capital and greater global wealth. And, the best way to allocate those capital resources properly is to allow local economies to flourish. Some centralization of governmental authority is necessary to ensure that market forces don’t get out of hand, but in general we should facilitate the development of free markets that can respond swiftly to market demands and tap the resources of creative individuals/communities.
An issue that often arises in these discussions is that of global poverty, particularly poverty in majority world countries. Applying these free market principles means that the best way to address poverty is through the development of free market economies that will facilitate the production of greater wealth. Although “aid” should be an important part of our response to crisis situations, continual aid leads to an unhealthy dependence that destroys local economies. So, instead of “aid”, we should be focused on supporting local, free market economies. This is the best way to address global poverty. And, the growing economies of China and India are often cited as case studies in the application of these principles.
Although I can appreciate a lot about this arrangement, I am still left with at least four questions. One of them, the impact of this free market approach on the environment, I’ll save for my next post. In this one I’d like to focus on the issues of sin, power, and human flourishing.
1. Sin. As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s easy to talk about a “market” as an abstract force in society, and then discuss its potential for good in the world. That’s nice. But, when we realize that markets comprise the actions of individuals and communities which are themselves sinful and driven by sinful desires, the level of optimism should decrease significantly. And, Acton is fully aware of this problem. That’s why none of the lectures rejected a role for government in monitoring markets entirely (even though some of the rhetoric still pressed in this direction). But, their preferred answer to the problem of sin is the development of “virtuous” people and societies, who will then develop more “virtuous” markets. Unfortunately, “virtue” is one of those terms that never received adequate definition. Presumably they meant the Christian virtues (love, joy, peace, etc.). But, since they’re not talking about evangelism per se, they must be talking about developing “Christian” virtues in non-Christian contexts. (In other words, for market purposes it doesn’t really matter if you’re a Christian or a Buddhist, as long as you’re trustworthy.) But, I’m still waiting for some discussion of what it means to develop Christian virtues apart from Christ, who gets to determine which virtues are necessary, and how they do that. So, in general, I’d still like to see more reflection on the nature of sin and how it impacts this appeal to free markets.
2. Power. This one is similar to the last, but nuanced in a particular way. In one discussion this week, someone pointed to the problem of malaria in the majority world as an example of a situation that free markets seem poorly positioned to address. According to him, Malaria has the greatest impact on poor children in the majority world. Since such children have no capital resources, large pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to invest in affordable malaria medications. An example like this powerfully demonstrates the problem of unequal power distribution in the world and its impact on free markets. It would seem that as long as such inequities exist, there will be a tendency for free markets to cater to the needs and desires of those already powerful and wealthy. Granted, as someone points out, it’s actually in the best interests of the market to bring people out of poverty because it creates a larger and wealthier market. But, to hope that the market (i.e. the sinful people making economic decisions) will take such a long-range view, often against its own short-term interests, is a little more than I can manage.
3. Human Flourishing. And, we’re back to this one again because I think it’s at the center of so many of these issues. At the very end of one session someone asked why it is that so many people look at the growing economy of China and worry about what that economic growth is doing to the overall well-being of the people. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to discuss this one because I thought it raised a great question. If we’re not careful, this approach would seem to run the risk of equating human flourishing with economic well being, albeit virtuously economic well-being. So, we end up with a more Christian version of the homo economicus. I think the concerns people raise about rapid economic development are based on an almost unconscious realization that human flourishing involves so much more. So, a discussion of economics has to be grounded in an understanding of (at least) what makes for human flourishing in the world so that we can determine when economic growth does or does not serve that greater end.
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?
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.