Blog Archives

Money, Markets, and the Making of Humanity

“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.”

“No!”

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.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

Acton roundup

Here are all of the posts from my recent trip to the Acton conference:

Free market economics through the lens of sin, power, and human flourishing (Acton 4)

[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.

One of the consistent themes here at Acton has 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.

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.

What makes a view of government/law Christian? (Acton 2)

How should Christians understand the nature and role of government? That was the question addressed in the second foundational lecture. This lecture builds from the premise that a particular view of humanity and human flourishing should lead to a particular understanding of the state. In other words, states are simply a means to achieve human flourishing in the world. Although they often fail to do so, that is their basic purpose (a purpose they would still have served even if humanity had never fallen into sin).  So, society serves the development of the person. Or, said differently, “The person is at the center of society.”

Before addressing the specifics of a Christian view of government, the lecturer argued that there is no single form of Christian government. Although certain forms are necessarily excluded because they are antithetical to a Christian worldview (e.g. Marxism, anarchy), there may be many other Christianly viable forms of government. Rather than identifying the one appropriate form of government, the lecture focuses on building from a Christian anthropology to those principles that a Christian view of government must maintain.

  1. Human flourishing: They keep coming back to this as a fundamental starting point, and I get the distinct impression that one of two things is true: (1) they think they’ve provided a definition already; or (2) they think that we all agree already on what this means. Either way, they’re wrong. This is such a critical piece for everything being discussed in these seminars that it warrants much more time than it’s been given and it cannot simply be assumed as an already existing part of a Christian worldview.
  2. Human fallibility: Since our fallenness there is a need both for coercion (we can’t be trusted to do what we should voluntarily) and limited government (governments can’t be trusted either).
  3. Natural law: This was the most fascinating to me. Nothing had been said about natural law earlier, yet this was still presented as a natural consequence of a Christian anthropology. (More on this when we discuss the fourth lecture.)
  4. Human choice: Since God created us to be volitional beings, government should facilitate healthy human choice. It must exercise a coercive function at times, but it’s primary purpose is to enable human choice whenever possible.

These principles lead directly to four principles that we must maintain about a Christian view of jurisprudence:

  1. Common good: Unsurprisingly, the primary purpose of law is to serve the common good (i.e. human flourishing). And, no, they still haven’t defined it.
  2. Rule of law: Interestingly, several ideas were introduced here as though they can simply be assumed from Christian anthropology and natural law: due process, consistency, impartial judiciary, etc. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these, but much more work needs to be done to establish the idea that these are necessary correlates of a Christian anthropology.
  3. Subsidiarity: Not being particularly well versed in Catholic social teaching, this was probably the most interesting part of the lecture for me. The idea of subsidiarity is higher-level organizations should facilitate the agency of lower-level organizations or individuals. Thus, laws should promote the agency of individuals and non-governmental agencies. I would have appreciated hearing more here, though, about the presumption that the growth of the state necessarily weakens human agency and responsibility.
  4. Limits of law: Following from the idea that law should facilitate human flourishing without undermining individual/private agency, the lecturer contended that we need to recognize that laws shouldn’t try to cover everything. Some things are immoral (e.g. lying) but should not be made illegal. So, laws are one way of promoting human flourishing, but not the only way.

Concerns/Questions:

  1. I’m continuing to struggle with the lack of anything distinctively Christian about any of this. I’m not convinced that this is driven by a desire to operate out of a natural law/theology framework with which we can engage non-believers.
  2. Related to the first, I’m concerned about how “western” all of this sounds. We need to be aware of the danger that our understanding of “natural” law/theology is actually an attempt to read our cultural ideas/constructs into the natural structures of the world to make them seem divinely ordained. I’m not saying that’s happening here. But, my radar is up.
  3. I forgot to blog about this earlier, but there is a pervasive anthropocentrism  in all of this. That came out very clearly in this lecture. Law/government is entirely about the human person. Sure, we should care for creation because that (1) contributes to human flourishing (whatever that is) and (2) serves humanity’s creative purpose as lords over creation. But, law/government does not need to pay any attention to creation in its own right.
  4. Going back to the title of this post, I’m not sure that we’ve really addressed the question of what makes a particular view of law/government legitimately Christian? They’ve given a view of government that coheres with certain aspects of a Christian “worldview,” but that is inadequate to ground a robustly Christian approach to these issues.