Faith and economics

A conservative evangelical questions his uncritical embrace of laissez-faire economics.

When you think about it, the marriage between evangelicalism and free market capitalism is downright odd, and, as far as I can tell, largely confined to the U.S. (British evangelicals, for instance, seem quite a bit more left-wing on economics than their American counterparts).

I’m not saying that a Christian can’t be a free market libertarian; in this sinful and imperfect world we have to use our reason to determine the best set of social arrangements. But it does, on its face, seem strange that Christians, of all people, should think that the unhampered pursuit of self-interest would maximize the social good.

A libertarian counterargument might be that only laissez-faire provides sufficient check on various centers of power that would otherwise tend to become concentrated. But, whatever might be the case in the anarcho-capitalist utopia, in our world the concentration of economic power is a reality that seems to many people to require a public counterweight (anti-trust laws, regulation, etc.).

I don’t personally think that there’s any ideal social and economic system from a Christian point of view. We’ll always be responding to changing circumstances in a somewhat ad hoc fashion. But Christians can bring certain principles to bear on the discussion, such as a concern for the worst off members of society, an insistence on the dignity of the human person, and care for God’s creation. Implementing these principles, though, will require a knowledge of the principles of economics and an awareness that trade offs are inevitable.

Too, there’s a certain wisdom in the idea that the market has to be subordinated to human ends and needs. The market was made for man, not man for the market, we might say. This would seem to imply some role for public and democratic control of the economy, limited though it might be by the dangers of over-regulation.

This article from sociologist Peter Berger, though written in 1993, still seems pertinent, particularly this part:

It is clear that a market economy, once it has reached a certain level of affluence, can tolerate a considerable amount of governmentally managed redistribution. This, of course, is the basic lesson to be learned from the coexistence of capitalism with the welfare state. It should also be clear that this tolerance is not without limits. If political redistribution reaches a certain level, it must either send the economy into a downward spin (wealth being redistributed faster than it is produced) or dismantle democracy (to prevent those whose wealth is to be redistributed-a population which, as redistribution expands, will be very much larger than the richest group-from resisting). Now, it would be very nice if economists and social scientists could tell us just where this level is-one might call it the social-democratic tolerance threshold. Right-of-center parties in Western democracies perceive a very low threshold (each piece of welfare state legislation another step on “the road to serfdom”); left-of-center parties believe in a very high threshold, and some in that camp seem to think that there is no limit at all. What evidence there is clearly does not support either the disciples of Hayek or Swedish social democrats; but neither, unfortunately, does the evidence locate the tilting-point. Once again, a sort of “interim ethic” is called for, full of uncertainties and risks.

An “interim ethic” is a far cry from a blueprint for utopia, whether of the left or right. But it seems singularly appropriate for Christians to the extent that they recognize the complexities and frailties of a fallen world.

7 thoughts on “Faith and economics

  1. There’s a wide variety of thought on what ‘libertarian’ means. I have a libertarian Christian Yahoo group where we discuss the aspects of libertarianism as they relate to our walk with Christ. On of the issues we’ve discussed at length has to so with the principle of self ownership or individual sovereignty. From the libertarian Christian perspective, this principle infers individual sovereignty relative to other human beings while maintaining God’s sovereignty over all. The concept only means that no individual has rights greater or less than any other individual or group, that we are owned by God and not by any other human being or group of human beings. Many people employ this concept externally, the ‘Don’t tread on me’ attitude. However, as Christians, we must employ it internally instead and have an attitude of ‘ Won’t tread on you.’ When it comes to defining what a libertarian is, the definition I believes fits the best is that of L. Neil Smith, “A person who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate force against another human being, or to advocate or delegate its initiation. Those who act consistently with this principle are libertarians, whether they realize it or not. Those who fail to act consistently with it are not libertarians, regardless of what they may claim.” We cannot expect this corrupted world to live by Christ’s moral standard, (especially when all who claim to be Christian fail to do so.) Not initiating force is not all there is to being a Christian, but it’s a start. Part of our job as Christians is to be, (as best as humanly possible), a picture of Christ for the world to see. Being a Christian involves the personal ability to perform selfless positive actions – love, compassion, mercy, charity… – as well as the personal ability to avoid using selfish negative actions – theft, murder, slavery, deceit… The world will never see the positive side, if we employ or advocate the negative side. All of these are personal responsibilities which equate to personal sacrifice, our picture of God’s and Christ’s personal sacrifice. The picture is distorted when we employ unchristian means toward those ends. We are most guilty when we abdicate our personal responsibility to government. It is not Christian charity to give to one by advocating the theft of another. Giving is supposed to be a personal sacrifice, but one which is voluntarily and joyfully administered. By following God’s perfect plan, the joyful giver is blessed and the recipient is given much more than just a full belly. When we advocate using government force as the means to those ends we sever that connection. The giver, (now reduced to the status of victim), no longer feels compassion. The receiver, rather than seeing God’s compassion and mercy, now sees what he has gained as an entitlement and the giver as nothing but a selfish resource. His god is now the government. The deceiver is smart. He doesn’t mind full bellies and doesn’t even mind if he doesn’t get the credit, as long as it helps to keep the world from seeing the true source of grace.

  2. In the days of William Jennings Bryan, those we now call “evangelicals” were with the progressives on economic issues.

    Interestingly, they supported while the Democrats opposed Prohibition.

    Their migration to the right could be ascribed to the civil rights revolution and the sexual revolution, most definitely including the abortion controversy.

    In all three cases, the liberals and progressives were, for these folks, on the wrong side.

  3. Hi Bryan, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Of course, the problem as I see it is that you beg the question if you merely assert that using the government to, say, redistribute wealth to some degree is “theft.” This assumes a particular view of property rights which is controversial to say the least.

    Gaius, I think you’re right about the history. I wonder to what extent conservative evangelicals have found themselves embracing the Republican economic doctrine because of a prior alliance on the social issues. There’s an interesting question of the dynamics of political coalitions: people who align on one or a few issues may over time find themselves agreeing more and more, even if there doesn’t seem to be a logical connection among those positions (e.g. abortion and capital gains taxes).

  4. Hi Bryan,

    It’s not that the commandment is unclear, but what counts as “theft” isn’t always clear.

    For instance, Thomas Aquinas said that a rich man who keeps more than he needs while a poor man goes hungry is guilty of theft. And that the surplus of the rich is due to the poor as a matter of justice, not charity.

  5. Of course – but I was making a more general point: property rights are subject to moral evaluation, and there’s a wide area of disagreement over what arrangements of those rights are just. For instance, libertarians like Robert Nozick think that people are entitled to whatever they acquire from the state of nature or receive in an exchange that was freely entered into. John Rawls thought that property rights should be subordinated to making the least well off members of society better off. Utilitarians would evaluate them in terms of maximizing overall happiness, etc. So, what counts as “theft” is dependent on what counts as “just holdings,” and trying to argue for a libertarian (or whatever) position simply by saying “Thou shalt not steal” doesn’t get you very far.

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