Saturday, September 19, 2015

Biblical View of Economics 2

Yesterday I posted a worldview framework for my talk on a biblical view of economics. Here were more of my thoughts:

1. God created humanity to flourish, which included work and striving for excellence, for humanity to "be all it could be." God put Adam and Eve in the Garden and gave them the task of tending it. In Genesis 1, God gave Adam and Eve the charge to be fruitful and multiply, to excel on the earth. Psalm 8 speaks of the glory God created humanity to have in the creation.

How is it that Adam could sin when he didn't have a sin nature? How is it that Christ could be tempted when he didn't have a sin nature?

The best answer I can think of is that the desire for knowledge, the desire to excel, perhaps all human drives are not evil in themselves. They become evil when they are expressed in relation to an improper object or are expressed in an improper context, remembering that temptation itself is not sin.

So the drive to excel, even the competitive drive is not unchristian. You could argue that God created us with a drive to advance.

2. I really believe that communism might have worked prior to the Fall--"From each according to his ability; to each according to his need." Humanity was created with the drive to work. Before the Fall, they would have worked without need for reward. Before the Fall, they would have given without payment.

After the Fall, humanity's drive to work was marred. Now, some don't want to work at all. Others not only want to advance, but often advance over the backs of others. They sometimes even enjoy running other people over.

Capitalism was invented as an economic system by Adam Smith in the age of utilitarianism in England in the 1700s. The idea was that as sellers charged as much as they could in their own self-interest and buyers paid as little as they had to in their own self-interest, a system would develop "as if by an unseen hand" in which everyone's happiness was maximized.

Capitalism thus works best in a fallen world. It is based on human selfishness, as Ayn Rand wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness. She considered altruism immoral because it messed up a system that only maximized happiness when everyone acted in their own self-interest.

3. It is a strange thing, to suggest that a system based on fallen human nature might actually hold promise to bring about human thriving. But capitalism was designed to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number. In this fallen world, it is a structure that has the potential of maximizing "love for our neighbor."

[There are important caveats, however. Unbridled capitalism has not always proven to maximize happiness. As the Industrial Revolution took capitalism into new territory, instead of maximizing happiness, it made a few people very rich off the backs of a whole lot of workers. The Great Depression, the recent recession, are both examples of how unstable capitalism can be, especially if certain safeguards aren't put into place.]

[We are now entering new economic territory again in the age of artificial intelligence. IMO, the growing income disparity is just a small symptom of what is coming. Like the late 1800s, the new conditions will not only make a very few incomprehensibly wealthy, but the menial jobs that were available in the late 1800s won't exist any more even for the common person to be exploited. Those who own the intelligent machines that are coming will have all the wealth and there will be few jobs for the average person needed.]

[Those last two paragraphs weren't things I said yesterday.]

Of course the attempts at communism were arguably far worse. I was in Berlin in the mid-90s, and the difference between the vibrant West Berlin and the depressing East Berlin was more than obvious. The Soviet Union, North Korea, Eastern Europe are all testaments to the failure of communism as a modern system to achieve its intended goals. Even among Christian groups, communal experiences did not last much more than a generation.

So it would seem that the most "loving structure" in this current age, at least potentially, is ironically a capitalistic one based on selfishness, but with controls to make sure it does indeed bring about the greatest good for the greatest number.

4. An important caveat to this overall utilitarian structure is that the value of each individual must be taken into account. From a biblical, a Christian, and an American perspective (e.g., the Bill of Rights), every individual has worth. A benefit cannot be brought to the majority off the oppression of a minority any more than the Hutu can kill off the Tutsi tribe to maximize the majority's happiness.

From a Christian perspective, every life counts. Jesus wants to redeem every person and cares about every area of their existence, including their economic existence. For Christians in this age, justice is redemptive and protective. The wrath form of justice is God's business.

So there is no space for the Christian of this age to say, "They made their [economic] bed. Let them lie in it." There is a time for letting people experience the consequences of their actions, but only so that they might learn not to do it again or to protect those they might harm. There is no space for the Christian to watch someone die of hunger because "they deserve it."

So if a person is starving to death, we are obligated as Christians to give them a fish. Far more significant though is to teach them to fish or, as one person said, to provide them with a pond in which to fish. In many cases today, people need to be motivated to fish. Others have said we need to change their perspective toward fishing.

5. So here is an attempt to end with some basic guidelines for macro-economic structures that work toward a culture that maximizes human flourishing. [Note: This is different from what God expects of us as individuals or as churches.]
  • All individuals who are able should contribute something. Dependency may be temporarily necessary, but it becomes bondage if it is long-term. 
  • There are many paths of motivation. The baser ones have to do with self-interest and selfishness. Preferred are motivations based on common vision and a sense of identity.
  • No one should fall through the cracks. Everyone is important.
  • The goal of economic systems is the flourishing of all, not the wealth of a few.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Isn't it also possible that, say, Communism would work for the good of all, provided there were "a few safeguards?"

Those who benefit most unfairly from capitalism (or any other system) have a vested interest in weakening or getting around the safeguards, or seeing that they are never put in place at all.