June 17, 2011 § 3 Comments
C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that God wants “a child’s heart but a grown-up’s head.” Followers of Christ are charged, by the ethos of our calling, with a high standard of practical reason, fused with compassion. When we carry our faith to the political sphere, we must do so with grounded understanding, not idealistic, emotive or superficial thinking. This means that the abdication of our duty to educate ourselves in the unsightly “secular” forces of politics and economics is morally unacceptable.
To the detriment of our own effectiveness, the Church has largely overlooked the relevance of these studies to the Christian mission. Through political philosophy, we examine the relationship of power and protection, and the proper extent of the state. There are important implications here for those who believe the individual has a right to free will. But it is the economic sphere that seems to have caused a phobia in religious discourse, even though the central concern of economics is, in fact, human needs and how they are met through voluntary service—an arrangement far preferable to political coercion.
While many people—including religious leaders—have spoken against capitalism for its ability to amplify greed and materialism, a number of Christian scholars and organizations are helping to reverse that view and to make the case that economic liberty is not only efficient, but morally superior to any other known system. Tragically, the intellectual overlap of theology, economics and politics is near absent in Christian higher education, leaving society in the dark as it seeks ethical answers to practical problems.
“…the intellectual overlap of theology, economics and politics is near absent in Christian higher education, leaving society in the dark as it seeks ethical answers to practical problems.”
I visited two organizations over the last two weeks that are trying to fill this gap and alter the national dialogue. The Acton Institute has been building a case for the “moral foundations of a free society” for twenty years. Their “Acton University” conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan has become an ecumenical Mecca for Judeo-Christian thinkers who affirm the value of ordered liberty. The American Enterprise Institute is also beginning a new initiative on values and capitalism. Their “Purpose & Prosperity” conference brings evangelical undergraduate students to this established DC think tank to engage with scholars on the critical issues of our day, and learn how to evaluate them through sound principles.
Both groups are proclaiming the same, as I call it, freedom gospel: our Creator values the person and his/her talents, and desires hearts of humility, responsibility, service and stewardship. From this basic premise, the individual is the central decision-maker, not the state, and the dignity of responsible human creativity and work ethic replaces government mechanisms for the distribution of wealth and opportunity. The latter method is spiritually void, and robs the soul of social value. Our faith also has meaningful implications on the roles of the family, Rule of Law and personal accountability in a healthy economic society.
“Our Creator values the person and his/her talents, and desires hearts of humility, responsibility, service and stewardship. From this basic premise, the individual is the central decision-maker…”
Christians should resist state-run solutions characterized by imposed charity and resentful class warfare, where the vulnerable are cast as victims, incapable of achievement and disconnected from their own choices. We should instead advocate a system that rewards service and selflessness, minimizes political controls and increases well-being at all levels of society.
To apply the old adage, the Church has largely embraced the idea that if a man is hungry, a bureaucrat ought to transfer to him a fish from someone else’s catch. It seems more consistent with Christian virtue, however, to teach him how to catch fish himself, then ensure that he can keep the rewards of his labor, not only so that he can eat, but so that he can feed his family and perhaps open his own fish market, providing employment to his neighbors and prospering his community.
I encourage those interested in public policy issues to familiarize themselves with the Acton Institute (www.acton.org) and the American Enterprise Institute (www.aei.org). Surely other groups are doing similar things, but my personal experience working with these great organizations allows me to lend personal endorsement, which I am very eager to do.
June 7, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Having returned from my week-long seminar on free-market economics, it feels like a good time to address a question that seems to be at the forefront of the public mind—is Capitalism helping or hurting our society? Those who pose this question are typically concerned that in an economic system where human actions are motivated by profits, the businessmen will always cheat, the wealthy will always win, and everyone else will spend their lives trying to keep their heads above water and have a decent life. There is also a deep concern for the poor, who—without the means to “pay up”—will be marginalized and forgotten. And, of course, we recognize the unattractiveness of incessant advertising and self-gratification, envisioning a future world similar to the one depicted in Pixar’s WALL-E, in which overweight and ignorant pseudo-humanoids are carted around a corporate space-city while the earth lies rotting from over-consumption.
Fear not, my friends—that world will only exist in a movie script. Capitalism certainly has its drawbacks, but as I hope to explain, it is the most effective and least dangerous method of human progress known to man.
WHAT IS CAPITALISM?
Free trade, free enterprise, free markets… they all mean the same thing: voluntary exchange. It’s the idea that each person has the right to save, invest or spend their resources in whatever manner they see fit. You could put this under the “pursuit of happiness” column, but we have to recognize that “happiness” (quality of life) is completely subjective. Given limited choices, one person might prefer ice cream over cake, while another prefers cake over ice cream. For some, the choices are less luxurious, as they must decide between clean water and bread. Nevertheless, we exchange our time, talents, energy and goods for the things we value at any given moment. The freedom to do this without government regulation is the essence of Capitalism.
THE ECONOMIC ARGUMENT
Imagine two farmers. Person A has a goat, and person B has a donkey. They are both useful, but for different things. It just so happens that they each have what the other needs, so they trade. The word “trade” tends to connote an even exchange; one thing for another thing of equal value. But this is false. People don’t trade if they see absolutely zero benefit. Rather, they exchange for something more valuable to them than what they had to begin with. Trade—whether farm animals or standardized currency—always results in both parties gaining something. The end result is a net increase in wealth/happiness/quality of life/standard of living.
The very fact that trade has this effect makes people want to participate, but trade is impossible without something to offer. Therefore, the opportunity to pursue trade without limitation provides a valuable incentive to be productive—to labor and create. When millions of people are striving to do this, there is real growth in the economy, and an increase in the standard of living for all who participate (imagine a system where that incentive does not exist). Thus, one might ask, “what about those who don’t, or can’t, participate?” They benefit too, since as goods become more available, they also become more affordable. This is only one of several ways the poor actually end up better off.
THE MORAL ARGUMENT
The moral aspect of capitalism is apparent on at least two fronts: one in its cause, and the other in its effect. While the driving force of free trade is ultimately to improve one’s own life, it is inherently and entirely dependent on service to others. If you intend to make an exchange, the good or service you offer must be of some value to the other person. That’s just common sense. Therefore, the only way to acquire wealth—outside of inheritance or gambling—is by looking for ways to meet the needs of others in such a way the makes an exchange mutually beneficial. This requires the businessman to know what his customers are willing to pay, and keep his costs down below that mark. Thus, the wealthy CEO can get his burger for $20 at the best place in town, and the janitor can get his for $1 at the fast-food joint. You can look at this with disdain because the wealthy get to live so much “better”, but you can also look at this with thanks because the hungry are eating burgers instead of cornmeal. The opportunity and competition provided in a free market results in more people having more things at lower prices—not just the wealthy.
For those that are so unproductive that they cannot acquire even the essentials of life, it is feared that they must be left to government assistance through tax dollars. But in a world where goods are cheap, economic mobility is wide open, and massive wealth can be achieved by more individuals, the old, sick and/or destitute can be supported by voluntary gifts. Thousands of hospitals, libraries, schools, food pantries, shelters and other services are provided every day through the generous donations of wealthy and many middle-class individuals. Private organizations range from neighborhood community groups and centers to nation-wide entities like the Red Cross, Salvation Army and YMCA. This type of charity giving is only prevalent in a capitalist economy where financial growth is a constant and personal responsibility is the cornerstone. The private “market” has been far better at addressing the issues of disease and poverty than any government agency. Just look at the Texas Medical Center, here in Houston—where people come from all over the world to receive the very best treatment available, and new methods are being developed every year. The situation for the poor would be immensely better if government regulation had not already impeded advancements in many areas.
THE LIBERTY ARGUMENT
There is but one alternative to a system where choices are made by the individual, and that is a system where choices are given to the individual. And who is the giver? To say “government” is too ambiguous, so we can be more specific by saying “people who are elected or appointed to public office, who are paid in taxes, and who have many different interests and influencing pressures.” That seems a bit more accurate. So the idea behind placing government in charge of economic activity is that politicians and bureaucrats are better equipped to judge the what, when, where and how of everyone else’s needs and wants. That’s both insane and dangerous.
“But,” the advocates of government regulation say, “someone’s got to stop companies from doing harmful things!” And this is true. But the proper judge of good or bad business is the consumer—not government. Why must we trade a power that is temporary and voluntary for one that is permanent and requisite? All that is done by placing government over business is the trading of one selfish interest for a greater one—denying the rights of buyers and sellers, while increasing the power of politicians and the associations which influence them.
Did the Federal agency who examined the BP well prevent the explosion and subsequent leak? Has the Department of Education improved U.S. schools? Has the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty reduced either one of these in the last 30 years? Not at all. For reasons that need not be included here, government agencies are both expensive and ineffective—especially when compared to the private market. This isn’t an epiphany. Washington D.C. is widely criticized for its corruption and deal-making. If all of this is true, then where does the demand for more government control come from? Well, we can name at least one place: Washington D.C.
Liberty is a precious and valuable thing that is easily taken for granted. There is a constant temptation to use the tool of law and regulation to achieve the changes we want to see in society, but we must be extremely careful about what keys we choose to hand to political authorities. Eventually we will find that we are the ones inside the cell, at which point it will be too late.
A special keynote/discussion titled “Is Capitalism Worth Saving?” will be held on June 30th at Houston Baptist University and will include Dr. Arthur C. Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, and Dr. Paul Bonicelli, HBU Provost. Go here for more info.
Special thanks to BureauCrash.com for the “Enjoy Capitalism” image.
April 7, 2010 § 1 Comment
The principle of small government explained in an illustrative nutshell. It’s well worth the 5 minutes.
(Originally posted on April 6, 2010 by DOCTOR ZERO at HotAir.com)
I often hear people on the Left accuse the defenders of capitalism of wanting completely unregulated markets, in which helpless citizens will be stripped of all legal protection, and placed at the mercy of rapacious bankers and businessmen. This is a straw man of such towering size that Nicholas Cage can be glimpsed inside its head, holding his broken legs and howling for his agent to land him a part in a better movie.
There are other choices besides anarchy, or a regulatory State that directly controls over half of our economy. Far from opposing all regulation, I maintain that clearly written, honestly enforced, minimally intrusive laws are both just and essential for wealth creation. A nation’s wealth lies in transactions between its citizens, and the pace of those transactions would be greatly reduced if consumers had no confidence in providers. Shopping malls would be considerably less active, if the shoppers had to assume every food product was potentially poisonous, every piece of consumer electronics could explode, and all of the merchants were thieves.
Clearly written and honestly enforced regulation is not easy to come by, these days. To understand why, imagine that two football teams assemble for a game, under the supervision of a single referee.
As the first play begins, one of the players complains that the referee has made illegal movements across the field. The referee laughs and explains he cannot be bound by the same rules that constrain the players, or he wouldn’t be able to do his job properly. He must be able to move up and down the field at will, in ways that would earn penalties for the players. Common sense supports his assertion, and the game continues.
The referee begins calling all sorts of penalties, invoking rules he has created on the fly. The players object, saying the rulebook accepted at the beginning of the game should be used without alterations. The referee mocks this notion. The field has grass, but the rulebook was written for a dirt field. It’s cold outside, and there have been some snow flurries. The game will continue into the night, under electric lights. The teams include players of different sizes and fitness levels. More complex rules are needed to ensure a good game!
By the end of the first quarter, the ref announces it’s too hard for him to administer such complex rules by himself. He begins pulling players off the teams, and deputizing them as assistant referees.
Early in the second quarter, the home team begins complaining of unfair calls, made in favor of the visiting team. To their astonishment, the referees actually begin tackling home team players, intercepting passes, and running touchdowns! The chief official explains that he felt the visiting team was outmatched, and had little chance of winning on its own, so he decided to make things “fair.” The home team is particularly upset that the biased referees retain all their special advantages – they can move around the field at will, and ignore the play clock. The chief official dismisses these complaints, assuring everyone his actions will enhance the “competition.”
The spectators are initially amused by the wild spectacle of referees tackling players, but the game quickly becomes boring. The home team becomes so confused and demoralized that their players begin to leave the field.
After the final whistle, the chief official is seen collecting money from a shady character near the locker room. It turns out the official had bet heavily on the outmatched visiting team. He had a financial interest in the outcome of the game all along… and he’s the only real “winner.”
Like the referees of a football game, the government must remain completely outside the markets it regulates. Contrary to the absurd sales pitch for ObamaCare, the State cannot enter the health insurance market as a “competitor.” It shouldn’t develop interests that will sour its regulatory powers into corruption.
By its very nature, government has access to power and resources which no private enterprise can equal. It can’t work any other way. We can’t treat the military as a business enterprise, to be shut down if it doesn’t rake in sufficient profits. We must have government resources to address disasters, and most citizens would insist the government be provided with funds to care for the desperately poor and sick. Those who enforce the law must have a measure of power beyond the law: sky marshals carry guns onto airplanes, soldiers have access to heavy weapons and high explosives, government auditors can demand access to information a business would never share with its competition.
To be trusted with such power and resources, the State must practice strict adherence to a basic set of laws which constrain its behavior, and which it cannot easily disregard or change. The rulebook for the American game is her Constitution. Fidelity to those rules would produce a small State with less influence to satisfy the appetite of hyper-competitive players who wish to cheat at the game… or its own appetite for purchasing votes and imposing its ideas of “fairness.” Disdain for the Constitution has led us to the present spectacle of referees who outnumber the players, unemployed players sitting dejectedly on the sidelines, and a dwindling number of investors willing to bet on a rigged game that will be decided by the whims of the officials.
The idea of a large, and yet scrupulously honest State is fraudulent to its core. As the State expands in size, it inevitably develops interests that lead to corruption. Its power becomes so valuable that bribery is an everyday transaction, camouflaged in sanctimonious rhetoric. Taking responsibility for errors and wrongdoing will always be less attractive than dipping into the public treasury for a few billion greenbacks to paper over the damage. As industries are first taxed, then regulated, and finally nationalized, the referees begin tackling players and running touchdowns. The only honest government is small government, so if you’re sincerely opposed to political corruption, that’s what you should insist on.