What model should Christians use for economic decision making in the 21st Century? Wednesday, Samuel Gregg posted an excellent article called Self Interest, Rightly Understood. I almost linked it yesterday but opted not to. Then, yesterday evening, I found that Dr. Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Seminary, had written a short post at his blog about the article called Economic Decisions.
I can’t tell you how much it excites me to see a seminary leader honestly and respectfully engaging these issues. Many of us who minister in the marketplace wrestle with such issues constantly. The typical reaction I often get when I speak supportively of economic freedom and free markets among the seminary community is less than welcoming. Some times I get open hostility and accusations of being part of a Religious Right conspiracy. More typically, there is a polite condescension about how I, as a non-theologian, couldn’t possibly understand the true theological implications of the issues I am engaging. I get the sense in the Emergent conversation that I am hopelessly Modernist and simply haven’t evolved. To have the President of a leading seminary respectfully raise the issues he does is a breath of fresh air. In light of Dr. Mouw's reflections I wanted to offer my own reflections in response to the issues he raises.
First, Dr. Mouw quotes Gregg:
“As individuals pursue profit, they unintentionally add to the sum total of the wealth in society, unintentionally allow people from different nations to come to know each other, unintentionally promote civility and peace, unintentionally allow others to benefit from more and better jobs, and unintentionally contribute to technological development.”
Gregg is making an important point in highlighting the reality of unintended results in economic activity. I would want to insist, however, on some important nuancing. I agree that people who do not intentionally think about helping others as they make economic decisions often unintentionally promote the common good. And I also believe that people who do think about helping others as they make economic decisions often unintentionally work against the common good. Thus, for example, the poor are often aided by the deeds of people who do not think much about aiding the poor than they are by people who–however noble their motives–do mean to improve the lot of the poor.
To this degree I agree with the “neo-conservative” defense of the actual–even if unintentional beneficial effects of free market activity.
I would add to these unintended results the fact that market competition forces greedy to people to function in ways that are beneficial to society. If a greedy person doesn’t produce a good or service at a price that satisfies the customer, he or she does not get the money. A greed based corporate culture tends to influence many aspects of business operations in ways that undermine business success. Far from being based on greed, the markets channel greed toward productive ends. But now to Dr. Mouw's nuancing:
At the same time this also seems to me to be true. People who are not motivated by an intentional desire to promote the common good often do not in fact promote the common good. And people who do aim to promote the common good often do succeed in doing so.
This second point is what keeps me from endorsing a thoroughgoing laissez faire system–even though I have learned enough from the “neo-conservatives” to keep me from an overly-optimistic set of expectations about “do gooder” schemes. What this comes down to for me is a strong sense of the need for discernment on the part of Christians in evaluating various hard-line economic philosophies. I am not sure what a “third way” approach would look like in a world dominated by a thoroughgoing defense of the free market on one hand, and a fondness for managed economies on the other. But I am sure that we have to be very cautious about simply giving our hearts and minds over to one or the other perspective.
I have several observations here. First, I would resurrect my computer analogy I blogged about in November:
Many people routinely conflate materialistic individualism (a set of virtues/vices) with free market capitalism (an economic system.) Try envisioning the operating system on your computer as the economic system and the virtues/vices as the instructions you give to the computer. Now imagine you use your computer to calculate how you can swindle your employer out of tons of money, steal copyrighted material from publishers and download all sorts of pornography. The computer will do a very efficient job in facilitating your instructions. But then you declare that your operating system is corrupt because it generated dishonesty, theft and sexual exploitation. You call for a new more just operating system that generates more just outcomes. Meanwhile, all the good your computer does when appropriate virtues are feed into it is minimized and discounted. We end up sacrificing an effective and very useful operating system because we won’t take responsibly for our own actions.
The problem is not the operating system. It is the operators. They lack the virtue to give the appropriate instructions to the economic system and then turn around and blame the economic system for the outcome.
I whole heartedly agree with Dr. Mouw that people unmotivated by the common good can, and do, cause results that are not in the common good. Allowing economic freedom means tolerating a certain level of bad and immoral decisions in the marketplace. As long as the bad decisions are relatively few, the market absorbs them. However, when a significant number of people begin to make bad decisions and people in the market do not respond correctly, either through their economic decisions or by other means, then that which is bad is facilitated by the economic system. The market facilitates bad decisions every bit as well as it does good ones. But this is the key point: The problem is not flaws in the economic system but the breakdown in virtue of the participants in the economic system.
Dr. Mouw raises the point that some people intend to do good and actually achieve it. A hardy amen to that! This is an integral aspect of a free and virtuous society. Adam Smith taught that the Golden Rule of “love your neighbor as yourself” was the beginning point, not the ending point, of moral economic behavior. Benevolence toward others beyond pure economic gain was considered by him to be one of the highest virtues. I think the challenge is acting in ways that are truly benevolent and not unintentionally harmful to others. But by all means benevolence!
As to the issue of being laissez faire, this is a frequent characterization of those who champion economic freedom. I would suggest that too many people view free markets like they do sex: Something to be feared and restrained rather than something to be given its proper place and appreciated.
In America, we champion freedom of speech but we know that you can’t intentionally incite a riot or panic in a crowded theater. We cherish the freedom of the press but know that you can’t libel or slander someone. We value our freedom of religion but recognize that we are not free to use the apparatus of the government to force religious practices on others. We trust people to use their freedoms responsibly, knowing full well some will abuse these freedoms concerning the common good. We are willing to live with that because of the greater good that comes from the majority making virtuous and responsible use of their freedoms.
Yet I find when I raise the issue of economic freedom, many who say they value other freedoms and trust the moral fiber of most of their fellow citizens to use them responsibly are not so inclined with economic freedom. When I champion free markets, I am sometimes accused of a Darwinian, cold-hearted, avarice that recognizes no limits or bounds to human decency, bent on pillaging the earth and exploiting others. Freedom in economic decisions is something that must be held with a tight reign because people can’t be trusted to act virtuously, although the can be trusted to act virtuously with any host of other freedoms.
Economic freedom has limits just like any other freedom but I would suggest that freedom is the default position and the burden of proof is to show why limits must be imposed, just as it is with any other freedom. But there are limits! While we may not all place the limits to freedom at precisely the same place, it is unhelpful to suggest that to speak of affirmatively of free markets is to advocate unbridled exploitation any more than it is to say that affirmation of free speech is to affirm incitement to mob chaos.
I am by no means suggesting that Dr. Mouw is making such an assertion. On the contrary, I sense he is calling us to examine where the boundaries are and reflect on how we might discern them, without descending to the all too typical caricatures and trivializations. He emphasizes one of the central tensions that we as Christians must wrestle with as we balance a maximization of economic freedom with a minimum of economic injustice. But I want to suggest that the tweaking of the system is not the core issue.
I am persuaded that the core issue is the values and virtues of those participating in the marketplace. When the populace elects corrupt or ineffective leaders into office, we don’t conclude that we need to try something other than democracy. Similarly, when we have corrupt or ineffective results in the economy, the wrong conclusion is that we need some new economic structure. We need more people behaving more virtuously and feeding virtuous decisions into the marketplace.
Jesus tells the Parable of Talents in Matthew 25. A master goes away for a period of time and leaves three slaves with resources they are to care for until he returns. It is important to realize that in Roman culture, unlike Greek culture, slaves were believed to have minds and wills of their own. The effective slave owner was the one who could so conform the mind and will of his slaves to his own that they would function just as the master would in the master’s absence. What infuriates the master in Jesus’ parable is that the third slave knew how his master thought and did not behave accordingly. He was useless to his master.
The mission of the Church is to disciple people into being servants that have the mind and heart of God, acting as stewards of every resource entrusted to them and living in community with others, until Christ returns. The divergence from Jesus’ parable is that behavior in New Creation community is not rooted in fear of retribution but in gratitude for grace. Our self-interest comes ever closer to having the interests of God first and foremost in all we do as God conforms us to His image. That includes the economic decisions we feed into the marketplace. As more and more new creations feed virtuous decisions into the market, the market adjusts itself to respond the virtues feed into it.
Focus on the economic system is necessary and valid but I am persuaded that it is majoring in the minors if our aim is to broadly increase virtue, not just mitigate injustices. What we need are marketplace ministers who have been discipled and trained to think theologically about the work they do. They need support, equipping, prayer, and affirmation. Regrettably, what many business people I know sense from the church is that rather than being ministers drawn to a high calling, they are viewed as secondary Christians polluting themselves by associating themselves with markets and economic freedom. Instead of having a high calling in the world of economic activity, their calling is reduced to doing penance by contributing a portion of their questionable gain to the “real” ministry of the Church.
I don’t think we so much need a third way as we need a Church that makes disciples of Jesus Christ and sends them into the marketplace.
Thank you Dr. Mouw for your post and raising these issues!