Moral Criteria of Economics
But these are not the only criteria. A moral economy must look also at the moral quality of work.
In Christian ethics, two virtues stand supreme: justice (or righteousness) and love (or grace). The moral economy will take both of these into account. It will not reward injustice or hate, but will reward justice and love.
There are, of course, many expressions of these two things.
Love expresses itself chiefly in service to others, especially self-sacrificial service (Christ “loved me and gave Himself for me,” Galatians 2:20). It is not enough that I do something brilliant or difficult or time consuming; I should not be rewarded unless what I do benefits others. And the chief practical indicator of that is someone’s willingness to pay for it in the marketplace.
This does not mean, of course, that Christianity supports complete laissez-faire. Murder, Inc. has no place in the moral economy, and the Christian worldview requires the legal exclusion of such enterprises (Romans 13:1-7). The freedom of the market is not freedom for licentiousness (compare Romans 6) but freedom from tyranny and freedom to choose among options permissible according to God’s moral law. This is best summarized in the Ten Commandments.
This freedom is expressed in the market’s showing, by the price mechanism, what services people want and what prices they are willing to pay for them. The genius of Adam Smith was his recognition that the market also provided incentive for the non-loving to act in sacrificial service to others; only those who know nothing of Smith think that he made a virtue of selfishness or claimed that the market somehow forces people to love.3
Next, justice must be coupled with love. If we look carefully at what we find in Scripture, justice means rendering impartially and proportionately to everyone his due in accord with the right standard of God’s moral law.
Commutative justice requires the honest exchange of value for value. Distributive justice institutionalizes commutative justice on the wide scale, ensuring that those too weak to defend their rights are not victimized by the stronger. It is therefore not the distribution of wealth or any other good, but the distribution of justice itself.
And so justice necessitates different rewards for different actions. Economic policies designed to equalize economic conditions are therefore inherently unjust.
Foundations of a Christian Response to Poverty
Such policies cannot be defended by an appeal to charity (Latin caritas, love; Greek cháris, grace).
Why? Because while love may go beyond the demands of justice, it never goes contrary to them. In Christian thought, the moral law of God is the standard of justice; and love, insists the Apostle Paul, summarizes that law. “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment (Greek plērōma, full complement, fullness from which nothing is missing) of the law” (Romans 13:10).
Furthermore, while justice may be enforced, love (charity) cannot be. It must spring from a willing heart, or it is not charity at all. “So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Coercive redistribution of wealth violates both of these primary Christian principles. It transgresses property (protected by the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”) and attempts to force what must be free.
But if a Christian perspective will not permit us to turn to the coercive institutions of the state to help those in need, how are we to help the poor?
In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, outright handouts are good and necessary, although Scripture treats them more frequently as beneficial to the givers’ souls than to their recipients. But they must stop quickly as soon as the immediate emergency is resolved, or else they create dependency (something Brian Fikkert and Steven Corbett show brilliantly in their book When Helping Hurts)
What is more important is that we find ways to release people from dependency, to help them express the image of God in intelligent, creative, productive work. In part, this means simply that we contribute to the growth of the market by saving and investing so that more capital is available by which to employ those presently unemployed.
It also means that we reach out, as churches and families and individuals, to our neighbors, helping them by direct personal action to gain the knowledge, skills, and habits that make them profitably employable. Churches can do far more to help the poor by conducting literacy training, job placement services, and instruction in such day-to-day skills as getting up on time to get to work, budgeting, balancing a checkbook, comparison shopping, and planning and preparing nutritious meals than by handing out warm bowls of soup.
Churches and individuals can also help by putting into the hands of low-income and poor people the capital they need to employ themselves. Many of these people, especially in less-developed countries, exhibit a great genius for turning a profit in micro-enterprise if only they can get the initial tools with which to ply a trade. Lend money to a Bangladeshi woman to buy a simple, pedal-driven sewing machine, and she will pay the money back promptly and at high interest (necessary to cover the proportionately high transaction cost of administering such small loans). This will build a small business in which she employs herself and others, providing food and other necessities for years to come.
Even more important from the Christian perspective, she will be released from the degrading dependency generated by constant handouts, and her dignity as a person will be affirmed—along with the accountability that goes with bearing the image of God.
Justice, love, the dignity of people made in God’s image, service to others—these lie at the root of the Christian ethic. The free market promotes them; no other economic system does.
3See E. Calvin Beisner, “Biblical Incentives and Economic Systems,” in Biblical Principles & Economics: The Foundations, ed. Richard C. Chewning (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1989), pp. 168-86.