Not long after I graduated from college with a degree in religion and philosophy, I met weekly for breakfast with a minister friend of mine. A warm-hearted, intelligent man, he kept challenging me to broaden my interest from Biblical studies, theology, and apologetics – which were my great loves – to include social concerns.
One week, he told me of a book he’d just read: Ronald J. Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. “Cal,” he said, “you’ve simply got to read this book. It’ll change your life.”
“Who, me? Read a book on economics and poverty?” I thought. “No interest.” But he shamed me into reading it, insisting that I learn to demonstrate the love I professed.
And, yes, reading Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger changed my life. As I read it, I kept thinking, “I know nothing about economics, but I do know about logic, theology, and Biblical interpretation. If what this author does to economics is anything like what he does to those, following his prescriptions means disaster. We’ll all be equal, all right; equally poor.”
So I took on the task of learning economics. I read textbooks, journal articles, and major treatises, all with the intent of exploring what the Bible, Christian theology, and sound economic study can teach us about how to help the poor. My hope was to offer the Christian public an alternative to Sider’s vision.
The first major fruit of that study was a master’s thesis in economic ethics, written under the able tutelage of the great conservative political philosopher and historian, Russell Kirk. Before long, I became national chairman of the economics committee of the Coalition on Revival, an interdenominational group of Christian scholars, pastors, and laymen committed to fleshing out a Christian worldview and applying it carefully to every major area of human activity.
That work led to an invitation to write for the Turning Point Christian Worldview Series. In what became two books (Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity and Prospects For Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future), I developed what I believe are Biblical and theological foundations coupled with solid empirical support for a thorough-going free market view of economics.
These views contrast sharply with the socialist and interventionist ideas that have dominated much Catholic and evangelical writing on economics in the past sixty years (and which were so prominent in Sider’s book). This same thinking has been tremendously influential among evangelicals since the mid-1970s.
As an alternative, however, let me suggest just a few of the ideas developed there.
Economics and the Image of God in Man
Economics will be rescued from the malaise of socialism, bureaucratism, and econometrics only when its roots of applied moral philosophy are restored.
Adam Smith, after all, was first a moral philosopher. The Wealth of Nations (1776) was largely an empirical demonstration of claims he made about economic relationships based on his moral philosophy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).
This means that the center of economics’ root system consists of our understanding the nature of man, sin, justice, and grace.
In contrast to the materialism underlying both the Marxist and the Secular Humanist notions of economics, Christianity begins with the recognition that man is made in the image of God. That image, if we pay attention to Scripture, consists of intellectual and moral elements and works itself out in practical ways.
For instance, the first thing we learn about God in Scripture is that He is a creative, productive worker: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). And He made light, and land, and sea, and sky, and fish, and plants, and birds, and beasts, and creeping things—a vast assortment of things!
Starting with nothing, He made everything. (If that’s not profit, I don’t know what is!) Intelligence, imagination, and power worked together in God to make everything.
“Then God said, `Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (Genesis 1:26). Before we’ve seen anything of the holiness of God, before we read anything of the spiritual aspect of man (Genesis 2:7), we learn that God made man in His image.
And what was that image? The image of an intelligent, creative, productive worker.
This means that intelligent, creative, productive work is an element of the image of God in man. To the extent that we develop our intelligence, creativity, and productivity, and to the extent that we exert ourselves diligently in work, we are not merely doing but also being what we are meant to do and be. We are expressing the image of God. And in so doing, we are growing in spiritual and personal maturity.
What is the fundamental reason we must oppose all poverty relief programs that create or perpetuate dependence, that reward sloth, that level those who work hard and smartly with those who work hardly or not at all?
They must be opposed not only because they are economically counterproductive (which they are), but because they strike at the heart of what it is to be human. They rob their “beneficiaries” of dignity as bearers of the imago Dei, thrusting them down to the level of brute beasts. Rather than enabling recipients of “aid” to exercise a godly dominion, they dominate the recipients with a form of oppression every bit as deadly to the soul as any political tyranny.
At bottom, such programs and the systems that embody them fail because they neglect the reality of sin, both in the “beneficiary” (whose propensity to sloth is catered to by the assurance of handouts) and in the “benefactor” (whose propensity to abuse power feeds on the increasing dependency of his charges).1
The Image of God and the Environment
Here also is the fundamental reason why contemporary fears of resource depletion and environmental disaster are wrong. The Malthusian theory that underlies them is precisely opposite this Christian view of man.
Malthusianism (named after Anglican minister Thomas Robert Malthus, who first published his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798) sees man as primarily a consumer, not a producer. It thus, like socialism, views people as brute beasts, unable to produce more than they consume without direction from above. This is why environmentalism and socialism readily go hand in hand, and environmentalism has become the last best hope of socialists to gain control over the world’s economies.
But true Christianity casts aside this dark and foreboding view of man and his rôle in the world.
With all its recognition of the sinfulness of man due to the Fall, it also recognizes that God made man to be like Him, both creative and productive. To put it simply, the average mouth is born into this world connected to two hands—and, more importantly, a mind capable of discovering myriads of ways to make more with less.With this mind and those two hands (or even without the hands—think of Stephen Hawking), the average person produces far more than he consumes in a lifetime. (This is why, by and large, each generation is wealthier than its forebears.)
Christianity also recognizes that God has given man responsibility to subdue and have dominion over the Earth (Genesis 1:28), transforming it from wilderness into garden by enhancing its fruitfulness, beauty, and safety. He is to do it to the glory of God and the benefit of his neighbors (thus fulfilling the two Great Commandments to love God and others). Finally, having subdued and ruled it, he is to cultivate and guard it (Genesis 2:15).
Furthermore, Christianity recognizes that man’s increasing material wealth can alleviate his concerns for survival, freeing him to act increasingly for the betterment of his environment. Historically, this is precisely what we see as countries grow richer. To put it simply, a clean, healthful, beautiful environment is a costly good; rich people can afford it better than poor people.2
In light of all this, what economic system is consistent with the Christian world view in rewarding people according to the intelligence, creativity, and diligence of their work?
Only the free market does that.
1See Graham Hancock, Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989).
2See E. Calvin Beisner, Prospects For Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1990); Julian Simon, The Economics of Population Growth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), The Ultimate Resource (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), and Population Matters (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers/Hudson Institute, 1990); Max Singer, Passage to a Human World: The Dynamics of Creating Global Walth (Indianapolis: Hudson Institute, 1987).