Christians, Government, and the Market Place

by Elgin Hushbeck

9781631990830One of the issues that divides Christians on the right and left, and the right and left in general, is their view of government and the market place. This, in and of itself, raises some interesting questions concerning how and why we develop the values and positions we hold. How much do our political opinions influence our religious views, and how much do our religious views influence our politics? In this post, however, I will look at the left’s preference for government over the market place, and whether or not their underlying assumptions are correct.
For many Christians on the left, looking to government to address social ills and problems is an easy choice, at least when the government is in some fashion a democratic form of government. This is because they see government as an institution led by people they elected who operate as an expression of the people’s will. They regard it as an institution that is guided by values such as equality and a concern for the poor that they share.
The market place on the other hand is governed by large corporations, led by people they do not know, people they have no say over, and motivated by less desirable values such as greed. In fact, as my co-host Chris Eyre, on Global Christian Perspectives, labeled it, “satanic.” Thus when the question is, where should we look to address a social problem such as dealing with the poor, or health care, it is an easy choice.
As someone on the right, it is probably not that surprising that I would disagree with many of these characterizations. For example, I make a distinction between big business and the market place. In fact I would probably agree with much of the left’s critique of big business. The really big difference is that I see government as even worse.
While the left’s description of democracy is good in theory, it hardly lines up with reality.   Its most basic flaw is that it assumes that those elected to government will act in the interest of others over themselves.
The problem with such a view was elegantly summed up in Federalist 51 (by either, Hamilton or Madison) in the famous statement on the reasons for divided powers and limited government:

It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

This is particularly problematic as government becomes more distant from the people. One could argue that this is just democracy in action, yet numerous real world factors such as gerrymandering of districts, advantage of incumbency, campaign finance laws tha,t in reality, only make it harder to unseat incumbents, influence of special interest groups and lobbyist, to mention a few, insulate those in office from the people.   Such factors are not an aberration, but are rather now the norm as government becomes more centralized and powerful. (For a more complete discussion of some of these factors see my book: Preserving Democracy.)
In a consumer based market place, however, one has some economic say by choosing where to spend one’s money. This requires that the consumers have real choices and businesses must compete for their business. In such a marketplace, to succeed, a business must be concerned with their customers’ wants, wishes and ability to pay.
Not only can such a system work in theory, it can and has worked, and has resulted in the greatest increase in the standard of living for more people than any other economic system. As Arthur C. Brooks has pointed out, because of such policies, “The number of people in the world living on a dollar a day—a traditional poverty measure— has fallen by 80 percent since 1970, from 11.2 percent of the world’s population to 2.3 percent” (Brooks, A. C. (2012). The Road To Freedom, New York: Basic Books., p. 72).
Granted no system is perfect, and problems remain, but as we move closer to a true consumer based marketplace, things get correspondingly better. On the other hand, as government is asked to do more, it grows larger and the problems are exacerbated. Rather than being a defender of the public against big business, only the large and well connected can have influence.
Thus for me the choice is clear.  Government cannot live up to the ideas of the left, and in fact the larger it grows, the more likely it is to be a defender of big business. Not only can a consumer based capitalism make people’s lives better, but it also allows more freedom as well.

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  1. My most major problem with your approach is that it doesn’t seem to include any specifically Christian principles. I start from the standpoint that “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1. Tim. 6:10), “you cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13) and “sell all you have and give it to the poor” (Matt. 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22); it is clear from this that a system which is based on getting more and more money, which values people entirely according to how much money they have and/or earn, is the system of Mammon, a truly Satanic system. Thus, Christians should not support this system, irrespective of whether it is efficient or not; we should not take the stance that “Christianity has been found to be difficult, so we shouldn’t try it”, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton.
    The problem I have with “What is wrong with social justice” is that while it rightly points out that democracy does not work well as practiced in the USA, or indeed on very large scales, it takes a view of market economics which is based on very small scale interactions and holds those up as how the system works – and indeed, just as democracy works pretty well in small communities, so does market economics. In other words, you compare an idealised market economy with an actual democracy, and find democracy wanting.
    However, even on small scales, market economics tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few and be subject to problems such as monopolies and cartels; the bigger the economic system, the greater the scope for problems. What we actually have in capitalism today is a system which rewards exorbitantly people who gamble with money (generally other people’s money) and who actually make nothing and deliver no services, and which ensures that those who have great wealth will get more of it and those who have very little will have even that taken from them; it exists by demoting human beings to “units of production”, who it wishes to pay as little as is possible.
    The “wealth creators” produce nothing except more wealth, and that they keep for themselves. If they can manage to become multinational or expatriate, they become immune from any control by the individual, whereas at least in democracies there are periodic votes which offer at least a chance of electing people who will be servants of the people rather than career politicians feathering their own nests for a while.
    I submit that on the one side, there is a pressing need to reform democracy so that it does actually reflect the will of the people reasonably; that can be done; fewer of the problems you highlight apply in the UK, for instance, and even fewer in (for instance) some of the Scandinavian democracies.
    On the other side, it is only government representing the will of the people as a whole which has any chance of reducing the evils of capitalism; we should elect to it only those who take the preferential option for the poor which Jesus lays out and who disavow the pursuit of money (and thus the worship of Satan) themselves.
    A government of Franciscans would be no bad thing!

    1. Chris,
      This is really a matter of perspective. One could also cite 1 Tim 5:18, “A worker deserves his pay.” So just how does a business owner get paid? They get paid out of the profits. You call this greed, but I see just as much greed in Public sector union members. A few years back with the decline in the economy the teachers union was as ask of delay a pay raise because the district did not have the money, nor could they just raise taxes on citizens who also where struggling. The only alternative was to lay people off. The voted to get the raise and people lost their jobs.
      While certainly some are motivate by greed not all are. The core of capitalism is not greed, but a free exchange openly and freely entered into. It is the ultimate win-win situation, and in the process wealth is generated that leads to higher standard of living, and other benefits.
      Yes efficiently is important. Perhaps if we lived in a world of wealth where everyone had plenty we could afford to be wasteful. But we do not and until we do, wasting money and stifling the growth of wealth is not something to be encouraged. You cannot distribute wealth that does not exist.
      As for scale, you misunderstand. This issue is not the size of the businesses, but freedom to choose and competition. There can be choice and competition among large companies. For example look at cars, most of which are made by very large corporation. But it still comes to the individual consumers having a choice. The more choice and competition the better, regardless of the size of the organizations.
      The key point is that a large corporations still have to operate in the market place. If they are too wasteful, or do not listen to the customers, they will lose business, case in point the US car companies. Big business has had to undergo drastic changes over the last few decades. Government has not. Thus while the average large corporation has been cut down to 6 levels of management the AVERAGE for the US government is 22. They can waste all this money, because they do not have market constrains and so wasting money is not a big issue. In fact they often lose track of literally billions of dollars with no idea of where it went.
      As for your statement that “The ‘wealth creators’ produce nothing except more wealth, and that they keep for themselves.” This is just false. If they created nothing, then how would there be anyone willing to pay them for nothing? On the other hand, look at the billionaire in the tech sector. They are wealthy because they created entirely new segments of the economy, creating massive amounts of wealth in the process, and improving people’s lives.
      What destroys wealth and makes people’s lives worse are people buried the various levels, say level 14 of the numerous government bureaucracies. People who work in meaningless jobs, but get paid on average well above those in the private sector and with fabulous benefits, some of whom can retire at 55 with a 100% pension while some those who have the money forcibly taken from them to pay for such excess, have to work into their 70s before they can afford to retire. Where is the justice in that?
      “I submit that on the one side, there is a pressing need to reform democracy so that it does actually reflect the will of the people reasonably” I would submit that this is impossible, and there have been a number of studies on how democracy actually works that demonstrate this. There is a reason why going back to the time of Plato, democracy has been seen as an unworkable system. Sure you can grow government for a time, but it is like living on a credit card. Eventually the bill comes due.

  2. I agree that the government is too large and is continuing to grow. It is interesting to me that many Christians, and pastors in particular, would consider themselves conservatives (in favor of limited government) but are in denominations whose structure is not much different than the federal government. Most denominations are bloated and ineffective. Most are inefficient bureaucracies that look just like our government.

    1. Michael,
      You raise a good point. While they are tightly linked bureaucracies are the real problem because they are almost synonymous with unaccountable and self-interested, particularly the larger they grow.

  3. Hi Elgin:
    As you know, I am pleased to identify myself as on the Left. Having said that, I share with my conservative friends a concern for waste in governmental expenditures and programs that are ineffective. That does not detract from a more activist position re government that I unabashedly hold. I will say that I would like to see ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ work hard on all levels to find common ground.
    We discussed this on a Hangout so I know, as you state here, that you have some issues with some practices of ‘big business’, as do I. I hold to a pessimism that, left unchecked and unregulated, corporations would really hurt people. I know you come at this differently.
    Thanks, Elgin, for your really intelligent commentary—-

    1. Bob,
      It has always amazed me hwo those who push for larger government are often unconcerned with how well it is actually working. In fact failure is often rewarded by increased budgets and it is assumed they needed more money.
      By the way I do not argue that business be left “unchecked and unregulated.” That would be more a libertarian position than a conservative one. Government does have an important role, but it should focus more on ensuring that there is choice and competition and less on how things should be done. The latter is counter-productive as such government regulations stifle innovation that so improves our lives. Ultimately it is big business that is helped by such the current approach to regulation because they and afford it and us it as a way to stifle competition.

  4. Consumer based capitalism is much like a Ponzi scheme. There must increasingly be more and more consumers in order for economic growth to occur. This causes an increase in the exploitation of natural resources, the need for cheaper labor (outsourcing), and an anti-Christian materialistic sense of value. Nothing illustrates this better than President George Bush’s urging consumers to spend money in NYC as the answer to the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center.
    At some point, as with any Ponzi scheme, the well of renewed consumers will dry up, because the planet will no longer provide the resources to keep up growth. We will be forced by circumstances to reign in our economies. Why not adopt a more planet-friendly approach now, and save ourselves the trouble?

    1. Steve,
      I know you will be Shocked! Shocked! But I disagree. There is nothing in a market based system that demands that there be growth. BTW, not all companies seek growth. Some seek steady long term returns. The growth we have seen is simply because there has been so much room to grow, and there remains tremendous room for growth.
      While market based approaches have cut $1/day poverty by 80% there remains the other 20%, and then there would be the growth of moving them up to the middle class or higher. So there is plenty of room for growth, and I think it is a good thing to have the economy growing and people doing better.
      Frankly the left depends on economic growth so they can tax it. You cannot distribute wealth that you do not have.
      The real Ponzi schemes are government programs that promise things that cannot be paid for. The U.S. currently has an $18 Trillion debit, but over $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities, promises made without saying how they will be paided for. This is why social Security and Medicare are going bankrupted.
      As for running out of resources, that is so far off, if ever, as to not be a real concern at the moment. Take for example oil, while we were supposed of have run out by now, we now know about more oil than ever, as we keep finding it faster that we are using it.
      Left to the marketplace we will never run out of oil. Should we run low, the price will rise making other sources economically viable, reducing consumption, and spurring research into alternatives. Thus while most people would like to see cheaper oil prices, I have hear many on the left wanting to artificially increase the price.
      I have no problem with being planet friendly, I just put people ahead of the planet.

  5. Well, left and right are each subject to the rule of self-interest. That is true. And there is a reality of and a respect for the individual expressed in the Bible in many places. But how does the salt enter the wounds of the people if not through those who have salt in themselves?
    I recall and still have works of art from my youngest son’s period of youth detention. These were acts of love for him from the government. The government learned from the love of Christ even if it was unknown by some. (You might say – how did your son get into jail? What kind of a parent are you? But that would be the wrong question. My son at age 37 is still under forensic supervision due to brain damage from birth. In other less loving social structures, he would be dead by now. The damage is a direct result of colonialism and the rape of the land by the Europeans. I have two adopted children, one black and one aboriginal, both disabled. I also have other children.)
    My point here is that institutions can reflect policy that is costly yet effective in enabling growth even among the disabled. Some would limit the programs, especially art and handicrafts in the prisons.
    If we do not care for the poor, then we are not like God. (Psalm 146).
    So how will we build this difficult to build temple of the body – the corporate body? Will we build our corporations this way? Or our governments? Or our churches? Or does our hierarchy of wealth only privilege a few? Those who respect trickle-down economics (not exactly the dew of Hermon).
    If only the wealthy are privileged, then we will be in the position of Judah when she was addressed by the oracle of Yahweh in Haggai (I have just ‘finished’ my reading of this today, some notes here). I am struck by the call from God that is expressed in the poignant awkward reading of mine:
    I struck you with blight and with mildew and with hail, every deed of your hands,
    yet to me, there was no, with you. An oracle of Yahweh.
    You will recognize the allusion to Deuteronomy 28:22. But it is not ‘punishment’ rather ‘consequence’, and it is a reflection of God’s desire to be with us for God’s good not just ours. And strangely, it is also dependent on us. One could also read it as ‘there was no you’. We do not exist if we are only seeking our own self-interest.
    I have argued that it is the building of a team with all its difficulty that is the first measure of a political leader. I wonder who can do it in your country or in mine. Did someone not say we get the leaders we deserve.

  6. Thank you so much, Elgin, for addressing this subject. You did an excellent job. I want to recommend an outstanding book that includes what you have been talking about, “America, Imagine a World Without Her,” by Dinesh D’Souza. He defends America, knocking down every important accusation made by progressives against our country. Here are the defenses to some of the arguments that pertain to your subject: 1. How America, more than any other country, is based on rewarding the enterprise and hard work of the common man. 2. How traditional American virtues sustain prosperity and freedom, and progressive arguments about “liberation” and “justice” undercut them. 3. How progressive demagoguery about “inequality” expands the power of government and its grasp on the taxpayer’s wallet. 4. Why we should fear the progressive agenda of “reform,” which is in fact an agenda of totalitarian control of the state over the individual.
    D’Souza says, “A second unique principle [of the American founding] is a free market society with business as the national vocation and the innovator and entrepreneur as the embodiments of the American dream …. the Founders encouraged a system of ‘natural liberty’ in which people can buy and sell what they want, and work where they want, rising as far as their skills and talents take them. In other words, the Founders set up a market meritocracy.” “America’s focus on the entrepreneur has produced the most inventive and entrepreneurial society in history, which has benefited not just business-owners but workers and ordinary people.” D’Souza ends this chapter (excerpted from pp. 50-55) decrying the fact that today the spirit of 1776 has a serious rival – the spirit of 1968, the progressive spirit. I heartily recommend this book. It really answered a lot of questions I had about America’s history and why the progressives in our government seem to be dismantling our country!

    1. Nancy,
      Thank you. I am familiar with Dinesh D’Souza and his book and it is already on my list to read but have not gotten to it yet, but I did enjoy the movie and agree with the main premise. America while by no means perfect, has been a tremendous source of Good.

      1. I am not knowledgeable about your subject, but I do recognize that you are making very good sense, and I am so glad you wrote your book and are engaging with others on this forum. I support you. Blessings!

  7. This is, unfortunately, my second attempt at a response – I’m not sure what happened to the first one.
    My big problem with “What is wrong with Social Justice” is that it doesn’t really seem to address things from a specifically Christian point of view. Taking just a few quotations, “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Mat. 6:25, Luke 16:13), “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) and “sell all you have and give it to the poor” (Mat. 16:21, Mark 10:21 and Luke 18:22), it seems abundantly clear to me that both Jesus and Paul are identifying the pursuit of money as both worship of another power than God and as something intrinsically evil and inimical to your spiritual health. In other words, a Satanic system.
    Whatever the objections that market capitalism is a practical system which works may be, we cannot, from my point of view, ignore these strictures and should not (to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton) find that “Christianity has been found difficult and has not been tried”.
    That said, I do not agree that as a general rule market capitalism enures to the benefit of everyone in society. It does do that (as Steve Kindle comments) in an era of ever expanding markets and in a far more technologically advanced country (as operated for the UK during the 19th century and for the USA for much of the 20th), but ceases to do this when markets become mature and globalisation enables competition from labour elsewhere.
    The real problem, it seems to me, is that you compare an idealised concept of a market economy, based on a small-scale society of makers and consumers, with a real example of a large democracy with problems. I could say that the UK has rather less of the problems in democracy which you highlight in the States, and some other liberal democracies in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia, have less than we do, but you are correct to point out that there are problems with the operation of democracies and that government tends to increase.
    To me, this means that we should attempt to improve our democracies, not by minimising what they do in the common good, but by making them do it better and far more efficiently.
    I can also point to the actual operation of globalised market economics and point out that wealth and power have become concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer multinationals and extremely rich individuals, a trend which shows no sign of decreasing, and have produced a culture of commerce which rewards huge risk taking (commonly with other people’s money, and occasionally by effective blackmail of governments the taxpayer’s) without in the process actually producing anything of use, whether goods or services.
    Over the last 20-30 years, in particular, although the economies in the USA and the UK have in theory grown, none of the improvement has been seen in the pockets of individual workers (on average); even the middle class has become relatively poorer, although the very rich have become massively richer, irrespective of recessions. Human beings are reduced to “units of production” and the objective is to reduce the costs of that to a minimum; the trend will continue unless stopped.
    These systems also need reforming and restraining, and the only institutions which can do that are governments which, if democratic, actually possess a mechanism which gives the individual some power of decision, as long as it works reasonably. The very wealthy and the multinationals have no such responsiveness.
    I have huge sympathy with your critique of US government; isn’t it high time the people, who actually have the votes, got together to elect some politicians who were not just there to feather their nests and favour those who bankrolled them, and to reform the system so that that does not happen in future? It can be done; Scotland has just done it.

    1. I think I saw both your posts, Chris. And you have stated your points clearly – thank you. I largely agree but I have yet to see the governments work well in my later days. It remains to be seen if the Scottish experiment will work. The role of her majesty’s loyal opposition can also be distorted by self-interest.
      I think we must return to find the pores of the body, the individuals that haves lost faith in the church and need to re-hear the desire of G-d to be with us. For it is hard work to pay attention to the other, be it G-d or the poor in our midst.

    2. Christ,
      I think one of the easiest ways to curb the problem you describe in your final paragraph (politicians who feather their nests and favor those who bankroll them) is to set term limits for Congress, drop their salaries to a reasonable wage (average household income in America is $50,500) and scrap lifetime benefits.

      1. Michael
        While I agree with term limits, but I take a contrarian view of salaries as I would much rather have people going there for money than for power (Ideally I would like them to go because they want to server). There are those who are really rich and they can afford to live in Washington, D.C. Then there are the Congressmen who sleep in their offices, because they cannot afford to keep a house both their and in their district. I am not arguing for a big raise, but I would hate to good people not choose to run for office and leave such things to the wealthy simply because they were the only ones who could afford the expense. It is hard enough as it is.

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