Economics and Christianity

Augustine sparked my interest with a post on medicine and the possibility of considering some kind of universal health care. Augustine, as you probably know, is a Christian, and one of my own denomination. And therefore I found his statement particularly interesting-

Do I believe that socialized medicine is an evil because I have biblical basis for such a thought or because my culture has inculcated this thinking in me?

This is a necessary kind of thinking for us to engage in. We often confuse our Biblically based beliefs with our culturally-inculcated beliefs. We should not hold onto beliefs merely because we’ve been told to, when such beliefs are contrary to Scripture.

But the conservative impulse in me (I’m not a liberal, classical or otherwise) tells me that we ought to be slow to throw out all the old beliefs and reexamine everything constantly. None of us individually have the wisdom that our collective forefathers had. And there were reasons for many of those beliefs. Proverbs 22:28 tells us not to move the “ancient landmark” which our fathers have set. If we tear down a barrier, we ought first to know why that barrier was there. And in particular, I believe there are many good and fine Biblical principles on which the system of capitalism is based.

Augustine says this, in a follow-up post:

We need to examine the issue more fully. I do not believe there is a God ordained economic model. I think there are God ordained economic precepts which fit within mercantilist, capitalistic, socialist, or blended economies. Are we assuming that a capitalist economy is the economic model of God? If so, would equally as Reformed people disagree in Germany, Scotland, and the Netherlands?

Again, we do need to examine our assumptions. But is it actually the case that God has said nothing about an economic system? And if He has said anything, is there enough there to extrapolate a system?

1. The Eighth commandment: Thou shalt not steal. Exodus 20:15
Private property is recognized in the Bible as a grant from God. We have what we have because God has given it to us to use, and this applies to our neighbor as well. A good deal of the generally moral teaching of Jesus, John the Baptist and of the Apostles goes to applying this very principle in practice. Does it change the issue essentially when it is the government stealing my property instead of my neighbor? I don’t think so, and I’m guessing Augustine wouldn’t think so if it was his property. Was Ahab’s sin against Naboth only murder? If he had the right to simply take Naboth’s vineyard, why the elaborate plot? It’s ironic that the average city council in America today is more tyrannical than one of the worst kings in the Bible- today, Ahab would just declare a public use for Naboth’s vineyard, a desire to open it up to more people, or perhaps call it a federal wetlands.

And see how Paul applies the eighth commandment:
2. Ephesians 4:28- Let him that stole steal no more, but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.
Here we have the Biblically-based antithesis to stealing, as well as the solution to the very dilemma which Augustine proposed. First of all, the opposite of stealing in Paul’s “old-man / new-man” dichotomy is working for a living. The thief is the ultimate parasite. We like to glamorize him in our movies, ever since Robin Hood really, but the thief is a worm. He never produces anything, just takes from others. He is a net drain on the community. The redistributionist politician is no different. He may tell himself he’s a good guy because he steals from the rich and gives to the poor, but as a character in “Heist” says, “Who’d want to steal from the poor?” Private property does not become public property just because it’s a rich person who owns it. And therefore, if there are those in the community who have need, then the solution to that is for us to work hard so that we have extra to give to others.

They had welfare in the Roman Empire at the time Paul was writing. That welfare pretty much destroyed the Roman Empire, since it eventually took away everyone’s incentive to work. Nobody cared when the barbarians came. The state owned everything, which meant nobody did. So nobody cared when the barbarians came and stole what essentially belonged to nobody. Oh, they cared when they sacked Rome and burned their temples and slaughtered them. But they didn’t care when it mattered, when the barbarians were still at the borders. Today, we see the barbarians at our borders, and once again, everyone’s so used to stealing from everyone else that few care enough to do anything about it.

Welfare of any kind makes a man a parasite. It makes him a government-sanctioned thief. It teaches him the lesson that prosperity comes from your connections, who you know, how to work the system to get everything you can. When enough people learn that lesson, the society collapses. And unfortunately, all too many of us have been so bought. I have government-subsidized student loans. Lots of people get the big child tax credits which end up giving them more than they paid in taxes. I am sure I would take them too if I were eligible this year, because I would convince myself that I would not fall prey to the mindset of a parasite.

But the Bible speaks otherwise. The solution to poverty is hard work, both by the individual and by the community of God. We cannot solve everyone’s poverty. But we can do a lot for those in the household of God. On the other hand, “if any would not work, neither should he eat.” 2 Thess. 3.10.

3: The Prince of Ezekiel
One of the consistent problems listed throughout the book of Ezekiel is the oppression of the poor by the rulers of Israel. Through dishonesty, corruption and force they stole constantly from the poor. After the destruction of Jerusalem, which came in part because of this corruption, a new national order is envisioned by the prophet. I want to focus on the role of the prince in this new order. We see the ordinances for the prince scattered through Ezekiel 45-48.

First, his land allotment was divided. He had a portion on one side of the temple district and on the other. He was no longer the god of the land, treating the temple as his own private chapel, with his wall against God’s wall and his threshhold against God’s threshhold. He was separated and divided, so that he could not oppress the people.

Further, he was prohibited from acquiring any more land than what God had given him. And he was also foridden to give any of his land to any of his subjects. This is a common way that ancient kings would build their power and cement their hold on power, at the same time punishing their opponents, by stealing land from his enemies (either overtly or covertly by using the state coffers to buy it for himself) and then giving it to his friends. In an agrarian economy, without land you were nothing. Without land you were a vagabond.

Today we live in a capital-based economy, where a man can be very wealthy and established without owning a scrap of land. And if you substitute land with capital, a socialist, mercantilist or blended economy does precisely what the prince is forbidden to do, and it is the way they oppress the people and keep themselves in power.

In our economy, it’s done mostly through the tax code. The tax code is used to punish the political enemies of the party (the rich), in order to give handouts to those who will vote for the party. Both parties do it, though the Democrats are far more entrenched in this practice than the Republicans. In a mercantilist economy, this practice happens through protectionism and favored trade practices, giving valuable monopolies and guild rights to the political friends of the monarch or ruling power. And in a socialist economy, it happens by the wholesale theft of all of the land (read: capital) of the nation for the use of the ruling party, which party uses that wealth primarily to keep itself in power.

Only the capitalist system comes close to approximating what God has commanded here- that the prince be divided and limited, and that he be forbidden from using state power to manipulate the economic system for his own benefit. That everyone’s own property be guaranteed secure.

Once we accept the idea that our property is given to us by Caesar for him to take away and give whenever he deems fit, then we have become subjects of a totalitarian state, in our minds. We have become slaves in our minds. And lest all this economic stuff seem unimportant to you- remember, Jerusalem was destroyed partly because of wicked economic practices.

11 thoughts on “Economics and Christianity

  1. I truly enjoyed this post. I would like to point out a few things concenring what I wrote…

    First, I am not in favor of a socialized medicine. It is one of many option that must be debated. I do not believe, however, that we can continue down the track we are going and ignore the needs of the poor. The current system is broken. Many liberals are correct in pointing out that coservatives (broadly speaking) are more concerned with children before they are out of the womb. I thinkt here is much truth to this statement.

    Secondly, my question is not the validity of the econimic model, per se, but jow do we deal with those who cannot afford to buy healthcare?

    Also, I am in full agreement that he who does not work shall not eat. The mitigating factors though are those who do work yet cannot afford access and do work as well as those who depend on the person who does not work.

    There are the “middle class poor” who make enough money to afford most things but not health care. Furthermore, there are those who truly do work but are unable to get a job which provides healthcare.

    Lastly, and significantly, there are those who are helpless. The children of drug adicted parents, the handicaped, and the aged, all of whom cannot work and have been forsaken by those responsible for them. These are the people who have the most to loose without healthcare.

    So my question would be, not if the government should run healthcare, or the church, but more broadly, are we doing the best we can do? What are the alternatives? I support free and open economies for many of the same reasons you do, however, how do we account for those who are most at risk?

  2. Christians need this debate, so that we are thoroughly biblical in what we advocate.

    Chesterson that the only one who has the right to remove a barrier that blocks the road is one who knows why it is there.

    Christians should be able to bring out of their storehouse both what is new and what is old. Neither the old or the new is in itself good. Sun worship is very old and not good. Reading the Bible will give us new insights into todays problems. The Spirit is the author of truth, both the old and the new.

  3. I agree that the current system is broken. And the reason it’s broken is insufficient capitalism. There are too many things in the healthcare and insurance system that break competition- the near-monopsody pricing ability that the government has through Medicare and Medicaid, just recently made much worse by the prescription drug benefit; the tax code that encourages businesses to provide healthcare for workers, meaning that almost nobody shops for healthcare and very few even shop for insurance. As a result there is little of the pricing pressure that would create an efficient market.

    I am proposing that the economic model of capitalism, subsidized by the charity of individuals and the church, is the model that will do the best job of providing for the poor, as it always has. It’s a sinful world and the poor will always be with us. Government attempts to deal with that have always only made it worse. Those that are outside the church- there’s little that can be done. There’s more that can be done for those inside the church, and we should do it.

    Health care is as expensive as it is because of the structure of our insurance system. If you want to see this in action, see how you are treated if you go into a hospital and identify yourself as “self-pay”. Then you will see the market function a good deal more like it’s supposed to. You are given choices, and only the products that you truly require are proposed. There will not be an attempt to pad the bill as there always is for insured patients.

    The best thing we can do for the poor among us is to get Biblical principles of the free market functioning again in the healthcare industry, and to do our part as individuals for the poor among us.

  4. I think the system is broken. However, more importantly, our cultural institutions are broken. If the family and the church fail to provide for the poor, then we create a problem that must be solved. A man cannot be left to die simply because he cannot afford treatment or be denied his basic needs.

    Also, the state does have a right to some of our capital. This is because they carry the authority of God, who owns all of our private property. If the state is engaging in a practice which God has ordained that it conduct, then the state has the right to demand a portion of our private property in the form of taxes. The obvious functions are national defense and police services. However, it would also apply to basic and fundamental pillars of infrastructure. This is why we normally do not complain when the state takes our funds to build roads, water systems, cultural monuments, or other such things. I suppose the question is whether or not general healthcare would qualify as an infrastructural necessity. That is, if providing for the poor and destitute would contribute to the overall welfare of the nation, and it is not provided by any lesser means, then it may fall within the purview of the state.

    Consider this also. In the OT law, if a poor man owed one a debt and paid it in the form of a cloak, the creditor was to restore the cloak at night when it was cold, as the poor man was not to be left uncovered, even though he was truly indebted to the creditor. Now, let us say that a poor man could not afford to pay for his heating bill and it was subsequently turned off. To apply this principle, I think we would have to say that his heat should be restored, at least when it is so cold that he and his children would truly suffer. Who is to pay for this restoration of heat? One way or another, those who can afford heat will pay, whether it is through a state welfare program or increased fuel costs if the gas company has to foot the bill.

    Consider one more point. In the OT law, the Israelites were forbidden to glean every last scrap from the field. They were to leave it for the poor. In a sense, the poor had a claim to the left-overs, if they were willing to work to pick them up. It is true that the state did not come and glean the left-overs and give them to the poor, but, nevertheless, the law of the land stated that the left-overs were to be left for the poor, and this law was enforceable by the state authorities.

    Perhaps one could argue that I am applying old testament law inappropriately, as the US is not a theocracy. But, although the civil law does not directly apply in detail, the general principles of equity should. I am not providing answers here, and I am not necessarily advocating a socialized healthcare system. I am really just playing the devil’s advocate and raising more questions to ponder.

  5. Andy,
    I appreciate the compassion of your post, and I don’t mean to be snide, but a man certainly can be left to die because he cannot afford treatment. Millions of children die all the time of diseases that could be treated with very inexpensive drugs.

    I know what you meant is, they can’t be left to die in this wealthy society. And I agree. But how did we get wealthy? And how will we stay wealthy? It wasn’t by dependence; it was by hard work. I know we’re agreed on this, and I know what you’re proposing is just a “safety net” kind of legislation, just for the worst cases. But this is how it always starts out. And once you give the government any “in” to do this kind of thing, the list of “worst cases” always expands, because it provides the government a way of buying power, which they will inevitably do. They must be prevented from doing so. Compassion is the way that the door gets opened, but once it’s opened, it’s very very difficult to close.

    We must do whatever we can as individuals and as churches to do our part to help the poor. We cannot solve the problem of poverty on this earth- the poor will always be with us. And poverty means people dying of things that rich people don’t die of. There is no solution to that, short of heaven. As this society gets more addicted to welfare, there will be far more poor people in our society, as there is less and less wealth being produced to go around. The best thing we can do to help the poor is to constantly promote hard work and responsibility, and to be charitable as individuals and as churches.

    Thanks very much for the comments, Andy and everyone else.

  6. Matt,

    I hear you, and I agree that the government should not be allowed to usurp power on the pretense of compassion. As you know, I normally describe myself as a libertarian. I know you do not own that term, but in practice there is little difference between the Christian libertarian and the paleo-conservative. However, I am not certain anymore that my libertarian idealism is anything but a mirage in this sinful world. In a truly Christian society, libertarianism would work. In an immature or declining society, the masses must be led, controlled, and restrained by the strong arm of power concentrated in the hands of a few who are held to higher standards. But, again, only in a Christian context would such an aristocracy truly work. Thus, if the family and church do not awaken from their institutional slumber, the way is paved for a godless totalitarian state. I know I am beginning to sound like a dispensationalist (although I am adamently A-mill), but I seriously think that the world is preparing itself for another Adolph Hitler. Where there is an absence of order, order will be enforced. Where there is an absence of charity, the state will issue promises of salvation. The state candle will light you to bed. The state chopper will chop off your head. If basic needs are not met, that is, if the masses think they are oppressed and miserable, they will turn to messianic statism. They will turn to an idolotrous dream. Perhaps this is inevitable. Perhaps it can be slowed by an amalgum of freedom and socialism. Whatever the case, I fear our ideals of freedom are as dead and fossilized as the dinosaurs.


  7. I have done a lot of thinking about these things recently and I am not nearly so doctrinaire as I used to be. The righteous king of Ps. 72 relieves the poor and the needy and rightly judges their cause. Also, families and churches have their responsibility. All have their part, I would suspect. The church must not be left out, because they must give the moral and spiritual counsel that will enable people to break the cycle of dependency and become responsible and self-sufficient. But people should not become enablers and aiders and abetters of sinful behavior. Or so it seems to me.

  8. Well, I guess I’m still pretty doctrinaire. I think the king’s responsibility to relieve the poor is met in enforcing fair contracts and the bankruptcy provisions; keeping the rich and powerful from exploitiong them.

    And I hear what you’re saying, Andy, and maybe you’re right. I guess I’m a bit more optimistic than that still. I’m talking about what a Godly nation ought to look like. I don’t really know what a totalitarian or authoritarian nation ought to look like; if we get one of those, I think we’re screwed any way you look at it. So I’m taking the idealist line here; whether it’s workable or practical given the current cultural conditions is a whack-a-mole for another day.

  9. I hope you are right, Matt. But, it seems to me that tyrants arise when society is restless, whether that restlessness results from real problems or problems simply trumped up by the media and its underlying political agenda. Significant tyrants come along with a diagnosis that is normally correct. For instance, Hitler’s assessment of the problems of his day, minus the Jewish question, were quite insightful. His assessment of Marxism and parlimentarianism were dead on the mark. Which, of course, is precisely the problem. A guy comes along with a diagnosis that resonates with almost everyone, then he prescribes a medicine that is sheer poison, and the people swallow it wholeheartedly. A solidly Christian society would not accept the poison. However, we no longer live in a solidly Christian society. If the philosophically educated Germans of the 30s and 40s could follow Hitler to their doom, imagine what could become of the ignorant, woefully undereducated American masses. The breakdown of the family and the church causes subjective instability. I believe restlessness and instability are the root of all political evil. Posit, for a moment, an economic collapse in the United States fostered by insanely high gas prices and a dearth of jobs. Would we have the moral fortitude to weather it, as our forefathers did in the 20s and 30s? I think not. We would look to government to save us from our demon, to champion our salvation, to spread its wing over us and gather us as a hen gathers her chicks. The field is ripe for the totalitarian harvest. It only requires a man of strong will and charisma to seize the opportunity. You see, I do not believe Hitler was insane. I think he was an evil political genius. The masses will not follow a lunatic, but they will follow a viable demigod to their doom. Our forefathers foresaw a free society of educated, enlightened citizens. Unfortunately, their dream seems to have been just that–a dream.

  10. Josh says:

    We are a long long long way from totalitarianistic collapse. The road that led to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had much more than just unrest and instability involved. Poverty for one thing. I mean REAL poverty. What we have defined as the poverty line in America has NOTHING on what these people lived with. In the Soviet Union’s case, you had 90% of the population living at a subsistance level and brutally oppressed and taxed by the Czar and his “noble” lot. And don’t forget WW1, where in 1915 ALONE Russia lost about 5,000,000 men. IN ONE YEAR!! Nazi Germany had 48% unemployment (what’s ours now, about 4%?). Germany was working under a French vendetta inspired puppet goverment and there was virtually no law. Political parties made speeches with clubs and bull horns. No joke. Have hope. We are headed somewhere, but we are no where near those two models.

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