Sunday, August 8, 2010

Economic Policy and Christian Ethics

There never seems to be a shortage in calls for government intervention in the economy to solve one sort of problem or another. Increasingly, such proposals are being floated by Christians who identify people facing undesirable circumstances and then claim that Christian ethics demand statist economic policy as a solution. Such advocates view increased regulation of the financial industry, mandatory sick and family leave, mandatory safe, affordable, and enriching child care, and living wage legislation as Christian responses to what they see as undesirable outcomes in our hampered market economy. Some lobby for state regulation of the use of goods possibly affecting the environment in the name of creation care.

In evaluating various policy proposals, we would do well to remember Murray Rothbard’s insight that  all economic policy has an ethical component. Once we move beyond examining the purely economic consequences of the minimum wage, for example, and then advocate raising, lowering, or abolishing it, we must incorporate some ethical standard, because we are now entering dimension of the should or should not.

Therefore, as I point out in chapter 13 of my book, if we want to fully analyze any economic policy, we must answer two questions, not just one. First, is the policy economically sound? That is, does the policy do what it is ostensibly supposed to do? Second, is it ethically sound? Is it morally acceptable, or does it violate our accepted ethical criteria? Any economic policy about which we cannot answer both questions in the affirmative, must be deemed unacceptable.

Those Christians who advocate interventionism fail to remember that from a Christian perspective, the ends never justify the means. If we want to acceptably do God's work, we not only must seek to obtain ends ordained by God, but we must use means ordained by Him as well. If we see poverty as a social evil, for instance, and desire to reduce the number of people living in poverty, we could accomplish this simply by executing all poor people. That would, after all, reduce the number of people living in poverty. It would also be evil. This example may make my case by noting the absurdum of the ol' reductio, but you get the point. We cannot embrace wicked means to achieve morally desirable ends.

Because all economic policy affects what people can do with property, a Christian view of economic policy demands that we evaluate policy within the Christian ethic of private property.  As noted by various Christian thinkers from Tertullian, to Aquinas, Calvin, Charles Hodge, and Francis Wayland. both general and special revelation teach that people possess a divine right to private property. In Scripture we find commandments against theft (Exod. 20:15, Deut. 5:11, Luke 18:20), fraud (Lev. 19:35-36, Prov. 11:1), and moving property barriers (Prov. 23:10-11). The account of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 indicates that the right to property includes the freedom to dispose of one's property as one sees fit, without compulsion from other people.

Of course this right to property is relative to claims made by other people. God is the ultimate owner of all there is and hence we are all responsible to Him for how we use the property he has bestowed upon us and we will be held accountable to Him on the last day for how well we executed our duty as stewards. Nevertheless, with regards to our social interaction with other humans, God has ordained that each of us should be secure in our property.

The implications for economic policy point us toward a free market. If each person is secure in his property, this prohibits theft by individuals. It also, importantly prohibits theft by rulers. God did not say, after all, "Thou shalt not steal, unless a majority in Congress and the President say so. And if the right to property includes that of disposing of one's property as he desires, provided he does not violate anyone else's right to do the same, this implies that state interference in voluntary exchange is wrong as well. Therefore, as Christians we are not free to advocate for increased regulation of business, minimum wages, monetary inflation, fiscal stimulus, confiscatory taxation, or subsidies as means to achieve our desired ends.

It also means we have our work cut out for us. When we identify social ills to which Scripture calls us to minister, we need to do the hard work of finding ethical means for doing so. Violating property rights with good intentions will not cut the ethical mustard.

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