Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sustainability and the Cultural Mandate

Anyone unsure that economic policy necessarily includes an ethical component need only to look at the issue of sustainable economic development.  The debate over sustainability is at least waist deep in ethics as evidenced by the lengthy essay "For Goodness Sake" by Ashley Thorne at the National Association of Scholars. Thorne reviews in detail the ethical imperatives heaped upon sustainable development that separate the virtuous, low-carbon footprint sheep from the villainous polluting goats. She documents the spectrum of ethical unction on this issue, culminating with comments manifesting extreme environmentalism. Thorne's final example quotes the text of a website designed to comfort women who have had abortions:
[B]ecause I chose to end my accidental pregnancies, there are two fewer human beings on the earth impacting the habitat of butterflies and other creatures.
This is a logical conclusion for one who fails to see human beings a creatures made in the image of God.

Of course Christians must bring thoughts about creation and man's place in it captive to Christ. We do this by meditating upon His general and special revelation. We find in Genesis 1 that the very first command given to man is what has been variously called the creation mandate, cultural mandate, or the dominion mandate. Even before sin and the fall of man, God told our first parents to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28). In Genesis 2 we find that the cultural mandate includes working and keeping the created order. Thus, as David Hegeman in Plowing in Hope explains,  the cultural mandate requires filling, working, keeping, and ruling creation.

We are called to do this, however, in our present, fallen and finite world faced with scarcity. Since our banishment from the Garden of Eden, man has faced a central cultural dilemma: how do we fulfill God’s creation mandate in a world of aggravated scarcity without either starving to death or killing one another. One of the primary goals of my book Foundations of Economics is to show how economics helps us to answer this question.

In the first place, multiplying the population and subduing and exercising dominion over the earth requires economic progress. It obviously requires survival and each person developing their potential and it requires the development of the potential of the natural order.

Fulfilling God’s dominion mandate, however, also requires wise balance. It is possible that we rashly try to draw too much from creation too quickly, make changes too abruptly, or do so without replenishing the earth. We can, however, err on the other extreme by taking our cue from the environmentalist movement and  and act as if nature is a museum and we are its curator. Exercising dominion and developing civilization requires making concrete and lasting change to the created order. At the same time we are not to be spoilers of creation.

Economic theory tells us there are three sources necessary for economic progress: the division of labor, capital accumulation, and entrepreneurship. The division of labor opens the door to increased productivity by allowing people to specialize at lines of production where they are most efficient. The use of capital goods contributes to economic progress by increasing the productivity of the user. In order for economic progress to continue over time, however, it is important not to waste capital that has already been accumulated, which is why entrepreneurship is the third major contributor to economic development.

It turns out that all three of these sources of economic development require private property. Without private property there can be no voluntary exchange nor division of labor, capitalists will be discouraged from saving and investment, and entrepreneurs will lack the incentive to engage in profitable production and they will be unable to calculate economic profit and loss because there would be no market prices to use in such a calculation.

Additionally, the institution of private property also helps prevent the destruction of the creation as it is developed. The strict liability that is a feature of private property constrains would be polluters, for example, because they will be held accountable if they aggress against the property of their neighbor through things like smoke emissions or chemical dumping.

In fact it is in societies with little or no private property that we find little prosperity but much waste of resources. Economic development that is truly sustainable can only occur in societies that adhere to the Christian ethic of private property. Once again we find the Christian ethic of property supporting general revelation manifest in economic law.

No comments:

Post a Comment