Another plug for “Money, Greed, and God”

One thing the history of the twentieth century has shown is that ideas matter. REALLY matter! Life-and-death kind of matter. And economic ideas really matter that way too. The societal and global consequences of economic ideas are enormous. They affect literally billions of people. So Christians ought not be ignorant nor agnostic when it comes to economic ideas. They need to see economic ideas as highly relevant to having a biblical worldview. We all live in God’s universe, so when we do not have a biblical worldview, we have an unreal, false view of reality. And unreal, false worldviews are always destructive.


Here’s an important question Christians need a culturally-informed, biblically-educated answer to: Is capitalism a biblical worldview? Or is socialism? Or is neither? Is social justice better realized through a capitalist economy and society, or is it better realized more through a socialist economy? Is social justice better served by more government control of business and the economy, or less? Will more government control of a nation’s economy bring greater social justice, or less? Your answer to these questions is, as I stated above, enormously consequential. It really matters!

Along these lines, specifically related to the principles and social policies of capitalism versus socialism, at the recommendation of Nathan Tiemeyer, and then later Keith Simon, I decided to read the book, “Money, Greed, and God,” by Jay W. Richards (see Nathan’s previous blog post on this book here). This is one of those books where every paragraph was interesting to me. And all I kept thinking while reading it was, “I wish every person at The Crossing would read this book!” (For a similar book that brought a similar reaction recently, read my previous blog post here.)

So I too want to join voices with Nathan and Keith to recommend it to you as well. That’s why I’m blogging on this now even though Nathan has already done so. In my opinion, it is a must read for all Christians at such a very important time in our nation and culture. Because what Christians believe about this issue really matters.

If you are at all interested in the issues of economic policy and social justice, you must read this book. And in particular, I beg you to please read this book before you start confusing the current and trendy brands of socialism with Christian principles (or before you confuse others with your own confusion). I believe it will spare you a lot of regrets later. And perhaps if enough people read it, it will also spare our nation and world a lot of unnecessary economic depletion and pain. Ideas have consequences. Especially economic ones.

In the Conclusion of the book, the author provides a nice summary of the main principles of his argument that I think might be helpful to list here. These are all principles he’s shown in the book to be the best policies, both biblically and economically, to advance the greatest amount of social justice and human flourishing:

The Top Ten Ways to Alleviate Poverty; or, Creating Wealth in Ten Tough Steps

These ingredients, or some subset of them, constitute the only known pathway to the large-scale creation of wealth. If we really want to alleviate poverty, we should focus on these ingredients, and not well-meaning plans that fail or do more harm than good.

1. Establish and maintain the rule of law.

2. Focus the jurisdiction of government on maintaining the rule of law, and limit its jurisdiction over the economy and the institutions of civil society.

3. Implement a formal property system with consistent and accessible means for securing a clear title to property one owns.

4. Encourage economic freedom: Allow people to trade goods and services unencumbered by tariffs, subsidies, price controls, undue regulation, and restrictive immigration policies.

5. Encourage stable families and other important private institutions that mediate between the individual and the state.

6. Encourage belief in the truth that the universe is purposeful and makes sense.

7. Encourage the right cultural mores—orientation to the future and the belief that progress but not utopia is possible in this life; willingness to save and delay gratification; willingness to risk, to respect the rights and property of others, to be diligent, to be thrifty.

8. Instill a proper understanding of the nature of wealth and poverty—that wealth is created, that free trade is win-win, that risk is essential to enterprise, that trade-offs are unavoidable, that the success of others need not come at your expense, and that you can pursue legitimate self-interest and the common good at the same time.

9. Focus on your competitive advantage rather than protecting what used to be your competitive advantage.

10. Work hard.
In addition to the above, I’d also like to share a few brief paragraphs in Money, Greed, and God from a favorite section arguing against the common and current assumption among Christians that an inequality of wealth creates poverty and is therefore a social injustice. I share these snippets simply to show the interesting and challenging nature of this book, and the manner in which it attacks commonly held economic assumptions.

[Citing a quote from an article] “The three richest people in the world control more wealth than all 600 million people living in the world’s poorest countries.”

We already know that these 600 million suffer absolute poverty. But this statistic isn’t about that; it’s comparing three rich guys who “control” as much wealth as the 600 million poorest people. In 2007, Americans Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and Mexican telecom mogul Carlos Slim Helu had more money than the poorest 10 percent of the world’s population. This is the mother of all gaps between rich and poor. If it upsets you, then it’s done its job. It’s designed to make you react, to feel morally indignant—but not to think.

Are we supposed to think that if Bill Gates weren’t so rich, the 600 million wouldn’t be so poor? Or worse: are we to suspect that Gates somehow extracted that wealth from the 600 million poorest people on the planet? When we hear that the gap between rich and poor has grown, for instance, we’re supposed to think that means that the rich getting richer makes the poor get poorer. But that follows only if the total amount of wealth is static.

The verb betrays the bias. Why does it say the three rich guys “control” wealth? Why doesn’t it say they “own” or “earned” or “have created” wealth? Let’s try it: “The three richest people in the world have created more wealth than all 600 million people living in the world’s poorest countries.” That certainly sounds different, doesn’t it? Put this way, the statistic no longer automatically triggers moral indignation. But that’s how it should be. We shouldn’t be troubled about the wealth Gates, Buffett, and Helu have created. We should be troubled that for some reason, 600 million people have individually owned, earned, and created so little economic wealth.

Wealth isn’t the problem. Poverty is. To repeat: Even if the gap between rich and poor grows over time, it doesn’t mean that the poor are getting poorer, because the total amount of wealth may have gone up. The relevant issue is whether the lot of the poor improves over time, not how close they are to the richest member of their society.

From 1947 to 2005, the average income of the richest 20 percent of the U.S. population went up almost every year, from $8,072 in 1947 to $184,500 in 2005 (adjusted for inflation). But this didn’t come at the expense of the poor. On the contrary, the real incomes of the poorest 20 percent also went up almost every year, from $1,584 in 1947 to $25,616 in 2005. And all this happened over a period in which the number of American families doubled, from about 37 million in 1947 to over 77 million in 2005. In other words, the total amount of wealth went up.

The rich didn’t get richer by making the poor poorer. And this is to say nothing of the fact that many families climbed up the income ladder over time. The poorest 20 percent of the population is not always made up of the same people. Upward mobility is common.

The same thing is true internationally. To see this visually, go to the illuminating if badly named Web site Gapminder (www.gapminder.org). Gapminder converts boring, opaque statistics into intuitive animations. It allows you to see trends. One such animation uses an x/y plot to show the trends in life expectancy and per capita income from about 1974 to 2005. If you can get on the Internet, before you read further go to www.gapminder.org and click on “Gap Minder World, 2006.” Then you can follow along. Words alone don’t do justice to the reality.

In short, there’s no international trend of the rich getting richer by making the poor poorer. In fact, the percentage of people living in absolute poverty has dropped since 1970. In 1970, the world population was 3.7 billion, and 38 percent (1.4 billion) lived below the absolute poverty line (less than one dollar a day). By 1990, with a world population of 5.3 billion, those languishing in absolute poverty dropped to 26 percent (still about 1.4 billion). In fact, despite puddleglummish reports to the contrary, worldwide, statistics on infant mortality, life expectancy, and poverty have all improved dramatically in the last few decades.

Comparing countries, there is one unmistakable trend: countries with the rule of law and economic freedom prosper over time. Countries without these virtues do not.

[Ron] Sider’s remedy for preventing a concentration of power among citizens is to pit the interests of some citizens against others, and to concentrate more power in the state. But the federal government’s budget is much larger than the net worth of even the wealthiest Americans, and its power far more vast. So if we’re concerned about concentrated power, why on earth would we want to hand more power over to the most powerful entity in human history, the U.S. government? That doesn’t make any sense. The cure is worse than the disease. Policies like those Sider recommends led Scottish statesman Alexander Fraser Tyler (1742–1813) to conclude that “a democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government.” Instead, he argued: It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. How long can a society exist once a majority discovers it can vote to have the state confiscate the wealth of a minority and give it to them? I don’t know. Perhaps over time this is unavoidable; but it’s beyond me how a Christian ethicist can advocate the policy outright.

Bill Gates told the Harvard graduating class of 2007 that economic inequality was a moral outrage and that “reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.” Jim Wallis has complained that the “great crisis of American democracy today is the division of wealth.” Nonsense. If that were true, I would be right to seethe in anger because I have less than Bill Gates. That’s envy, not justice. Hand wringing about gaps and inequality does little more than encourage perverse schemes like those favored by Wallis and Sider, where the state attempts to play the role of unerring distributor of wealth. No such government institution exists, and wherever it has taken up the task with great zeal, it has not eliminated poverty but spread it like a virus.

In the kingdom of God, there will still be inequality, but there won’t be poverty. …The problem isn’t that some people are rich and some are poor, any more than the problem of disease is that some people are healthy. The problem is quite simply that some are poor. If we want to bask in the wasteful heat of self-righteous moral indignation, then by all means, let’s keep blathering on about income gaps. But if we really want to help the poor, we need to get our eyes off decoys and focus on the real problem—poverty—and its only known solution: creating wealth.

We will have some hardback copies of this book available at our bookstore this Sunday. But paperback copies will not arrive until May 14th (It is not out in paperback until then). Of course, if you have a Kindle (or an iPad with the Kindle app), you can immediately download an e-book copy here.

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