I ran across a blog post by John Armstrong (Acton Institute blog) this week dealing with economics, Christianity, and social justice. My interest was peaked. I was especially intrigued by a quote directed towards young people who care about economic justice that states, “Until you have done this serious work in economic thinking Jim Wallis will appear brilliant and consistently Christian in most of his arguments. I believe you will soon discover the opposite to be the case if you dig into these issues that I have mentioned.” The author suggested that his own economic journey had been helped along Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek’s classic, The Road to Serfdom. I have a couple of comments about this post.
First, Jim Wallis does not claim to be an economist and makes no claim (at least that I’m aware of) to any particular economic school of thought. He does make clear, on a regular basis, that a society has a responsibility to care for each of God’s children – that includes making sure children do not go hungry and ensuring that healthcare is not a luxury of the privileged few. Take from that whatever economic theory you wish, but to me that is good theology.
Second, this post intrigued me because my first economics book was Road to Serfdom and I understand well laissez-fair economic liberalism. Hayek, Freidman and others of their ilk believe that markets are amoral and are best guided by an invisible hand and without government involvement. The basic premise is this, people will pursue their own self-interest and by doing so, if the government stays out of the way, great economic prosperity will come. When asked about the poor – they would claim that everyone, including the poor, benefits from a robust economy (a compassionate libertarian would say charity should fill in the gap).
There is truth to the laissez-fair economic theory. People do prosper, at least for a time, when the government removes itself and allows the market forces to operate. Unfortunately, the market is not “intrinsically good” as the Armstrong says in his post. The market rewards greed and individualism and thrives on self-interest. These characteristics do not fit with the biblical view of justice that we find in scripture or with the call of Christ upon our lives.
We can argue about differing schools of economic thought, Keynesian or laissez-fair economic liberalism, Freidman or Galbraith, but whatever the chosen school of economic theory – we must be unified in our commitment to care for the needs of all God’s children’s. The market will not make sure that every child has healthcare, the market will not put an end to child labor, and the market will not make housing affordable for all. While the charity is useful and I applaud the market’s ability to bring economic prosperity to formerly poor countries, we must realize that this cannot negate our need as a society and especially as Christians to work toward justice for all.