Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Christianity and Progressive Economics

The only time I ever read anything on the Huffington Post is when I'm looking for something else--this evening it was a video of a baby anteater that never loaded. (Don't ask me how I got started looking at that.)

Anyway, I happened to stumble upon an article by a certain Mike Lux, who gave a classic argument why (evangelical) Christians ought to be politically progressive. (Perhaps "classic" here is just a nice way of saying "cliche.") I have no doubt that progressives are interested in spreading these kinds of arguments these days. From what I understand of the 2008 election, Barack Obama won in part due to support from evangelicals tired of conservatism. Given that evangelicals continue to make up a major portion of the American population, politicians will most likely attempt to sway them if they can.

Now, if Lux wants to argue that Christians should not be conservative, I will not argue against him. The kind of conservatism he bashes in his article is a pretty sad excuse for a political philosophy, not to speak of its biblical merits. However, Lux wants to argue more, that a biblical Christian ought to support progressive economic policies, because that's what Jesus would do. This is what I have to disagree with.

Lux's argument for progressive politics makes two fundamental errors that Leftists make repeatedly. The first is viewing economics as inherently zero sum. The second is that he creates a false dichotomy between favoring the rich and favoring the poor.

Let's look at this first mistake. Right at the beginning of the article Lux says,
When you are in the political world, you have decisions to make every single day about who you will try to help and who you won't.... Who you tax, who you give a tax break to, what programs you cut or add to, who you tighten regulations on, and who you loosen them on, what kind of contractors are eligible for government work, which school districts and non-profit groups get federal money, etc: these political decisions are generally not win-win. Instead, they mean that one group of people win, and one group of people loses. It is the nature of politics, and you can't take the politics out of politics.

Right away Lux would have us view economics as zero sum. This means that if one person is to gain something, someone else must lose. I believe this is the fundamental reasoning behind all leftist economic policies, and I believe this reasoning is utterly false.

The entire basis for a free market economy is that it is positive sum. That is, net value can actually be added to the entire economy. How can this be? We can't create new materials out of nothing; we aren't God. But the thing about value is that it isn't a material substance. Value is about how important something is to people. It's not about how much stuff is actually there; it's about how meaningful it is to human beings.

Walter Williams has a clever way of saying that the market is zero sum. If I spend a dollar on a newspaper at a newsstand, then that newspaper must have been more valuable to me than my dollar, and the dollar must have been more valuable to the newsstand than the newspaper--otherwise, one of us is a fool. In other words, every trade is supposed to add value to the economy, because you shouldn't be forced to trade something for something else you think is less valuable.

Unfortunately, this principle tends to get completely forgotten when we think about economic policy. We think that the only way to make life better for some is to make life worse for others. This is false. In fact, the best way to allow people to make everyone's life better is to create a free market economy.

This means that the government shouldn't be making any decisions about "who you tighten regulations on, and who you loosen them on." Regulations should apply to everyone equally. In fact, the kind of decisions Lux is here describing, as if it is a necessary part of politics, is antithetical to political liberty. The fact that Lux completely misses this suggests that our culture is generally uneducated about the basics of free market economics.

Let me anticipate one remark: I do not say that there should be no government regulations. I am simply saying government regulations should be blind: they should not target any specific groups of people. Far too many people today believe this is an unachievable and even undesirable goal. This is to the detriment of our economy and our political life.

The second mistake that Lux makes is that he creates a false dichotomy between favoring the rich and favoring the poor. He says,
The most fundamental difference between progressives and conservatives is that question of which side you are on. Conservatives believe that the rich and powerful got that way because they deserve to be, that society owes its prosperity to the prosperous, and that government's job when they have to make choices is to side with those businesspeople who are doing well, because all good things trickle down from them. Progressives, on the other hand, believe it is the poor and those who are ill-treated who need the most help from their government, and that prosperity comes from all of us -- the worker as well as the employer, the consumer as well as the seller, the struggling entrepreneur trying to make it as well as the wealthy who already have.
Who could possibly deny that "prosperity comes from all of us"? Or that "those who are ill-treated ... need the most help from their government"? And who honestly believes that "society owes its prosperity to the prosperous"? Indeed, if conservatism and progressivism really are what Lux says they are, it's difficult to imagine how conservatives could win a single election.

The beauty of the free market is precisely that it allows prosperity to come from all of us. When given the freedom to do what we will with our own property, it turns out that we can do some surprising, innovative things. We can come up with solutions to complex problems that a centralized government never could. It's not possible to anticipate what free people will do when allowed to use their resources in the way they choose. Just imagine how shocked our Founding Fathers would be to see the kinds of innovation we've produced in the past century! But that is a testament to the power of freedom to bring out the unexpected greatness of human creativity.

Unfortunately, the policies of the Left provide incentives not to take risks and not to be productive. While I understand the desire to help the poor, I don't think the Left can claim to be more egalitarian than those of us who believe in the free market. If I believe that all people have the potential to provide some service to the economy and that we should give them incentives to do so, am I not siding with "the worker as well as the employer, the consumer as well as the seller, the struggling entrepreneur trying to make it as well as the wealthy who already have"? Indeed, I'd bet that most "struggling entrepreneurs" are more likely to vote for politicians who believe in the free market than those who believe in progressive economics!

A believer in the free market is in no way allied with the rich. Every great thinker who has argued for the free market (from Adam Smith to Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek) has lamented the way the rich and powerful are favored in society. The free market is actually about protecting the right of individuals not to be coerced by those who are more powerful. That includes, of course, the government itself!

Now let me be frank. This kind of choose-a-side mentality is what I find most absurd about the Left. In fact, I find it downright immoral. The most fundamental principle on which our nation is built is equal justice under law. This means, in no uncertain terms, that we simply must not take sides. The Bible does talk a lot about justice for the poor, but it does also mention this:
You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. (Exodus 23:2-4)
I cannot think of a better verse to describe the inherent danger that democracy brings with it: the tyranny of the majority. It is clear that the public, whether out of envy or a misguided sense of justice, is capable of wrongly denying a person of his freedom.

Lux does make one good point:
Conservative Christians' primary argument regarding Jesus and politics is that all he cared about was spiritual matters and an individual's relationship with God. As a result, they say, all those references from Jesus about helping the poor relate only to private charity, not to society as a whole. Their belief is that Jesus, and the New Testament in general, is focused on one thing and one thing only: how do people get into heaven.
I can accept that this is the wrong way to view Jesus. But the certainty with which Lux makes the following statement is all too typical of the Left:
Jesus may not have been primarily concerned with politics, but for what politics he did have, it is virtually impossible to argue that he was anything but a progressive thinker.
The only way you can buy into the statement is if you make the same two errors Lux does, which really amount to a fundamental misunderstanding of free market economics.

Personally, I think it's impossible to derive the "correct" system of economics directly from Scripture. But here's a story about Jesus that inspires my economic thinking:
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves." But Jesus said, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They said to him, "We have only five loaves here and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Mt. 14:13-21)
Progressives see this as supporting their own view, but I think it rather reinforces my point of view: God's economy is not zero sum.

I don't believe that God means for us to base our economic policies on fear, but rather on love. The ultimate economic value is the value of the human person. It is human beings, not things, that add value to the economy. It is not a matter of redistributing wealth, but a matter of valuing life and liberty. Life is unpredictable, and liberty embraces that. But these are the greatest gifts of God, and I would be ashamed if I didn't embrace them.

And that's why, as a Christian, I still disagree with "progressive" economics.

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