Public Square & Theology 101

Government or Markets—What’s the Answer in a Fallen World?

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I saw a great bumper sticker on my way to work that read:

Liberals confuse the state with charity. Conservatives confuse the state with security.

There is some truth to both of these statements. Regardless of our political positions, we can always be tempted to place our hope in something other than Jesus Christ. Yet in a fallen world, we know that we still need institutions and parameters to guide us and redirect our inherently sinful behavior for good.

Scripture on Human Nature

Scripture is quite clear regarding our sinful nature. We were created in abundance and light, but we chose darkness instead. It is our nature to want to sin. Our only hope is in the restoration provided by Christ Jesus.

1 John 1:7-9 tells us,

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

As Christians, we want to walk in the light because we know and experience the redemptive power of Christ. Walking in the light also gives non-Christians a glimpse of God’s kingdom—the way things could be, and the way things ultimately will be when Christ returns. Every Easter, we celebrate Christ’s work on the cross on our behalf. Hugh Whelchel explains how this redemption extends to all creation:

  • The objective of God’s work in redemption is to free people to be what they were created to be
  • Redemption is deliverance of the physical world
  • Redemption restores the life-giving potential of all aspects of the created order, making a degree of flourishing possible in this age

We are to be shimmering lights that push back the darkness. How amazing that God gives us the power to bring about this hope!

The Founders on Human Nature

Even America’s founders understood that this redemption stoy was still a work in progress. Until Christ’s return, a society made up of fallen human beings had a desperate need for guiding parameters to direct their inherently sinful nature. As James Madison pointed out in The Federalist Papers:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

Madison and the other founders believed men required a sound institutional setting that would promote flourishing and prevent tyranny. His quote gets at the heart of the problem of sin. As fallen people governing other fallen people, we are limited in our ability to protect ourselves from our sinful nature. It’s the proverbial fox guarding the hen house.

In trying to solve this problem in the modern world, we tend to fall into two camps:

  • Those who view the market as their savior
  • Those who view the state as their savior

Neither is correct.

How Institutions Interact with Human Nature

Markets and governments are both necessary but insufficient components of life in a fallen world. There is only one savior: Jesus. But our journey on this earth still matters, and we still need institutions to help guide our behavior and facilitate our efforts to bring about flourishing. How might markets and government help us in this way?

Markets effectively guide our behavior by prompting us to do several beneficial things:

  • They harness our self-interested behavior for the common good
  • They coordinate the most productive use of our scarce resources through prices
  • They lift the poor out of poverty by providing opportunities for them to use their gifts in the service of others

We need other institutions to help define the rules of the game. Constrained government is one of these institutions. Often, the government that governs best is one that limits its involvement in how resources are used in producing and creating new things.

Art Lindsley writes in Free Indeed: Living in Light of the Biblical View of Freedom that creativity is inherent to who we are as image-bearers of God and that a constrained or limited government is essential for that expression:

Creativity (rulership, dominion) is the central calling of humans from the beginning of creation. Although the Fall makes our tasks more difficult, working by the sweat of our brows through thorns and thistles (Gen. 3:17-19), this central call to creativity is not canceled…We need to be free to develop new creative products, new businesses, new forms of expression. Where there is heavy-handed government, this creativity wanes.

But neither government nor markets alone are sufficient for a flourishing society. Neither can save us. Both of these institutions are utilized by fallen human beings, so neither can be perfect. Both are limited in what they can accomplish.

Whether we consider ourselves liberal or conservative (or neither), as Christians, we should contemplate how markets and other institutions can bring about higher levels of flourishing, despite their limitations and our own fallen human nature. Understanding our own limitations, we must learn to use the gifts we are given to serve others, always pointing to our true savior.

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