“Economics is a discipline that is merely about the things of this world!”
So goes a common fallacy one hears occasionally from Christians who are suspicious of the notion of an economic science that can be compatible with Christian doctrine. If that were true, studying economics would be perhaps useless at best and downright destructive at worst.
In fact, however, a proper understanding of economics is crucial for our obeying and fulfilling the cultural mandate given to us by God in the first two chapters of Genesis.
The Connection Between Economics & the Cultural Mandate
Christians must bring thoughts about the world and their place in it captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). 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 or cultural 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 (Genesis 1:28).
In Genesis 2:15, 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?
In the first place, multiplying the population and subduing the earth and exercising dominion over it require economic progress. It obviously requires survival and the opportunity for each person to develop his or her potential as well as the potential of the natural order.
Fulfilling God’s dominion mandate, however, also requires wise balance. It is possible to rashly draw too much from creation too quickly, make changes too abruptly, or forget to replenish the earth. We can, however, err on the other extreme by taking our cue from the environmentalist movement and acting as if nature is a museum and we are its curators. Exercising dominion and developing civilization does, in fact, require making concrete and lasting change to the created order. At the same time, we are not to be spoilers of creation.
Three Sources of Economic Progress
It is precisely at this point that economic theory becomes helpful. Sound economics tells us there are three sources necessary for economic progress:
- The division of labor opens the door to increased productivity by allowing people to specialize in activities where they are most efficient.
- Capital accumulation 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. Entrepreneurs are those who undertake production by directing the services of scarce resources toward their most highly valued uses. If they fail, they reap losses. If they succeed, they reap profits and gain even more capital to serve even more people.
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. 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. We find the Christian ethic of property derived from Scripture supporting general revelation manifest in economic law.
Not only, therefore, is economics not to be derided as “worldly,” but it provides a positive benefit in helping us fulfill the divine mandate to take wise and loving dominion over creation.
How does economics inform your own life and work?