At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

How Creating Value Fulfills the Cultural Mandate

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Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” It seems to be true. Consider how humans have approached crises throughout history:

  • In the fifteenth century, Niccolo Machiavelli is quoted as saying, “Never waste the opportunities afforded by a good crisis.”
  • In 2009, Rahm Emmanuel, then the President’s Chief-of-Staff, took a lot of heat for saying, “Never waste a crisis. It can be turned into joyful transformation.”

I’m not sure how we define a “good” crisis. It seems that crisis implies that bad things are happening, some of which could be out of our own control.

It seems like we hear a lot in the public square that would encourage us to believe that we can celebrate destructive events like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. As I pointed out in a recent post, some news outlets celebrate these catastrophes, claiming they produce opportunities for growth and job creation. These tragedies, some say, provide a chance to create value.

There is value provided in these rebuilding efforts. The work done in rebuilding helps meet the needs of crisis victims, and serves them in their time of tragedy. However, those who trumpet “never letting a good crisis go to waste” often miss that significant value has been lost in the midst of whatever crisis has taken place.

Unless we understand how value is created, we can make serious mistakes about how we should feel about rebuilding after a crisis, and about what we can do to generate value in the world.

The Cultural Mandate helps us to better understand how to live out our calling through the power of stewardship. We are created to take dominion, to work, to thrive, and to generate even more than what we are given.

As Christians, we are called to use our creativity, purpose, and freedom to not only improve our lot in life, but to add to the flourishing of others. How do we create value for others? What does it mean to serve our neighbors, our communities, and our world?

The answer lies in principle #9 in our series on the biblical foundations of economic principles, a principle outlined by the authors of Common Sense Economics:

Principle #9: Production of goods and services people value, not just jobs, provides the source of high living standards.

It’s easy to think that we can generate prosperity and help people better provide for their families if we just create jobs. Or that events like Superstorm Sandy provide us with an opportunity to generate jobs and new growth for cities.

But where do those jobs come from? How are jobs created, and how do we know we are serving one another by creating them?

We are better off today than we were two hundred years ago. This is because we have found ways, through markets, to provide each other with many more goods and services that we all value.

For example, prior to the invention of electricity, ice, which was essential to food storage, had to be purchased from a clipper ship or train. Then, you had to find a way to haul it home without it melting along the way. And then you had to store it for the longest period possible so it could preserve your food.

I have a three-year old son who takes great delight in getting ice from the ice machine in our refrigerator, and then throwing it at the dog. He will never have to worry about how to get and keep ice. In fact, he doesn’t even need ice to preserve his food. Refrigerators and freezers do that for him.

This was unthinkable one hundred years ago. Did you know that there was an ice famine in the U.S. in both 1870 and 1880?

We will likely never face another massive ice famine because we have increased our productivity by effectively harnessing technology and human capital to serve others. We get the goods and services we value because people use their God-given talents to live out the Cultural Mandate through their work. Human innovation and ingenuity over many years have made it the case that I get to be an ignorant beneficiary of ice production.

When crises strike, as they often do, we should first pray for the victims because we realize their lives and resources were destroyed or lost in the event. The rebuilding that takes place requires that we transfer resources that were already destined for other productive activities that can no longer be undertaken.

Jobs only benefit us and others when they create value. Living out the Cultural Mandate as Christians requires us to find productive ways to serve others.

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