Economics 101

How Should Christians Think about Income?

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As Christians living in the modern western world, it is easy to be concerned and confused about living in such affluence. This is especially easy when there are many people living on so little. How do we reconcile that for those of us born in the United States in the 20th century?

We live in the richest country in the richest time the human race has ever known. Most of human history has been a struggle to survive. If you were to look at a chart of world productivity levels over the last 2,000 years, it looks like a hockey stick: until this century, most of humanity has lived at subsistence levels and died at young ages of diseases that are now largely eradicated.

Atlantic Monthly senior editor Derek Thompson illustrates this historical reality in his recent piece on the economic history of the world. He writes,

The industrial revolution didn’t happen everywhere at the same time, but it did have the same effect everywhere: massively rising [productivity] per person.

Rather than being frustrated that we aren’t offered WiFi on every flight we take, isn’t it unbelievable that we get WiFi anywhere? Or that we can be hurled through the sky in a chair on a plane and safely arrive at our destination?

Economic growth in the West over the past two hundred years makes this possible. But how do we get this economic growth? How should we feel about the quest for income, which provides us with material comforts like cell phones, refrigeration, and computer technology?

These two questions are inseparable, particularly for Christians. It is important to understand how the West has been able to generate such massive levels of personal wealth if we are to appropriately determine how we feel about it.

This leads us to principle #7 from Common Sense Economics: People earn income by helping others. This is the latest entry in our series on the Biblical Foundations of Economic Principles.

Income & Diversity

We can help each other because of our differences. This is the idea behind comparative advantage. If we were all the same, we couldn’t help each other much at all. We would all have the same shortcomings and the same successes.

Distinctiveness is part of our God-given design. Each one of us is born with a different bundle of skills, talents, propensities and drives. We are created in the image of God, and that implies uniqueness.

I Corinthians 12:4-11 recognizes this diversity when it references our unique spiritual gifts:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.  There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

We are created to offer something specific and distinct that no one else can do exactly the way we can.  This is how we can help one another, and one of the biggest ways we do this is through our work.

Income & Service to Others

The authors of Common Sense Economics connect our inherent uniqueness and diversity with income, a connection I also make in my special report on income inequality. They write,

People differ in many ways – in their productive abilities, their preferences, their opportunities, their specialized skills, their willingness to take risks…These differences influence people’s incomes because they affect the value of the goods and services that individuals are able or willing to provide to others.

Markets provide an opportunity for us to lower the costs of living in all aspects, but we can only earn an income if we provide others with the things that they need.  Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, earned a large income because he had a vision for a store that offered the lowest prices on the market.

Walmart’s current mission statement is this: “We save people money so they can live better.” Sam Walton had a mission, and he earned an income because he was successful in offering people lower prices.

Reflecting on this economic reality, the authors of Common Sense Economics explain that,

People who earn large incomes do so because they provide others with lots of things that they value. If these individuals did not provide valuable goods or services, consumers would not pay them so generously.

Looking to our own interest, our own income, means we must first look to the interests of others. This reminds me of Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2:4:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the the interest of others.

Serving others is not only a biblical command – it’s also an example that Christ modeled for us as his followers.

Income & the Developing World

How much better would the developing world be today if it was characterized by a society where entrepreneurs could compete to offer everyone the lowest possible prices? Where they could compete to serve people? The developing world does not have an institutional environment that supports earning incomes through serving others. Many are plagued with corrupt governments and abject poverty, forcing them to focus on mere survival.

This is the only way to generate economic growth. Rather than being a zero-sum game, material wealth earned through market competition is only possible when people serve their fellow man.

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