Public Square & Theology 101

Why the Poor Need More Than Free Markets

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Economic freedom may be our world’s most powerful poverty-relief system, but it’s not enough for human flourishing.

It is the reason why economists report 80 percent of the world’s abject poverty has been eradicated since 1970, thanks to open trade, entrepreneurship, and free enterprise. In China alone, small market reforms since 1978 have raised 600 million people out of extreme poverty.

Economic freedom also correlates with higher life expectancy, lower levels of child mortality, cleaner environments, higher incomes for the poor, better protected civil liberties, less child labor, less unemployment, and higher per capita income.

Christians are called to care for the poor (the Bible mentions the words poor and poverty 446 times!) and economists have shown us that economic freedom is a powerful way to make that happen.

But, if you’re someone like me who is convinced that economic freedom is responsible for lifting millions out of poverty, it’s easy to forget that freedom is not enough on its own.

It’s About Economic Freedom AND Human Flourishing

Economic freedom is only the beginning of a much larger vision of human flourishing.

Many theologians say flourishing is tied to the concept of shalom in the Old Testament.

Theologian Cornelius Plantinga describes shalom in his book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. He says,

We call it peace, but it means far more than mere peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. […] shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight — a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed…

Christians believe flourishing is God’s plan for his people. It allows us to more fully become everything God created us to be.

Economic freedom is only one component of human flourishing. We should think about it as a prerequisite, a necessary foundation to society that makes human flourishing possible.

We need to ask ourselves, once we have economic freedom, what do we do with it?

Economic freedom may be the number one force wiping out extreme poverty across the globe, but it can’t do the job alone.

In a free society, we also need a culture of creativity, a culture of voluntary generosity, and a culture of virtue in order for humanity to flourish.

A Culture of Creativity

In a culture of creativity, the entrepreneurial spirit thrives and business prospers.

Not only is human creativity a part of our Imago Dei, it is the source of wealth creation and therefore a necessary component for human flourishing.

Economic freedom encourages business by providing more opportunities for entrepreneurs, but it also requires a culture that views the human capacity to create wealth as a good thing.

This is an idea that has been lost in some Christian traditions. Some have forgotten that work in the business world can be just as important to God as missionary work, especially since God created everyone to do something different.

It’s the responsibility of the church to encourage a culture of creativity and promote human flourishing by affirming all vocations.

A Culture of Voluntary Generosity

Voluntary generosity is private charity through personal relationships.

For Christians, the church should be the leader in promoting a culture of voluntary generosity through establishing and partnering with charitable organizations that serve the poor in their local communities.

Voluntary generosity is fundamentally different than government welfare. Voluntary generosity is different because the giver is free to give on his or her own accord.

A culture of generosity is the Band-Aid when the market fails. It also requires good economic principles to know how to most effectively care for the poor since some traditional charity methods, like donation dumping, often hurt more than they help.

A Culture of Virtue

Poverty, as Dr. David Kotter points out in For the Least of These, has many causes. Some poverty is caused by sickness or disaster or injustice. Still more poverty is caused by moral failings like a bad work ethic, spending money in the wrong places, addiction, and so on.

For Christians, it is the role of the church to instill good values in society, values allowing us to become more productive individuals, better stewards of our God-given resources, and to live more fulfilling lives as God intended.

Human flourishing cannot be accomplished without economic freedom, but the conversation on poverty—especially for Christians—cannot end with economic freedom.

We cannot sit back and let the market do the work because we are the market. Freedom doesn’t require less of us, it requires more.

Just as Christians have to make the daily choice to walk with Christ, love their spouse, and love their coworkers, let’s not forget economic freedom presents us with that same daily choice to actively care for the poor.

Editor’s note: Read more about effective ways the church can care for the poor in Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.

Help empower Christians to use their vocation to promote human flourishing for God’s glory! Support IFWE today. 

On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was previously published on Feb. 23, 2015

  • James Keogh

    Great article Elise Daniel! I have an undergrad degree in Economics, social science option and am working on a Master in Public Administration. It is easy for me to explain how economic freedom pulls people out of poverty, but the first debate I hear back is how market failures exist in our capitalistic system. Your article has given me new insights in how to craft debates in a loving manner and proclaim truth to our brethren.

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