No one ever likes being misunderstood. The Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (IFWE) believes that’s happened to us in the latest issue of Christianity Today.
In a September 2014 article, author Kevin Brown, an assistant professor at the Howard Dayton School of Business at Asbury University, writes about what he sees as the negative consequences of capitalism. (NOTE – article may only be available to subscribers of Christianity Today).
Brown quotes from IFWE’s three and a half minute video “I, Smartphone,” released in 2012. The video depicts the seemingly miraculous aspect of the free market exchange process which brings together the gifts and resources of the people and nations around the world to produce something as advanced as the smartphone.
After the discussion of our video, Brown points out some of the greed, corruption and horrific abuses to innocent people that have surrounded some of the illegal mining and smuggling of certain minerals from the Congo by militias. These minerals are required for smartphones.
In the way he’s written the article, it appears that IFWE is among those who overlook these abuses in an effort to “deify” the market system. This could not be farther from the truth.
Below is our letter to the editor, written by IFWE executive director Hugh Whelchel. Also, read Hugh’s blog on the matter here.
September 10, 2014
Kevin Brown has written an article, “Capitalism and the Common Good” (September 2014 issue), that is in many ways admirable. He writes that markets and free trade enable “progress and prosperity far beyond what anyone even a century ago could have imagined.” He also argues that, though not perfect, markets are the “best available option in an imperfect world.” He concludes that we need not “deify or demonize” markets. At the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (IFWE), we would agree with all of these things.
However, some who read the article could easily come away with the impression that IFWE has a very simplistic (and unbiblical) view of the market. It reads as if we are among those who “deify” the market system and overlook horrific abuses that occur to people living under corrupt governments in countries devoid of a sound rule of law and strong property rights. This could not be farther from the truth.
At IFWE, we aim to analyze these issues first and foremost through the lens of Scripture. Here is what we believe about the market:
- The market process is a common grace gift from God designed to bring flourishing to his creation. It helps us ration scarce resources in a fallen world. It is the best known way to lift entire nations and peoples out of extreme poverty.
- The market process takes place in community where people motivated by self-interest, use their gifts to serve others. The markets provide incentives for the service of others instead of theft and anarchy.
- The market does not exist outside of the people within it. As a system, it is not intrinsically good or evil.
- The market process does not occur in a vacuum. It requires the rule of law and sound property rights, both biblical principles. The stronger these principles are the more effective the process becomes and the more flourishing is produced.
- As Christians, it is our responsibility to be salt and light in the market, bringing God’s redemptive moral authority to everything we do.
IFWE’s goal is to provide a biblical perspective on work and economics that not only shows our place in creation but acknowledges the fact that the Fall permeates reality to the deepest level. Genesis 3:17 says “cursed is the ground,” indicating that sin extends to all areas of life: personal, corporate, and cosmic. Thus the whole creation will participate in redemption along with the children of God (Romans 8:19-25; Acts 3:21). Redemption will extend to all the areas the Fall has affected.
We agree with Brown that externalities can occur, and that human interaction is subject to unintended consequences. Even more than that, we say that everyone who participates in the market is fallen and capable of horrible evil. As Christians, what do we want for people who live in places like the Congo, one of the poorest and most oppressed places on the planet? We want them to thrive, to wake up each morning and be able to provide for themselves and their families, and to unleash their God-given gifts on the world.
There are many factors that make it difficult, if not impossible, to do this: a lack of the rule of law, oppressive and corrupt government, and the absence of property rights. These things empower greedy people. It is precisely the lack of markets, the lack of law, and the absence of property rights that fuel this corruption and injustice.
We recommend IFWE’s book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Response to Poverty (Westbow Press, 2014) on the role of markets in alleviating poverty. In addition, our next book due out in 2015 will bring together a collection of essays by theologians and economists on a Christian critique of capitalism and free trade. We hope to continue to serve as a resource to Christianity Today and its readers in the future.
Institute for Faith, Work & Economics