Economics 101 & Public Square

Rethinking Markets and Power from a Christian Perspective

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A common criticism of free markets and market-based economies is that they make the rich richer at the expense of everyone else—especially the poorest among us.

Is this true? If it is, as Christians, what should we do about it?

The Bible and Confusion about Wealth

The Bible is clear that we as Christians are called to care for the poor and needy.

Deuteronomy 15:11  tells us:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.

The Bible is also clear that it is sinful to pursue wealth and riches above Christ. While being wealthy is not itself a sin, wealthy Christians bear great responsibility. Because they have a greater ability to do so, the wealthy are to care for those around them. They, like all of us, must never let the love of money enter and take over their hearts.

As Hugh Whelchel explains, however, creating wealth and being wealthy is not condemned in scripture:

The Bible claims that the creation of wealth is both a godly gift and a command. It also tells us that wealth should be shared, but it cannot be shared if it is not created. Unfortunately, the biblical role of wealth creation is misunderstood in many churches today.

This video from our friends at Business as Mission Global and Lausanne Movement depicts the confusion that some Christians have about wealth. It’s part of a new series based on the “Wealth Creation Manifesto” (available here in 13 other languages.)

Does Wealth Make People Powerful?

But what about wealth and power? Do markets give the wealthy power over the powerless? Do they provide a place for the rich to oppress the poor? Do markets exploit and keep the poor in poverty?  James 5:1-6 provides insight here:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

It is important to really understand what the text is saying. Here, the rich have acted in sinful and wicked ways. They have not paid the workers for work completed. This is theft. They “condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” This is injustice.

Not paying people earned wages based on completed labor is wrong and sinful. So is harming and keeping down those who have done nothing against you. The question is this: Are markets the cause of this problem? Are markets oppressive because they reward people through profit? Does one man becoming rich keep a poor man in bondage?

Economics can help us here.

Money does not imply that you have great power. Money gives you opportunity, choice, and often the ability to make even more money. But is that power?

Merriam-Webster defines power as: “the ability to act or produce an effect.” Not coincidently, the second definition listed is “legal or official authority, capacity or right.”

The first definition applies to everyone. Each one of us has the ability to act or produce. That is how God created us. Did you eat breakfast, write a letter, start a business, or make a pot of coffee? You exercised power to accomplish all of those things.

The difference is in the degree to which we are capable of producing our desired results. Even the rich and brilliant Steve Jobs didn’t have the power to create the smartphone from start to finish. He needed a lot of help, as our “I, Smartphone” video demonstrates.

The market rewards innovation through profits, which can make people wealthy. It doesn’t, however, give wealthy people much power. Here’s why:

  • The super-wealthy can’t force us to buy their products.
  • They can’t force people to work for free.
  • They can’t charge whatever price they want.

Remember the second listed definition of power: “legal or official authority, capacity or right.” Legal and official authority is where people gain much power and can use that power to protect and benefit themselves at the expense of others. Markets are incapable of doing this.

In a market setting, for Bill Gates to become wealthy, he had to provide a good or service that people actually like! His product had to make their lives easier, better, more efficient, more comfortable, or happier. We reward those people by purchasing the products they create. If we don’t purchase their products, they don’t gain wealth.

It’s when society allows entrepreneurs to gain special privileges through the state—what we call cronyismthat the wealthy truly have an opportunity to oppress the least among us. This is a topic we’ve written extensively about on this blog, and I encourage you to explore it further and understand the difference between honest wealth creation and cronyism.

We’ve also explored the topic of whether free markets exploit the poor in our recent book, Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism, and I encourage you to check that out as well. The topic of wealth and power is an important subject for Christians to study and one that is difficult to cover adequately in one blog post! It’s our hope at IFWE that our blogs pique your interest to learn more.

Editor’s note: We are currently offering 15% off Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism in the IFWE bookstore. Use code: CTC15.

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