Economics 101

The Role of Profit in Responding to COVID-19

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Why is there a new wave of COVID-19 growing across Europe? Here in the United States, we finally got some good news; we have more vaccines than people who want to take them. We’ve also watched in horror at the conditions in some of the poorer countries worldwide as COVID-19 continues to rage through their populations. It is clear they did not have the resources to invest in developing a vaccine. But why is there a COVID-19 vaccine shortage in the European Union?

EU officials blame it on the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, and they are suing the company for over-promising and under-delivering. The company committed to providing 260 million doses to the EU by the middle of 2021. The reality is they will be fortunate to see 100 million doses on the Continent by the end of June.

The root of this problem rests in a misunderstanding of what “self-interest” means—and it’s a misunderstanding that has serious implications for our biblical understanding of work as well.

The Problem of Rejecting Profit

While it’s always easy to blame big business for the problem, the real blame, as Matthew Lesh in a recent WSJ article explains, should fall on AstraZeneca’s partners at Oxford University.

…the company’s partners at Oxford University, out of misguided and ultimately deadly idealism, insisted nobody should profit from these vaccines. Only a year ago, the vaccine, developed first by Oxford researchers, was a global front-runner. … But it has been beset by embarrassing blunders, poor communication, chaotic trials, major manufacturing hiccups, and, more recently, a tiny number of blood-clot incidents. (Emphasis added)

As Lesh further explains, many of the problems can be traced back to the Oxford scientists’ “trendy denunciations of profit.” The researchers originally planned to bypass “Big Pharma” altogether. They were going to produce the vaccine themselves and give the license for production to any interested party at no cost. But the university quickly recognized that the small staff, without any commercial experience, was not up to manufacturing billions of doses of the vaccine, much less the logistics of distributing it globally. After talking to several manufacturers, AstraZeneca agreed to produce the vaccine at cost not only during the pandemic but in perpetuity for low- and middle-income countries. Lesh concludes:

It has become fashionable to reject the pursuit by corporations of profit in favor of serving “stakeholders” and pursuing altruistic goals. The Oxford vaccine debacle reveals how this approach goes terribly awry. Profit, as Adam Smith explained, channels human self-interest into serving others. It gives firms an incentive to provide people what they want. Without [profit], or when other goals take priority, businesses inevitably fail to deliver for their customers, employees and society.

Our own self-interest to improve our situations is the way God made us. Adam Smith’s famous quote from The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations illustrates this idea: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” 

Understanding that Self-Interest is Not Greed

There is a general assumption in our culture and the Christian church that wealth creation is driven by greed and self-interest. Over the last 30 years, the media has reinforced this stereotype in scenes like the one from the 1987 movie Wall Street, where Gordon Gekko proclaims that “…greed—for the lack of a better word—is good.” 

Oliver Stone’s film sent a message that the free-market system promotes greed and gives unscrupulous business people, like Gekko, a vehicle to line their pockets at the expense of others. We have made “greed” and “self-interest” synonyms, but they are not.

The reality is that we are all susceptible to greed, rich and poor alike. Greed arises from our fallen nature. This fallen nature impels us to satisfy our desires with the least possible expenditure of effort, which often requires our satisfaction at the expense of others. Greed is self-interest taken to an evil end.

There is an obvious difference between greed and self-interest. Self-interest is the willingness to do something of value for others to secure the things that benefit oneself. In other words, our self-interest—or pursuing and using our gifts, talents, and resources—informs how we will be helpful to others. 

Yet today, many associate the word “self-interest” with selfishness. Dictionary.com defines self-interest as “Regard for one’s interest or advantage, especially with disregard for others.” That second clause is problematic. “With disregard for others” was not how Smith understood the term “self-interest,” nor is it true to the biblical definition. 

A Biblical Understanding of Self-Interest

Smith’s position, and the Bible’s, is that you serve your self-interest when you serve the self-interest of others. The idea of wanton pursuit of unrestrained desires would have been objectionable to Smith and should be to us as well. 

The Bible does not condemn the pursuit of legitimate self-interest. Philippians 2:4 (ESV) makes this very clear when the Apostle Paul says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.” 

Echoing Paul’s admonition, Scott Rae, a professor of Christian ethics, writes in Beyond Integrity that self-interest is not unbiblical, but must be balanced by love for others: “[T]here is a place for legitimate self-interest, to which the Bible periodically appeals, only it must be balanced by a compassionate concern for the interest of others.”

So, while the Bible cautions that self-interest can devolve into the sin of selfishness and greed, biblical self-interest enables us to become well-functioning, contributing members of God’s community. This is the way God made us, and it is essential for us to understand self-interest in the context of the work of wealth creation. 

The biblical idea of self-interest, rightly understood, allows us to work creatively, using all our God-given gifts in a way that serves our own needs while serving the needs of others. This is at the heart of a biblical understanding of work.

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