Economics 101 & Public Square

Why Should Economic Ideas Matter to Christians?

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Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

-Philippians 4:8

Ideas have consequences. John Piper articulates this when he tells the story of Victor Frankl who was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Dachau. Regarding ideas, Frankl wrote:

I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.

Christians understand that ideas matter, as this understanding applies to our faith and our lives within the body of Christ. That’s why the apostle Paul encouraged the church at Philippi to dwell on that which is pure and right – because what we think about has consequences in the real world.

Despite this truth, we often separate this part of our lives from the the public square. The ideas that you hear on the evening news cover important topics for Christians to be engaged in, including:

  • Which policies best care for the poor?
  • Are there limits on public debt?
  • Should we regulate businesses?
  • How do we improve healthcare?

How we answer these questions should be based on God’s truth, which includes the economic way of thinking. We may think that these issues don’t carry the same weight as our other spiritual issues.  However, questions such as these are spiritual issues. As Jay Richards writes in his book Money, Greed, and God,

Thinking as a Christian doesn’t mean we just slap some Bible verses on our economic views so that they sound biblical. It means taking the core truths of the faith and using them as a lens to cast new light on unexplored territory. Economic truths are truths. But they don’t stand outside God’s dominion. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you can disregard economic facts. 

The economic debate between economists John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek provides a striking example of how economic ideas have major consequences. This week’s video is a rap video depicting this influential debate which lasted through a large part of the twentieth century. Their debate is fundamentally about the whether the state or the market is best poised to promote flourishing.

Keynes took the position that:

  • The market is unpredictable and subject to systemic failure.
  • The state is an important corrector of those market failures.
  • Federal spending has a “multiplier effect” meaning you get more growth than you spend.
  • Government spending is a positive force for economic growth.

In contrast, Hayek believed that:

  • The market is best able to bring dispersed individuals together, through trade, to serve one another.
  • This service leads to wealth accumulation.
  • Wealth accumulation benefits all members of society, especially the poor.

Hayek, as the video depicts, was belittled for his ideas. Keynes was heralded. As economist Peter Boettke points out, the Keynesian theory relies on scientism, formalism, and excessive aggregation. This theory presumes that we know more than we actually ever could about “managing” an economy. These are the same ideas that led Soviet leaders to attempt to “manage” their economy through command and control.

It is no coincidence that the twentieth century was the bloodiest century in human history. The ideas of totalitarianism and communism started in the universities and made their way into policy. These policies had devastating and unthinkable human consequences. Deaths resulting from direct government action against citizens in the twentieth century reached 262,000,000.

We are called as Christians to engage in the culture and be a force for good. We can and should fight against bad ideas. The contention between the ideas of Keynes and Hayek mattered. Likewise, Christians need to understand and engage in the economic debates on the news. These issues all have important consequences for life as we know it today as we work to further God’s coming kingdom.

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