What Anticapitalist Christian Economists Get Wrong
Almost any economist who has taught at a Christian college or operates in Christian academic circles has been asked the question, “What about the poor?” Most of the time, people ask the question in the spirit of dismissing any view of economics that favors free markets. Although there are a few Christian colleges where at least the economics faculty might look favorably upon a market economy, the hostility toward free markets is as strong at most Christian colleges as it is in the most left-wing institutions of higher learning.
In the first (and last) meeting I attended of the Association of Christian Economists in 2001, the session was dominated by a panel discussion of hard-left economists who sought to “practice shalom” in their communities in outreaches toward poor people in their area. At one point in the session, the economists all enthusiastically agreed that because of free markets, poverty in the United States had been rapidly increasing, which made it “necessary for the government to step in” with the antipoverty programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative.
That poverty rates were increasing in the USA in the post–World War II era is patently untrue, even if Christian economists swear fealty to such a belief. Indeed, poverty rates were falling rapidly long before Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and the numbers bear out that claim, but these economists stuck to the narrative that the state must forever be rescuing the poor from the hellish existence of free enterprise.
All of this might come as a surprise to people who think of evangelical Christians as being politically conservative (certainly, many, but not all, are politically conservative), and certainly evangelicals have been one of the most important and reliable political bases for the Republican Party since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. That should not be surprising given the absolutist stand by the Democratic Party on issues like gay and transgender rights and the availability of abortion on demand, issues that evangelicals who hold to the authority of the Bible deem to be important.
However, on economics, many evangelicals, while rejecting outright socialism, also have a hard time accepting free market economics and often call for a “third way” to economic life. Because of my experience teaching in Christian colleges, I believe I understand the source of the discontent: the very nature of economics, scarcity, and tradeoffs, which are fundamental to economic thinking.
In a recent Mises Wire article, I wrote that economists often are accused of being indifferent about social problems because they tend to look to reduce harm, as opposed to eliminating it (and risk) altogether. As one who has lived all of my sixty-plus years being part of evangelical circles, I recognize the cognitive dissonance that many evangelicals have when it comes to dealing with issues that have a “right or wrong” component and how to deal with them.
Take the drug war, for example. Most evangelicals I know believe that not only are drugs like heroin or marijuana bad, but that putting them into one’s body is a sinful act. (Evangelicals are more split on consumption of alcohol, and there still runs a strong prohibitionist streak in their ranks.) Thus, in their minds, if something is sinful, then it also should be illegal, and if it is illegal, then laws against taking drugs should be enforced to the maximum. If people refuse to obey the drug laws, evangelical Christians reason, then the state is justif
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