As (future) economists, we are asked for advice about shaping policy. Not every profession gets that opportunity. Clergy have a much different way of speaking “truth to power” than a Christian economist might. And the advice a Christian economist might give to a policy maker is quite likely to be different than the advice the same Christian economist would give to fellow Christians.
Interestingly, the objectives are the same, end to injustice and concern for the least of these. The Christian economist merely recognizes the incentive structures and organizational advantages and limitations of each arena and then speaks appropriately to each. He also must speak to his profession, and to popular culture. Perhaps my experience wearing many hats at Agape Corner as a teacher/administrator/janitor/mentor/chaplain has been particularly good practice for what lies ahead!
Back to policy: I shall limit myself to two hats for the time being, speaking to Christians, and speaking to policy makers.
In speaking to Christians, my first concern is to maintain the Christian ethic in the way we engage with the world, especially in the way we work for social justice. I am not nearly concerned with the tyranny of the urgent which I believe distracts and sets off course so many Christians involved in the public sphere. The poor will always be with us. God is sovereign over the suffering of His innocents. This point makes it clear to us that we are not to be concerned with the ends of our actions, whether they are effective enough, or sufficient to meeting the need. They never will be. Instead, we are to direct our focus to obeying Christ by adopting the practices He has provided for serving our fellow men, and by rejecting the power-over practices of the world.
And this I mean absolutely. In no way should we compromise our ethic for the sake of an end. Jesus rejected the manipulation of political mechanisms as a manifestation of His Kingdom. Instead, He provided Himself a sacrifice, and called His disciples to carry their crosses with Him.
What this means in practice is that Christians should not expect to use politics to effect active change for the good, only for limiting change for the bad. Is there a need to feed hungry children? The church should meet this need itself. It must not call upon the power-over elements to feed the hungry. To do so is absolution of responsibility. It also forces virtuous action on unregenerate souls. Inasmuch as they are willing, joyfully, it is grace unto them, the giver. But if they grumble, it is further condemnation on them. Compassion for the sinner trumps compassion for the poor! We must not force them to give, or ask the state to force them to give. It must be done voluntarily. The state has no place in social welfare. All gifts from a tyrant come with strings attached. How dare a ward of the state deny his duty when the draft is issued!
This is radical and unworkable. I am not concerned. I don’t believe the church will ever reach this ideal, but I do believe that it should be ever striving toward it. I believe this is the call of Christ, not to succeed, but to obey. He will achieve His decrees. The question to us is whether we will participate.
In speaking to policy-makers the Christian economist must not be deceived. He must rightly discern what the policy maker is capable of and be always aware of the competing political influences power attracts. I am pessimistic about the ability of government to effect positive change. This opinion is informed by public choice economics and a belief in original sin and the total depravity of man. I also believe power-over is an instrument of the devil. It cannot honestly be wielded for good, only for its own self-interest. When it appears to be doing good, it lies. The government does not collect taxes to pay for good programs, it creates seemingly good programs as an excuse to collect taxes.
This is the proper perception the Christian economist carries as he approaches the policy maker. His goals are to eliminate privilege, and to bind the power of the state. If anything made America great, it was the extent to which the Christian tradition accomplished these goals. Where it failed, it failed in one or both of these regards.
So the Christian economist can work for transfers, and for surpluses. He can work to transfer power among agencies and programs such that they will do the least harm, and perhaps some good. After all, there are people who must carry out the political mandates, and they carry their empathy with them everywhere they go, often prevent more harm from coming of bad policies. Also there are Christians who carry the Spirit of God with them when directed to action by the state. They can often redeem the entire situation through the power of God. He requisitions the power of the state and the mind of the decision maker at will, as demonstrated in the accounts of Joseph and Moses before Pharaoh.
He can also work to destroy privileges. For example, the Christian can advocate elimination of state recognition of marriage and the privileges attached to it. In its place it can establish that bundle of legal arrangements which made marriage an efficient institution legally, and extend such a contract to anyone who is willing to enter it voluntarily, whether sexually involved or not. The penalty for breaking such a contract can be made sufficiently costly to prevent entering and breaking such agreements recklessly at the expense of the legal system.
Likewise the Christian can oppose all privileges determined by distinctions, including gender, race, or creed. Indeed, too often we have sought to extend the franchise of privileges to more rather than attacking the privilege which generated the injustice in the first place. Extension of franchise merely gives the state more power to determine who is in and who is out, rather than less. We all become members by permission rather than by default.
Romans 13, which is other people’s favorite verse to quote to me, provides the proper role for the state: execution of justice. Notice, it does not assign to the state the role of determining what justice is! God has provided the Common Law process as a means for discovering what justice is. He established this system under Moses and Israel lived under a Common Law system until the people begged Samuel for a king. God was loathe to give Israel a king, a man whom they would treat as their puppet, whom they could influence in to creating arbitrary laws establishing privilege and absolving the people of the responsibility of defending one another and caring for each other. Let the king do it! How the church echoes this when it cries, “Let the Pastor do it!”
No. The Christian economist must emphasize all the best of what our discipline tells us about how self-interested unregenerate humans respond to incentives, and work to properly align institutions so that the no one gets hurt by the law, but all have the opportunity to gain. Free trade. Free migration. No price controls. Stable, justifiable laws. Voluntarism. Specialization. Comparative advantages. Identifying sunk costs. These are simple lessons which we know well from intermediate theory. Somehow, I have not yet tired of repeating them. But I’m early in the game. Yet I know old professors who take apparent joy at bringing these simple tools out again and again, employing them in solving new problems, and sharing them with new students. These are the professors I emulate and am drawn to.