Kids often fight over things which were gifts from their parents.
Suppose I slice a cake into several (unequal) pieces, and distribute them to my children. Now, this is cake mind you, not bread, not water. It is a pure bonus. Dessert. So I dole out the cake. It is quite likely that an argument will erupt over the unfairness of my distribution. (Jesus tells a parable about day laborers which involves similar unfairness.) If the argument is annoying enough to me I may confiscate all the cake and eat it myself, perhaps while the children are watching, if I am particularly annoyed. (The fact that this is 1. Bad for me – I don’t need any cake, and 2. Only likely to generate more fussing, may become illustrative in what follows.)
This is what happens when altruism or tyranny are introduced to exchanges.
Exchange wasn’t anybody’s idea. It is ubiquitous. It occurs wherever there are 2 or more people not trying to kill each other, or dying for each other.
Imagine a spectrum of ethical impulses. At one far end is the Power-Under impulse. Power-Under is radical altruism. It seeks the best for the other party at its own expense. At the other far end is the Power-Over impulse. Power-Over is absolute tyranny. It seeks the best for itself at the other party’s expense. In the middle we might find the Ethic of Exchange. Here, power is neutralized. There are voluntary mutual transactions which generate surplusses. People trade, buy and sell, swap, etc. employing their comparative advantages and making their differences work to everyone’s advantage while each looks only to their own gain.
Economics primarily looks inside of the realm of exchange, or Catallaxy, as the Austrians call it.
Once an transaction has been completed the surplus is divided among the buyer and seller. Economists look at the lens inside and Edgeworth box and say the transaction may occur anywhere within that lens, most likely along the contract curve, but where along that curve depends upon bargaining abilities. Many of the political controversies of our day attempt to assign a procedure for allocating these surpluses.
Whenever law attempts to establish a prescribed (and often arbitrary) procedure for allocating surpluses it calls upon one party to adopt a Power-Under position (involuntary adoption of the Power-Under position is oppression), or it grants a Power-Over position to the other party (assigns a privilege, right, or entitlement). Once these ethical positions are reverted to, however, we move outside the Ethic of Exchange. Instead of quibbling over the surpluses they are destroyed! Most often they are then consumed by the state (or the overweight father). Future exchanges are discouraged. Individuals move toward self-sufficiency (starvation), and people don’t get along as well as they could.*
It is crucial in every policy debate to first identify whether the contention is over surpluses. If it is, then the most important thing the state can do is foster an envoronment where the Ethic of Exchange can thrive, most likely by not intervening, except to offer to enforce contracts.
The second step is to examine whether one party or another is asking for a privilege, or is atempting to limit the rights of the other party. In this case either sort of appeal must be rejected.
Finally, Christians can neutralize Power-Over situations by adopting a Power-Under approach. If one party is being oppressed by another which is using Power-Over methods, the Christian can liberate the oppressed by taking their place, or volunteering to redeem them out of their oppression.
I think an examination of policy contentions may reveal the prevalance of fighting over surpluses, at least in America. Most often one Power-Over group will be contending with another Power-Over group over privileges to a particular surplus. We call this rent-seeking.**
Again, the relevant message to Christians is that we are not to join up with one or the other Power-Over groups (Progressives or Fundamentalists), but we are instead to find ways to employ the Power-Under ethic. Encouraging other parties to come to a voluntary exchange may be at least one way of exercising Power-Under principles. We don’t have to force the haves to give to the have-nots. We can bring the two together to find new ways to improve the quality of life for both.
Another application of this thought is that most arguments about the divergence of incomes are arguments over surplusses. The rich are getting richer faster than the poor are. But the poor are getting richer. Most of them have air-conditioning, clean water, latrines, and more than 1000 calories a day. They live better than their parents and grandparents did. These are surpluses.
We need to stop fighting over surpluses.
*I refer the reader to Greg Boyd and Stanley Hauerwas for elucidation of the Power-Over ethic.
** It may be important to note here that surpluses cannot be owned. There is no guarantee-able bundle of rights which includes the right to sell unrealized future surpluses. There is no guarantee for future stock prices.