Economic Justice in America

The chief end of man is to glorify God. We can participate in glorifying God by pursuing his vision. The Bible makes a consistent and repeated appeal to defending the weak and poor, establishing a vision for economic justice. However, translating this into how we can work towards this vision in our modern economy amidst contentious priorities and ideologies can take some thought and research. Simple acts of charity can easily be understood to contribute towards this vision, but to take the pursuit even further to work towards deep sustainable improvement through systematic changes requires evaluation of competing values and priorities that compose public policy. While I am typically more concerned with international justice issues, with elections coming soon, I wanted
to take some time to look a the implications of politics in America.

Economic justice can be guided by a couple Biblical values. Economists typically have a reasonably good idea of what methods work well to achieve each of these goals or values, the key question is between which value should receive focus. The first value is the principle of individual consequence. This principle suggests that people’s actions should directly relate to their compensation and benefits received. Laziness and neglect should result in the natural consequence (poverty) and hard work should be rewarded. Our consequences should also be as isolated as possible to being the result of our own actions, and not others.

We can find some Biblical backing for this principle, Proverbs 6 (and other proverbs) condemn laziness. In 2 Th 3:10, Paul directs the church, “if anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” The OT welfare plan of gleaning involved work. These aren’t direct imperatives on economic justice, but do seem to imply that some level of rewarding effort and discouraging laziness is wise.

Following this principle through to economics suggests that one’s effort and productivity (or at least willingness to work, to more closely follow Paul’s words) should correlate to one’s compensation. If I work twice as many hours as someone else, it is reasonably fair that I should get about twice as much benefits from the economy. Conservatives often use these concepts as a justification for a laissez faire approach. In theory, by minimizing intervention, the natural forces of economics will reward the hard workers and punish the lazy.

The second principle is the idea of protecting the poor. To claim that the Bible supports this principle is an understatement. There are well over a 100 verses that directly use the term “poor” talking about their defense or describing God’s vision for their care. There are numerous other passages that make similar statements. This is not just an idea where we can find a few verses here and there that might speak about, but quite simply, this is one of the major and dominant themes of the Bible.

Not only is helping the destitute a dominant theme measured by the quantity of textual content, it is the integral application of perhaps the most central attribute displayed in the Bible: grace. We experience grace as undeserving recipients of the benefits despite our shortcomings. Behind the story of the Bible is invitation to offer this same grace to others, as we have experienced it, offering help and grace to those who have fallen short of the glory of God, and in economic terms, offering assistance to those who have fallen short of the productivity of the most talented in society.

With this principle, the economic justice is judged by the welfare of the bottom of society, the righteousness of a society is tied to how we treat “the least of these” (as Jesus associates directly with himself). There are several well-understood economic tools to achieve a better standard of living for the poor, if this is our goal. The first is progressive taxation, which allows the government to collect the necessary revenue while trying to avoid exacerbating the financial shortfalls of the poor. The second tool is government assistance, which can take the form of food stamps, unemployment benefits, etc. which are aimed at directly improving the life of the poor.

Now, of course, we don’t want to give into polarization and just focus on one side, but rather we want to synthesize both of these principles. We don’t want to encourage laziness. However, these principles are not necessarily at odds with each other. The reason for the continuous and strong Biblical theme of God’s heart for the weak and poor, and our call to defend them exists because it is a natural consequence of fallen human nature that selfishness will lead the powerful (economically, socially, and politically) to work (both consciously and unconsciously) to prefer and uphold a system that keeps them powerful and wealthy, and God therefore foresaw that the weak, poor, and marginalized would always be treated unjustly. A belief that because people need to work for their money, that current inequality is acceptable (or inequality at some dimension at basically any point in history) flatly defies God’s expectation and any realistic evaluation of current economic distribution.

Let’s compare the Biblical vision to the American economy. To determine how we are doing, first, here is rough breakdown of how many hours the average American works by percentile:

Hours Distribution

Now here is the breakdown of income in America by percentile.
Source

The difference is obvious, our economy does not reward proportionate to effort. In fact the poor, on the left side of the income percentile have dramatically less income than proportionate for the lower percentile of effort. Again, God anticipated that there would be those who would be marginalized, and this is blatantly clear in our economic distribution. Any reasonable look at distributions of wealth and power in the world today corroborates what God foresaw (surprise, surprise), that societies oppress the weak and the poor.

But Is Taxation The Right Way?

While government assistance paid for by progressive taxation may indeed be commonly accepted to reduce economic inequality, is it the right way? Many argue that taxation is coercive redistribution, or even theft. Now people (particularly politicians) may put many labels on taxation, but it is worth looking at what Jesus said. In fact this very question was posed to him in Matthew 22. The Pharisees surely expected a lively debate on how high taxes were in the Roman empire, government inefficiency, and how they were taking something that rightly belonged to them. Jesus’ response completely undermined their entire assumption, saying “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”. Jesus’ teaching was clear. Your money doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the collective state and economy. They are not stealing from you when they tax, they are simply retaining something for which they have responsibility. Call it what you will, but Jesus’ response is probably as shocking today among American Christians who label taxes redistribution or theft as it was to the Pharisees.

Paul also speaks to taxation in Romans 13. In fact, there are exactly two activities ordained by the government: punishing crimes and taxation. The government may indeed work through coercion, but the Bible has ordained this activity in creating a just society (economically as well) through taxation and punishment. Now there may be unjust forms of taxes (regressive taxes come to mind), but we can’t make the claim taxation itself is wrong without blatantly defying scriptures.

Some suggest that the reverse of the standard methods for helping the poor, lowering taxes will actually help the poor eventually. This is often called “trickle-down” or voodoo economics to describe the magical way by which one hopes that policies that are detrimental to the poor might actually benefit them. This approach both contradicts Jesus teaching (who taught us to really help the poor, not just avoid to them, waiting for the rich’s wealth to trickle-down), and doesn’t match with reality. One of the great experiments in this can be seen in the contrast of the US laissez faire economy to the more progressive taxation, higher welfare levels of the Europe economies. America’s policies focused on total profitability have indeed seen the greatest GDP increases, just as one would expect. However, if we switch our goals to align with the Biblical evaluation of how the poor are faring, developed European countries have shown significantly lower levels of poverty than the US.

Private vs Public Alleviation of Poverty

But aren’t private charities better at alleviating poverty than state-run ones? Probably, but this suggests a fallacy of false choice. Private and public efforts to help the poor are not mutually exclusive, church-based soup kitchens do not negate food stamps or vice versa. The question is not, which is better, the key question must remain what policies will help or hinder our advance toward’s Gods vision, working to make align every sector with this vision, both private and public.

Now we might more legitimately pit public and church-based assistance as an exclusive alternative if the church had a realistic potential to meet our society’s needs. With church membership often showing little growth, the idea that the church will suddenly increase it’s giving to meet the astronomical costs of health care, hungry mouths, child care, etc. is simply out of touch with reality.

Simply put, nowhere does the Bible indicate that the volumes of commands to defend the poor must be sought solely through private or church-based means. In fact many of the minor prophets’ admonitions were clearly directed at the larger community or society, and not just at individuals. If we are to wholeheartedly pursue Biblical priorities, we must do so not just where it conveniently fits in with the popular ideology, but rather pursue them across every aspect of our lives and society.

Wealth Is Not Sin

To be sure, being wealthy, and amassing wealth is not sin. Economic injustice is not to be blamed on the wealthy. But we can’t be satisfied with an economy where relatively even levels of effort result in such disproportionate allocations of benefits, leaving some with so little.

What This Means Now

These concepts are not merely abstract ideas. With elections and looming decisions about fiscal policy such as the imminent budget sequestering and farm bill, that will be decided upon, there are real policies to be evaluated. President Obama has proposed raising taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year. This is a step towards more progressive taxation. Many are fighting to preserve food stamp funding in the farm bills. This will directly benefit the poor. Both of these will yield an influence towards greater economic equality. The Bible doesn’t give an explicit answer to each of these policies, but the values emphasized in the Bible are clear. Steps like these, towards an economy with that gives greater opportunity and equity for the poor should not only be supported, but sought after and defended.

Flourishing to God’s Glory

God’s vision of economic justice is not merely an arbitrary idea. Ephesians 3:10 speaks of God’s intention of his manifold wisdom being made known. Likewise the glorious wisdom of God’s vision of economic justice can be experienced and enjoyed in real tangible ways, we can “taste and see that the Lord is good” is his economics. Indeed, modern research has been increasingly discovering the benefits of economic equality on society. Suicide rates are lower, crime is lower, people experience greater satisfaction, and more. And remember, implementing Biblical economic justice and the benefits that are visible to researchers is just a small glimpse of goodness and glory of the Kingdom of God.

The weak and poor will never be sufficiently protected by ideologies (capitalism, communism, private/church only funding, or any other simplistic mechanism), but only be those who are committed to lay down their own desires and interests, take up their cross, and fight for others that are vulnerable. God’s defense of the poor won’t be carried out by sitting back and demanding that the poor work harder, knocking down strawmen of some hypothetical uniform distribution scenario, but by fighting for them at every level of society (from grassroot organizations to large scale government programs), recognizing and hurting with the problems that break God’s heart, and keeping our eyes on His vision.

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7 responses to “Economic Justice in America

  1. What a tangle web society and even some churches has weaved. One maybe rich in materialistic tangibles but poor in spirit where as one maybe rich in Spirit but poor in worldly terms. In the end, God has allowed wealth to some and others not. More importantly, does one have a personal living relationship with Christ? My bible says He shall supplies all your needs, but no promises on all my wants. Thank you for penning the article, I found it interesting. :o)

    • Great article, Kris. What a challenge to evaluate policies based on what is just in God’s eyes and notbour own, and to also challenge certain American cultural views that tell us who deserves to make more money (someone with a college diploma and a professional services job v. someone with little education and a manual labor job). Your charts on effort and economic reward were very compelling.

      Thanks for writing about this issue!

  2. It seems like our current system is set up to reward (or punish) risk takers more than hard workers – a fry cook and a small business owner might work the same number of hours, but the business owner takes out a loan with his house as collateral, and so deserves a higher level of compensation when his risk pays off. Does the Bible have anything to say about taking risks versus playing it safe, and how that should affect our economy?

    • Perhaps the parable of the talents (Matt 25), suggests that risk taking should be rewarded (seems likely that doubling the talents must have taken some risks)? That might be stretch to really take as prescriptive economic advice though, I’m not sure. Can you think of any others?

      From a fairness perspective, it certainly seems reasonable that risk-takers should be rewarded accordingly.

      From an economics/productivity perspective, encouraging risk-taking is absolutely critical, and I think giving reward for this is beneficial and reasonable (admittedly my hour-per-week graph is certainly too simplistic).

      But, there are two sides of giving incentive for this risk-taking. You want to give incentive for success, but simply increasing finance incentives has diminishing returns, and reducing the implications of failure can also help push the risk-taker forward, i.e. a good safety net makes it a lot easier to strike out on a new venture.

      The impact of incentives on productivity (including in the areas of risk taking) is also much more complex than we generally assume or expect (at least from a Capitalist perspective), and is why we now have the field of behavioral economics. In fact, in areas where high levels of creative and innovative thinking are required, psychologists found that financial incentives sometimes have the opposite of the desired effect. For a quick explanation:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candle_problem
      For a longer video:

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