The free market is like the Kingdom of Heaven. That is what I said, but before people start running with that, I mean that in a very particular way. Follow me for a few more paragraphs. Last week I shared some questions which had arisen between friends over some coffee:
First, while it sounds noble to eradicate poverty, the unresolved prerequisite question is this: How do we define poverty? This question is obvious prima facie. Are we talking American food stamps and “Obama phone” type poverty? Or are we talking about the African orphan whose only birthright is HIV?
Second, since people constantly move between economic classes, who do we identify as poor? This economic mobility is part of the power of the free market.
Third, is poverty is a consequence of sin? Is it an inevitable element of our fallen nature? It would seem to be so when Christ himself says, “the poor you will always have with you.”Obviously Christ has great compassion for the poor. The entire redemptive history of the Bible and one of the central stories of the Gospel is that the poor, even if they are deprived of rights and social standing, have an advocate in Jesus Christ before the Father. I opened the floor to comments, and the always dependable friend of V&C, Nathanael Snow threw in his two cents with these points:
Free markets are very good at opening opportunities for each person to contribute and be rewarded for their capacity to add to the total wealth of society. Indeed, each individual who is able to be productive necessarily enjoys more welfare by being able to exchange with others than what they would have access to if left to themselves. Markets make everyone better off.
But there are two groups of individuals entirely left out of the benefits of markets:
1. Those prejudiced against systematically, or who inherit of historical injustice; and 2. Those whom have nothing economically to contribute.Snow goes on to define “those whom have nothing economically to contribute” as “those whom are completely unable to contribute economically include very young children, the disabled, the mentally handicapped, and the elderly.” I am truly baffled by the suggestion that these people do not contribute to the economy. The idea that there are entire classes of people that are of no economic value seems to have a very narrow view of a person’s potential economic impact. Now I realize that Mr. Snow is making an empirical argument which was not intended to be personal, but it is wrong. The suggestion seems to hinge on the idea that that these individuals are not or cannot be employed, and therefore create no value in an economy. Most who find themselves in these categories can in fact find gainful and valuable employment, and generally those who do not work do not do so because their families have made that decision together. My brother has Down Syndrome, and even with fewer education and employment opportunities, he is still able to participate in a wonderful program where he builds furniture and creates artwork which is sold in local stores. My brother is economically significant to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Certainly the retort is that my brother lives in the wealthy United States of America in the 21st century and is blessed to have a caring family, and his employment would not be possible in another time, another place or another economic system. I am also aware that many elderly and mentally and physically disabled people live in poor conditions even in America today, but surely nothing like the blind beggar in John 9 who met Christ. Surely, that man was not economically significant while a blind man has many more opportunities today. But Jesus was moved with compassion for the blind man in John 9 (and many other occasions) and healed him, giving him not just his sight but the opportunity to find purposeful work. Everyone is created in God’s image and has God-given talents. While we may not know why these talents, are distributed as they are, the Master does. Everyone, even a person with more limitations, has the ability to contribute economically in a free-market system. Is this not like the Kingdom of Heaven—an ecosystem in which no one is insignificant?