The truth is that people function out of greed and self-interest. If you find that statement offensive, I challenge you to carefully compare the general happiness of the people of two nations: the United States and Cuba. The United States has an economy that was founded on the simple idea that every person had the right to work for his or her living. If you wanted money (for food, shelter, etc) then you got a job. The more valuable the work you did, the more money you got. The economic wealth of the United States grew, and millions of people came to the US seeking the opportunity to make money.
Contrast this with Cuba, or the USSR, or any nation attempting to function under purely communist principles. Everyone is poor. A Ph.D. will drive a cab for tourists in the hopes of getting tips that will increase his or her salary beyond teaching or performing research. Think about that, people will perform menial work, work that anyone can do, for a chance at money. Communist nations require a dictatorship to force people to do work, and people are not productive. China is becoming capitalist in economic policy, even if it is repressive in all other respects.
Again, look at socialist nations. In France, for example, people could not be fired from their jobs. Americans laugh at the inefficiency of the Federal Government, but imagine if the entire economy had the inability to fire someone that the Federal Government currently experiences. There would be no way for businesses to remain lean and competitive.
This isn’t a pro-capitalism rant, however. I believe in the power of capitalism, and the things that it brings. My point is that people are inherently motivated by greed and self-interest. Now for something radical, however. Wealth production is not anti-Christian, debt is. Read Proverbs 6: 1-11. Verses 1-5 deal with the plight of a man who has gone into debt to his neighbor. He is exhorted to do whatever it takes to work off that debt or get it forgiven. Verses 6-8 extend this message, exhorting the reader to not simply avoid debt, but to store up for lean times. Finally, verses 9-11 laziness is rebuked and poverty is revealed as a shameful, unfortunate end to those who are lazy.
To be poor due to laziness is unchristian. To acquire wealth is a reasonable Christian pursuit. Then what is the purpose of this wealth? In chapter 6, one of the reasons is listed: as security against lean times that will come. In the current economy, everyone is aware that people lose jobs from time to time. Losing your job can be a devastating thing, especially if you have a mortgage on your house or car. You will view the experience quite differently if you are always on the edge of being broke, versus having a year’s worth of income saved up.
There is another purpose, however, that is revealed in Proverbs 3: 27-28. If you have acquired wealth, you can be a blessing to those around you. Not everyone is as wise or talented as you may be. You can hire someone to do work. You can give the widow food. you can take in the orphan. You can give to your church. If you acquire wealth, the purpose is not to lord it over others, or get yachts, or other things. The purpose is to protect your family’s well-being, and to be a blessing on those around you.
To acquire wealth, all Christians must acknowledge the first great economic principle: people seek to maximize perceived value. I.e.: people are greedy. You do this every time you engage in a financial transaction. I will go to a movie matinée, rather than the late show. Why? Because to me, the latest Hollywood offering is worth $6, not $8. Trading $6 for the opportunity to watch the movie is increasing my perceived value. $8 for the movie is a decrease. Many movies will wait until they come out on DVD before I see them. A $2 rental is all they are worth to me, even if I don’t get the theater experience.
We make these decisions all the time. I enjoy video games. The sweet spot for me on video games is $20. I will consider almost any game at that price, and am prepared to buy about a game a month at that price. $30 is reserved for only the very, very best games. $50 is simply not something I will pay more than about once a decade. At under $10, games enter the impulse-buy zone: I’ll pick up a game that may suck if it’s less than $10 and not be upset if it does suck. Perceived value.
$3/pound chuck steak, or $6/pound prime rib? I buy the chuck steak. We choose in the grocery store as well. I buy a lot of generic foods. Sometimes name brand matters; often it doesn’t. I shop in used goods stores. New cloths versus used: $5 versus $50. I’ll happily buy used if it saves me 90% on the price. I’ll even donate back the cloths, books, and movies that I no longer use.
As Christians, we should seek to encourage an economic environment that promotes wealth production. Low taxes (the government isn’t good at spending money), limited oversight on business, enforced contracts, and transparency in dealings. Government should facilitate honest dealings between businesses, individuals, etc. It should provide for safety. However, a thriving economy means that the poor don’t have to stay that way, and there is enough money for people to directly work with the homeless and help them. If the government takes $20 for the poor, $10 will go to pay someone to give $10 to someone who may or may not be responsible. If I give $20 to the poor, I can at least look to how it is being spent. Government enforced giving is not charitable giving, it is theft, and limits the ability of people to practice charity.
OK, maybe this was pro-capitalism, but it’s the only way for Christians to acquire wealth and server their fellow man.