Monday, August 01, 2005

Ethical Government and Economics

When considering ethical topics for discussion and understanding, government is rarely among the first topics called to mind. However, there are many ethical issues involved in government and this paper will examine a few of the major ones. Since God is the perfect, all-knowing, Author and Creator of man, institutions, governments, and all other forms of organization, we can be sure that a clear understanding of His truths and principles form the most ethical system of government policies. Therefore the Bible will be the standard for the most appropriate relationship between ethics and government. Ultimately we know that no system made by man can be without flaw as the entire human race is corrupted by sin. However, we can certainly do our best to understand what the most biblical system would be.

The Purpose of Government

The Bible very simply lays out that the God-given role of government is to restrain evil. Romans 13 clearly addresses this, speaking of from where government gets its authority and what its purpose is. Verses 1-4 state:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.

Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

This role allows for the punishing of criminals and the protection of the rest of society from those same criminals that would make the society unsafe. In order to even begin to look at the issue of restraining evil though, we must understand what this evil is being restrained from doing. What rights or property do we value that we do not want to lose to the evils of fallen man. Frederic Bastiat in his book The Law lays out very neatly what are we protecting:

We hold from God the gift which includes all others. This gift is life—physical, intellectual, and moral life.

But life cannot maintain itself alone. The Creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it. In order that we may accomplish this, He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources. By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products, and use them. This process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course.

Life, faculties, production—in other words, individuality, liberty, property—this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.

So there we have the three essential gifts that government must protect in order to maintain an ethical standard: Life, Liberty, and Property. Two other greatly recognized intellectuals also named these three rights as God-given and inalienable: John Locke in his Treatise on Civil Government and Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

History shows us however, that governing authorities are seldom long-satisfied with this limited role. They find ways to expand their power and govern more areas of people’s lives than simply restraining and punishing lawbreakers, and thus step outside the scriptural purpose for government. Economics, not being concerned with lawbreaking, is in that extra-scriptural category. Any time government involves itself more in economics, that same government takes away the economic rights of the people. The perhaps unapparent seriousness of this lies in that to take away economic rights from the people is to take away the ability for each man to provide for his family in the manner that he feels God would want. God commands men to provide for their families. It is in essence taking away a fundamental right of our ability to worship God, which is taking away our inalienable right of liberty.

Unfortunately, here in America we have removed from our culture the role of God’s 10 commandments, which is the perfect law of God and could regulate government leaving all rights intact. Without this law there is a void that must be filled with other laws in order to keep the balance between the anarchy of man’s sinful nature and totalitarian government control. These imperfect laws, not based on God’s principles, have led us to where now our democratic republic, birthed in the guidance and freedom of God’s perfect law, is being legislated to death with anti-biblical nooses of socialist ideas and thinking.

Underlying Principles of Economics

For centuries men have argued the basic issues of economics from the perspective of both the enterprising entrepreneur and the poor laborer. The debate is not whether one or both are working, but rather if any worker earning any amount of money has the right to dictate how his money will be earned and then spent. The most biblically accurate of conclusions to these debates is known by the term free-market system or capitalism.

The free market system is where individual citizens are the economic decision makers in the society. This system or idea is also known as laissez-faire economics. This form takes advantage of man’s natural self-interest, because when a person is allowed to make their own economic decisions they also are going to be careful to waste no capital or product, but rather he will “make the most” of his money. These decisions include buying and selling, trading, renting, borrowing and also the right to not do each of these things. He has the freedom to do what he wants with his money. He can choose to buy a house or to rent an apartment depending on his needs, desires, and abilities. It is when these choices are taken from the individual that he is denied the right to make economic decisions. The Bible doesn’t specifically address the topic of economic rights, but rather it assumes free choices. For instance, Paul gives the example in 1 Timothy 2:6: “the farmer is to be first to receive of the crop.”

The United States was founded on such economic principles as a free market system and capitalism. It has been a long-standing characteristic of the American people. We in America have traditionally had strong feelings about all sorts of personal freedoms, including personal economic freedom. However in the last few decades, this seems to have been changing. Ronald Nash says in his article entitled Does Capitalism Pass the Moral Test? “[M]ost of the Christian scholars writing about economics these days show little regard for capitalism.” As it is God himself in Scripture that gave man his rights and economic freedom, it is tragic that most Christians are turning away from a free system of economics. One of the causes for this turn is that people are buying into what can be called the zero sum game. This is the idea that if A wins, B must lose. Nash points out that in reality is both can win.

The myth about exploitation lends support to a related claim that often functions as a ground for rejections of capitalism. Capitalism is denounced because of the mistaken belief that market exchanges are examples of what is called a “zero-sum game.” A zero-sum game is one where only one participant can win. If one person (or group) wins, then the other must lose. Baseball and checkers are two examples of zero-sum games. If a wins, then B must lose.

The error here consists in thinking that market exchanges are a zero-sum game. On the contrary, market exchanges illustrate what is called a “positive-sum game.” A positive-sum game is one in which both players win. We must reject the myth that economic exchanges necessarily benefit only one party at the expense of the other. In voluntary exchanges, both parties may leave the exchanges in better economic shape than would otherwise have been the case. Both parties to a voluntary exchange believe that they gain through the trade. If they did not perceive the exchange as beneficial, they would not continue to take part in it.

To illustrate, consider the situation where neighbor Johnny digs a drainage ditch for neighbor Bob and is paid $25 for the job. It isn’t that Johnny wins and Bob loses because now Johnny has the $25 and Bob doesn’t, but rather both Johnny and Bob win because Johnny has $25 and Bob has a yard the doesn’t flood. It is when this reasoning is unknown or misunderstood that our society is drawn away from the Biblical principles of government and economics.

Current Topic: Welfare

Welfare is the forced taking of one individual’s money and giving it to another without anything given back in exchange. The receiver does no work nor gives any goods, but is still given a paycheck. In 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, the apostle Paul addresses the results of a situation where something very like this was occurring:

For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone will not work, neither let him eat. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread.

Clearly Paul teaches that people are supposed to provide for their own living, not live off of the work of others. 1Tim. 5:8 says “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” Consider also Psalm 62:12 “And lovingkindness is Yours, O Lord, For You recompense a man according to his work.” And Proverbs 6:6 “Go to the ant, O sluggard, Observe her ways and be wise”. These verses demonstrate that God desires men to work for their food and to provide for their families.

Contrary to this principle, the government today has given itself the power to legalize the robbing of the rich to give to the poor. Giving to the poor, charity, and generosity are all good actions and commendable traits to be desired by all of mankind, but understand the difference between giving and robbing. Must giving be voluntary or can it be mandated? That is the principled question. Mandated giving is essentially legal plunder. It is when the government forcefully takes wealth from one person that rightfully owns it and gives it to another person that didn’t earn it. Bastiat saw this in 19th century France as the nation was embracing socialism:

Sometimes the law defends plunder and participates in it. Thus the beneficiaries are spared the shame, danger, and scruple which their acts would otherwise involve. Sometimes the law places the whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at the service of the plunderers, and treats the victim—when he defends himself—as a criminal. In short, there is a legal plunder . . . But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

An example of this legal plunder in our society today would be things such as the government taxing the rightful earnings of people and then turning and giving that money to someone who for whatever reason doesn’t earn income.

Yet there is compassion in scripture for those that are needy. There is a Biblical “welfare” that was designed for widows, orphans, or others who are unable to provide for their own needs. The church members were commanded to voluntarily and cheerfully give for merciful support. But even this is wisely regulated so that, for example, only those widows that have lived a life full of service, have no family, and are no longer capable of caring for themselves are put on the support list. Everyone else is required to work for a living and on top of that to not grow weary of doing good (II Thess. 3:13).

Current Topic: Socialized Medicine

One of the issues currently before our legislature in Sacramento is Socialized Medicine. This is where the government absorbs all privately owned medical centers and insurance companies and is the sole giver of medical services. This would eliminate any and all privately owned hospitals, doctors offices, treatment centers, and health insurance companies. The government would have the power to accept or turn away any individual at its discretion and give services to whomsoever it chooses.

The reasoning behind this system is that many people believe that all people have a right to good medicine and that the government has a responsibility to provide that for everyone. This means for all intents and purposes, that they believe that the government should use its power to compel one person to pay for the medical expenses of another through taxes. Only those that earn enough income will have to pay into the system while those that for any reason don’t earn enough income will be free to partake of the benefits. The system would have to be compulsory because if those that can afford private insurance could opt out of the plan, there will not be enough funds to pay for the health needs of the no or low income earners. This system appeals to those that because of previous handouts believe that they deserve the complete benefits of higher income, without the responsibility of earning or saving for it. However, it is the end of freedom for those who already work hard and pay for their own benefits. These people lose the choice to choose the health care that suits their needs and/or faith, and the medical center and professionals lose motivation to produce the best services. Ingenuity and quality will suffer, along with the patient care of every citizen forced into the plan. In a system where government is the manager of everyone’s health care, and by extension, any sort of money or funding, there is no motivation to work hard and to be productive. According to George Gilder, a prominent author in the arena of economics, “The only dependable route from poverty is always work, family, and faith.” Work ethic is a vital contributor to the quality of life in any culture. The greater the work ethic the better the life lived.


Clearly the Bible has many principles that directly apply to the concept of an ethical government and economic system. In fact, when examining any ethical topic, by turning to the source of all truth, God, ethical issues can be examined and applied in the best way possible in a fallen world. If one seeks God through His Word and prayer, and His Spirit will guide him to wisdom. IN this case, this wisdom is that those that govern themselves the best will reap a reward and those that work diligently will gain.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Translated by Neville Horton Smith. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

McQuilkin, Robertson. An Introduction to Biblical Ethics. 2nd ed. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1995.

Thiroux, Jacques P., Ethics, Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. Encino, CA: Glencoe Publishing Co., Inc., 1980.

Ronald Nash “Does Capitalism Pass the Moral Test?” in Readings in Christian Ethics Vol. 2. ed. Clark, David K. and Robert V. Rakestraw. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996.

Bastiat, Frederic. The Law. Irvington on Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1998.

No comments: