As we wrap up this series refletions, what can we say about the relationship between self-interest and benevolence?
The Goal of Abundance
The biblical image of a just society is one of widespread abundance where humanity participates with God in co-creative stewardship over creation.
Individual and Communal Stewardship
The Old Testament law envisioned families and small communities where people are stewards of resources entrusted to them by God to be employed for their own provision. These resources were also intended to generate wealth for economic exchange and for expressions of generosity. Elements of self-interested (not selfish) provision are present alongside an ethic of generosity and other-centeredness.
The Two Big Economic Questions
Given a finite amount of labor, productive capacity, and resources, on any given day, the two big questions every society must answer are “How many of which things shall we produce today?” and “How should wealth be distributed?” In short, how do we cooperatively coordinate our lives to balance needs and wants against our economic constraints?
The Limits of Communal Life
Assuming a family or small community living in isolation could be a self-sustaining community, communal ownership of property is plausible only so long as the population remains no more than a few dozen people, there is a high degree of solidarity, and there is a high degree of daily interaction by all members creating high degrees of accountability. Such communities can economically envelop those who can’t be economically productive, and the caretakers who serve them, spreading resources as needed. As the community grows much beyond 100, communal community breaks down. For this reason, from an economic perspective, it is untenable to view society as family writ large.
Markets create a real-time feedback loop between buyers and sellers consisting of millions of people. This allows people to specialize in what they do best in order to earn an income, or create products and services, that they can exchange for what other people do better. Markets are grounded in win-win transactions where each party gives up something they value less than what they receive. Markets are rooted in the phenomenon of people orienting their daily activity to produce things people want as a means to create wealth that will meet their own needs. Self-interest (i.e., reflecting on one’s own situation) and taking responsibility for ourselves is essential to the appropriate allocation of societal resources.
Markets alone are insufficient for a just economic life. First, markets are based on the notion of all parties trading without coercion and with all relevant information being known. While many transactions sufficiently approximate this ideal, probably no transaction ever meets these criteria perfectly. Sometimes, considerable injustice results. A strong juridical system is needed to protect property rights and resolve injustices.
Second, markets sometimes have an adverse impact on people who were not part of transactions (i.e., a company polluting a town’s air as they produce products for market.) This is called an externality. Government regulation or taxation is sometimes needed to shift the cost back on to those who created the externality.
Third, even when markets work well, they robustly process the illegitimate needs that are fed into the system every bit as much as they do the legitimate ones. Garbage in, garbage out. This technically is not a dysfunction of the markets. On the contrary, it is a testament to their efficiency. But it is evidence of the importance of the moral fiber and wisdom of the people who are feeding their wants and needs into the market. Because we are fallen and finite, market outcomes will always be a mixed bag.
Fourth, markets only benefit those who have something to offer for economic exchange. Children, the elderly, and a variety of others who are without this capacity are human beings created in the image of God and deserve economic support. This support would also apply to those who devote their lives to the care of such people.
Benevolence: Redeeming Stewards
Co-creative stewardship with God is integral to our human existence. The mere provision of material needs without equipping people to engage in productive stewardship is dehumanizing. Children need to be nurtured into leading economically responsible lives and adults with reasonably sound bodies and minds need to be equipped as well. They need to be able to provide for their own needs and to have something to share with others.
Benevolence: Doing Justice
There are many among us who are not, and never will be, able to participate in economic exchange. Additionally, there are those who are precluded from engaging in economic exchange in order to take care of these folks. These folks are God’s image bearers and need the economic support of others. Additionally, there are those who through bad decisions or uncontrollable circumstances have encountered hard times. Many of these folks have a claim on the help of others.
Benevolence: Loving Others
Sometimes we have resources that can be used simply to elevate the lives of others. It can be as simple as sending a card in acknowledgement of a significant event or as extravagant as giving millions for a performing arts theater. This too is an important expression of benevolence and we would hope it would be natural outgrowth of maturing as a disciple of Jesus.
Some have not internalized the idea of benevolence and generosity. Some take a “live and let die” approach to life, believing that each person is responsible for their own destiny. They want to be free to pursue their own lives without a thought about others. Others folks externalize benevolence. They speak highly of benevolence when what they actually want is for government to take care of others so they may be free from others’ needs. This is not to say there might not be roles for government to play in addressing needs but this is not benevolence.
Common Good Through Government
Some believe we have some role in benevolence but that government, through its democratic processes, is the preferred way of addressing market fairness and the concerns about benevolence. This is problematic. First, no individual or group of people is remotely capable of monitoring and reacting to the dynamic change of demand and supply throughout the economy. Similarly, no government can accurately assess the need for benevolent acts. It’s too complex. That’s why the real-time information system of the market is so superior. Second, government is made up of finite and fallen human beings every bit as much as the marketplace is. There is no basis for assuming superior moral behavior. Finally, political solutions are almost never the optimal solution because they are pieced together to satisfy constituencies, not achieve optimal outcomes. Thus, while there is a role for government, it’s a subsidiary player to markets and benevolence.
The primary nurturer of benevolence is the family. From the family we learn to communally share space and resources. We learn other-centeredness. That other-centeredness spills over into other relationships we have with people. The challenge, just as with markets, is that the more distant we get from our immediate relationships, the harder it is to assess real need and allocate resources appropriately. We form extra-familial entities, like churches and civic organizations, to care for each other at broader levels. Thus, the nature of our benevolence can take many forms depending on the proximity of the need to our context. But what will be present in any just society is the virtue of benevolence deeply internalized within the populace.
Self-Interest and Benevolence are Partners
There have been some thinkers who have argued that free markets guided purely by people acting in their self-interest will lead to a just society. Benevolence is an afterthought, if it is a thought at all. This is idealistic in that we know that markets do not function with perfection. Fallen and finite people frequently don’t know what is in their best interest even though they are usually best positioned to interpret it. What gives the markets merit is not that they give us utopia but that they give us far better than we’ve ever had or better than anything else we have to date been able to devise.
Regrettably, what we now have among so many mainline, emerging, and left leaning Evangelical theologians and activists is an equally destructive reactive idealism that deprecates markets and economic labor (i.e., transforming matter, energy, and data from less useful states to more useful states ) in favor of seeking “the common good.” (The “common good” is most typically a proxy for achieving ends through state action.) It rejects notions of scarcity in order to live in “gift economies” of abundance and mutual generosity.
As you read these thinkers and activists it becomes clear that they are myopically focused on issues of distribution to the exclusion of production; they have no answer for how much of which things we will produce today. It is as if the goods and wealth of the world simply exist. Our only mission is to discern how to distribute them. They fail to appreciate that we are co-creators with God in whatever abundance we may enjoy.
Our central endeavor as Christians seeking the shalom of the world in economic terms must be to discern how to produce other-centered stewards joined in a cooperative venture of generating and spreading abundance. The biblical witness calls us to reflect on what is truly in our best interest … to be self-interested. We are to see our interests in the light of eternity and in the light being in communion with God and his people. As we saw in the opening post, God repeatedly appeals to our self-interest in shaping us but we must be transformed by God to see what our true interests are. Yet that same self-interest will lead us to see that if we wish to be first in the Kingdom of God, then we will put everyone else ahead of ourselves.
As stewards of God’s resources, transformed self-interest will guide us in the work we do, and in our economic exchanges, as we participate in creating abundance. It will also guide is into benevolence and generosity. Self-interest and benevolence are not opposites. When transformed by God they are partners in creating a shalom filled world.