It is time to bring my Cycle of Prosperity series to a close.
I began this series talking about the centrality of shalom to the biblical narrative. What we would call “economic well-being” is an essential component of shalom. While we can talk of shalom for an individual, the biblical image is of shalom is community-wide.
Next, I visited Thomas Malthus’ dire predictions of endless cycles of growth and collapse. I then pointed readers to my earlier World Social Indicators series, where I illustrated the unprecedented growth in global economic prosperity over the past two centuries. My question then became, how did this happen?
My answer was that we have stumbled on to the basic organic elements that generate a prosperous society. It is a combination of technology, food supplies, human capital, economic growth and wealth, and trade, all growing within particular physical and cultural environments. Evolution of property rights, scientific rationalism, capital markets, and technology and infrastructure, have been key to emergence of this prosperity.
While much of the world is at various stages along a path toward greater prosperity (the present troubles notwithstanding) a billion people remained trapped in grinding poverty. We looked at William Collier’s book The Bottom Billion in some detail and saw the impact of the conflict trap, the natural resource trap, the landlocked with bad neighbors trap, and the bad governance in a small country trap. The sheer magnitude of the problems is staggering. Trade and aid are essential to bringing change but we must be in it for the long haul. Here are some final thoughts on the matter.
2. Complexity – Those who read this blog know how central I believe economic freedom is to human flourishing. Free trade is a mark of healthy society and should be the ultimate aim. But for the poorest of societies, simply working to implement free trade is like telling a clinically depressed person that they just need to be happier. The problems are vastly more complex than this.
On the other hand, justice advocates who loathe the term “free trade” so much that they try to invent alternative terms (i.e., fair trade), and who frequently block reforms that would lead to productive trade, need to get a bigger vision of the shalom beyond fair trade coffee.
3. Indifference and Arrogance – There are those who use economic freedom arguments to absolve themselves and their communities from addressing the economic challenges of the poor. They point to the failures of idealistic interventionists as justification for their inaction. For Christians, this is not a legitimate response to the poor. But there is another response that is every bit is inappropriate.
Too many in our age drastically underestimate the limitation of human knowledge when it comes to managing economic complexity and overestimate the moral superiority of government in addressing the major issues that confront our lives. Those who have such notions frequently point to problems of the present as evidence for how freedom is not working and declare that the “obvious” solution is more centralization under the control of those who will pursue the common good. There is a notable arrogance about human capabilities both in terms of knowledge and moral rectitude. Both indifference and arrogance take us away from where we need to go.
The reality is that we are compelled to act on behalf of the poor. But we do so within the context of risk and trade-offs, rather than in terms of crystal clear choices for right and wrong. As Christians, we also know we are ever in the presence of sin and evil and as the maxim goes, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Unintended consequences and evil are ever at our door.
If nothing else, I hope this series has helped to illustrate both the mandate to seek the shalom of the world and the complexity involved in pursing that mandate.