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Economic vs. Political Dominion

By Timothy D. Terrell
January 01, 2006

To hear some conservative Christians talk, you would think they were just as devoted to the state as is the political left. The aims may be different, but the tool is the same — state coercion. Leftists, at least those of the pluralist or atheist variety, want Christian religious statements taken out of public schools. Many Christians want the public schools to teach creation alongside evolution. Both groups seek to use the state. Both want political dominion.

Examples abound. Some years ago, prominent Christians were public advocates of the Americans with Disabilities Act, perhaps thinking that the legislation was the best way to help the handicapped. The law has made the state micromanager of the construction details of countless business facilities, and for years now has been squandering wealth for the satisfaction of bureaucrats with tape measures. Several years ago a Christian golfer on the PGA Tour filed suit to require the association to change its rules regarding golf carts, so that the effects of his physical handicap might be mitigated. This brought the government in as the arbiter of a private association’s internal rules. Other conservative Christians have worked hard to get education voucher programs into place, believing that federal money directed to private Christian education could be obtained with no strings attached.

On occasion, the politicization of Christianity has become institutionalized. On the outskirts of Washington, D.C., there is a small college catering to conservative Christian homeschoolers. Its aim, from all appearances, is to get Christians inside the Beltway, into positions of political power. Several years ago a member of the faculty, a friend of mine, was forced out. Inconsequential shortcomings were named as grounds for his dismissal. The real offenses were his distrust of the state and his quiet requests that the library stock some of R. J. Rushdoony’s work. Maybe Rush was too skeptical of the virtues of the state, or too wary of the use of state power. The college, blinded by its quest for political dominion, has evidently removed itself from Biblical foundations, and, ironically, will probably never gain the respect it craves from the Beltway political elite.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with a Christian being active in politics, and indeed we need Christians in political life, if only to help fend off legislation that would further restrict our liberties. But the emphasis on political dominion is hazardous. Christians who think state power is a useful and attractive tool may find that power used against them.

Historically, the state has been the enemy of the church. So, recognizing that Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, and that earthly power and goods are tools rather than ends in themselves, why not promote the less dangerous and more productive tools? I’m speaking, of course, about economic dominion, in which the persuasion of the marketplace is used rather than the coercion of the state.

Politics vs. Christian Principles

Politics are often unfriendly to Christian principles. The very nature of the state is coercion. As George Washington observed, “Government is not reason and it is not eloquence. It is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” While the civil magistrate is referred to in Romans 13:4 as “God’s minister to you for good,” the passage also makes reference to the minister’s sword — an instrument with no other purpose than to coerce or “execute wrath.” Frequently, instead of applying the sword to “him who practices evil,” the sword has been unjustly applied to those who are doing no wrong. Given this perennial failing of civil magistrates, the safety of the church and the expansion of God’s Kingdom would be enhanced with reduced participation from the state.

In the September 2004 Chalcedon Report, I reviewed John Cobin’s book, Bible and Government: Public Policy from a Christian Perspective. While I criticized some of Dr. Cobin’s arguments, there was plenty in his book to admire. Cobin, unlike many conservative Christians today, sees reliance on the state as hazardous, and even entertains anarchy as an option preferable to an interventionist mega-state. Cobin is willing to point out the hypocrisy of some Christians who want to use the state’s power as long as the state is transferring wealth in their direction — these Christians evidently having forgotten Biblical constraints on the state.

Political dominion also works against good stewardship of resources. Giving control of any resource to the state means that the resource will be allocated by a bureaucracy. There is no other way, as the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises pointed out in his book Bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is, by its very nature, a lumbering, inflexible, inefficient juggernaut that is heavily influenced by special interest groups. Notions of “market failure” in the economics literature have long provided theoretical justifications for bureaucratic management, but market failures generally pale in comparison to government failure. One need only recall the failures of the Soviet state and its satellites in Europe and other parts of the world. Even apart from other Biblical limitations on the state, wisdom suggests that political allocation of resources is a poor method of stewardship.

Markets Promote Christian Principles

What if Christians relied more on markets than on politics to achieve social goals? There is something to that modern corruption of the golden rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Without detracting from God’s sovereignty over the world, we can safely say that material wealth can be useful for the building of the Kingdom. God makes some men wealthy and then uses that wealth to move societies.

Is wealth dangerous? Certainly, when Jesus Christ said “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” it was not without reason. Material comforts can be a perilous distraction. Yet we should not fall into gnostic error, or reject the good and proper uses of wealth. Many of the great patriarchs of Scripture were men of immense wealth, and they used it to do God’s will. Wealth is a blessing, if used wisely. As Proverbs 24:3-4 says, “Through wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.” Economic dominion brings with it the capacity to fund mission work, build scholarships for sound Christian educational institutions, create lasting family legacies with stronger family ties, and provide charitably for those in need. Though the Bible provides appropriate cautions as to the temptations of wealth, we are also told to think of wealth as a useful reward.

Of course we cannot replace political tyranny with economic tyranny. Markets depend on voluntary, peaceful exchange, not coercion. Without the power to coerce, rich individuals or businesses cannot act in a tyrannical fashion. In markets, those who succeed are those who have best satisfied the customer. Even the wealthiest business can only hold on to its position at the discretion of the customer. Customers, collectively, hold the purse strings. When businesses break the rules customers have set — that is, when they have not catered to the desires of the customers — they lose their profits. Unethical business practices tend to produce economic losses in the long run. Where businesses have gone bad, it is because they have partnered with the state, perhaps to use the state’s coercive power to block competition or gain subsidies.

Markets are friendly to the development of morality for another reason — they are antithetical to the expansive state. Markets work best without the state’s intervention, and as economic freedoms improve, other freedoms tend to follow. Markets favor decentralization, because of the erosion of good information that comes from centralized authority. While political dominion needs the state to achieve its ends, economic dominion tends to constrain the state.

Christian Principles Promote Markets

Markets may be friendly to Christian ethics, but the relationship works in the other direction as well. Christian morality improves economic outcomes. Max Weber’s thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has problems, but there is evidence that nations that have adopted Christian principles perform better economically. Some nations that have rejected Christianity still have remnants of Biblical legal principles embedded in their constitutions, legal codes, and court precedents.

Even atheistic evolutionary theory has, at least to some extent, recognized the impact of morality on economic performance. There are two examples I will mention here.

Robert Axelrod, in his book The Evolution of Cooperation, examines the development of social strategies. Beginning with a reasonable set of assumptions about the gains one can expect from cooperating with others, and the gains to be expected from cheating others, Axelrod finds that in circumstances that involve repeated interactions between individuals, it is advantageous to cooperate. Furthermore, the particular strategies of cooperation that seem to be most successful are those that adopt an “ethic” of behavior remarkably consistent with Christian principles. Axelrod does not dwell on this consistency, if he mentions it at all in this book, but it is fairly clear.

In developing a successful strategy for social interaction, Axelrod says, one should follow a few basic rules. Among the rules are: don’t be envious, and be forgiving. Envy breaks down social cooperation, he notes. In a market, concentrating on the comparison of my gain with your gain will mislead me into behavior that reduces my wealth and yours. Forgiveness, Axelrod says, is also important. Permanently “punishing” someone who has wronged us isolates us from valuable commerce.

Another book coming from the same evolutionary perspective is Passions Within Reason, by Robert Frank. There is much a conservative Christian should criticize about this book, but Frank does suggest that there are this-world economic gains to be had from abiding by Christian ethical principles. He puzzles over what evolutionary advantage there is to be had from a person being scrupulously honest, even when the gain from dishonesty is large and the likelihood of being caught is slim (e.g., finding an abandoned wallet full of cash and an ID in a deserted park).

Frank realizes that people want to deal with honest people, and therefore an honest person will have more opportunities to engage in mutually beneficial social relationships, including business relationships. But what is to prevent a dishonest person from faking honesty until an opportunity comes along to cheat? Emotions arising from personal passions or convictions may play an important role, he suggests. Being truly honest, or having other desirable characteristics like sympathy or compassion, will be manifest in observable, hard-to-imitate emotions (e.g., blushing when telling a lie). Those emotions are most readily found among people who — get this — really have a conviction against lying, stealing, or doing other things that are contrary to social cooperation. Christian convictions, then, would seem to produce economic gains.

It should not be entirely surprising to discover this. Recall that the God who made man a physical and spiritual being is the same God who gave us law, and following the law will frequently produce both physical and spiritual benefits. The reality of physical persecution for following God’s law does not wreck the basic principle.

As an example, recall the business practices of the fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A. Chick-Fil-A has closed its stores on Sundays. This acknowledgement of the Lord’s Day may also be beneficial financially. Young people looking for a job that does not force them to compromise their Sabbath-observance convictions will gravitate toward Chick-Fil-A. And convictions tend to come in packages. Someone with a Sabbath-observance conviction probably also has a conviction against stealing from the employer, believes in honoring a commitment to show up for work on time, and has ethical standards that require treating others (including customers) with courtesy and respect. Ethical business decisions can be decisions that work well in the marketplace.

Christians who seek political dominion rather than economic dominion are missing out on a very effective tool for promoting the reign of Jesus Christ. But Christianity has become entranced with the power of the state, just as the non-Christian world has.

Where are the Christian business schools that will equip students for economic progress? There are some, but they should be widely known to provide excellent education. Students should emerge from Christian business programs with not only mature ethical judgment, but also the technical skills in accounting and finance, and an informed entrepreneurial mindset. Some of this cannot be taught in classes.

So then, where are the Christian entrepreneurs who, having been out in the business world making the tough decisions, will take young people under their wings as apprentices or interns? Some of those students who believe politics is the highest and best way to make a difference for Christ, apart from preaching, need to have their horizons expanded.


Topics: Biblical Law, Business, Culture , Economics, Government, Philosophy, Statism

Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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