Christians, Government, and the Market Place

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by Elgin Hushbeck

9781631990830One of the issues that divides Christians on the right and left, and the right and left in general, is their view of government and the market place. This, in and of itself, raises some interesting questions concerning how and why we develop the values and positions we hold. How much do our political opinions influence our religious views, and how much do our religious views influence our politics? In this post, however, I will look at the left’s preference for government over the market place, and whether or not their underlying assumptions are correct.

For many Christians on the left, looking to government to address social ills and problems is an easy choice, at least when the government is in some fashion a democratic form of government. This is because they see government as an institution led by people they elected who operate as an expression of the people’s will. They regard it as an institution that is guided by values such as equality and a concern for the poor that they share.

The market place on the other hand is governed by large corporations, led by people they do not know, people they have no say over, and motivated by less desirable values such as greed. In fact, as my co-host Chris Eyre, on Global Christian Perspectives, labeled it, “satanic.” Thus when the question is, where should we look to address a social problem such as dealing with the poor, or health care, it is an easy choice.

As someone on the right, it is probably not that surprising that I would disagree with many of these characterizations. For example, I make a distinction between big business and the market place. In fact I would probably agree with much of the left’s critique of big business. The really big difference is that I see government as even worse.

While the left’s description of democracy is good in theory, it hardly lines up with reality.   Its most basic flaw is that it assumes that those elected to government will act in the interest of others over themselves.

The problem with such a view was elegantly summed up in Federalist 51 (by either, Hamilton or Madison) in the famous statement on the reasons for divided powers and limited government:

It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

This is particularly problematic as government becomes more distant from the people. One could argue that this is just democracy in action, yet numerous real world factors such as gerrymandering of districts, advantage of incumbency, campaign finance laws tha,t in reality, only make it harder to unseat incumbents, influence of special interest groups and lobbyist, to mention a few, insulate those in office from the people.   Such factors are not an aberration, but are rather now the norm as government becomes more centralized and powerful. (For a more complete discussion of some of these factors see my book: Preserving Democracy.)

In a consumer based market place, however, one has some economic say by choosing where to spend one’s money. This requires that the consumers have real choices and businesses must compete for their business. In such a marketplace, to succeed, a business must be concerned with their customers’ wants, wishes and ability to pay.

Not only can such a system work in theory, it can and has worked, and has resulted in the greatest increase in the standard of living for more people than any other economic system. As Arthur C. Brooks has pointed out, because of such policies, “The number of people in the world living on a dollar a day—a traditional poverty measure— has fallen by 80 percent since 1970, from 11.2 percent of the world’s population to 2.3 percent” (Brooks, A. C. (2012). The Road To Freedom, New York: Basic Books., p. 72).

Granted no system is perfect, and problems remain, but as we move closer to a true consumer based marketplace, things get correspondingly better. On the other hand, as government is asked to do more, it grows larger and the problems are exacerbated. Rather than being a defender of the public against big business, only the large and well connected can have influence.

Thus for me the choice is clear.  Government cannot live up to the ideas of the left, and in fact the larger it grows, the more likely it is to be a defender of big business. Not only can a consumer based capitalism make people’s lives better, but it also allows more freedom as well.