Sunday, March 19, 2006

Wealth Creation, Preservation, and Transmission

Do Christians have a duty to create and accumulate wealth, for themselves, their children, their church and the needy of their community and the world?

I believe it was John Wesley who said, "Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can".

I believe that God likes growth. He likes increase. He likes prosperity. (But he hates covetousness, greed, stinginess.) He likes us to be good stewards of everything he has given to us.

And remember, "give -- and it shall be given to you".

Here's an excerpt from an article, sent to me by an associate. The entire article can be found at:

Leges Sine Moribus Vanae

Our Creator has endowed us with the capacity to distinguish right from wrong. He has also bequeathed to us the responsibility to choose among competing alternatives. Each individual must therefore decide whether he will be led towards virtue or succumb to vice. To be truly free is constantly to strive towards and, more often than not, choose virtue. As Lord Acton put it (Selected Writings of Lord Acton: Essays in Religion, Politics and Morality, Liberty Fund, 1988), "liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought … Liberty is the prevention of control by others. This requires self-control and, therefore, religious and spiritual influences … [In Western countries] liberty has not subsisted outside of Christianity."

Like people in all other walks of life, therefore, investors and businesspeople can, as they deploy the material resources at their disposal, choose to act rightly. Seen in this light, the gift of commerce and capitalism is that it encourages people to choose upright behaviour. Buying and selling in the market and accumulating and divesting capital facilitate various virtues. The first and foremost is honesty; and others include independence, diligence, intelligence, prudence, trust and co-operation. But the choice is ours: whilst commerce and capitalism encourage virtue, they hardly guarantee it. Indeed, action in the market offers many vices and temptations to sin. Yet given man's ability to reason and exercise judgement, it ultimately allows him, if only he will choose this path, to practice virtue, shun wrongdoing and therefore glorify God.

> Private Property

The private ownership of labour, land and capital is fundamentally good because it provides many opportunities to glorify God. The Bible's prohibition of theft would make no sense if God did not intend that we exercise dominion over ourselves, the earth and the fruits of mixing our labour with land. The individual's ownership and maintenance of property is his way of exercising stewardship over a tiny portion of the universe. Clearly, individuals own nothing in any absolute sense; instead, as stewards, their task is to preserve and fructify what ultimately belongs to God. What does stewardship entail? One aspect is the husbandry of resources, i.e., the provision for one's children and grandchildren. To husband resources is to deploy them as efficiently and effectively as possible. Good stewards act prudently because they always bear the future in mind. Implicit in good stewardship, then, is the preservation and growth of resources that have been entrusted to you.

Another aspect of stewardship is the devout enjoyment of God's bounty, that is, the use of property as thanksgiving. Good stewardship thus balances consumption today and consumption tomorrow; equally clearly, God rewards those with low time preferences. Finally, good stewardship is charitable. Stewards willingly and gladly give some of what they own (which is not the same as shareholders' funds!) to the poor and unfortunate. Because God provides and preserves, and is merciful and compassionate, He rejoices when we imitate these virtues.

To own property and act as a responsible steward of it imitates God's sovereignty over the universe. Faithful imitation of God, in turn, glorifies God. Accordingly, to restrict and deny the opportunity and responsibility of ownership, as politicians, academics and clergy of all stripes unthinkingly do these days, is to deny individuals the opportunity to exercise stewardship – and thus to imitate and honour God's sovereignty. Seen in this light, critics and opponents of private property mock God.

> Buying and Selling in the Market

Buying and selling in the market are fundamentally good because they too provide the opportunity to glorify God. Buying and selling – that is, undertaking exchange beyond barter – are necessary conditions of anything beyond subsistence. If autarky reigned – that is, an individual or family could buy and sell nothing, and had to subsist exclusively from the food, shelter and clothing it produced – then material standards of living would be woefully and needlessly low. Conversely, becoming a specialised producer of a particular good or service, trading one's output in exchange for money and then exchanging that money for the output of other specialised producers – in short, introducing and following to its logical conclusion the principle of the division of labour – will over time raise material standards of living. To live a materially richer life, in turn, fulfils God's purpose that we enjoy with thanksgiving the resources we have inherited.

Commercial transactions, then, are not a necessary evil. Nor are they morally neutral. Quite the contrary, they are inherently good because they are means towards an unequivocally good end – the benefit of other people. Through our innate capacity to reason, God has given us a mechanism, the market, whereby we can advantage one another. Buying and selling thus provide a concrete means to love one's neighbour – whom one might never have met because he resides on the other side of the world – as one loves oneself.

This point is fundamental. Precisely because they are so often impersonal, and precisely because buyers and sellers are usually honest, business activity among consenting adults exerts a significant civilising influence upon buyers and sellers. People who might not normally trust one another (because they live on different continents, speak different languages, practice different faiths, etc., and therefore might never come into direct contact with one another) learn, from their repeated and usually satisfactory experiences in the market, that it makes sense – because it is usually beneficial – to trust others. "Commerce," Montesquieu famously said, "is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners." Hence the insight of Britain's foremost pamphleteer of free trade, Richard Cobden: "I see in the [principle of voluntary exchange] that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe, drawing men together, thrusting aside this antagonism of race, creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace."


frappeur said...

Few people in our society realize how important trust and honesty are in facilitating transactions. Virtually all of the time we get exactly what we have contracted for. Those times that we don't are considered an aberation. I believe that Christianity has a lot to do with that. Even in those areas of the world which are not considered to be Christian the influence is felt.

Dealings in some other parts of the world are complicated by the fact that things have to be checked so closely. If a shopkeeper takes an item away to wrap it you may find that an inferior product has been subsituted.

Of course, not only Christians are honest. However, as a mass attitude honesty is considered to be virtuous amongst Christians and it leads to the trust that is essential for greater prosperity.

BallBounces said...

I recently made exactly this point about trust on the Globe and Mail site.

Trust is an essential ingredient of wealth creation -- and it just happens to be a biblical virtue. Coincidence?

The news item was about some guys in New Jersey who were stealing body parts from morgues and selling them for medical purposes. Some posters actually said it really didn't matter, because the people were dead, and only religious zealots would care!

"... nothing intellectually compelling or challenging.. bald assertions coupled to superstition... woefully pathetic"