You are hereToward a Preterist Understanding of Economics—Part 7
Toward a Preterist Understanding of Economics—Part 7
by John Evans
Inspired by Virgil’s article “A Kind Reminder: Socialism Kills,” I herein offer my seventh article on economics for this site. Should any future articles on economics by me appear on planetpreterist.com, I shall employ new titles. I guess I just have a “thing” about the number seven that makes me reluctant to go higher. Call it my sabbatical complex.Inspired by Virgil’s article “A Kind Reminder: Socialism Kills,” I herein offer my seventh article on economics for this site. Should any future articles on economics by me appear on planetpreterist.com, I shall employ new titles. I guess I just have a “thing” about the number seven that makes me reluctant to go higher. Call it my sabbatical complex.Writing in December, Virgil opined that “most if not all groups fighting poverty are going about it the wrong way and are advocating a dangerous form of socialism, government-sanctioned theft and redistribution of wealth by force,” and he asked why it is that so many Christians lend their support to them in view of the fact that although Jesus did indeed fight against poverty during His ministry, He “never advocated taking wealth from one individual by force [that is, through the agency of government] in order to give to the poor.” Instead, Jesus taught that giving to the poor should be done voluntarily, and he encouraged the wealthy to give generously.
As far as I am concerned, Virgil is dead-on in all of this, but I feel compelled to add my two cents’ worth in order to expand a little on the ideas that he has presented. I shall construct my remarks around three themes: (1) Christ wants us to give voluntarily of our time and money to help the poor and to limit our self-indulgent consumer spending; (2) the consequences of the “dangerous form of socialism” to which Virgil refers are worldwide in scope, as is well-illustrated by Latin America; and (3) the Christian leaders who espouse large-scale redistribution through higher taxation and expanded government spending adhere to a “social gospel” of their own creation that clashes with what the New Testament actually teaches.
A good starting point for the discussion of these themes is the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, whose first two verses read as follows (NIV): “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.” As I pointed out in the initial article in this series, this story was cited early last year in a joint statement by leaders of five prominent “mainstream” Protestant churches as providing a scriptural basis for attacking President Bush’s budget proposals calling for a slight reduction in the growth of social spending. The “mainstream” churches involved were the familiar pentad of the Episcopal Church, USA; the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America; the Presbyterian Church, USA; the United Church of Christ; and the United Methodist Church. Demonstrating that they are nothing, if not consistent, high officials of these churches used the occasion of the Christmas Season to once again blast Bush and the Republicans for their heartless budget “cuts.” For details, I recommend the article by Mark Tooley posted at spectator.org on December 23. Tooley, incidentally, is a Methodist who is trying to halt the headlong rush into oblivion that much of his church’s leadership and regular clergy insist on making.
In my understanding of this story, the rich man is condemned because he indulged himself in the finer things of life without demonstrating the least concern for the plight of the beggar at his gate. From this story the officials of the five “mainline” denominations draw the inference that the financially well off should be heavily taxed in order to alleviate the distress of the poor through the intermediary of government. As Tooley notes, it is as though they have decided that the passage in Isaiah 61:1 referring to the preaching of good news to the poor applies not to Jesus, but “to their own preferred Messiah: the U.S. government.” And as I used to tell my students, I have always suspected that when Robin Hood took from the rich to give to the poor, he generously compensated himself and his merry men. But at least Robin Hood was a risk taker.
I am not so inclined toward Christian libertarianism that I would eliminate all government spending supposedly intended to improve the lot of the “poor” and to protect those least able to fend for themselves and their families. I do, for example, support taxation to finance the education of our children, though if I had my “druthers,” there would be a comprehensive voucher system in place that allows parents to decide to which schools, if any, their children will be sent. There would also be state-level testing of home-schooled children to provide proof of educational progress. Furthermore, there would be an amendment to the U.S. Constitution imposing a ceiling on the percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product that government can appropriate, and that ceiling would mean that the overall tax burden would be somewhat lower than it is today.
Without going into detail, I shall simply assert that it is unrealistic to expect a rapid rollback of government’s efforts to bring “social justice” to the nation. The ideology that regards government as the great provider of a social safety net and benefits for all but the undeserving “rich” who finance much of what government pays for is too firmly entrenched to permit a rapid dismantling and reversal of programs and practices that have materialized during the last century. We can, however, work on creating the intellectual atmosphere that will make such a rollback possible, and we can start by cleaning up our act within the Christian community and bringing pressure on the academic community, both “high” and “low” (K-12), to allow real ideological diversity within the ranks of those charged with the responsibility for education. We can’t all withdraw our children from public schools, but those of us with kids in them can do our best to oppose brainwashing by the left and to combat the deadly political alliance that exists between the NEA and the Democratic Party.
As I have stressed before in my writings on economics for this site, a serious economic problem for the United States—and for the world—is this nation’s very low personal saving rate. This phenomenon is largely a consequence of the national determination to indulge ourselves in various kinds of nonessential spending that may raise our self-esteem, in part by making others envious, and claims huge quantities of resources that could be used for greater benefit from the perspective of society as a whole. I recognize, however, that our desires to live in a fine home, drive a fine car, play games and sports, and take a great vacation once or twice a year are powerful motivators to personal effort and provide genuine pleasure that can benefit mental health and help unify families. I therefore have no wish to impose mandatory limits on what people can buy in the name of restraining conspicuous consumption and otherwise questionable spending. At the same time, however, I don’t mind tossing in a few guilt feelings along the way, and I see no reason why high officials in Protestant churches—or ordinary pastors in their pulpits—should not teach the real message of the story of the rich man and Lazarus rather than use that story as an alleged biblical mandate to support the ideal of government as the great equalizer. Moreover, to the extent that the religious establishment gets behind the idea of lowering taxes instead of supporting tax increases, it would be better able to deliver the message that just because you pay taxes does not absolve you from taking a personal interest in the wellbeing of the poor and the handicapped.
With the collapse of Soviet-style Communism and the stagnation—with the certainty of worse to come—that now confronts the welfare states of Western Europe, one might think that the advantages of constructing national economies around free market principles have become so obvious that every nation in which voters are free to choose would be following the free market model. Sadly, such is not the case. It is true, on the one hand, that quite a few nations—most notably China and India—have enjoyed spectacular economic progress in recent years by allowing market economics to play a much greater role than before in the conduct of economic policy. In much of Europe, however, the welfare state seems so firmly entrenched that it is difficult to imagine how large-scale reform can take place until an economic collapse occurs. And in some of the poorest parts of the world—in much of Latin America, in sub-Saharan Africa, and in most predominantly Islamic nations, the prospects for economic development look dim. Clearly, resistance to the adoption of the free market model continues to be very widespread. To a large degree, I believe, this resistance reflects the fact that the adoption of that model fails to bring the promised benefits to the degree necessary for social cohesion if a country adopting it lacks the appropriate spiritual foundation.
Based on my long career as an academic toiler whose livelihood depended on observing humanity in action in the economic and social spheres, I am firmly of the opinion that, for a variety of reasons, the majority of those who belong to the academic community have a tendency to be dismissive of, or even hostile to, the world of practical economics and business. In general, academics fashion themselves to be of superior intellect and education and feel they should be amply compensated for their talents. Most of them lack anything close to a full appreciation of the extent to which their well-being hinges upon having genuine bourgeoisie capitalists around who are free to exercise their managerial skills and entrepreneurial talents. As a group, they are more secular in their worldviews than society at large. They are usually tenured employees of the state with generous medical and retirement benefits, and many of them who are employed by prestigious private institutions of higher learning either derive part of their compensation from government grants or hope to do so. As the case of Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado demonstrates in spades, it is often difficult to hold tenured academics fully responsible for truly outrageous actions and false statements when generally liberal college administrators find that those actions and statements can be somehow linked to “free speech” and do not violate the norms of political correctness. Moreover, carefully constructed bureaucratic labyrinths and the threat of large outlays for legal services greatly constrain the actions that administrators can take against faculty and staff members who are on the correct side of the multicultural divide.
In short, academia is biased against free market capitalism. It shares that bias with other influential sectors of society, notably the news and entertainment media and the field of public education. This pattern appears to be even more pronounced in many other nations than it is here. Given all this and the fact that the influence of traditional, Bible-based Christianity has generally diminished in much of the world during the last century, it is no wonder, that liberal and explicitly socialist ideologies have managed to survive the shock of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the growing evidence of the economic failure of Europe’s welfare states.
I often use anecdotes to drive home points, and I shall employ one here to illustrate the type of mindset that I think helps to explain the inability of left-of-center ideologies to deal effectively with the problem of world poverty. Many years ago, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the evolution of the Mexican tax system, and for years after that opus was finally completed, I journeyed to Mexico on research trips. I consequently came into contact with a number of economists who were part of the power structure of Mexican society. These individuals were generally—but not all—quite secular in their world outlook, quite critical of the United States, and quite committed to the model of a “progressive” state that would guide and control Mexico’s economic development. In studying the expenditures of the government of Mexico, including its transfers of tax revenues to the Mexican states and the activities of the many state enterprises, I came to the vivid realization that Mexican public education outside the major urban centers was in a pitiful state and that the economic development of rural Mexico was badly neglected. I simply could not imagine how that great nation was going to achieve true economic development when the majority of its rural population was failing to complete elementary school. So one day when I was interviewing a prominent Mexican economist and university official, I brought up that point. A look of dismay came over this person’s face, and I was told that such a step would be impossible because if it were taken, all the people in the rural areas would want to leave them and come here, meaning Mexico City. I kept my mouth shut rather than suggest that primary education greatly enhances worker productivity and could conceivably, in combination with rural development efforts, help to reduce the urban squalor that plagues Mexico and many other countries in the “third world.” Of course, that urban squalor is even worse in some Latin American countries than in Mexico because of the escape valve of migration to the United States that Mexico has readily available.
This incident occurred more than three decades ago. A few years later, I gave up doing research on the Mexican economy because I became convinced that the government of Mexico was incapable of adopting sound economic policies. I think it is still incapable of doing so. Here you have a country with great natural resources, a generally fine climate, spectacular scenery that gives it enormous unrealized tourist potential, and a great many people with a strong sense of family and a good work ethic, yet it has been so unable to bring broadly distributed economic progress to its people that, at any given moment, millions of the members of its labor force are working illegally in the United States with the encouragement of their own government. Something here is badly amiss.
With the notable exception of Chile and, to a lesser degree, Costa Rica and Panama, the nations of Latin America have proven strongly resistant to the thoroughgoing free market reforms that would allow them to achieve sustained economic development that extends to all strata of the population. There are various reasons for this failure, one of which is the tendency of those in the region’s “thinking classes” to automatically blame the Colossus of the North for failures that have strictly domestic roots. But at the heart of Latin America’s failure, I believe, is a great spiritual failure. In large part, this has consisted of the reluctance of the relatively well off to recognize a Christian duty to help the poor. It has been reinforced by the fact that those in the “thinking classes,” like their counterparts in Europe and (to a somewhat lesser extent) the United States, have become very secular in outlook and have looked to government rather than religion and their own personal sense of obligation as the key to solving economic problems.
As an economist with a Protestant background, I confess to having some inclination to ascribe Latin America’s economic failures to the virtual monopoly of religion that the Church long enjoyed in Latin America. To be fair, however, the Church from the outset has shown far more genuine concern about the plight of Latin America’s poor than the rulers, and there have been groups competing for power within the Church that have stood for drastic economic reform. Unfortunately, the Church has been slow to comprehend just what successful economic reform entails; and its reform impulse has not been well-served by the enthusiasm with which many of its clergy have embraced “liberation theology,” which I regard as a “Christian” brand of socialism that does not differ greatly from the “social gospel” espoused by mainline Protestant denominations in the United States. Indeed, in years gone by I encountered representatives of those denominations in Mexico with an abundance of goodwill and liberal guilt feelings who espoused liberation theology and had no interest at all in hearing the views of an economist with something good to say about American capitalism.
Protestant evangelism, particularly of the relatively “primitive” varieties, has made great inroads in Latin America in recent decades. It brings with it a badly needed emphasis on self reliance and male involvement in religious activity. Illustrating the efficacy of competition, it has forced the Catholic Church to take a closer look at itself and to seek to become more concerned with how to reach the poor spiritually. As far as I am concerned, this is a desirable change, but that it is sufficient to turn Latin America around spiritually and economically remains to be seen. Recent developments in Latin America do not look promising. After dabbling in halfhearted efforts at free market reforms, much of Latin American seems to be slipping back into the quicksand of once again looking to some form of secular socialism for salvation. In both Venezuela and Bolivia, a would-be fascist dictator for life has emerged who has taken advantage of widespread economic illiteracy and an equally widespread sense of victimhood to gain power through democratic elections by promising to sock it to los ricos and provide goodies for los pobres. Several other Latin American countries exhibit strong Marxist movements fueled by resentments and utopian promises. Even Chile appears to be backsliding considerably from its commitment to a free market economy in response to the toxic appeal of welfare state ideology. I confidently predict that Latin America’s latest romance with ideologies of the left will have the usual unfortunate effects. I just hope that a more thorough corrective reaction occurs the next time around.
Elsewhere in the poorest parts of the world, as in Latin America, there is considerable evidence that evangelical Christianity is making headway among the common people and even among the better educated. I sense that something big is happening there, but I am not well informed about just what. I do know, however, that Christianity is gaining in strength in both China and India, and that gives me reason for some optimism. I have no information about the extent to which preterism is penetrating into the theologies of the evangelical Christians who are proselytizing, often at considerable risk, in what we used to call “the third world,” but I surmise that converts to Christianity there—and we can add “reconverts” to Christianity in a largely pagan Europe—are likely to be more open-minded toward the acceptance of such “heretical” doctrines as preterism than people with institutionalized Christian roots.
I am one who believes that Christianity, both before and after the Reformation, has proven historically to be not only compatible with, but promotive of, economic growth. It has been no accident of history that the world’s breakout from feudal societies into modernization occurred within Christendom and not the Islamic world or the Far East. Also, however, the process of impugning belief in biblical integrity that has accompanied modernization and the corresponding rise to the forefront of the social gospel have undermined nations’ abilities to establish or maintain the requisite conditions for sustained economic growth. Fortunately for the nations encompassed within the term “Western Civilization,” the stock of moral capital accumulated from their predominantly Christian past has been great enough to delay the societal collapse that seems to be heading their way. That collapse, I predict, will inevitably come to Western Europe in the absence of a new spiritual transformation, by which I certainly do not have in mind the triumph of Islam, a religion whose scriptures seem to me to be immutably dedicated to preserving the social arrangements of late seventh-century Arabia.
I do not insist that achieving and maintaining a high level of economic development whose benefits are widely dispersed among nations is impossible in the absence of a strong injection of religious beliefs grounded in the NT. After all, Japan did it, but I suspect that the case of Japan is unique in that regard and that the world conditions that exist today make it more difficult than was formerly the case for a non-Christian nation to set up the necessary institutional arrangements for sustained economic growth. While it is true that even the poorest nations today have access to a vast stock of technological know-how that should allow sustained economic growth to take place if the other necessary conditions for such growth are in place, those conditions generally are not in place. What are those conditions? I suggest that they include respect for private property rights, economic freedom, the existence of a high level of trust in business dealings, a legal system that dispenses justice in a uniform and predictable manner, and a tax system that does not punish savers and unduly discourage would-be entrepreneurs from risk-taking. I also suggest that what we call the Social Security System in this country should be converted into a system of private accounts in which workers actually own what they have paid in to the system and are allowed some discretion as to how their savings are employed to earn income for them.
The conditions that I have listed as favorable for economic growth, plus others that I could have added, are far more likely to exist or be established, I believe, in a nation that follows the actual teachings of the NT than in one that adheres to a social gospel presented behind a biblical facade that masks its non-biblical nature. This social gospel is the direct result of the process of discrediting the Bible that became evident in the eighteenth century and has snowballed into the twenty-first. Bit-by-bit, not only in academia in general, but also in the seminaries of “mainstream” Protestantism and the Catholic Church, the Bible’s claims to historical accuracy and prophetic validity have been undermined and reinterpreted so as to convert Christianity into a religion that is increasingly rooted in blind faith and the desire to feel good as opposed to long traditions supported by hard evidence. The “messianic prophecies” of the Old Testament are not what they may appear to be, we are told; and when we read that Jesus chose to apply some of them to Himself, we are informed that we should understand that Jesus was reinterpreting prophecies whose primary applications were in the OT. Besides, our eminent authorities claim, we don’t really know precisely what Jesus taught anyway. The Four Gospels and Acts were all written after AD 70 by people who were not necessarily eyewitnesses to the events chronicled, and while Revelation may or may not have been written by the Apostle John, it could not have been earlier than two decades after the destruction of Jerusalem. And even though nothing in the NT provides the slightest textual support for the belief that its prophecies about the coming destruction of the Jews, their capital, and their Temple in “this generation” (Matt 24:34) were written after the fact, we are assured by these authorities that indeed they were. What emerges from all this is a vaporous picture of Jesus and Scripture that allows them to be interpreted as suits the imagination and ingenuity of the interpreter. This may serve the purposes of those who want to shed “new light” on the Bible and various non-canonical religious works that appeared between 200 BC and AD 200, but it has a devastating effect upon the depth of Christian belief and the numbers of practicing Christians.
What a different picture of Jesus and the NT emerges when people come to realize that the claims of biblical conservatives about the extent of messianic prophecies in the OT are valid and that the primary or, as in the case of Daniel 7:13, only applications of these prophecies were correctly understood by Jesus and the Apostles as pertaining to their own time. And what a difference it can make in one’s understanding of Christianity when it is realized for the first time that the entire NT as we have it today was in place by AD 68! To my mind, once people grasp the full import of these points, Christian clergy will find it increasingly attractive to teach the Bible instead of the social gospel, and that will help us get underway on the road toward relegating some of government’s anti-poverty activity to the unduly small scrapheap of discarded government programs.