Wednesday, June 22, 2011

God the Economist. Book Review Part 2

Part 1 is found here.

Meeks' critique of modern market theory is centered on its foundation of classical liberal philosophy, which Meeks finds incompatible with the community-based economy of the Old and New Testaments-- where freedom was restrained for the benefit of community, property was held loosely and not exclusively, and righteousness replaced scarcity.

Meeks devotes Chapter Five to property rights: "Property rights are complicated." I recently blogged on property rights here, as a follow-up to a longer post on Augustine and property rights here. For now, I will stick to the John Piper quote that summed it up for me:

“there are laws in the Old Testament that are not expressions of God’s will for all time, but expressions of how best to manage sin in a particular people at a particular time...And Jesus says here that this permission was not a reflection of God’s ideal for his people; it was a reflection of the hardness of the human heart. 'Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.'"

The Church are to treat properly and exchange differently than the calculating, rational, self-interested individualist of classical liberalism and neoclassical economics. I have written several times about what I perceive to be the difference between Spirit-led behavior and rational behavior in our churches. As such, the standard models of microeconomics should not apply to Christian behavior. For our fallen society where few are Spirit-led, I think the market system of property rights and a price mechanism is the best to organize society which will lead to the least dominance and exploitation and the maximization of overall welfare. Meeks doesn't disagree with this, he really just argues that in a free market system some domination and inequality will remain, the market isn't a panacea (and is not superior the biblical economy). I don't know of any even hard-core libertarians who disagree with this, so perhaps Meeks is tearing down a straw man.

But I do know Christians who argue that the individual freedom of classical liberalism is built upon a Christian foundation that all men are equal before God, and that property rights are God-ordained or at least not God-condemned when they are invoked in several places in Scripture (Acts 5:3-4, for example). Scarcity is seen as a given since Genesis 3, and property rights are necessary to deal with that scarcity.

Meeks agrees that property rights are necessary to deal with scarcity, but it's the very presence of scarcity that he questions. In my property rights post, I said the problem of scarcity remained-- I could not fathom how some people argue that scarcity is a "myth." Meeks' Chapter Seven helped me understand the argument a bit better.

I know someone who hypothesizes that scarcity existed before the Fall. If all we mean by "scarcity" is the number of hours of daylight in a day, or the fact that certain things needed to be done (God created work for man to do long before the Fall) then yes, scarcity existed. But this isn't the definition of scarcity that neoclassical economics is built on. Scarcity presupposes unlimited wants and needs. In the presence of God, how is it possible not to be satisfied unless he is not perfect and all-satisfying? If He has need of nothing (Acts 17:24-25), in His presence in the absence of sin, how could we not be all-satisfied? Even with whatever tasks God gave man to accomplish, in the absence of death there was unlimited time to accomplish them. As we were "naked and not ashamed," there was no insecurity or even a sense that something may be inadequate.

In the New Jerusalem, one sees the same picture. God's presence provides physical illumination, so that a sun or moon aren't even needed (Rev. 21:22-23). As Meeks says, we won't be in some eternal rocking chair enjoying retirement, God will provide work to do just as He did Adam before the Fall. But our needs will be eternally met and there will be no scarcity and no need for a system to allocate limited resources to unlimited wants and needs.

Here in our fallen world, however, scarcity is very real. Even if we have an abundance of "stuff," we can always think of something else we could use or want. One could perhaps point to this as evidence that way back in our genetic history we were once completely satisfied, but then something happened (the Fall) that ended the satiation.

Meeks isn't pleased with the notion that this is just how it has to be. He points out that multiple times in Scripture, God provides exactly what people need for the here and now. The manna of Exodus 16:
This is [l]what the LORD has commanded, ‘Gather of it every man [m]as much as he should eat; you shall take [n](W)an omer apiece according to the number of persons each of you has in his tent.’” 17 The sons of Israel did so, and some gathered much and some little. 18 When they measured it with an omer, (X)he who had gathered much had no excess, and he who had gathered little had no lack; every man gathered [o]as much as he should eat.
The excess spoiled or melted. We're exhorted over and over again to find our contentment in Christ, to consider all else as "loss" for the sake of knowing Him. So, in Christ we shouldn't have unlimited wants and needs. Meeks:
"The only need human beings have is for the reign of God's righteousness. Everything else human beings need is given with righteousness...God's destruction of scarcity through God's righteousness creates a new human being, the creature who finds satisfaction in serving God's righteousness and justice. Faith in the God of "enough through justice" does not relieve the human being of all hungers but transposes them into the hunger after righteousness."

On the supply side, God sends manna from heaven, oil and flour from thin air, and feeds thousands of people with a few loaves and some fish. Scarcity doesn't apply to God. Meeks: "The righteousness of God destroys artificial scarcity." As Jesus teaches us to pray "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven," might not that include satiation of our needs and wants as it is in heaven?

Where God's righteousness is, scarcity is not.-- this is how I think about it, and it has profoundly affected me.

Where Meeks says "God's destruction of scarcity through God's righteousness creates a new human being," this is a necessary precondition to be freed from the bondage of scarcity. It is not possible to be rid of unlimited wants and needs unless you are born again (John 3) and attached to the vine of Christ (John 15). This leads me to desire to invite people on the outside fringes into the Kingdom, just as Jesus did (which is how Meeks describes Jesus' ministry). We cannot impose the conditions of the Kingdom on those outside it, nor can we remove the reality of scarcity for those who do not know Christ. (this is where I separate myself from my more liberal Christian friends who seemingly want to remake society in God's image without the necessity of everyone in that society absolutely submitting to Christ). We are called to live differently and experience a different economy and a different reality from "the world" and invite others to join us in that experience.

However, this concept has implications for how we think about macroeconomic growth and development. My next post will deal with those.


Ken said...

So what if part of humankind's need is to be productive - to be valued for contributing to others? Wouldn't scarcity serve the purpose of enabling each individual to fulfill that need? Thus, prior to the fall, scarcity was required to enable a full humanity - and a closer representation of God in human activity.

Also, can God's righteousness be found in His judgment? If so, judgment may include scarcity. Additional toil as a consequence of sin suggests this is so.

JDTapp said...

I'd be interested in your take on his chapter on the theology of work.

I think it again comes back to the definition of scarcity being used. God created us to be productive because He is productive--God works. But that doesn't necessarily mean there were unlimited wants and needs as the modern definition requires.
God ,having created the world, created the tasks that needed to be done. But His presence with the world in the garden really limits the definition of scarcity there, I think. It's only the absence of God that opens up insatiable desires required for our modern definition.