Acton Institute Powerblog

What Liberal Evangelicals Should Know About the Economic Views of Conservative Evangelicals (Part 2)

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

zero-sumWhy do liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree so often about economic issues? This is the second in a series of posts that addresses that question by examining 12 principles that generally drive the thinking of conservative evangelicals when it comes to economics. The first in the series can be found hereA PDF/text version of the entire series can be found here.

In my first post, I covered the first four principles (#1 – Good intentions are often trumped by unintended consequences; #2 – Our current economic and historical context must be taken into account when applying Biblical principles; #3 – To exploit the poor, the rich need the help of the government; #4 – We love economic growth because we love babies). In this post I want to consider points #5 (The economy is not a zero-sum game) and #6 (Poverty in America is more often a matter of personal choice than structural injustice).

5. The economy is not a zero-sum game.

In a zero-sum game, one person’s gain (or loss) is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the other participants. If the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. It’s similar to dividing a pumpkin pie between five people: someone can only get a larger slice if someone else’s portion is smaller.

Many progressives in America, including far too many (though not all) liberal evangelicals, believe economics is a zero-sum game. They believe wealth, like a pumpkin pie, is fixed and that “there must be one winner and one loser; for every gain there is a loss.” This may be true in some economic systems, but it does not apply in free markets.

Jay W. Richards explains why free enterprise does not require that there be an economic loser for every economic winner:

One reason people believe this myth is because they misunderstand how economic value is determined. Economic thinkers with views as diverse as Adam Smith and Karl Marx believed economic value was determined by the labor theory of value. This theory stipulates that the cost to produce an object determines its economic value.

According to this theory, if you build a house that costs you $500,000 to build, that house is worth $500,000.

But what if no one can or wants to buy the house? Then what is it worth? Medieval church scholars put forth a very different theory, one derived from human nature: economic value is in the eye of the beholder. The economic value of an object is determined by how much someone is willing to give up to get that object. This is the subjective theory of value.

As Richards goes on to explains, to say “economic value is subjective” is not to say “everything is relative.” Economic value is not ultimate value. Your ultimate value in the eyes of God is not the same as economic value. What is subjective, as Christian scholars discovered in the Middle Ages, is that the pleasure that people derive from different goods is subjective and arises from variability of human opinion, so that different people esteem goods differently.

To understand what this means, let’s return to Richard’s example of the $500,000 house:

As the developer of the house, you hire workers to build the house. You then sell it for more than $500,000. According to the labor theory of value, you have taken more than the good is actually worth. You’ve exploited the buyer and your workers by taking this surplus value. You win, they lose.

Yet this situation looks different according to the subjective theory of value. Here, everybody wins. You market and sell the house for more than it cost to produce, but not more than customers will freely pay. The buyer is not forced to pay a cost he doesn’t agree to. You are rewarded for your entrepreneurial effort. Your workers benefit, because you paid them the wages they agreed to when you hired them.

The reason conservative evangelicals champion the free market is not because it guarantees everyone wins in every competition, but rather, as Richards notes, because it allows many more win-win encounters than any other alternative.

6. Poverty in America is more often a matter of personal choice than structural injustice.

There’s an old joke about a man who went to see his doctor because he was suffering from a miserable cold. The doctor tells the man, “Go home and take a hot bath. As soon as you finish bathing throw open all the windows and stand in the cold air.”

“But doc,” protested the patient, “if I do that, I’ll get pneumonia.”

“I know,” said the doctor, “I can’t doing anything about a cold. But I can cure pneumonia.”

Conservatives are a lot like this doctor. While many liberal evangelicals believe that the main cause of poverty is structural injustice, many conservatives wish it were the main cause. After all, we can do a lot about structural injustice, but there’s much less we can do about changing personal choices.

As it relates to economics, structural injustice could be defined as occurring when outside forces unjustly limit some person’s opportunities to enact their morally legitimate plans. A prime example of this is the Jim Crow laws that mandated racial segregation in many parts of the U.S. between 1876 and 1965. This particular form of structural injustice created conditions for African Americans that tended to lead to inferior economic opportunities and limited the routes of escape from poverty.

Structural injustices still exist and must be opposed (as we’ll discuss in point #7). But it is either naïve or dishonest to pretend that these types of injustices are as pervasive and dominant in 2014 as they were in other eras. We should recognize that the victories we’ve achieved over injustice, many of which are due, in part, to the work of liberal evangelicals.

Conservative evangelicals do not deny that structural injustice can still play a causal role in poverty. But we believe that the primary causals factors tend to be related more to personal choices, broadly defined, than to outside forces acting unjustly to keep a person impoverished.

Implying that some people “choose” poverty strikes many people as absurd and callous. The claim has a whiff of “blame the victim” insouciance to it that is unbecoming of a Christian. But when it comes to poverty, effective compassion requires that we be hardheaded realist. That is why we must ask, “Is it true that poverty is primarily caused by personal choices by individuals and families?”

The answer, based on decades of empirical evidence, seems to show that poverty is indeed mostly caused by the layered choices made both by individuals and their parents. Before we examine this point, though, let’s consider what we believe to be true of poverty by applying what I call the “North Dakota Test.”

The unemployment rate in North Dakota is currently 2.7 percent, well below the natural rate of “full employment” (which in the U.S. is around 5.5 percent). In some parts of the state you can make “$15 an hour serving tacos, $25 an hour waiting tables and $80,000 a year driving trucks” – well above a “living wage.” Now imagine we take an average able-bodied adult that is living below the poverty line and move them to North Dakota. We also give them a car to drive, an RV to live in, wipe out their current debts, and provide them with cash equal to 3 months living expenses.

After 90 days, would that person still be living in poverty? If they would not be, then the reason for their poverty was likely structural, whether the cause was benign (e.g., they live in an area with no available jobs) or unjust (e.g., they can’t get a job because of discrimination). If they would still be in poverty after that time, then the reason is likely due to conditions that were caused by personal life choices.

Currently, the poverty rate in North Dakota is 11.2 percent — the seventh-lowest rate among the states and almost 4 points below the national rate of 15 percent. That rate includes all people, including some that are not able to work. But what about those who are? Why does a state with relatively low structural economic barriers have any poverty at all? The reason, say conservatives, is likely because choices they’ve made in life (drug use, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, dropping out of school, etc.) prevent them from escaping their condition.

Many liberal evangelicals hear the claim that poverty is largely due to “personal choice” and assume that conservatives are saying that the poor are on their own and have only themselves to blame. But that is not the case — at least it’s not true of most conservative evangelicals. We believe that we have an obligation to aid the poor whatever the reason for their poverty. We also believe that to truly help people we must accurately diagnose the problem.

For instance, as Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill of the liberal Brookings Institution pointed out in their book Creating an Opportunity Society, young adults who put education, work, marriage and parenthood in the right order — first finishing high school (or college), then getting a job, then marrying, and then having a baby — face very low odds of poverty. If we really want to help people escape poverty, we should help not only to choose the right path but to become the type of people who can make choices that will save them from economic tragedy.

Unfortunately, this article is already too long so I don’t have the space to explain how conservatives believe we should help those whose poverty is caused by unfortunate life choices or how the choices of parents create a cycle of poverty. I do intend, however, to write about that subject soon and outline ways we can change these choice structures (such as through programs for parenting and early childhood intervention). Stay tuned.


In future posts, we’ll cover the remainder of the 12 principles:

7. The best way to compensate for structural injustice is to increase individual freedom.

8. Saddling future generations with crippling debt is immoral.

9. Social mobility — specifically getting people out of poverty — is infinitely more important than income inequality.

10. Jobs that lead to human flourishing are the most important part of a moral economy.

11. Free markets are information systems designed for virtuous people

12. Free markets are the best way to serve free people.


Recent posts in this series: Part 1


Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).