Why do liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree so often about economic issues? This is the fifth and final entry 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 here; Part 2 can be found here; and Part 3 can be found here; Part 4 can be found here. A PDF/text version of the entire series can be found here.
11. Free markets are information systems designed for virtuous people.
All self-identified evangelicals share at least one trait in common: we self-identify with the information system that goes by the name of evangelicalism. That tautology – the people who self-identify as evangelicals are the people who self-identify with evangelicalism – may not be very useful, but it can be helpful for us to recognize that evangelicalism is an information system that we share in common.
To claim that evangelicalism is an information system is merely to say that (whatever else it may be) evangelicalism provides a systematic means of creating, collecting, filtering, processing, and distributing information about a particular form of Christianity.
Consider, for example, one of the particular subsets of evangelicals that I myself belong to — the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). To say that I am a member of that denomination conveys information about me to outsiders that is both broad (e.g., I am Protestant, and therefore not Catholic or Eastern Orthodox) and narrow (such as Baptist views on believer’s baptism, congregational church government, local church autonomy, and liberty of conscience). This information system also helps to shape the way I think about other aspects of the faith, as well as my place within the larger tradition of Christianity.
Because the SBC is a form of information system, I can use it fruitfully in my own decision-making processes. For instance, if I move to a new city and look for a new local church home, I can search out what SBC congregations are in my area. Knowing that a church is aligned with the SBC provides information about what I can expect in such areas as beliefs, worship, and ecclesiology.
But what would happen if the information system became distorted? Imagine I become a member of First Baptist Church of Rome, Texas because it claims to be an SBC church. After joining the church, though, I find that the pastor refers to himself as the “Bishop of Rome” and believes he is the latest in a continuous succession of Texans whose apostolic line can be traced back to St. Peter.
This church and its pastor would obviously not be in line with the views of the Southern Baptist Convention. A distortion in the information system (i.e., the delusional misguided pastor) prevented the signal from conveying useful information that would help me in my decision-making. The only way to fix the problem is to introduce either a systematic corrective action (e.g., remove the pastor and reestablish the Baptist bona fides of the church) or a personal one (e.g., I have to find a new church).
Information systems, therefore, can be useful in making decisions but can become distorted and in need of correction.
Like denominations and religious movements, markets are also an information system. A market serves as an information system in that it creates, collects, filters, processes, and distributes information about the economic preferences of people within a society. The “market” is simply a summary term for a variety of voluntary exchanges of tangible commodities or nontangible services that are undertaken between two people or between groups of people represented by agents. The information in this particular system allows people to know whether and under what conditions they are willing to engage in the exchange. These exchanges are engaged in because both parties benefit; if they did not expect to gain, they would not agree to the exchange.
To say that a market is a “free market” is merely to say that when it functions as an information system (creating, collecting, filtering, processing, and distributing information) it largely does so free of distortions. In other words, we can think of a free market as simply a market that is free of distortions.
While it is possible to have individual or small markets that are free of distortions (e.g., I trade with you and we are both honest people), when the markets became larger or are aggregated together, it becomes much less possible to prevent distortions from entering the system. As Christians we recognize this is a natural outcome of living in a sinful world. But where liberal and conservative evangelicals tend to disagree is about what mechanisms are necessary or most useful in correcting such distortions when they occur.
Conservative evangelicals tend to believe that, when structured properly, the markets themselves tend to provide their own self-correcting mechanisms. We believe this is typically the preferred form of weeding distortions from a market. However, unlike some other groups (such as Christian libertarians) we also recognize that there are rare occasions when market distortions can only be corrected by governmental intervention.
While we believe government intervention in markets should be rare and limited, liberal evangelicals tend to prefer that such interventionism is common and as expansive as necessary.
Since the purpose of this series is merely to highlight differences between liberal and conservative evangelicals on economics, this isn’t the place to explain in detail why we think frequent government intervention into markets is harmful. But it is necessary to point out that our motives for preferring market are often misunderstood.
In our view, the purpose of markets is to facilitate exchanges for the mutual gain of both parties. However, rather than improving the gain of both parties, government intervention more often than not creates greater levels of distortion. This distortion frequently unfairly provides a benefit to one party over another – and often to detriment of society as a whole. When governments intervene, no matter what the claimed intention, the result almost always favors the rich and powerful over the poor and powerless. Hundreds of years of governmental intervention into markets has shown this empirical claim to be true.
In other words, we oppose government intervention for the reason stated in principle #1: Good intentions are often trumped by unintended consequences.
12. Free markets are the best way to serve free people.
Would you be better off if the government had chosen your career for you? Would it be more beneficial for your children’s college major to be chosen by the government? Would your spiritual life be improved if the state determined what church you could attend? If not, why not?
For conservative evangelicals the answer is simple: We as individuals almost always have more relevant information about our interests, talents, and preferences than does the government. While our choices are not free from error or untainted by sin, we are more likely to be better off making such decisions for ourselves than we are having them made for us by the state.
This is, in essence, why we favor free market solutions. Free markets are the best way to serve free people because they provide both the freedom to choose and the freedom to be chosen.
We intuitively understand what it means to be free to choose. But what does the “freedom to be chosen” mean?
Consider a situation in which an employer wants to hire a worker but is prohibited by law from doing so because of the color of the laborer’s skin. We would naturally view this as an outrage and an unjust use of government power. Even if the state claimed its actions were intended to serve the interest of the employer and employee, we would be offended by the infantilization of the laborer. We recognize that in the absence of a justifiably compelling reason, the employer should be free to choose the worker and the worker should have the freedom to be chosen.
However, many liberals are perfectly content in claiming that a worker should be denied the freedom to be chosen if they are willing to accept wages that are below the government’s price floor. They are saying to the worker, “It is better that you not have a job at all rather than accept a wage that we deem to be insufficient.” That sort of hubris is astounding, yet all too common. Under the guise of protecting workers from “exploitation” we justify a range of policies – from minimum wage laws to occupational licensing – that inhibit a worker’s freedom to be chosen by potential employers or customers.
There are, of course, ways in which exploitation of labor does occur. It is wrong, for example, to force jobs and wages upon people who cannot consent (such as children) or to allow people to engage in work that is morally corrupting (such as prostitution). But we should be careful about inhibiting people’s freedom to make morally worthy choices simply because we disagree with what they consider to be an acceptable gain from the exchange. In almost every case, free markets are the better option for free people.
Although there are certain aspects of economics that evangelicals must be united in affirming (e.g., a concern for the poor), most are matters on which we have the liberty to disagree. We should be hesitant, though, in assuming inferior motives or poor reasoning is the cause of our fellow believers holding a different opinion.
Our starting presuppositions, personal experiences, and political proclivities shape our view and can lead to divergent outcomes. I myself once shared many of the same opinions on economics as my liberal brothers and sisters, so I’m hesitant to condemn their views. And while I’m eager to sway their opinion to the conservative side, I’m more interested in laying the groundwork for mutual understanding.
By outlining these 12 principles I do not expect to change the opinions of liberal evangelicals. However, I do hope to change some skewed perspectives and clear up misconceptions about the views we conservative evangelicals hold. While we may never be united on the issues, it would be beneficial to increase our mutual understanding of one another’s views.
More importantly, though, I hope we can agree to find a way to discuss our views on economics in a way that honors Christ and serves as a model for our neighbors. One day this world and it’s economic structures will be restored and replaced and we’ll find that what mattered most was not what we argued but that we found a way in the midst of our disagreements to show love for one another.
There is considerable debate in the public square these days about a number of issues that have significant economic components. Globalization, environmental protection, and aiding the poor are just a few. Decisions we make in our personal lives are influenced by our assumptions about economic realities as well. So how might mainstream economics connect with Christian values and principles?