Acton Institute Powerblog

What WALL-E and Wilhelm Röpke teach us about work and economics

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Wall-E1Humans have a tendency to daydream about a day or a place where work is no more, whether it be a retirement home on a golf course or a utopian society filled with leisure and merriment.

But is a world without work all that desirable?

In a recent lecture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the question is explored by Dr. Hunter Baker, winner of the Acton Institute’s 2011 Novak Award and author, most recently, of The System Has a Soul: Essays on Christianity, Liberty, and Political Life.

Countering the cultural priorities and pressures of the day, Baker outlines a robust Christian vision of work and the economy, drawing on thinkers such as Wilhelm Röpke and Lester DeKoster, as well as science fiction fixtures such as WALL-E, 1984, and Beggars in Spain.

“Work is a gift from God, not a curse,” says Baker. “…The science fiction dreams of human beings released from all labor should probably better be seen as nightmares…We are made to continually be in fellowship with one another, working, creating value, giving, receiving. This is who God has made us to be.”

To take such a view, Baker argues, we must counter the prevailing materialism of the age, whether found in socialism or capitalism. Drawing heavily on Röpke, Baker notes that the economy must be driven by more than profit and utility, and that begins with our attitudes about work and leisure.

As Röpke famously wrote, the modern market system is not self-sustaining, requiring “reserves” that the market can’t create: “Self-discipline, a sense of justice, honesty, fairness, chivalry, moderation, public spirit, respect for human dignity, firm ethical norms.” These supports, Baker reminds us, provide a hint at the spiritual conditions required for any market to flourish.

To be blunt, sin corrupts our work and our motives. We need Christ to help us to work rightly and for good reasons. We need our God, who helps us to believe in truth and love, and to express those things through our work…We should help people to understand that through our work, we give glory to God and we show love to our neighbor.

A cold, sterile, and secular view of the economy ends up being something like a game between utility and profit maximizers…Without spiritual values, the kind that we receive from the Christian faith, the game can be played ruthlessly and in such a way that trust is misplaced…We instead have to seek to give value for value. I must become the kind of person who chooses to use my craft and my profession so that I can give something good to others, and they should do the same so that they can render good to me. We aren’t seeking to take advantage of one another, but rather to honestly, lovingingly, and for mutual benefit create and add value to the exchange between neighbors, brothers, and sisters.

When we recognize this gift-giving nature of work  as service to others and thus to God  — it transforms not only the work of our hands, but the desires of our hearts and our dreams for the future. Rather than striving after the purposeless, leisure-laden dystopia of WALL-E, we can work for a world where all is gift, where creativity leads to service and service leads to abundance.

“Work is an important way that we can express love of God and love of our neighbor,” Baker concludes. “Work can help deliver us from a trivial existence based on continual self-amusement and consumption. When the Lord returns, let us to be found working, and not to make ourselves wealthy and powerful, but so as to be found faithful as his chosen stewards and as brothers and sisters trying to shine forth for his kingdom and his glory.”

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

Comments

  • “Self-discipline, a sense of justice, honesty, fairness, chivalry, moderation, public spirit, respect for human dignity, firm ethical norms.”

    It gets really old reading people blame the market for things the market can’t do when they were never the job of the market. The market is a process of price discovery. That’s all. The market should produce prices that accurately reflect supply and demand. That’s all. No one ever intended it to do any more.

    All of the things mentioned in the article are the job of the family and Church, not the market. There never has been a free marketeer who claimed the market could accomplish any of them. Adam Smith claimed that competition in markets could handle greed better than can legislation, and he has been proven correct for 300 years.