Overproduction and stewardship
Acton Institute Powerblog

Overproduction and stewardship

Overproduction, simply put, is supply in excess of demand. It is the production of more goods and services than those in the market would like to purchase. Overproduction, in a well functioning market economy, should be temporary. In a dynamic market driven by entrepreneurs, resources become allocated towards their most highly valued uses. If some clever entrepreneur makes a million shoes, but only sells two pairs, he will be unlikely to overproduce in the future. This is good, because the overproduction signals to the entrepreneur that there are better ways to use the limited resources that he has.

Multiply this process over an entire economy, and one can see the temporary nature of overproduction, and its undesirability given scarce resources.

Stewardship, according to Kent Wilson, is “the faithful and efficient management of property or resources belonging to another in order to achieve the owner’s objectives.”

In this context, human beings are the stewards of Earth’s resources, which ultimately belong to God.  Using resources wisely, in a way that contributes to human flourishing, is a key concept of Christian stewardship. Overproduction, then, is not “faithful and efficient” management, as it allocates scarce resources to less highly valued ends.

Lester DeKoster, in his book Communism and Christian Faith, argues that overproduction may be desirable in some cases. DeKoster specifically argues that agricultural overproduction may be effective stewardship, arguing that feeding the world’s hungry is a worthy goal that justifies overproduction. He says:

Meanwhile it is common knowledge that hunger stalks much of the world’s population, and malnutrition is not unknown in sections of our own land. Can it be that God has blessed our land with fertility, our experts with knowledge and means to increase that fertility, our experts with knowledge and means to increase that fertility, and given us technical skill and industrial productivity far beyond His gifts to other lands and to other peoples, simply that we may destroy our surplus or refuse to employ His bounties altogether?

Frederick Nymeyer, a contemporary of DeKoster and a fellow member of the Christian Reformed Church, argues this general principle could have dangerous consequences in a 1957 article titled “Lester De Koster On Interventionism”. Nymeyer writes:

…the case that De Koster is considering does not support his proposition. He first says that God helped us to produce more than the market needed; we have a surplus; therefore, we should give away the surplus…And this is presumably a principle. Errors you make in overcalculating what people need, and consequently overproducing, become a virtue and an opportunity for stewardship!

Nymeyer argues that “All overproduction of any commodity is a waste”. If stewardship really is the wise use of resources, then overproduction should not be the goal. Overproduction should not be encouraged as a persistent, desirable goal of economic activity. Good stewardship should use resources optimally, reflecting the needs of everyone in an economy. Continual overproduction ignores the moral principle of wise stewardship.