Originally published October, 1991.
We take many things for granted. When we have a headache, we reach for the aspirin. When we’re sick we pay a visit to the doctor. When we’re hungry we go down to the supermarket and buy our food. When the car’s out of gasoline, we pull up to the bowser and “fill ‘er up.” When we wish to have a holiday, we think little of hopping into the car for a 1,000 kilometer journey, and maybe no more about jumping aboard an airplane for a favored destination. We accept these things as just being “there.” Yet it is clear that a few centuries ago, and even only a few decades ago, many of the things we take for granted were not available. Our forefathers did not take these things for granted. Why, then, is it possible for us to have this attitude about a whole range of economic goods and services that our forefathers did not enjoy?
For an understanding of this we must start in the Bible at the book of Genesis, and the very first chapter. Here we discover several things pertinent to a study of wealth.
First, it is clear that God, our Creator, is a creative Being. He works in the act of creation, and continues to work, personally governing and supervising all that occurs in His creation.
“The faith of the sixteenth century became the orthodoxy of the seventeenth. People no longer confessed their beliefs, but they only believed their confessions. Among most of the people this orthodoxy prepared the road for rationalism. Religion became a matter of reason, the truth regarding eternal things was now dependent on historical proofs and rational argument, and the certainty of faith became confused with rational insight. On the other hand, within the small circles of the faithful it evoked another reaction; they were not satisfied with merely rational knowledge but sought the essence of salvation in experience. This movement gradually devolved into pietism.”
– Herman Bavinck
From the archives. Originally published June, 1991.
EVERY AGE HAS POPULAR MYTHS which govern the way people act. Our age, despite its so-called scientific basis, is no exception. While a complete list of the myths that exist in the realm of economics would require a rather large book, it is possible for us to list some of the more popular and influential myths that appear today.
Myths are not always recognized in their age. Despite the fact that people may or may not recognise them, they are still myths, beliefs which are actually untrue. It is their false nature which makes them myths. It is because they are believed as being true that they are such a danger. When myths become the basis for human action, rather than things which are true, then society has clearly drifted into the practice of witchcraft, no matter what pretences are used to justify their actions.
Moreover, the continuation of myths is assured. According to economist Don Paalberg,
Economics is especially plagued with myths because this is a field in which everyone considers himself an expert. An architect designing an apartment building would not be challenged by the ordinary citizen as to the adequacy of the foundation he plans. The average citizen is not likely to dispute the doctor’s diagnosis or the pilot’s decision. But the economist enjoys no such shield from public appraisal; he will be challenged on almost every point by people who think their economic sense is better than his.
With everyone qualified, at least in his own mind, to interpret economic events, there arise fragmentary and inconsistent explanations for observed events. And since the events of greatest interest are those that are unusual, many of the economic myths unknowingly deal with the aberration rather than with the norm.
1. Rising GNP is Needed for Economic Growth
- Don Paalberg, Great Myths of Economics (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1968), pp. 5-6. While I have taken the title for this essay from this excellent book by Don Paalberg, I have argued for myths which Mr Paalberg does not discuss in his book.↵back
Atheism and the design of the universe
Another night on the streets and discussions with the atheists. This time with Peter and Paul (not their real names), and the conversation went something like this.
I had finished a bottle of Diet Coke, and as I stood there holding it in my hand, the discussion began concerning interpretation of data—the ‘facts’. This is not the first time I’ve had this kind of discussion with these two characters. But sometimes you can step into the same topic a different way and get a better result. Tonight was such a night.
Now the discussion had turned towards the creationist argument that ‘no one was there historically to observe what went on.’ Peter and Paul were keen to establish that that argument went in both directions, that it applied to creationists as well as atheists. I agreed the argument went in both directions, but there were some other issues to be considered.
I was tempted initially to go down the path of ‘God was there’ and turn it into a discussion yet again on the existence of God. I resisted, and went in another direction. Sometimes it’s necessary to sidestep an important argument temporarily in order to make your case somewhere else.
I held the plastic Coke bottle up and suggested we view it as a fossil. Both the atheists and myself had the same data in front of us. None of us were ‘there’ historically to observe what happened, so we had to find a way to ‘interpret’ the data in front of us—my imaginary fossil.
Very quickly Peter and Paul suggested we would need more information in order to interpret this ‘fossil’. I agreed. All of us would need additional information in order to interpret the data.
But what if the other information we had was wrong? Could we still ‘interpret’ this fossil with incorrect data? Of course not, they agreed. But the ‘scientific method’ had within it steps to check and confirm the accumulation of data collected along the way, they reminded me. I agreed that might be the scientific method, but these two atheists were about to learn a lesson about jigsaw puzzles.
You see the words in the headline above and you wonder what on earth could be the most obstinate adversary to thinking. The phrase originated with Martin Heidegger, according to William Barrett, who quoted it. It was in italics. It must be important.
Here’s the complete sentence so you get the context:
Thinking only begins at the point where we have come to know that Reason, glorified for centuries, is the most obstinate adversary of thinking.”
You could be forgiven for thinking that Heidegger might have been speaking about the philosophic struggle between Rationalism and Empiricism. This is the battle for knowledge: do we gain knowledge empirically, by the senses, or by thought, making rational conclusions? Since Kant there has not been an answer to that question outside of the Biblical framework of thinking, and more particularly the Calvinistic framework of Christianity. A good part of the reason for this is the Reformed emphasis on a rigorous application of the mind and the senses to what Scripture reveals.
- William Barret, Irrational Man (New York: Doubleday Anchor,  1962), p. 206.↵back
Renaissance (lit. re-birth) man was confident. There was accumulating wealth and new business activities, such as metal engraving. Cotton was beginning to appear; double-entry bookkeeping improved the reliability of financial management. The trade fraternities grew in number and competition with each other, as members jockeyed for key work assignments. Craftsmen entered the guilds as apprentices, were eventually promoted to journeymen, and finally became masters. But self-interest took over, and the current masters worked to keep a monopoly on their position. Protectionism appeared everywhere. Riots broke out as the lower classes, deprived of the ability to work their way up the economic ladder, literally starved through lack of work. When the Black Death drove up the price of labor, there was a concerted effort to keep a lid on what was paid by the rich employers. Economic control was important.
The selling of indulgences pushed the laity over the edge, but it highlighted a major problem of the period: the need for money.
Meanwhile, knowledge expanded as schools and universities flourished. For example, in Florence it was estimated that at one time as many as 10,000 children were learning to read. The search for perspective in art, by painters such as Uccello, Giotto, the Gaddis, and Cennini, raised the quality of the frescoes to new levels. Music, too, took on a new lease of life, as the use of harmony expanded and music notation developed so that the harmony and counter melody could be written against the canto fermo or basic melody.
The Corruption of the Church
Everything appeared to be moving forward with the exception of the Church, where corruption had become a regular part of life. Bishoprics were not earned, but were auctioned to the highest bidder. This was also the age of Wycliffe and Huss, the dawning of the Reformation which did not appear over the horizon in full flight until Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. These rumblings were a warning of the great eruption that was on its way. The church was decadent, as competing claims to the Papacy—the Great Schism—led to confusion and a growing rejection of the church and its clergy. What could be expected when the various Popes, each claiming to be the true representative of God on earth, declared that those following other Popes were headed for eternal damnation. The selling of indulgences pushed the laity over the edge, but it highlighted a major problem of the period: the need for money.
- Pirenne, Henry, A History of Europe (Birkenhead: Willmer Bros & Co. Ltd, 1936), p. 379ff.↵back
- The city population at the time was estimated to be about 90,000 men, women and children. David Herhily, ed., Medieval Culture and Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 187.↵back
- Lang, Paul Henry, Music in Western Civilization (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd,  1963), p. 125ff.↵back
- Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization: VI:The Renaissance (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953), p.361ff.↵back
“People are more important than things because people create, use, abuse and destroy things. Furthermore, when people are treated as more important than things, there tends to be harmony and cooperation in a society. What usually follows is more voluntary sharing, justice and collaboration concerning things. This cooperation — covenanting and contracting — in turn creates more prosperity, more things. So prosperity long-term for any society rests upon having its priorities straight, placing its primary emphasis on people rather than things (and money).
“This emphasis on people rather than things is the essence of why the Bank of the People’s Labor at Mondragon, Spain has been so successful long-term. No business failures; no loan failures; the highest productivity in all of Spain, the highest profitability (nearly double that of its competitors), and the highest morale and innovation ratings possible — all characterize Mondragon. Success there has been achieved in all areas. Success is a by-product of doing things correctly. Ultimately, ideas do have consequences. Religion comes down to economics.
“Critical to the achievement at Mondragon, although unstated and possibly unrecognized even by these people, is that they have established their priorities on people systems and effectively checkmated the natural inclination to focus on the time value of money with its compounding effect. The compounding of money in a fractional reserve, debt-based, interest-sensitive society, such as ours, inevitably leads to a focus on things (and money) rather than people. The reason for this is because the challenge of compounding is a challenge which no individual or society can meet or beat long-term. The compounding of interest, money earning money on money, is relentless, ruthless, and eternal, unforgiving of mistakes and eventually is exponential. By contrast, men do make mistakes, need rest, do not forecast the future perfectly, make poor use of human and natural resources and are fortunate if they can simply achieve arithmetic economic growth. Therefore, it is no surprise that die slave-like god of debt money and compound interest eventually forces all to bow at its altar. As men are forced to serve this god of money (mammon), inescapably then money (and things) become more important than people.”
- From R.E. McMaster Jr., The Christ Within: The Church and New Age Seek Him (Phonix, AZ: A.N. International, Inc., 1995), p. 359.↵back
In 1855, George Sweet highlighted the forthcoming changes to contract law. The changes that were introduced became known as limited liability law. The impact on the nature of contract and on business in general is hard to underestimate. Sweet, a barrister at law, explored the legal issues around the question of determining who is the debtor in business transactions. Here’s a summary of some of Sweet’s key arguments in his presentation against limited liability.
It comes as no surprise that Sweet would link the question of debts (i.e. losses) to the question of profits. Profit and loss have a direct correlation to one another, according to Sweet. “A trader with limited or no liability is, like a corporation, an anomaly incapable of existence under any system of laws which does not make express provision for it.” In other words, limited liability does not exist unless special provision is made for it. Who, then, is responsible for debts? Liability for debts is the express privilege of those who plan to collect the profits. “A little consideration will allow us to see, that the notion of sharing in the profits of a trade, with exemption from the duty of paying for the trade debts, could not possibly be recognized in the growth of the unwritten, judicial or common law of a state; and, therefore, that no system of law needs to contain, or can logically contain, any prohibition of such trading.” For Sweet it is a matter of law and of logic that liability can be stepped around by those who plan to collect the profits. It can’t be done, he says. It is an “anomaly” to suggest there is a business person or corporation that has limited or no liability.
Recently I was speaking with a relative and we eventually arrived at the subject of contemporary Christianity and what is happening not only in Australia, but around the world. We both agreed there were problems in the world that somehow Christianity should be able to address. And we both recognized that contemporary Christianity was largely irrelevant to the problems at large. We did not get time to explore why this is so, but this essay is my attempt to suggest some of the reasons for the inability of Christians to address contemporary social issues with a distinctively Christian answer to those problems. A distinctively Christian answer is one that comes from the Bible.
What is necessary to recognize is that the problems of today go well beyond same-sex marriage and abortion. While these are important they are not the only issues that Christians should be addressing. And perhaps it is the failure of Christians to address other social issues that has led to the impotence of Christians today. For too long, Christians have been silent. But their silence was the outcome of their own mistakes. See The Evangelical Influence in the Rise of the Welfare State.
In the 19th century, for example, came the introduction of Limited Liability laws. Now limited liability was not new. There was nothing in contract law that prohibited people limiting their liability and transferring it to another person or persons. What contract law required, however, was the voluntary agreement by that person or persons to accept the liability of another person. Thus, in business, for example, two partners, (A) and (B) could agree among themselves that (B) would not be fully accountable for his liabilities. (A) could voluntarily agree to accept those liabilities. But what (A) and (B) could not do was to transfer (B)’s liabilities to Dave on the other side of town without Dave’s express approval.
Using political power to bestow benefits on the poor only encouraged the poor to expect entitlements.
The global financial crisis highlighted yet again the age-old question of government control of the economy. Can government really ‘control’ the economy and keep it in ‘balance’?
It also highlighted the changes that have gone on around the world in recent decades. China and India, for example, have become economic powerhouses, even though their economies have been centrally managed. But the significant changes in these places have not come through more government control, but with the government getting people involved in ownership in the means of production.
But the Evangelicals, convinced of the rightness of their own moral convictions, were happy to bypass the church as the agent of change and contribute to the development of state intervention.
The Russian experiment in publicly owned goods turned out to be a failure. Even after the Berlin Wall came down and the markets were liberalized, there was a period of failure, since the private economy had not established itself. The Russian leaders moved everything along with their creative bonds, given to the citizens who could then exchange them for stock ownership in companies. In other words, they made each citizen an instant capitalist to teach them the important lesson: You have to take care of yourself.
It is unfortunate that Western nations such as England lost their world economic leadership. And it is a tragedy that they lost it under the impetus of well-meaning Christians such as William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury. The Evangelical awakening following the Wesleyan revivals created a religious fervor in England of great magnitude. It promoted Christian values, and Christians saw the need to be catalysts of change. And the British parliament became the tool for righting many of the social wrongs that were evident. Whether it was slavery, children working in coal mines, or establishing a 10-hour working day, government legislation was the vehicle to usher in the new morality of the Victorian Evangelicals.