Some of you may know I’ve started to study Austrian (or free market) economics. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this field and it’s amazing how much overlap there really is between economics and theology. In fact, there are some professional theologians who specialize in thinking about the theology of economics. It’s a fascinating topic to study, but I’m not sure exactly how many people are focusing on it in departments of theology or religious studies. It’s something I certainly want to learn more about, but since I’m not a Marxist, I think I’d have better luck sticking with systematic theology if I go into a PhD program. Marxism is very fashionable right now in most theology departments, which is another topic in itself.
Even with the limited amount of reading I’ve done, I have come to understand one key thing that I think is a good starting point for all Christians to bear in mind when thinking about economics: all of us are made in God’s image and by virtue of that fact, we have complete freedom of action. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should take this as a license to do anything that would harm another person. While God allows us the freedom to become as virtuous or depraved as we choose, it’s important to remember that the free market has provisions to protect people from fraud and abuse. In fact, in the long run, it’s not in a business person’s interest to cheat others or treat employees poorly because over time (all other factors being equal in a free market system), that business person will lose his customers and employees. If God allows us the freedom to choose how we conduct ourselves in this life, what business does the government have in telling us how to exchange goods and services with other human beings?
I’ll take another step to include an Orthodox Christian insight. In Orthodox theology, human beings are not only seen as being made in God’s image, we are seen as essentially good. While it is true that sin has separated us from God, the divine image was never lost and we are therefore good.
What does this insight have to do with economics? It helps us understand why the fear mongering on the part of the government needs to be ignored. The State would have us believe that we need the government to protect us from our fellow citizens. The idea goes something like this: “You can’t trust your neighbor to have guns. Let us take those from him (and you, too, while we’re at it). Trust us – we won’t do anything to harm you.” Or: “You’ve got to be wary of that free market, citizen. It’s not really all it’s cracked up to be. Your neighbor will cheat you and rob you blind in a second if you let your guard down. The free market needs rules… our rules.”
But if the scriptures and the Fathers of the Church are to be believed, then we have no reason why we should be suspicious of our fellow citizens. We should instead be suspicious of the fear mongers of the State who try to make us afraid of one another so that they might attain more power. The natural order for human beings is community and I think this is connected to the fact that we are made in the image of the Trinity. All three Persons have been living in perfect love and community with one another from eternity – this is Who we’ve been created by and we are reflections of Him. As it is in God’s nature to act in cooperation and harmony with other Persons, we are likewise made to act in harmony with other human beings.
All of this, of course, is not to minimize the place of sin in this world. Without God, all of us are prone to fall into selfishness or egotism. Only by God’s unending grace can we be healed of our spiritual sickness and become fully human. Nevertheless, when thinking about economics, a Christian must never forget where, or rather Who, we come from. This is the beginning of sound economic thinking from a Christian perspective.