Archive for June, 2010

The New Culture War: Free Enterprise vs. Big Government

The Battle: How the Fight between Free Enterprise and Big Government Will Shape America's FutureThroughout my childhood I was taught to live honestly, work hard, and pursue my dreams. It always seemed pretty generic. After all, it’s sort of the American disposition, which is probably why I never thought to question it.

That is, until I went to college.

From the start of my freshman year, I was bombarded by claims that capitalism was “immoral” and that the pursuit of happiness was selfish, materialistic, and possibly evil. Life was no longer about honing your free will or achieving your dreams, but about outsourcing such “burdens” to the benevolent State.

I had always believed that free enterprise was just and moral simply because it made sense. But here I was, surrounded by smart people, being asked to defend my political beliefs on moral grounds. I didn’t necessarily think I was wrong, but I felt stunned, overwhelmed, and confused.

I found myself in the middle of a moral struggle.

It is this type of struggle that Arthur Brooks hopes to capture in his new book, The Battle: How the Fight Between Free Enterprise and Big Government will Shape America’s Future.

Although such struggles have been going on since the beginning of time, Brooks sees a distinct battle over free enterprise taking place at the forefront of our current political discourse. Now is the time, Brooks believes, for the free enterprise movement to face its enemy (“big government”) head on.

Brooks, who is president of the American Enterprise Institute, is no stranger to discussions of morality and public policy. His previous two books (Who Really Cares? and Gross National Happiness) closely examine such issues with specific focuses on charity and happiness, but this time around, Brooks is not interested in mere social analysis. Above all, The Battle is a call to action.

Brooks begins by diagnosing the country, which he believes is in the middle of an aggressive culture war over the fate of the free enterprise system. Although he claims that the movement retains a vast majority of the American people (approximately 70 percent), Brooks is convinced that the remaining 30 percent have gained the moral high ground and have thus been able to seize the reins of policymaking.

Brooks then moves on to a dissection of the (very) recent financial crisis — a particularly good specimen for showing how capitalism can be wrongly accused (especially on moral grounds). Brooks walks the reader through what he calls the “Obama narrative” of the crisis, pointing out each distortion and fallacy along the way (and there are plenty).

Brooks believes that through a mix of misplaced good intentions, lust for power, and good old-fashioned hypocrisy, the free enterprise movement has Read the rest of this entry »

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Artificial Wealth: King Solomon on the Stimulus

King Solomon

Is King Solomon at odds with John Maynard Keynes?

I usually try to keep my political perspective out of my Scripture reading, but as I was reading Proverb 13:11 last night, I couldn’t help but think of the stimulus:

Wealth [not earned but] won in haste or unjustly or from the production of things for vain or detrimental use [such riches] will dwindle away, but he who gathers little by little will increase [his riches].

This would apply to plenty of other get-rich-quick-schemes, but our country seems to have bought into the faulty Keynesian notion that the government can cure bad decision-making by centralizing it.

In short, the government’s attempts to “create” wealth amount to what Solomon calls “wealth won in haste.” Governments are certainly capable of using some funds wisely, but this is rarely the case. Plenty of Keynesians would say this is primarily about stabilization, but even if that’s true, what are we trying to stabilize?

In the end, ours is a system that is overspent and spoiled.

Basically, there isn’t much point to “stopping the bleeding” when the body has too much blood in the first place. (Yes, it’s a problematic metaphor to begin with, but that’s my point.)

What I want to get across is that most long-term economic improvement takes time. There will be economic booms and times of rapid expansion, but that usually has to do with incremental (read: “little by little”) improvements made among free individuals.

Bolstering trade and innovation may not be as Read the rest of this entry »

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A Necessary Distinction: Public Justice vs. Social Justice

ChristianityToday recently conducted a brief interview with Gideon Strauss, the new CEO of The Center for Public Justice. I came across the interview through a post by David T. Koyzis over at First Things.

Koyzis was struck by one of Strauss’ answers regarding how we define justice, and I found it equally refreshing. Strauss was asked to define “justice” and explain how it differs from “public justice” and “social justice.”

He answered with this:

In the biggest sense, justice is when all God’s creatures receive what is due them and contribute out of their uniqueness to our common existence. We are called to do justice in every sphere of our lives: how I love and educate my daughters, collaborate with my colleagues, interact with neighbors. Public justice is the political aspect—the work of citizens and political office bearers shaping a public life for the common good. Social justice is the civil society counterpart—nonpolitical organizations that promote justice.

I think Strauss makes very good distinctions here, and I think such distinctions are sorely needed in our public discourse.

I only wish that more Christians were as careful in their use of the terminology. I think it is more often the case that those calling for “social justice” also advocate a partnership with the government Read the rest of this entry »

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Jesus and the Rich Man: A Call to Radical Individualism

Christ and the Young Rich Man by Heinrich Hofmann (1889)

Christ and the Young Rich Man by Heinrich Hofmann (1889)

Discussions of earthly systems almost always come down to disagreements over the use of capital — how it is distributed, created, or managed. Therefore, if we are concerned with the heavenly implications of our earthly systems, we must come to terms with how God views our earthly wealth.

Both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke include a story where Jesus addresses this topic directly. In the story, Jesus asks a wealthy man to give all that he has to the poor. Since plenty of people use the story as an excuse to demonize wealth and the creation of it, I wanted to clarify my thoughts on the matter.

The wealthy man begins the conversation by asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, to which Jesus answers with this:

You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’

When the rich man explains that he has done these things since childhood, Jesus responds with this challenge:

One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will havetreasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

Upon hearing this, the rich man becomes very sad and turns away, effectively rejecting the call of Christ. After the man leaves, Jesus explains the situation to His disciples with this now-popular refrain:

How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

It is here where most people end the story. The moral, they tell us, is that wealth is bad and sacrifice is good — for if it is so difficult for the rich to get into heaven, certainly Jesus would advocate Read the rest of this entry »

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Environmental Entrepreneurship: Plastic Bags in Nairobi

When the environment gets neglected, we hear that government needs to take action. When the economy goes down the tubes, we are told that bureaucrats must come to our rescue.

But for Evans Githinji, a 32-year-old entrepreneur in Kenya, achieving prosperity and exhibiting proper stewardship is simply a matter of imagination and initiative. Kenya’s economy is far from thriving, yet Githinji has found a way to both curb environmental harm and bring value to his economy despite his disadvantages.

Hear his story here:

As the video tells us, Githinji’s efforts have led to the opening of 23 collection yards, each of which employs 100 youths in collecting plastic bags.

“I feel great,” says Githinji. “And I feel I’m doing something good for this nation.”

But would it have been better if the Kenyan government had stepped in long ago? Would it have been more efficient if taxpayer money had been poured into dumptrucks and garbage collectors? Would the government have a better grasp on wage rates than Githinji does? Would it be better for Kenyans if the government banned Read the rest of this entry »

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Jay Richards: “Can a Good Christian Be a Socialist?”

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Does being a good Christian go beyond profession of faith?

Jay Richards, author of Money, Greed, and God, recently made a post on The American asking whether a good Christian can be a socialist.

The question itself is enough to stir up plenty of ire among socialists, particularly because nobody likes to feel judged. But while I don’t believe we can or should make judgments about an individual’s personal salvation (see Matthew 7), I do think it’s healthy to ask whether certain belief systems are consistent with others.

Richards begins by emphasizing that brazen trust in the State does not necessarily negate one’s trust in the Christian God:

“I think one could trust God and affirm, say, the Nicene Creed (the touchstone of Christian orthodoxy), while also believing that the state ought to own the means of production and determine all the basic terms of the market, such as price and production. There have been many such people. It’s not my place to question either their sincerity or their status in the eyes of God.”

However, Richards then adds a caveat, arguing that being a good Christian — i.e. pursuing Christ beyond basic salvation — includes “working out the wider implications of one’s worldview.”

So when we work out the wider implications of socialism (as Richards suggests), what do we find?

“[S]ocialism, despite its compassionate rhetoric, inevitably involves gross violations of the right to private property—otherwise known as theft. That right is presupposed in at least two of the Ten Commandments (you shall not steal and you shall not covet your neighbor’s possessions).

Socialism estranges individuals from the right to the fruits of their labor. It allows a centralization of power utterly contrary to truth that all human beings are fallen. It harms the poor by decimating the information and incentives needed to abundantly Read the rest of this entry »

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From Poverty to Prosperity: Human Ingenuity and the Triumph over Scarcity

From Poverty to Prosperity: Intangible Assets, Hidden Liabilities and the Triumph over ScarcityLet’s say there’s an apple. I want to eat the apple and you want to eat the apple. Both of us can’t eat the same apple. We can divide it. We can determine who is more hungry. We can figure out who is willing to pay a greater price for it. We can find out who wants the core and who wants the seeds. But no matter how much we deliberate, we cannot share the apple in its entirety.

Economics used to be about how to distribute the apple most efficiently, but the world is changing. Although physical resources remain scarce, human innovation has flourished to the point where we can do much more with much less, and few have bothered to explain how or why.

Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz try to tackle this phenomenon in their new book, From Poverty to Prosperity: Intangible Assets, Hidden Liabilities and the Lasting Triumph over Scarcity. In the book, the authors try to grasp this new way of thinking by terming it Economics 2.0. Where Economics 1.0 saw the market as a means for allocating scarce resources (e.g. apples), Economics 2.0 sees the market as a mechanism for channeling innovation and triumphing over scarcity.

In the beginning of the book, the authors use laundry (of all things) to illustrate the difference. Economics 1.0 would try to explain how it might be more efficient for you to outsource your ironing to someone else. Economics 2.0, on the other hand, doesn’t look at the tangible items in the equation (the number of shirts, the cost of an iron, the cost of dry cleaning, etc.). Instead, Economics 2.0 is primarily concerned with the potential for innovation. For example, what about permanent press? What about wrinkle-free shirts?

As the authors explain:

Thanks to technical progress, many shirts today do not need to be ironed at all. Perhaps in another decade or two they will not need to be washed. Given the likely progress of nanotechnology, there is a good chance that shirts manufactured in 2020 will be ‘permanent clean.’ That’s Economics 2.0.

Another way to look at this is through what Kling and Schulz call the “software layer” of an economy. While Economics 1.0 is concerned with tangible inputs like labor and capital, Economics 2.0 is concerned with the intangible factors, such as collective intelligence, the existence of property rights, and levels of corruption. You can have all of the right hardware for a Read the rest of this entry »

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Freedom from Porn: Steve Jobs Shapes Culture

Steve Jobs

Apple CEO Steve Jobs wants to offer "freedom from porn" to his consumers.

Steve Jobs has been making waves by saying that he wants the iPad and other Apple products to be “porn-free.”

Jobs has offered several reasons for this, but all of his statements seem to indicate a general desire to shape the culture of his company, as well as its consumers.

For a glimpse into Jobs’ views on the matter, I recommend reading his e-mail exchange with blogger Ryan Tate, which seems to be getting the most attention from the media.

Tate began the exchange by sending Jobs an e-mail that said the following:

“If [Bob] Dylan was 20 today, how would he feel about your company? Would he think the iPad had the faintest thing to do with ‘revolution’? Revolutions are about freedom.”

Surprisingly, Jobs actually responded to Tate’s e-mail, and his response included this jab:

“Yep, freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin’, and some traditional PC folks feel their world is slipping away. It is.”

There are plenty of interesting facets to this situation — particularly regarding the recent goings on between Apple and Adobe — but what I want to focus on is Jobs’ statement about “freedom from porn.” What strikes me is that it echoes a Biblical concept that plenty of Christians don’t even grasp. I doubt that Jobs is rooting his worldview in the Bible (he’s a Buddhist), but I think it’s encouraging to see such a prominent figure making these arguments.

Many “liberation” types argue that freedom means the right to do anything you want, which may be true from a purely literal perspective. But holistically speaking, the Bible depicts freedom as something a bit more complex. In the Bible, real freedom isn’t as much about Read the rest of this entry »

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The Sin Police: Can the State Redeem You?

If you haven’t heard yet, Republican candidate Rand Paul made some controversial remarks about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paul’s basic argument was that we should prohibit racial discrimination by the government, but we should not intrude on the right of private businesses to practice bigotry.

The media firestorm over Paul’s comments seems to have subsided (for now), but the massive reaction affirms how many people believe it is the role of the State to be the sin police.

Pastor and theologian Douglas Wilson was recently asked to comment on the controversy, and his response brings up many issues worth thinking about.

Watch the video of his response here:

Wilson begins by saying the reaction and hype was spawned by a root problem in our society:

The problem that plagues us in our political discourse is that we don’t understand the difference between sins and crimes.

What Wilson means is that we always rush to pass laws to prohibit things we don’t approve of.  For Wilson, this common perspective comes from a misplaced worship Read the rest of this entry »

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Moonshine or the Kids: Greed as a Poverty Trap

If you had $12 extra, would you buy a few drinks or send your kids to school?

Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a column discussing an often-ignored detail about poverty-stricken cultures — that the poor are prone to the same vices as the rich.

The poorest of the world certainly don’t have much to live on — the World Bank claims it’s as little as $1 a day — but what is even more startling is how wasteful people can be when they have so little.

Kristof sums up the problem this way:

“[I]f the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.”

We often hear about how the West is prosperous because of unfettered greed, but what many fail to see is how greed is an inherently human characteristic that rarely leads to any sustainable good.

Kristof provides several instances where the extremely poor choose to put self-indulgent (and self-destructive) habits in front of basic necessities (e.g. education, mosquito nets, medicine, etc.). For one Congolese family, the Obamzas, the father chooses to spend $12 a month on alcohol rather than pay $2.50 a month for each of his children’s school tuition. He also refuses to pay $6 for a mosquito net, even though two of his children have already died from malaria.

In this case, it appears that irrational self-interest is the primary culprit. The socio-economic conditions of the Congo Republic are bad enough as it is, but here we can see how one man’s greed is Read the rest of this entry »

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