I keep thinking of the final words of a conference speaker on faith and economics. He was a retired economics professor at a well-known Christian college. And the final question asked by an audience member, following the speaker’s talk, was this: “What is one thing you wished every pastor knew about economics?” The speaker’s answer: “That the creation of wealth is not a zero-sum game.”
Maybe the speaker was on to something, but it still continues to strike me as a very odd thing to say. I suppose the speaker was thinking about Christians who take up the cause of the poor by railing against CEO salaries and other presumed obstacles to “social justice.” Perhaps the speaker had grown weary of the assumption that wealth is some sort of fixed-size pie, which simply gets divided among people: equitably or not.
Fair enough. In addressing poverty or any other economic issue, it’s not at all helpful for Christians (or for anyone else) to use a flawed and outdated model of how wealth is created. But I still wonder about the speaker’s answer. Is the fact that “wealth is not a zero-sum game” really the most important thing a preacher or any other Christian should have in mind when thinking about economic policies and proposals?
First, let me acknowledge the force of the pro-capitalist argument that one person’s wealth doesn’t necessarily take away from anyone else’s wealth. And the argument does have real force.
My landlady, when I lived in England, had two giant apple trees in her backyard. Every autumn, each tree would produce at least 500 or so apples. All of the boarders in her house would have their fill. She would invite friends and relatives to come over and pick apples. She would try to give them to neighbors. She would still have huge quantities left over.
She couldn’t give them away to neighbors because most people on our street also had apple trees. (They grow really well in southern England.) Oh sure, you could just bring a bag of apples to a neighbor, unsolicited. “Here are the apples I saved for you.” But the neighbor would just return the favor: “Thank you, and here is the bag I saved for you!” I remember lots of people on our street putting buckets of apples on the curb with signs that said, “TAKE ME, PLEASE.”
Meanwhile, the folks in southern Spain had a different issue. I went to southern Spain once in February. Orange trees galore. GALORE. Apparently they grow like Kudzu down there. Many streets are lined with them. In February, so I discovered, the ripened oranges border on a public nuisance. They fall to the ground in the streets and get squashed by car tires. Walking down the sidewalk, you’ll step on them and roll your ankle if you’re not careful. They give naughty children unlimited ammunition.
It’s not all bad, though. Coffee shops will serve big glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice for about 50 cents. And this gets to the key issue. In southern Spain it’s incredibly efficient to produce orange juice. And they’ve already got so much of it, they’ll happily trade some of their juice for other things. For instance, they’ll happily trade with my landlady. Good thing for her, as she’s tired of gathering up rotting apples from her yard. My landlady is thrilled if she can get some orange juice in exchange for some apples. And orange farmers Juan and Maria down in Seville are thrilled to receive these apples in exchange for some of their orange juice, which is coming out of their ears by now.
So both parties are much better off than they were before. They each have more stuff than they otherwise would have had. And what if their circle of trade is expanded to include grape growers, wheat growers, cabinet makers, toilet makers, cell phone makers, and so on? Well, everybody can concentrate on making the stuff that they’re really good at producing. And by trading, everyone will end up with lots more stuff than they otherwise would have had. Wealth (as measured by the stuff one has, or the ‘standard of living’ one can enjoy) has been created.
Within this system, perhaps an inventor will create a fertilizer to help all apple growers or all orange growers produce even more fruit. Perhaps this inventor will sell the fertilizer to thousands of farmers. The inventor is probably going to get fabulously wealthy. But the farmers are also going to be better off in terms of how much stuff they’re able to gain by trading.
Or perhaps an entrepreneur will invest in ships and offer an effective way for more people to exchange more of their goods. Perhaps the entrepreneur also will become fabulously wealthy. But once again, everyone is benefiting. Wealth creation isn’t a “zero-sum game” like football or basketball, where one team winning by 10 points automatically means that another team must be losing by 10 points.
That was the most important lesson our original speaker, the Christian economist, thought every pastor should learn. It’s not a bad lesson. But in my next post I’ll offer my reasons for wondering whether this is really the economic lesson Christians should be prioritizing.
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