Rediscovering the Bible’s Wisdom
I was coming to the final pages of Joseph Stiglitz’s “The Price of Inequality.” One of the world’s leading economists, a Nobel Prize winner, he analysed the growing inequality in western economies, and the damaging effects this was having on consumer demand and economic growth. What solutions would he offer?
My attention was grabbed by:
“Paying attention to everyone else’s self-interest – in other words the common welfare – is in fact a precondition for one’s own ultimate well-being.”
Hadn’t St Paul written something rather similar in his letter to the Philippians?
“Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
This set me looking for points where writers, from different backgrounds, echoed Biblical truth. Adam Smith, apparently the first person to earn a living by being an economist, is a good place to start. He wrote, “If the trappings of wealth are viewed philosophically, they will always appear contemptible and trifling.”
Or, as Jesus put it, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
Moving forward in time, the great economist of the early twentieth century, John Maynard Keynes expressed his view that,
“The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied by our real problems – the problems of life and of human condition, of creation and behaviour and religion.”
I am not sure that he has been proved right yet, but isn’t there an echo of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6?
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
It was Jesus’ well known remark, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” which came up in a conversation as I crossed the Atlantic a few years ago. “That’s an interesting idea,” said the person next to me, “Who said that?”
“It was Jesus, actually,” I responded. Tim Jackson, in “Prosperity without Growth” came to a similar position:
The social logic which locks people into materialistic consumption as the basis for participating in the life of society is extremely powerful, but detrimental both ecologically and psychologically.
Or, as Danny Dorling put it more succinctly, “Wealth does not bring wonderful benefits to your life; to suggest it does is to sustain the greatest myth of our times." (“Injustice – Why social inequality still persists”)
The French writer, Thomas Piketty achieved a remarkably large readership for his “Capital in the Twenty First Century.” The book offers an extensive analysis of the economic processes which have led to growing inequality. His remedies include a tax on capital, observing that, “Without tax, society has no common destiny, and no collective action is possible.”
St Paul would have agreed with him, for he tells his Roman readers, “This is why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.”
It is more difficult to find biblical passages which offer an apt commentary on Piketty’s main thesis of inequality. Clearly there were disparities in wealth, but in the close knit communities of biblical times, closely tied to the land, most people would have been less affected by them. “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett was a ground breaking book, linking many social ills to high levels of inequality. They conclude, “Equality is better for everyone. Societies with a bigger gap between rich and poor are bad for everyone in them, including the well off.”
Old Testament principles such as the Year of Jubilee would have ensured that a gap did not open up between the prosperous and the poor. In the Magnificat Mary worships God who “exults the humble and meek” and sends “the rich empty away.” Confronted by Christian congregations whose financial circumstances were different, St Paul writes:
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, …
There are probably many other points where economists converge with biblical writers. I would be interested to develop this. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you can help.