If Jesus were chancellor

Can scripture speak to our ideals for our economy? Dr Justin Thacker explores three key principles to a moral economic framework.

I was asked to write this piece the day before the mini-budget of 23 September. At the time, the editor wanted a piece that addressed the “current state of the economy through a Christian lens”. When I agreed, neither of us realised that this topic would be quite so live! Nevertheless, this article is written to try to provide some Christian thinking about our economy and where we should be headed.

Of course, Jesus never wrote a budget, and it would be entirely misplaced to argue that the scriptures give us a detailed economic plan. Nevertheless, what the Bible does suggest are overall goals to pursue in what we call “our economy”. To my mind, there are at least three aspects to an economic policy that is going to be morally praiseworthy. They are, in no particular order:

  • Ensuring adequate employment for all that can work;
  • Enabling sufficient funding for good public services;
  • Controlling excessive inequality.

Undergirding all of these is keeping inflation under control, for high inflation defeats them all. There exists a clear biblical basis for all of these.

Adequate employment for everyone

One of the misunderstandings that can occur in relation to the book of Genesis is that we think of work as a consequence of the Fall. The garden of Eden is pictured as an eternal holiday where we lie around, eating the fruit that drops from the trees with no effort whatsoever. Work is thought only to emerge in response to Adam and Eve’s disobedience: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:19). But the reality is that work was given to humanity prior to any disobedience. In Genesis 2:15 we read that “God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it”, literally cultivate it, and that is before the Fall.

The point of this is that in our very being we are made to be productive. We were created to use the talents that God has given us to generate a flourishing earth. 

This is our God-given mandate. But such work must be adequately rewarded. We have words for work that brings no benefit to the worker: slavery or servitude. That is not what God intended. Hence, a sound economic policy is one that creates decent employment. Crucially, the employment created is not merely work for work’s sake. It is work that is adequately remunerated.

This is where our economic crisis is highly relevant. Economic commentators from across the political spectrum have pointed out how high inflation diminishes the economic value of work, as the pound in your pay packet buys less than it previously did. Unemployment may be relatively low, but if our energy prices are going up, if our food is going up, if our rent or mortgage is becoming unmanageable, the value of those jobs diminishes. Whatever else a government does, it needs to ensure not just the provision of jobs but the economic value of those jobs. Any measures that increase inflation are not the direction of travel we need.

Sufficient funding for public services

Any sound economic policy needs to ensure the populace is provided for. Now, of course, some would argue that this is misguided, that instead we need to encourage people to “stand on their own two feet”, and not be reliant on government handouts. Indeed, the scriptures are full of encouragement to take responsibility for ourselves and work for our living (Proverbs 6:10–11; 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12). None of what I’m suggesting undermines that truth. However, the problem is that some have pushed the argument for self-reliance too far. This is the case in at least two different ways.

Firstly, there are some public services that we simply cannot perform ourselves. The obvious example is national security, but even at a more local level we need the police, prison and judicial systems to protect us. Just spend a short time in a country without a functioning state to discover the impossibility of business entrepreneurship in such an environment. This is just one of the reasons why there is no such thing as a self-made person in the West. In the UK at least, any wealth creation has been entirely reliant on a foundation of security, education and healthcare, all of which were provided free at the point of delivery by the state.

The second reason we cannot just “stand on our own two feet” is that many in society are vulnerable. Until a few months ago, I had regular contact with a homeless drug-addicted man who was offered his first joint by his own mother at the age of three. She continued to fill his childhood with a drug-infused environment. Asking such a man to stand on his own two feet is simply cruel. Not all stories will be so extreme, but there are numerous people in society who badly need well-funded public services to support them. 

In the book of Galatians, in the midst of heated debates regarding the precise boundaries of the new gospel message, the one thing the early believers all seemed to agree on was that we need to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). Jesus repeatedly put at the heart of his message the command that we are to love our neighbour, pointing out elsewhere that our neighbour is whomever is in need (Luke 10:25–37).

So the questions before us are these: are we loving our neighbour when over a million elderly people in need of social care cannot get it? Are we loving our neighbour when over two million can’t afford their own food? Are we loving our neighbour when mental health services are so poorly funded that some people with severe issues are waiting years for the specialist care they require? Loving your neighbour means well-funded public services, and an economic policy that starves the public coffers is the precise reverse of that.

Controlling excessive inequality

In his outline of the mini-budget, the chancellor (Kwasi Kwarteng) suggested that we must choose between growth and redistribution, and we should choose the former. As many others have pointed out, this assertion does not quite meet the facts. In his book The Price of Inequality, the former World Bank chief economist and economics Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz argued that highly unequal societies actually curb economic growth. If we compare ourselves to two nearby countries, France and Germany, we see that both have lower levels of inequality than us and both are growing faster than us. It is a myth that tackling inequality depresses growth. Indeed, the reverse appears to be the case.

Even if that were not true, there are good biblical grounds for tackling inequality on its own terms. When Paul encouraged the Corinthians to give to the church in Jerusalem, he told us:

“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between our present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”
2 Corinthians 8:13–14

In other translations, we read “the goal is equality”. The point of this is not to suggest that there could ever be any absolute economic equality between people. Even considering the examples of redistribution by the early church in Acts 2:44–5 and 4:32–5, it does not appear to be the case that everyone had exactly the same provision. Rather, the point seems to be that redistribution occurred, at least in part, in response to need. The Jerusalem church was struggling, so Paul encouraged sharing of gifts; some in the early church were in need, so the believers sold their possessions and shared the proceeds. The question is whether we are in that position today. Are we in a situation where some have plenty and others are in need? The answer is that of course we are. As such any economic policy needs to find ways to redistribute, not just for the sake of growth, but more especially to demonstrate love for our neighbour.

If the former chancellor’s motive for his minibudget really was full and adequate employment, good public services and fostering a work hungry mentality (i.e. productivity) then at the very least we can applaud his aim, even if the way he went about it was deeply problematic. Growth that delivers those things is indeed largely good. However, that is not what occurred. Perhaps he would have done a better job if he had simply paid attention to the disciples’ advice to Paul, “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). 


 

This article is taken from the winter 2022 edition of Pathways.

Page last updated: Monday 19th December 2022 10:10 AM

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