Some on the evangelical right seem to be scared right now, especially in the US.
In recent years there’s been a slew of books attacking progressive economic policies and in the process defending right wing economic orthodoxy.
Such books include For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution, and Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem.
What marks these books out is not so much their economics but how they are framed as a solution to poverty. It is as if they know that the way into evangelical hearts is by appealing to our concern for the poor, so they dress up right wing economic policy in the clothes of compassion.
The way this is done is by the well-known either-or fallacy:
1. Set up a polarity between two options claiming that these are the only possibilities.
2. Present the option they don’t like in its worst possible flavour
3. Present the option they do favour as the only realistic alternative
So for instance, it is suggested that the only choices are complete economic equality (which is impossible) or unrestricted inequality – hence we have to choose the latter; or that any business has to decide between making a loss (and therefore going out of business) or unlimited profit as if ‘not for profits’ simply didn’t exist; or that the only political options are redistributive socialism/communism and entirely unfettered free market capitalism – and once again, unless we all want to end up in the gulags, capitalism is the answer.
Is there such a thing as a ‘Biblical economic policy’?
Let me give you two specific examples of the kind of capitalism that is being championed here as Biblical. One author defends as sound economics a businessman who hikes their petrol prices tenfold in the wake of a hurricane, making huge profits in the process, simply because in the context of a natural disaster they can get away with this. Another writes ‘Government welfare or “relief” programs encourage idleness, break up families, produce intergenerational dependency and hopelessness, cost taxpayers a fortune, and…’
What is ignored in all of this is the possibility of reform of the free market without its complete abandonment. Many economists such as Ann Pettifor, Ha-Joon Chang and Richard Murphy don’t call for a socialist overthrow of the free market but rather its radical reform – to make it more fair and just. This option just isn’t considered and possibly this is because they know they would lose the argument if it became a live possibility. The only way to defend neoliberal free market capitalism is to suggest the alternative is communism.
So what would such reforms look like? Well, they are not that radical, they are what any evangelical who takes scripture seriously might think. They include support for the living wage, a comprehensive and strong welfare system, a progressive tax structure, strong banking and financial regulation, and a serious (rather than apparent) clamp down on tax avoidance.
Is this all Biblical? Is there such a thing as a ‘Biblical economic policy’? The truth is that I don’t think there is, at least in a detailed and comprehensive way. But in the words of Paul in Galatians 2:10, I do think our economic policy should at the very least ‘continue to remember the poor’. The kind of capitalism being proposed by these authors – despite the titles of their books – simply does not do that.