Wealth Creation and Labor as and for Human Flourishing

The below represents the transcript of a speech I gave June 4, 2015, in Phoenix, AZ at the Collegiate Academy of the Alliance Defending Freedom. The audience was extremely active and ambitious and worldview-oriented undergrad college students in their upperclassmen years. The topic is approached with no pretense that it will be exhaustive, but with an angle that was very much intentional.

I want to preface my comments today on this topic which is so near-and-dear to my heart with a word of gratitude for Jeff Ventrella and his co-laborers at the Alliance Defending Freedom. I assume you all believe this as well and that is why you are here this week, but the work ADF is doing ranks them in the domain of heroes as far as culture warriors and Kingdom warriors go. Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, and if I am speaking to an audience so young that they have never heard of this masterpiece of a movie, I officially give up and count myself as a senior citizen at the age of 41, “deep down in places you don’t talk about parties, you WANT me on that wall; you NEED me on that wall”. For those of us who believe in the vision of the founders for this country, and for those of us who believe in the Kingdom mission assigned to us both in creation and again in the Great Commission, we WANT and we NEED organizations like ADF on the wall. I have been blessed to serve on their Blackstone Institute faculty for over ten years now and have seen firsthand what ADF is doing to prepare the next generation of legal thought leaders. Events like what you are attending this week excite someone like myself who is committed to fighting the good fight because it encourages me to see your enthusiasm and participation as attendees, and because I know the good men and women of ADF are advancing the cause. My pitch for ADF goes beyond their organizational mission and effectiveness, though. Jeff is, in the core of his being, a servant. He doesn’t judge people for their lowest moments but facilitates their highest moments. Only the Lord restores the years the locusts have eaten, but friends and co-laborers like Jeff are setting the table for a glorious banquet ahead.

With that said, I would like to introduce for you the topic I am hear to speak about today, and that is the benign, non-controversial, simple field of economics, wealth, money, calling, vocation, and affluence. Many ideological topics these days provoke great emotion and disagreement, but not this topic. The idea that economic growth is an engine for lifting people out of poverty, even though the “winnings” from that growth may not be equally distributed – indeed, should not be equally distributed – in a market economy is surely not controversial.

But alas, I must remove the tongue from the side of my cheek now. For indeed, the positions I will promote today are exponentially more controversial today – both in society at large, AND in the church – then you would ever imagine them to be. The reality is that some of this controversy is warranted – a theology of wealth is more complicated than the politics of wealth ought to be. And much of the controversy is rooted in ignorance – basic lack of economic premise training has created a world of problems with conclusions generated. Sadly, this is what I suspect takes place in the church more often than not, and it is what folks like myself and my dear co-laborers at the Acton Institute are trying to remedy. But fundamentally, if we get the theology right and then the economics right, will we all draw the same conclusions? Maybe not. Certainly not in all of the details. But let’s at least start with some foundational truisms and see if we can’t improve the odds a bit.

I am going to lay out as my speech’s Thesis Statement the following:

“God’s desire from creation is for man to be economic agents of growth, and laborers who glorify Him in their productivity. The economic and existential implications of this are that we may grow in our material blessings while also growing in joy and contentment for our vocational callings. The responsibilities of this are that we flee from pride and idolatry, and maintain the heart and habits of a tithing cheerful giver”

Now that is sort of a mouthful, and I would not be surprised if you find yourselves unwilling to accept each piece of this thesis statement at face value. So I will now break it apart in pieces.

It is no coincidence that I started with the doctrine of creation. The doctrine of creation is where I get my capitalism, and I get it straight from Genesis chapter 1. It is why secular Randianism does not cut it for me, even when she (or they) often get things accidentally right. I have often said that there are few things more frightening than an evangelical Randian, and what I mean by that is when one gets certain conclusions right with wrong premises it usually falls apart rather spectacularly; but when one falls into that same trap of wrong premises/right conclusions WITH BIBLE VERSES SPRINKLED AROUND, all hell breaks loose. The need of the hour is a better anthropology – an understanding of God’s intentions with men from the outset of creation – and for that to color our worldview as we apply it to economics.

And what that anthropology does is teach us that God made man in His image. It teaches us that God made man with dignity. It teaches us that God made man to grow in communion with Him, while stewarding the earth, and “making it big”. Growing it. Multiplying it. Being fruitful with it. I just said the entire tenet of free market growth economics with three or four buzz words, all of which were plagiarized from Genesis 1:27-28. But the appearance of the words is an inadequate argument – the normative and the theology are where the power lies: God made us special; He made us with souls; and He manifested this dignity and this special creation status by what???? Asking us to work. Asking us to cultivate the garden. Asking us to be creative by naming the animals. Asking us to grow and subdue that creation. In Genesis 1, in the very doctrine of creation, you get BOTH the early foundations of free market capitalism, and you even get the early foundations of environmentalism. Now, the left has so bastardized the term that I can respect folks preferring words like stewardship etc., but the reality is that all of my opposition to statist fraudulent token environmentalism does not change the fact that the Christian man and woman is a worker – a steward – of the earth.

“Okay. So David, we are economic agents of productivity and growth from creation. But sin came? What about the fall? Didn’t that change everything?”

It sure did. What God made beautiful and core to our existential purpose (work) now was accompanied by the curse of toil – of anxiety – of pressure. God didn’t curse work after the fall; He added the curse of toil to the blessing of work. If the work itself is a curse than one has no choice exegetically but to also conclude that the birth of children is also now a curse. We seem to have no problems getting that part right – that the blessing of children and of womanhood (am I still allowed to use the word “womanhood”?) is accompanied by pain in childbirth etc. We don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, no pun intended. Yet with work, theological laziness has caused us to conclude that work itself is a curse – of no interest to God – and a mere necessary evil.

And this ignores the second theological doctrine we must cover. The doctrine of redemption. I do not merely believe that God created the world, and by the way, created it for us to be economic agents of growth who find much of our meaning and purpose in creation mandate functions (growing – building – developing – etc.). I also believe He is presently redeeming this world to Himself, and that redemption includes His people, which is to say us. I believe that this story of redemption is both soteriological (the salvation of our eternal souls) but also experiential and comprehensive. In our fallen state, we are not static, but living under grace, being redeemed day by day with purpose and calling towards a future Edenic state. I do believe part of this material – the Garden was a material and physical beauty, and the streets paved with gold will be the same – but I really don’t need that point to stick right now. The redemption message becomes important because I will argue that while this canvas gets painted out, it gets painted out with our creation mandate come to fruition. Yes, we work with toil under the curse; yes, we grow and cultivate with the hindrance of sin and this side of the fall; but in this great redemption, we work as image-bearers of Christ, which is to say co-creators with God. He is created us to go create. And whether we have ever heard this terminology before or find it prima facie comfortable, the fact of the matter is that for many of us this co-creation as image bearers of God comes in the marketplace.

Creation and Redemption lay out the exegetical foundation for us to work with dignity, and to enjoy the fruits of our labor as we build. I am offering no specificity at this point as to what that means for you – as to whether or not our building and cultivating and growing is to be as a violinist, an attorney, an entrepreneur, or a portfolio manager. I am making no argument for whether or not the earned wages should be $50,000 per year or $50,000 per week. What I am arguing is that God didn’t make us to work because He hates us, but because He loves us. And in His love, it is His heart’s desire that we be fulfilled in our calling, achieving maximum dignity. “But David, life doesn’t work that way. Sometimes it’s just a miserable grind.” And how right you are! But through that grind is what the incomparable Arthur Brooks calls “earned success”. A minimization of economic productivity, or worse, a welfare state aiming to redistribute wealth so as to change the distribution of prosperity – robs people of a success they can earn – of the dignity that God intended for them in creation.

Perhaps the most tragic contribution the left has made to our basic way of thinking is that they have taken away the very possibility of success in our society, and they have done that, ironically enough, by tirelessly working to take away the possibility of failure. Let me say it stronger, for I am not making a technical point or an academic one. We have strangled the glory and triumph of success right out of our lives when we operate as if failure is something to be ashamed of – something to be loathed – something to be artificially avoided. The unintentional consequence of trying to neuter failure is to annihilate success – to strip away from man the most essential and greatest achievement he can ever feel – the success that comes with overcoming failure. Success does not exist without failure. When you attempt to eliminate valleys you only succeed in eliminating peaks. When a disinterested third party like Uncle Sam comes in with their nanny intentions of delivering everyone a sort of unearned success, they not only strive to do the impossible, they rob man of the drama, the dignity, the glory of real success. This, my friends, is an unforgivable act by an out of control magistrate. It must be stopped.

If it seems like In just upped the ante out of the theological and to the political, you may be right, but I only did so with the explicit theological foundations I tried to present just before. The secular greed-is-good camp that probably thinks the same way I do about minimum wage laws, price controls, and govt regulation misses something pivotally important here: When you START your defense of affluence and achievement with something man-centered and not God-centered, you will HAVE to admit at some point that you have NO BASIS for stopping at what is legal, or what a plurality of people say you should and should not do, or what a market may punish you for doing, etc. YOUR anthropology is Darwinian – you have no right to tell someone that accounting fraud is unproductive, or Ponzi schemes are dangerous – for truth to be told, accounting fraud and Ponzi schemes are HYPER productive IF you do not get caught … And if that is all the Randian secularists want to say – that the highest ethic is not getting caught – let them come out and say it. But for those of us defending the profit motive, defending the accumulation of wealth, and defending the free and open marketplace as the ideal venue for human interaction and exchange, let us do it with the right premises – that God created man with dignity, and that dignity is compromised when we make him a dependent ward of the state. Let us say that the profit motive is good, not for the purpose of creating false idols, or storing up treasures for moths to destroy, but because we are by creation profit-creators – agents of growth. We are entitled to the fruits of our labor, even as we vigilantly maintain hearts of humility, hearts of generosity, and hearts of compassion.

The current political environment is not isolated from the current ecclesial environment. Largely because today’s compromised church spends so much time playing catch-up with the world, but it is both in the church and political paradigm that we find income inequality to be the pressing issue of the day. And with a Bible that so comprehensively discusses motivations, incentives, work ethics, prudence, responsibility for the poor, and other such crucial elements of conversation, is anyone else perplexed that the singular element we have chosen to reign in on is the DELTA – the spread between rich and poor? In an economy struggling to grow at 2%, the delta between rich and poor – a delta that can no more be resolved by policy than most any other economic issue – is the least of our concerns. Would the bottom 25% of earners bemoan the wealth of the top 1% if the whole economy was growing at 5%? I know the answer to this because history has provided it. Emphatically, no. Politics of guilt and envy will always be there, but the sort of systematic obsession with income inequality is a misdirected frustration over absolute growth, not relative growth. The reality is that the poor are richer than they were 20, 30, and 40 years ago, and they are so exponentially. The rich are richer too, and in many cases more so. The late and great Lady Thatcher famously said to her socialist opponents, “You’d rather the poor be poorer, just so long as the rich not be richer.” The Bible provides no ethic centered around relative wealth. The objective of believers and those seeking economic enlightenment is total growth, the absolute kind that lifts all boats. Leftist ideology and statist redistributionism may very well grab on to income inequality for political points, but I believe there is the aforementioned flawed anthropology at play as well. Lest I be so cynical, they may really get this thing that wrong after all! What I mean by that is they may honestly prefer a magic wand of policy to somehow make the rich slightly less rich and the poor slightly less poor, all the while failing to understand that (a) Such a thing is most certainly not sustainably possible, and (b) It denies folks of their dignity, who were created by God to earn success

There are a lot of reasons – some complex and some simple – that income inequality has expanded in our society. I could address some of that in Q&A if so desired. But I don’t want to make this any more political than it has to be. Income inequality is a faddish consequence of the zero-sum fallacy – the belief that there exists a fixed amount of global wealth, and that one actor’s gain in wealth comes about as a result of another actor’s loss of wealth. This is the economic thinking abyss we find ourselves in. And while I want to blame John Maynard Keynes and Paul Krugman and the other great 20th century statist economists who sincerely did get so much wrong, the reality is that our First Things gave us the doctrine of economic growth. One man does not get richer by stealing from another in the Biblical ethic, because stealing is wrong, and dishonors the dignity of he or she who is being stolen from. The rich need not get richer by stealing from the poor, AND THE POOR NEED NOT GET RICHER BY STEALING FROM THE RICH. In the free and virtuous society, they both can get richer together as the total wealth pie expands – regardless of the distribution therein – from activities of growth, productivity, and innovation. You know, then kind of activities we were created for!

There is no dispute as to what the cure for global poverty is. It is not in wealth redistribution, but rather in wealth creation. It is in cultivating a society of not just wealth consumers, but actual wealth producers. It is in generating not just job-seekers, but job creators. As global poverty has decreased by 80% since the year of 1974 when I was born, no person of compassionate intelligence can argue that our work is done. People remain in need, and the resources of the world are such that it need not be this way. But the 80% reduction came about via economic growth. Always and forever, growth.

What I am positing is less complex than a defense of the 1% of the 1%. I am positing a defense of the material blessings that result from vocational calling – from hard work – from the creation mandate. I am promoting the improved mental health and serenity that comes from earning one’s success. I am calling for a Christian church to vigorously embrace their God-given responsibilities to care for the poor, to steward the environment, and to be cheerful and generous givers. And I am pleading for all of us to not just do for the pragmatic efficiencies a market economy represents, but because of the principled foundations we know in our First Things – the doctrines of creation and redemption.