For good reason economics is traditionally labeled “the dismal science.”
Even the best economists in the world radically disagree with each other about how best to predict a society’s economic future and how best to program its distribution of goods so as to promote universal well-being.
One reason for that is radically differing presuppositions about wealth (defined here as the “goods” of a society).
For example, is wealth limited or can it grow? Is distributive justice a zero-sum game in which the only “real” goods are land and what is on the land, or can new wealth be created?
Distributive justice – whether religious or secular – is the determination of how best, if at all, for society to distribute its wealth. This is where economics and ethics meet.
For example, if you believe wealth can be increased, you will tend to hold a different opinion about distributive justice than if you believe it cannot be increased.
If wealth can be increased, then you might be less concerned about managing distributive justice than if you believe wealth cannot be increased.
Either way, not everyone is going to be able to share in the wealth of society due to various kinds of disabilities, such as infancy and youth, physical or mental challenges or bad luck.
Everyone is aware of the simple (even simplistic) “spectrum” of economic beliefs about distributive justice.
At the “far right” of the spectrum is the belief called “Social Darwinism” popularized by philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand. Her “objectivism,” to which many Christians also subscribe, asserts that society ought not to redistribute wealth.
Capable individuals create wealth or discover wealth, and society’s “weak” must fend for themselves. To “take from the rich and give to the poor” in any way is against nature and reason.
Of course, individuals are always free to engage in acts of charity, but society itself has no obligation to the weakest and poorest among them.
Government redistribution of wealth requires enormous government machinery that inevitably detracts from individual freedoms.
Also, helping the weak and the poor corrupts the gene pool, creates dependence and undermines incentives to discover and invent.
At the “far left” of the spectrum is communism supported by philosopher Karl Marx and those inspired by his social theories.
According to this belief, the wealth of society ought to be relatively equally distributed: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”
The weaknesses of those two “ends of the spectrum” seem obvious. Social Darwinism and its accompanying “laissez faire” capitalism leads to a social underclass composed not only of those who do not care to work but also of those who are, for various reasons, unable to work (that is, contribute to the discovery or creation of wealth or both).
Communism leads to dependence on the government and lack of incentive to discover or create wealth.
Therefore, most Western economic theorists have attempted to create economic programs of distributive justice somewhere between these two extremes.
Socialism comes in varieties, all of which attempt to combine systems of incentives and rewards (to encourage participation in invention, discovery and creation of wealth) with systems of government-managed redistribution of wealth.
In much of western and northern Europe, for example Denmark, “democratic socialism” is considered the norm.
People and corporations are taxed very highly (50 percent) and the democratically elected government manages the economy to redistribute wealth according to John Rawls’ “maximin principle” – maximizing the minimum of standard of living without abolishing freedoms or incentives.
Modern managed capitalism (non-laissez faire capitalism) also comes in varieties, all of which emphasize economic incentives for discovering and creating wealth, minimizing government intervention, management and welfare.
Here the government functions economically primarily as an “umpire” to keep corporations and individuals from becoming too powerful (for example, forbidding corporate monopolies) while at the same time encouraging wealth creation by, for example, taxing investment income at a lower rate than earned income.
Redistribution of wealth is usually restricted to free education, usually only at the primary and secondary levels, and to minimal welfare for the poor, especially the disabled.
Democratic socialism and modern managed capitalism overlap a great deal, but have different impulses that pull them toward one end of the spectrum of distributive justice or the other.
However, both see the necessity of both incentives to discover and create wealth and some degree of government management of the economy and redistribution of wealth.
There are other modern theories of economics and distributive justice, but, when carefully examined, most, if not all, fall under one of these four “umbrella” categories.
It is easy to find Christian thinkers who support all of the theories – as “middle axioms” (whether they call them that or not) for implementing Kingdom ethics within the world that is not yet the Kingdom of God.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.