The United States has found itself in a tremulous economy over the last two years. Perhaps in an attempt to forestall the downward slide of things, Americans elected a President in 2008 who wants to take the profits of small-business owners and “spread the wealth around” to those with smaller incomes (Bandyk, 2008). So it may be a good time to discuss whether it is society’s responsibility to redistribute property and wealth to make things more balanced.
I would agree that there is some responsibility inherent upon every man to try to make life more balanced for everyone. There is a standard of living that should be readily available to every single person on earth; a roof over their head, clean water to drink and enough food to sustain them. I would also argue that everyone should have certain resources within their grasp and that a strong moral framework is imperative to making the world a better place to live.
The Old Testament has been used as a moral compass for entire civilizations for several millennia. Written between the 10th and the 2nd century BC, it is the cornerstone on which Judaism and Christianity are built (Upshur, Terry, Holoka, Goff, & Cassar, 2002). While neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament (collectively called”The Bible”) contains a chapter specific to economics, it does offer some advice in the form of parables and stories. However it seems that the Bible references to wealth most commonly used suggest that it is inherently evil.
Long has there been division between economics and Christianity because of it. The clergy is one example, giving up all worldly possessions in service to God. Christian Charities abound, offering food, clothing and shelter to the poor. At no time is a Christian a better example, it would seem, than when they are helping those less fortunate than themselves. After centuries of discussion and rampant interpretation of the books of the Bible, there is still an implied shame upon those who are “rich”.
Can there be no common ground between Christianity and economics? Surprisingly there seems to be a movement, at least in some quarters, towards compromise. “Christians today need to place the modern world within a narrative of faith,” suggest the authors of Economic Theory and Christian Belief (Britton & Sedgwick, 2003, p. 291). Yet another article suggests that one must put the teachings of the Bible into perspective of today’s world where the common man does not herd sheep or own an ox. “What does this mean about my behavior in my life today?” the article asks (Blank, 1992).
At least half of the Bible is thousands of years old. Even the New Testament was written many centuries ago. Were it not a religious book, but a historical one, there would be no question that the stories told within are not always relevant to modern day situations. Just as the story of the tortoise and the hare suggests that “slow and steady wins the race” suggests a moral guideline to follow, so does the Bible (Aesop). I believe the most prolific advice the Bible has for living a moral life is in the form of the Ten Commandments from The Book of Exodus. Short, sweet and to the point, these ten items pretty much sum it up for those of faith.
Even if one does not believe in the Christian God and disregards the first four commandments as irrelevant, the rest of them are solid advice to all of mankind; regardless of whom or what they believe in. Religions have been the basis for morality since the beginning of time. Each religion suggests, at a minimum, a philosophy on how to live one’s life and offers a reason for doing so; whether that reason be the lure of Heaven, the threat of Hell, the promise of reincarnation or a means to break the cycle of life, death and rebirth (Hopfe & Woodward, 2009).
The Eastern religions of Sikhism, Jainism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism tend more towards introspection, right living and balance between man and the universe. The four tend to believe that man is intrinsically good by nature, and that outside influences are evil. All of these religions are more a way of life or a philosophy than a religion.
Sikhism, Jainism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Buddhism and Hinduism all have aspects of karma and reincarnation to them; it would seem to be the common thread between them. In addition, each of these religions suggests a way of life, and often a structure of government, such as the caste system of the Hindus and the feudal system suggested by Confucianism. These religions are all very spiritual, with emphasis on universal energies and natural flows. While rituals are a part of some of these religions, there is much focus on the inner man, finding ones place in the universe and on moral living.
Each of these religions, or ways of life, suggests a moral standard to live by with salvation left to man to obtain though his own actions and choices. Regardless of whether one believes in one God, or many, or none, or chooses to believe in the energies of the universe, karma and reincarnation, and looks forward to Heaven or a final release from life or something in between, there is a common thread of morality and choice. Is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” very different from “what comes around goes around?” Each of these religions would suggest not.
So why would it be hard to reconcile what would seem an almost universal agreement to live a moral life to economics? The short answer is greed; the proliferation of it as well as the fear of it. Bible parables suggest that rich men have little hope of getting into heaven, but it seems grossly unfair to equate wealth to damnation. Does the gain of wealth break the commandment “thou shalt not steal? (Holy Bible)” No, the gain of profit in business, by either enterprise or individual, does not imply that anyone was robbed.
The primary goal of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value, however this does not and should not mean that it is the only goal of a corporation; nor does it alleviate the company from ethical, moral, legal or environmental responsibilities. During the last few decades companies have learned the hard way that unethical, immoral and illegal behavior can destroy a company. If there’s no company, there’s no shareholder value. Yes, managers should grow a company, but they should do it the right way. Profits and social responsibility are not mutually exclusive.
In a perfect society everyone would have the same basic privileges; shelter, food and water. Just as salvation is typically considered up to the individual in the spiritual world, financial security and opportunity are up to the individual in the material world. One makes one’s own destiny. Those willing to work for a better life should be entitled to it. Those unwilling will at least have the basics.
Perhaps one of the best examples I have heard of redistributing wealth is the Mormon food bank system. I am not Mormon and confess that the bulk of my understanding of Mormonism is based on one friend and her family. We have had many long talks about religion and society over the past few years and I have gained a respect for her and her church through the process. While I would balk at giving ten percent of my income to charity, Mormons do it every week. They also make a specific point to save up to a year’s worth of food in their homes for use during an emergency or when times get rough. Times like the recent recession.
Another facet of the Mormon religion is what resembles a private welfare system. Food, counseling, employment services and other facilities are made available to Mormons with the intent to make them more self-sufficient. The food is provided by Mormon owned farms and the services volunteered by other members. In the middle of modern day society, rampant with greed and selfishness, there exists a society that at least attempts to redistribute property and wealth to balance the material and spiritual lives of its followers. With the country in a recession, the program has seen a twenty percent increase in demand over the last year, but has “seamlessly” kept up with demands (Kuruvila, 2009).
Motivated by faith, it appears to me that the Mormons have done what the premise of this paper asks is possible. Whether I believe in all of their teachings or not, I believe that in this they have been a silent role model. So perhaps it is faith that is missing from the economic models of today; and with faith comes moral values. As society pushes ever forward revealing all of the mysteries of life with science, promoting and rewarding selfish behavior, ridiculing old fashioned values and beliefs and discarding the values of our ancestors I believe we are moving further away from a society where things can be balanced, but I do believe it’s possible, if we just have faith.
Aesop. Aesop's Fables.
Bandyk, M. (2008, October 16). Capital Commerce. Retrieved August 16, 2009, from U.S. News & World Report: http://www.usnews.com/blogs/capital-commerce/2008/10/16/did-barack-spread-the-wealth-obama-just-blow-the-election.html
Blank, R. (1992). What does the Bible say about economics? Retrieved August 16, 2009, from Progressive Christian Witness: http://www.progressivechristianwitness.org/pcw/pdf/Blank_Economics.pdf
Britton, A., & Sedgwick, P. (2003). Economic theory and Christian belief. Bern, Oxford Peter Lang.
Hopfe, L. M., & Woodward, M. R. (2009). Religions of the world, eleventh edition. VangoBooks.
Kuruvila, M. (2009, March 9). Mormon food bank a private welfare system. Retrieved August 16, 2009, from SFGate.com: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/03/08/MNP1168NEP.DTL
Upshur, J.-H. L., Terry, J. J., Holoka, J. P., Goff, R. D., & Cassar, G. H. (2002). World History Before 1600: The Development of Civilization, Fourth Edition. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth.