Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Final Thought on Economics, Faith and "The Pillars of Prosperity"

A couple of months ago, a fellow pilot I was flying with raved about a fascinating book he had just read and which he recommended highly. I asked him to give me a Cliff's Notes version of the book on a flight from Cincinnati to San Francisco (It was to allow conversations like this, by the way, that God invented the autopilot on the 8th Day).

My co-pilot was right. The book did sound fascinating. But as he described the threads of history the book wove together, it occurred to me that each of the threads sounded awfully familiar. I took it upon myself to find the book and skimmed it over the last few days. The title of the book is The Birth of Plenty, by William Bernstein, and its premise is that history has proven there are four sources required for economic growth and prosperity. From the introduction ...

The prerequisites for economic growth ...
  1. Secure property rights, not only for physical property, but also for intellectual property and one's own person -- civil liberties
  2. A systematic procedure for examining and interpreting the world -- the scientific method
  3. A widely available and open source of funding for the development and production of new inventions -- the modern capital marketplace
  4. The ability to rapidly communicate vital information and transport people and goods.
Now it seems to me that number 4) is a direct result of number 2). The scientific method logically leads to the technological advances that have brought us efficient and capable transportation and communication systems. So, what we are left with is three vital prerequisites to economic growth: secure property rights, the scientific method, and capital markets. What interested me about this list comes from another book I've read by Rodney Stark, a PhD Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University. Mr. Stark's book, The Victory of Reason specifically addresses the genesis of each of these (and is the source for much of what follows).

Oh yes, and the subtitle of his book is: "How Christianity Led To Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success."

Stark begins by addressing the following observations:
When European first began to explore the globe, their greatest surprise was not the existence of the Western Hemisphere, but the extent of their own technological superiority over the rest of the world. Not only were the proud Mayan, Aztec, and Inca nations helpless in the face of European intruders; so were the fabled civilizations of the East: China, India, an even Islam were backward by comparison with sixteenth-century Europe. How had this happened? Why was it that although many civilizations had pursued alchemy, it led to chemistry only in Europe? Why was it that, for centuries, Europeans were the only ones possessed of eyeglasses, chimneys, reliable clocks, heavy cavalry, or a system of music notation? How had the nations that had arisen from barbarism and the rubble of fallen Rome so greatly surpassed the rest of the world?
The answer to each of these questions is the same -- Europe was Christian, and Christianity's belief that God is a rational, reasonable Being provided the impetus for Christians to believe that the world -- His creation -- should reflect that reason and rationality. They sought to know the world better, discover all they could about it, and apply that knowledge with a hope for the future and a motivation to improve it. This trait was utterly unique in the world and history shows that its impact was explosive.

The Scientific Method was born from the Bible's charge to "test everything" and hold on to what is good. The list of those who made the most impacting discoveries and inventions in history is a Who's Who list of Christian thinkers and scientists. It was Christians who developed the scientific method and used it to stoke the scientific revolution that led to our technology-driven modern world and the economic prosperity it generated.

Secure Property Rights and freedom were concepts for which most non-European cultures did not even have a word! It was Christian thinking that led to individualism, freedom and human rights, and Christian leaders who led the charge to abolish not only Medieval slavery, but the more modern slave-trade in England

Capital Markets first emerged in the great monastic estates of Europe. There, innovations in production, farming technology and transportation set the stage for free markets, property rights and uncoerced labor. This is where Capitalism was born, and within it: specialized product development, a cash economy, credit and mortgages, interest and profits, and the motivation for promoting the virtues of work and frugality.

Each of these are things we seem to have forgotten at best, or that we deliberately ignore at worst. We have interventionist government policies being implemented that directly challenge the very foundation of a capitalist society and we are seeing the corrosion of our economy as a result. We are encouraging national indebtedness, punishing those who have been frugal, undermining the trust of credit markets, rewarding mortgage irresponsibility, and confiscating profits. Because each of these began as a result of Christian thinking, we should not be surprised if the public is also being duped into an economy that is antithetical to Christian ideals -- the two are inextricably linked.

Like I said last time, if you want to see the future toward which we seem to be headed, look at Europe. It has abandoned both.

So, to wrap up the discussion of the economic collapse that will help precipitate the Evangelical collapse Michael Spencer predicts, my contention is that his prediction only touches the surface. I have no reason to doubt his thoughts about Evangelicalism. I just happen to believe that our abandonment of capitalism will be far more destructive than a simple problem for the church ... and that is because it reflects a more foundational abandonment of the Christian principles that have worked so well precisely because they are rooted in the nature of God himself.

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