Saturday, February 26, 2011

Christian Economics: Theft 

The main commandment dealing with economics is the eighth commandment, "do not steal".  It is not the only one; as I said in the previous post the commandment against adultery has important implications for us when we recognize that our bodies are part of the overall economy of the resources which have been placed under our stewardship.  Likewise, respect for parents, respect for life, not bearing false witness and not coveting all have important economic implications.  But the eighth commandment bears directly on our economic life and shapes it.

The eighth commandment establishes the fundamental right of private property.  Man was created to have dominion over creation.  Creation is much too big for just one man, however, even in a state of perfection.  God told Adam to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and his offspring would therefore share in that dominion.  That means that creation belongs to humanity for him to use.  And he was to tend creation, adding his labor to creation in order to maintain and improve it.  The eighth commandment means that a man has a right to the results of his own labor.

Wealth is created by human beings when we apply our labor to the natural world in a way that makes that world more usable.  Wealth and money are not the same things.  We'll talk more about money in the future, but money is simply a symbol standing for wealth, and often does so in deceptive ways.  But true wealth is a rising living standard; that a person has a better, safer and more enjoyable life as a result of efforts made to improve on nature.

The idea of "improving on nature" may sound odd to the modern ears, because of the nature-worship which is so embedded in our culture.  The fact is, that we have improved on nature in countless ways, and our society and economy have become so complex that this truth is often obscured.  But in raw, unadorned nature, most of us would be dead in very short order.  We have clothes to keep us warm, houses to shelter us, medicines to keep us healthy, abundant food, transportation and many other things.  The quality, availability and affordability of these things increases constantly.  In addition, we have arts, music, entertainment and communication available to us that improves all of our lives in many ways.  The misuse of any of these things is not the point- they are available, and of themselves very good, and all of it is the result of individuals and groups working to improve on nature.  The eighth commandment dictates that these individuals should have the right to their own labor.

Stealing happens in a lot of different forms.  The Heidelberg Catechism talks about the "wicked tricks and devices" by which I seek to take my neighbor's goods.  Essentially, any way that I seek to enrich myself at the expense of others is theft.  Obviously forcibly taking someone else's goods is theft.  Theft also often happens by deceit.  The Bible speaks of false weights and measures as an abomination.  A farmer brings his wheat in for sale, and the merchant who buys his wheat measures the bushel as bigger than it really is, making it appear that the farmer is selling fewer bushels than he is.  And the merchant gets him on the other end too, by weighing the silver out in smaller than the real measure so that he's giving the farmer less silver than he is really owed. In general, this is reflective of all business practices whereby I make the product I am selling to be less valuable than it actually is, or charge more for it than I said I would.  When I contract with a man to give him eight hours a labor at a given rate, then if I give him less than eight hours of labor, I am stealing from him.

Theft often happens in much more subtle ways as well.  If two neighbors have cornfields, and the one neighbor sneaks over in the middle of the night and destroys the crop of the other in order to make his crop more valuable, most would recognize this as theft.  If I take away the productive value of someone else's property, I am stealing.  Likewise, a man has property in his own skills and time.  He sells this property as his labor.  If I take from a man the value of his skills and labor, I am likewise stealing.

When we understand this concept, we see how very pervasive stealing is.  Our government dictates the price at which people can work, for example, and dictates a large number of burdensome regulations on businesses.  All of these regulations reduce the productive value of people's labor and property.  At first glance, a minimum wage law would seem to increase the value of labor, but in fact it does the opposite.  A minimum wage law does not make a man more productive than he is otherwise- his labor is worth what it is worth, depending on the skills and experience of the man.  If I as a business owner cannot purchase labor at less than, say, $5 an hour, then I will only purchase labor that is worth more than that to me.  The practical effect of a minimum wage law, then, is to make it illegal for someone whose labor is only worth $4 an hour to sell his labor.  The government has essentially stolen his labor.  High rates of unemployment among the youth demonstrate this well- their labor is not worth the amount that the government says is the minimum, and therefore the value of their labor is stolen from them.

Likewise, if I have a business, and the government dictates regulations to me about how I can and cannot do business, they are reducing the value of my business.  Some of these regulations are necessary, of course.  It is proper for the government to regulate my business in such a way as to prohibit activities which would steal from others.  A factory should not be permitted to dump its waste in the river- this would be stealing from everyone else who uses the river.  But many regulations, disguised as this sort of thing, are actually intended to benefit politically favored groups at the expense of others.  Requiring me to hire certain minorities or disabled people; preventing me from firing people unless I provide very burdensome proof of malfeasance; and many similar regulations are ways of benefiting favored political groups at my expense.  All government regulations should be very strictly examined to determine whether they are truly necessary, and whether the same goals could be accomplished in less burdensome ways.  And much better is to take action in cases of actual harm against people, rather than preemptively trying to eliminate any harm through the use of regulations.

In Deuteronomy 22:8, when a new house was built, they were required to build a railing around the roof.  Roofs in that culture were flat, with access by stair, and people would often dine or socialize on their roofs.  It is therefore very reasonable to dictate that a rail should be built to prevent an accidental fall.  In similar ways, the government is well within its right to dictate obvious safety precautions.  But look at Exodus 21:28-29 for a different kind of example.  There, if an ox killed a man, then the ox was to be put to death, but the owner was not guilty.  Only if the ox was shown to be dangerous in the past could the man be held responsible.  The solution here was not to impose burdensome regulations on all oxen owners.  The solution instead was that in the case of actual provable negligence- the ox was known to be dangerous in the past- the man was guilty for the death of the victim and punished accordingly.

Many products have been restricted or prohibited merely to gain political favor, because some group of people in the country got scared over the dangers of this product.  Incandescent light bulbs were banned in this country because of the perceived threat of global warming.  This of course destroyed that industry in this country; incandescent bulbs will now only be made in other countries.  Man-caused global warming is only a theory, and one which is doubted by many.  But the law was promoted by environmentalist groups as well as by companies that would be manufacturing the more expensive high-efficiency bulbs, and the law was passed.  This was an act of massive theft, and yet is hailed by many as a virtuous deed.  The recent accusations against Toyota regarding their brake failures are probably another example- no problem with their brakes has ever been found and most reports can be attributed to driver error, and yet this did not stop many media outlets and politicians from making outrageous accusations.  Toyota suffered economic harm as a result, to the benefit of those politicians, activists and media outlets.  Now the truth is known, and yet Toyota will likely never be recompensed for their losses.

We should recognize that any restriction on a man's economic activity takes away economic value.  This can be justified if such restrictions are necessary to prevent theft or real harm to others.  But when we restrict a man's freedom simply to benefit some other favored group such as "workers", the "poor" or any other group, we are stealing from him.  If we restrict a man's freedom to prevent the remote possibility of some harm or because unsubstantiated accusations of harm are made, we are again stealing from him.

Theft is extremely serious.  God speaks of deceptive economic practices, such as unjust weights and measures, as an abomination (Deuteronomy 25:14-15).  When we see that man's economic activity is an essential part of the image of God within him and his mandate for dominion of the creation, we can see the reason why this attack on God's image in man should be taken so seriously.


In your article you state "But true wealth is a rising living standard; that a person has a better, safer and more enjoyable life as a result of efforts made to improve on nature." Does accomplishing these things using money borrowed from someone else make you wealthy?
I would think that borrowed money can be a tool to create wealth, just as a borrowed mule can. Borrowed money can be used to manufacture goods which can be sold at a profit which will pay the debt plus interest. The Reformers distinguished between money borrowed in this manner and money borrow because of poverty. The first borrowers should pay interest [rent on the money], but interest on the second kind was forbidden. This distinction freed Europe from bondage to the moneylenders [Jews] who loaned money at high interest under the table to Christian rulers who could not borrow at interest from other Christians because of canon law.
Concurring with everything Bud said, I would add that borrowing money simply to increase your standard of living is a risky endeavor, and cannot be said truly to increase wealth. A proper judge of one's wealth would not only include the present standard of living, but also obligations which may impact future standard of living. We regularly borrow money in order to buy houses and cars in this society, and this can be defended to a certain degree since a house is a big expense and spreading the cost of that out does have some value. We have to have a place to live. And a car is often necessary for people to work. But after the recent crisis, I think it's wise to reexamine to what degree a house can be viewed as an investment, and drastically reduce our expectations about what we "need". Wealth which is simply borrowed must be repaid, and does not truly increase my total wealth.

Debt which is taken on for productive purposes (as Bud said above) is a different thing. Debt for business purposes really is more like a partnership, where you convince a bank to back you in an entrepeneurial endeavor, where everyone knows there are risks involved.
I agree with both responses to my question; however, I don't think I stated my question very clearly. I think Matt touched on my question when he wrote in his reply, "A proper judge of one's wealth would not only include the present standard of living, but also obligations which may impact future standard of living." If a person is able to borrow money to the day of their death in order to improve on nature, increase standard of living, and have a more enjoyable life, then somebody has to pay for the loan, either those that inherit the loan or the lender. So is this person wealthy or a thief or both?
It would seem to me that if the person did the borrowing with the knowledge and approval of the person who would have to pay it off, then it's a gift from future generations. If they stuck an unwilling party with a bill though, it's theft.
Any debt incurred before death would be a debt against the estate and would be paid out of the estate. No one would be obligated to pay it unless their name was on the instrument or if he/she was a spouse legally responsible for the debts of the spouse.

Would this be robbing the heirs? Only if you suppose that the heirs had a right to an inheritance, and I suspect that would not be upheld in court. If the deceased borrowed against the estate [like in a reverse mortgage], I am not certain that there would be moral infraction. It gets sticky in these cases, maybe. Interesting topic, though. That's why we have judges who are supposed to be smarter than the rest of us.
I am fairly certain that children are not obligated to pay the debts of their parents, if the estate doesn't cover them.
I think you're right, Dad. I was answering more on the principle of the question, though. If someone sticks future generations with his debt, then it cannot be seen as an increase of wealth, but a theft of someone else's.
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