In my last article, I introduced Gary North and his book, Christian Economics in One Lesson. This book is a spin-off of Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. North is a Christian Reconstructionist adherent of the Austrian School who believes that most economic theory is lacking by viewing economics as a value-free science. To be ‘value-free’ means leaving the ethics of economic ideas to ethicists. There might be a myriad of reasons for this line of thinking, the most obvious of which is the lack of ethical consensus which makes ethical application in economics cumbersome. Still, North believes we’re missing an opportunity by not discussing it. The heart of economics, he contends, is Christian ethics.
Hazlitt on Economic Fallacies
Hazlitt uses the idea of scarcity to teach his ‘one’ economics lesson. He applies scarcity to twenty-four different scenarios to demonstrate two major economic fallacies. First, most economists ignore things that are unfavorable to their point of view. Second, they overlook secondary consequences. Hazlitt employs Frédéric Bastiat’s broken window analogy to illustrate. But what do these things mean to average people? How can we use them to quickly identify bad economic ideas?
North believes Austrian economists make a strategic mistake in asserting that economics is value-free. The average person cannot easily identify economic fallacies. Instead, public discourse on economics is often reduced to parroting catchy slogans which promote dangerous economic policies. To make economics clear for the average person, North uses the 8th Commandment. Thus North’s Christian economics lesson is simply, “Thou shalt not steal.”
Why is it important for the average person to recognize bad economics? Because if such things become a matter of public policy, they’ll be enforced by someone with a badge and a gun. This scenario itself poses moral and ethical questions. Is it in the best interest of society to use deadly force in order to enforce bad ideas? In other words (in my best Jeff Goldblum impression), “Your economists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
When voters choose a candidate, they’re usually thinking in terms of catchy campaign slogans and sound bites. If implemented, those slogans represent ideas that are often both bad for society and unethical. North argues that the average person can more easily identify and reason within the moral-ethical sphere.
North begins with the concept of ownership, which is illustrated in Genesis. God issues a a cultural mandate in Genesis 1. Mankind is given authority over God’s creation in order to create more things from it. Everything, that is, except a single tree. When Adam and Eve disobey, they take something that isn’t theirs. Aside from the theological ramifications, in a very fundamental sense, Adam and Eve steal from God. Ownership is written into creation, not as a social construct, but as part of reality. Violating ownership is intrinsically unethical.
North makes a connection between this original theft from God and the 8th Commandment. He argues that everyone, Christian or not, is subject to the Ten Commandments. The Bible’s first prohibition (against theft) occurs before the Fall. Furthermore, the basis for this theft was a lie; specifically, a lie that the sanctions of the prohibition against theft would not actually occur. North believes that these sins are violations of the yet-unwritten Ten Commandments.
The Broken Window
North begins his ‘broken window’ application by paralleling a passage from Genesis 26. The Philistines fill in Isaac’s well (which his father Abraham had passed down to him). The passage says that the Philistines were motivated by envy. Using this passage, North projects envy into the broken window analogy, and he charges Bastiat’s metaphorical stone-thrower with being envious. North attempts to distinguish envy from jealousy in order to show that envy is particularly evil. For North, the ethical application of the broken window is this: envy is at the heart of destruction — which is a form of theft — and consequently leads to the break-down of social order. Therefore, a Christian cannot ethically support any economic policy which takes from some to give to others without implicating themselves as thieves.
The Ethics of Theft
First, if you’re wondering where the theft occurred in the broken window analogy, you’re not alone; this is North’s complaint. The heart of the fallacy in the analogy is the consolation that a glazier will have work to do, and the resulting circulation of money is the economy at work. Art Carden explains the economic problem with that line of thinking in this video. But for the purposes of this article, let’s analyze North’s ethical argument.
1. IS ENVY THE HEART OF DESTRUCTION?
Put side-by-side, the broken window analogy between North, Hazlitt, and Bastiat is telling. North identifies the stone-thrower as “envy-driven.” For Hazlitt, he’s “hoodlum.” For Bastiat, he’s a “careless son” who ‘happened’ to break his dad’s window. In each of these cases, destruction still occurs, but is the motivation relevant? Bastiat says no.
The economic lesson of the analogy doesn’t change if the stone-thrower was envious or careless. Theft still occurred regardless of motive. If good intentions aren’t enough to support an economic idea, are bad intentions enough to reject it?
2. WHY IS IT STILL CONSIDERED THEFT IF MOTIVE DOESN’T MATTER?
There was an ultimate loss to the economy: the loss of the window. This loss occurred because of human action, whether that action was careless or envious. When our actions — whether negligent or malicious — produce economic loss, there is theft. And while no one is specifically liable in a natural disaster, loss is still present.
3. CAN THEFT OCCUR WITH ALTRUISTIC MOTIVES?
If a poor family is desperate for food, and the father takes an apple to feed his starving child, this is still theft. What is the Christian ethic in such a scenario?
This is surely a loaded situation, and no doubt many readers will diverge on how they approach the ethics. In any case, I won’t argue here that a certain approach is ethically-correct (though I do think there is a correct approach) as it’s beyond the scope of this article.
If you know who Gary North is, you probably have a strong opinion about his work one way or another. Either you think he’s highlighted a necessary yet often-neglected element of economics, or else you think he’s muddying the waters. But if economic loss is theft, and an act of theft comes at the hands of government, isn’t it still theft? Does it matter whether the government’s motives (or effects) are to gorge themselves or to feed the poor?
North wants people to be able to identify bad economic policies as theft by looking at the motives of their advocates. More than this, he wants people to feel like an accomplice to theft if they support those bad policies. Is this an effective (or Christian) strategy? (Try it: where is the destruction/theft in a policy of free education?) This will be an ongoing question in my upcoming articles.
Clearly, there’s an ethical aspect to explore. Is North on the right track? From where does he draw his concept of Christian ethics? Are those ethics debatable, or are they ‘written in stone?’ In my next article, we’ll discuss the topic of taxation using what I’ve called ‘North’s economic-ethos.’
- The Lesson
- The Broken Window
- The Blessings of Destruction
- Libertarian Christians Podcast Ep 33: Theonomy and Christian Reconstructionism with CJay Engel
- Tom Woods Podcast: Ep. 631 Do Economics and the Virtues Intersect?
- Glory-Cloud Podcast: 077 – Kingdom Prologue B Ch 2 – But Who Will Care for the Poor?
(not libertarian per se, but one Christian response to Reconstructionist ethics in economics.)