Miroslav Volf Against Libertarian Economics

Volf - Work in the SpiritI’ve been reading Miroslav Volf’s absolutely excellent book, Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work. In the final chapter, he moves into ways a Christian theology of work can overcome the many ways we see work in our contemporary society alienating us from being fully human. His premise is this:

“Human work, properly understood theologically, is related to the goal of all human history, which will bring God, human beings, and the nonhuman creation into ‘shalomic’ harmony.” (p. 85)

Volf (Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale University Divinity School and the Founding Director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture) offers a pneumatological theology of work, in which the Holy Spirit gifts human beings with the abilities to provide not only for their own sustenance, but to work for the common good.

“When God calls people to become children of God, the Spirit gives them calling, talents, and ‘enablings’ (charisms) so that they can do God’s will in the Christian fellowship and in the world in anticipation of God’s eschatological new creation. All Christians have several gifts from the Spirit. Since most of these gifts can be exercised only through work, work must be considered a central aspect of Christian living.” (p. 124)

Therefore, if a large aspect of being a human is to work for the common good, then this leads Volf to criticize the economic philosophy of libertarianism, which centers on individual freedom, placing individual liberty as the most fundamental rule in economics. According to libertarian economics, we must let the free market rule itself. As individuals work for their own self-interests, the “invisible hand” of the unfettered free market transforms the individuals’ pursuit of their own interests into the public good. The best way to care for others, according to libertarian economics, is for everyone to work for themselves. The common good is best served when people do not take economic responsibility for others, but rather by seeking their own self interests.

But such an economic system rubs against the way God has created human beings.

“Individual self-interest can be pursued validly but it must be accompanied by the pursuit of the good of others. These two pursuits are not in principle mutually exclusive but complementary (though in concrete cases they often conflict). My own good and the good of the whole human family are both included in the shalom of the new creation. Therefore, no contradiction is involved when a person ‘gives himself up’ for someone and ‘loves himself’ at the same time (see Eph. 5:25-28). (p. 192)

“Unlike libertarian philosophy, Christian faith does make demands on people to accept economic responsibility for others. And these demands are not only demands of generosity. They are demands on them to practice justice. Both in the Old and the New Testaments the concept of justice includes concern for the underprivileged (see Matt. 6:1; Ps. 112:9). Paul, for instance, calls the financial help of gentile Christians to the Jerusalem poor ‘justice’ (2 Cor. 9:9). Correspondingly, the mere refusal of the wealthy to aid the poor can be considered a criminal act (Ezek. 16:49).” (p. 194)

“Important as it is, from a Christian perspective, respect for individual liberty will not suffice as a basic rule for the market game. Respect for the right of sustenance of all individuals must be added as a rule that is even more basic than respect for individual liberty. If the market will not behave according to this rule, it is the market that has to go, not the rule. For the basic criterion of the humanness of an economic system is whether or not it secures lasting justice for the poor.” (p. 195)

The answer is not Marxism, according to Volf, but “a market economy directed by a vision of the common good.” In other words, a market economy that has parameters that ensure individual freedom while also caring for the basic needs of all people.


Bob Robinson said...

There is a wonderful thread on this blog post at my facebook page. Check it out.

Andrew mills said...

Great post and its a great book the first one that got me into reading lots of Volf!

Anonymous said...

What is to stop a christian from giving to the poor or being a philanthropist while he or she is acquiring success in business with the least interference from government, or the tax system? I may not be addressing the post, but freedom allows us to support whomever we choose, and I pray the christian chooses the least of these.

Bob Robinson said...

Edward, I agree with you. But I also believe in two other things: First, human depravity keeps us from giving as we should. Certainly evangelicals are the best givers, but we are a minority of Americans. Second, Christians should want our society to come as near to the Kingdom of God as possible (though ultimately this is impossible until Christ returns). The more proximate a society is to God's kingdom, the more just it is. God's prophets were very clear that a just kingdom is one that takes care of the poor - not just with individuals giving out of their personal treasure, but the society as a whole. While there are plenty of problems with depravity side-tracking a society from caring for its poor (i.e., bureaucracy and kick-backs), this does not mean we should not continue to seek proximate justice.