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I saw a great bumper sticker on my way to work last week. It said:

Liberals confuse the state with charity. Conservatives confuse the state with security. 

There is some truth to both of these statements. Regardless of our political positions, we are always tempted to place our hope in something other than Jesus Christ. Yet in a fallen world, we know that we still need institutions and parameters to guide us and redirect our inherently sinful behavior for good.

Scripture on Human Nature

Scripture is quite clear regarding our sinful nature. We were created in abundance and light, but we chose darkness instead. It is our nature to want to sin. Our only hope is in the restoration provided by Christ Jesus.

1 John 1:7-9 tells us,

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 

As Christians, we want to walk in the light because we know and feel the redemptive power of Christ. Part of our redemptive journey in this life includes walking in the light and giving non-Christians a glimpse of what could be. We are to be shimmering lights that stamp out the darkness. How amazing that God gives us the power to bring about this hope!

The Founders on Human Nature

The Founders of the United States understood the problem with trying to create parameters to guide and direct our inherently sinful behavior. As James Madison pointed out in the Federalist Papers,

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. 

Madison and the other Founders believed men required a sound institutional setting that would promote flourishing and prevent tyranny.  His quote gets at the heart of the problem. As fallen humans governing other fallen humans, we are limited in our ability to protect ourselves from our sinful nature. It’s the proverbial fox guarding the hen house.

In trying to solve this problem in the modern world, we tend to fall into two camps:

  • Those who view the market as their savior.
  • Those who view the state as their savior.

Neither is correct.

How Institutions Interact with Human Nature

Markets and governments are both necessary but insufficient components of life in a fallen world. There is only one savior: Jesus. But our journey on this earth still matters, and we still need institutions to help guide our behavior and helps us bring about flourishing. How might markets and government help us in this way?

We need markets to help guide our behavior. Markets are effective in getting us to do several things:

  • They harness our self-interested behavior for the common good.
  • They coordinate the most productive use of our scarce resources through prices.
  • They lift the poor out of poverty by providing opportunities for them to use their gifts in the service of others.

We need other institutions to help define the rules of the game. Constrained government is one of these institutions. Often, the government that governs best is one that limits its involvement in the productive and innovative use of resources.

Neither markets nor government alone is sufficient for flourishing. Neither can save us. Both of these institutions are utilized by fallen human beings, so neither can be perfect. Both are limited in what they can accomplish.

As Christians, we should consider how markets and other institutions can bring about higher levels of flourishing, despite their limitations and our own fallen human nature. Understanding our own limitations, we must learn to use the gifts we are given to serve others and create hope for the world around us.

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Dr. Anne Bradley

About Dr. Anne Bradley

Anne Bradley, Ph.D. is Vice President of Economic Initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. Anne received her Ph.D. in Economics from George Mason University. She is a visiting professor at Georgetown University and has previously taught at George Mason University and at Charles University in Prague. Read More...

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