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As Christians living in the modern western world, it is easy to be concerned and confused about living in such affluence. This is especially easy when there are many people living on so little. How do we reconcile that for those of us born in the United States in the 20th century?

We live in the richest country in the richest time the human race has ever known. Most of human history has been a struggle to survive. If you were to look at a chart of world productivity levels over the last 2,000 years, it looks like a hockey stick: until this century, most of humanity has lived at subsistence levels and died at young ages of diseases that are now largely eradicated. 

Atlantic Monthly senior editor Derek Thompson illustrates this historical reality in his recent piece on the economic history of the world. He writes,

The industrial revolution didn’t happen everywhere at the same time, but it did have the same effect everywhere: massively rising [productivity] per person.

 

Nobel Laureate Robert Lucas once said,

Once you start thinking about growth, it’s hard to think about anything else.

I tend to agree with him. Rather than being frustrated that we aren’t offered WiFi on every flight we take, isn’t it unbelievable that we get WiFi anywhere? Or that we can be hurled through the sky in a chair on a plane and safely arrive at our destination?

Economic growth in the West over the past two hundred years makes this possible. But how do we get this economic growth? How should we feel about the quest for income, which provides us with material comforts like cell phones, refrigeration, and computer technology?

These two questions are inseparable, particularly for Christians. It is important to understand how the West has been able to generate such massive levels of personal wealth if we are to appropriately determine how we feel about it.

This leads us to principle #7 from Common Sense Economics: People earn income by helping others. This is the latest entry in our series on the Biblical Foundations of Economic Principles.

Income & Diversity

It is because of our differences that we can help each other. This is the idea behind comparative advantage. If we were all the same, we couldn’t help each other much at all. We would all have the same shortcomings and the same successes.

Distinctiveness is part of our God-given design. Each one of us is born with a different bundle of skills, talents, propensities and drives. We are created in the image of God, and that implies uniqueness.

I Corinthians 12:4-11 recognizes this diversity when it references our unique spiritual gifts:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.  There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.  There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work…

We are created to offer something specific and distinct that no one else can do exactly the way we can.  This is how we can help one another, and one of the biggest ways we do this is through our work.

Income & Service to Others

The authors of Common Sense Economics connect our inherent uniqueness and diversity with income, a connection I also make in my special report on income inequality. They write,

People differ in many ways – in their productive abilities, their preferences, their opportunities, their specialized skills, their willingness to take risks…These differences influence people’s incomes because they affect the value of the goods and services that individuals are able or willing to provide to others. 

Markets provide an opportunity for us to lower the costs of living in all aspects, but we can only earn an income if we provide others with the things that they need.  Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, earned a large income because he had a vision for a store that offered the lowest prices on the market.

Walmart’s current mission statement is this: “We save people money so they can live better.” Sam Walton had a mission, and he earned an income because he was successful in offering people lower prices.

Reflecting on this economic reality, the authors of Common Sense Economics explain that,

People who earn large incomes do so because they provide others with lots of things that they value. If these individuals did not provide valuable goods or services, consumers would not pay them so generously.

Looking to our own interest, our own income, means we must first look to the interests of others. This reminds me of Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2:4:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the the interest of others. 

Serving others is not only a biblical command – it’s also an example that Christ modeled for us as his followers.

Income & the Developing World

How much better would the developing world be today if it was characterized by a society where entrepreneurs could compete to offer everyone the lowest possible prices? Where they could compete to serve people? The developing world does not have an institutional environment that supports earning incomes through serving others. Many are plagued with corrupt governments and abject poverty, forcing them to focus on mere survival.

The African woman who walks four miles to get dirty water for her family, then has to carry it back four miles with children in tow (just to repeat the process tomorrow) needs an opportunity to earn an income through serving others. She too was born uniquely in the image of God, and needs a chance to offer her skills to the world.

This is the only way to generate economic growth. Rather than being a zero-sum game, material wealth earned through market competition is only possible when people serve their fellow man.

Leave your comments here

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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  • Jim Price

    ” Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, earned a large income because he had a vision for a store that offered the lowest prices on the market.” This statement is true of course but S.W. has put many small towns, virtually out of business. His business model has put 200,000 plus people to work but many of them cannot support their families from Walmart wages so Christians who work for Walmart may feel like second class citizens in their church. Chances are they will not be able to give much if any to their church.
    I served as president of the Chamber of Commerce, when Walmart came to our town, within a year 13 of our members were out of business. How should we think about income? I’m still thinking and haven’t as yet reached a conclusion.

    • Anne Bradley

      Jim,

      Thanks for your thoughts on this. I hear what you are saying but I think we need to be careful on several points.

      Walmart employs about one million people, which is a lot, but it’s a small fraction of the overall US workforce. When you say, writ large, that their workers cannot feed their families, I worry that you are making a broad statement which doesn’t apply to everyone.

      Managers at Walmart can earn six figure salaries, and Wal-Mart often promote from within. But let’s talk about the person who cleans the bathrooms, stocks
      the shelves and greets the customers: they certainly don’t earn six
      figure salaries, but are they being oppressed by Walmart?

      They are not. Everyone who works at Walmart is voluntarily employed there which means that Walmart provided a better option for their skills than anywhere else in the local vicinity.

      When we see Walmart move to a town, hoards of people line up to work there. Walmart, like any other large retailer, doesn’t have absolute control over the wages they set any more than you have absolute control over the price you might like to charge for selling your house.

      Wages, like other prices, are set by the market for those particular skills and the other alternatives. Competition in markets like this is a great thing for employees. If you have Kmart, Walmart, Target and Big Lots all competing to hire, you will see relative wages go up for those skill sets.

      I also think we should be careful to judge how others feel, because aside from our close friends and family, it is impossible to know how the average worker feels because they work at Walmart. Should we think that trash collectors also feel like second-class citizens because they collect trash all day?

      Absolutely not, especially if that is what God has called them to do at this
      point in their life. If we are engaged in a vocation that God has called
      us to, we are contributing to building the Kingdom of God and we should own it
      proudly.

      The world needs shelf-stockers, bathroom cleaners and trash collectors. It is not the job that gives one dignity – that comes from Christ. And we bear the image of Christ when we fully embrace and live out what he calls us to do,from cashiers to CEO’s.