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A basic principle of modern economics is that all economic behaviour is motivated by self-interest. Self-interest is a powerful motivator of economic activity, but it seems to be contrary to Christian morality. Capitalism has lifted economic well-being in an amazing way, but capitalistic economic theory seems to require people to pursue their self-interest exclusively. The pursuit of self-interest supports economic growth, but it does not fit well with Christian morality. This is a conundrum that needs a solution.

Some economists advocate dropping traditional morality and encouraging people to think only of themselves. Christians cannot accept this option, so we need a better option. We need a theory of economic behaviour that does not contradict Christian morality. The solution is not to drop Christian morality, but to understand that modern economic theory is incorrect in assuming that all economic behaviour is motivated by self-interest. This assumption only explains some economic behaviour. For example, most people care for their families. Many people show amazing generosity to people in need.

Sometimes it is self-serving, but often it is not. Economic thinking has to go beyond self-interest to explain altruistic behaviour.

The insight I gained from scholastic economics is that everything we do is for a person. Things are means to achieve ends, which are persons. The big question is which person. The New Testament specifies five categories of person our actions can serve.

  1. God
    God is so amazing that everyone on earth should love him.

    Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind (Luke 10:27).
    Jesus said we are to love God with all we are. God must come first in everything. We must love him, because he is worthy. Love of God should drive all our actions and behaviour. Love of God takes priority over love of self and love of neighbours, but it does not contradict them, because he has not commanded us no to love ourselves.

  2. Self
    Loving yourself is normal. Most people to do it naturally.

    Love your neighbour as yourself (Luke 10:27).
    When Jesus said we should love our neighbour as our self, he recognised that it is natural for humans to pursue their self-interest, ie to love oneself. There is nothing wrong with that. We are expected to nurture our bodies (Eph 5:29). We are to seek God's blessing (Luke 6:21). We love ourselves naturally, because that is the way that God has created us.

  3. Family
    Husbands and wives are required to love each other and to love their children.

    Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies (Eph 5:28).
    We must love our family and have a responsibility to provide for them and care for them.

  4. Neighbour
    Jesus commanded us to love our neighbour.

    Love your neighbour as yourself (Luke 10:27).
    This command extends beyond our immediate family to those who live close to or work with us. Jesus radicalised this command by extending the boundary of who is our neighbour to include all the people we encounter during everyday life. His definition includes people from different ethnic and social groups that we meet up with in various ways.

  5. Others
    The "Others" groups includes all the other people in the world, beyond our neighbours. Jesus said,

    Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:31).
    The thieves working on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho were others, not neighbours of the Good Samaritan. People living in other countries are others in this context. We should treat others as we would like to be treated. We are not required to love others as ourselves, or as our neighbour, as that would be impossible. Rather we are required to do to others what we would have them do to us. We do not expect others to love us, because they do not know us. However, we would like them not to harm us. We would like them to exchange their surplus production with us. We would like them to sell their expertise, if we have need of it. We do not expect them to provide stuff to us for free, because they do not know us. If we have skills that would benefit them, we would like supply them to us in return for an appropriate payment.

Making Choices

Augustine of Hippo explained that our behaviour ranks people according to their significance to us. We do more for those that we love the most. We give the most to those who have the greatest significance to us.

In all our activities, we must constantly make decisions about whom our actions will benefit. Sometimes we will do things for ourselves. Sometimes we will do things for our neighbour. In other situations, we will decide to do things for others. In other words, we must constantly decide between loving ourselves, loving our families, loving our neighbours, or doing to others what we want done to us.

We have limited resources and limited time, so we cannot do all of these all of the time. If I give help to my neighbour, I will have less for myself. If keep more of what I own for my family, I have will less for my neighbour, and for others. If I spend more time serving others, I will have less time for myself. Economists call this scarcity. Scarcity means that I do not have the resources to do everything that I might want to do. I have to make choices, between keeping things for myself, giving things to my family, giving things to my neighbours, and supplying things to others in exchange for what I need.

Although it might be simpler, we cannot choose one category of person, and ignore all the others. God has given us a duty to them all.

The Bible does not give rules for deciding how to prioritise between loving ourselves, loving our family, loving our neighbour, and supplying others. We learn how to make these choices by listening the Holy Spirit and learning from the scriptures. Some decision will be quite hard, with no easy options.

Economic Activity

Applying the various love commands to economic behaviour has the following implications.

Using our Surplus

Balance

The balance between these types of activities will be different for different people. The balance for each person will vary from season to season.

Each person must balance their life between loving self, loving family, loving neighbours and doing to Others what they want others to do to them, under and overall love for God. Loving God will manifest in a different mix of loving self, loving family, loving neighbours and serving others for each person. The most important thing is that we are all accountable to God and live our lives in obedience to him.

We should be careful about judging others. It is easy to look at a successful business person like Bill Gates and say that he spent to much times serving himself and not enough to time serving others, but we do not know what God required of him. We do not know what God put him on this off for. We cannot look into his heart and understand know his motivation. What looks likes loving self may often be doing to others what we want others to do for us.

Christian faith does not contradict business activity. It actually requires it from most of us. God requires different things from different people. Some people will fulfil their calling by engaging full-time in business activity.

Economics

Economists like to simplify the world to make their models easier to manipulate. Optimising one variable is much easier than optimising five variables with variable weighting between them. Therefore, they have chosen to ignore live of family, love of neighbour and responsibilities to others. They focus exclusively on love of self, and their models concentrate on optimising self-love. That makes their models easier to estimate, but it means they no longer reflect reality. For some purposes, this might not matter, but in many situations it will make their conclusions unrealistic.

This simplification of reality means that economists tend to attribute all economic growth to people pursing self-interest. The emphasis on self-interest has caused Christians to worry that their morality is inconsistent with economic development. Their worries are unjustified. The emphasis on self-interest is a distortion of reality, so we do not need to change our morality to fit with economics. Christians values deal with economic reality. Economics needs to adjust its theory to fit with economic reality. Not the other way round.

Institutional Sectors

A modern economy consists of five institutional sectors. Each one is motivated by a different love.

  1. Household Sector
    This sector consists of family activities. In the western world, the household sector focuses on consumption, but in other parts of the world households engage in production. The household sectors owns assets and supplies labour to the market sector. The motivation in the household sector is love of family.

  2. Market Sector
    Most people can improve their situation by supplying what they are most efficient at producing to the market and buying what they need from the most efficient producers. In a modern economy, the market sector is the largest sector in the economy. The motivation for the market sector is love of self and doing to others what you want others to do to you. The market sector functions better if there is more of the latter than the former.

  3. Shared Services Sector
    Some of the services that people need are not available from the market, so groups will get together to provide them for themselves. The services are provided by a subscription or membership fee. Sports clubs and horticultural societies are examples. The motivation for this sector is love of neighbour and love of self. The sector is more effective if there is not too much love of self.

  4. Philanthropic Sector
    Charities and other philanthropic groups provide goods and services to people in need. Income in this sector comes from donations. In a strong society, this sector will be effective. The motivation in this sector is love of neighbour and love of others.

  5. Government Sector
    This sector uses coercion to change people's behaviour. It provides shared services like defence and justice. Love of self is a strong motivator in this sector, because those with government power assume that they no better than others what is good for them. They are willing to take other people's money to do what they think is good.

Modern economics analysis focusses on the market sector. It is incomplete, because it only covers part of the economy.

Modern economies tend to be dominated by the Market and Government Sectors. This makes them unbalanced. The other three sectors are equally important in a strong society.

In a free economy, these three sectors can develop without any need for government intervention. All that is required for them to emerge is people who love their families, love their neighbours and love others. Sharing and cooperation should be strong in a Christian economy, so the household, shared services and philanthropic sectors should be strong too.