In the Present Tense

February 25, 2011

Economic Justice

Filed under: Culture and the Bible, Present Truth — edoutlook @ 6:07 pm

I recently was asked a question about “economic justice.” Here’s an adaptation of my reply


The problem simply comes down to this: Justice in the human realm is relatively easy to define. Equality before the law, and what is known as procedural due process, having the law applied fairly and consistently. Even this has its problems, but they are not insurmountable.

The problem comes when humans want to establish absolute justice. We just aren’t capable of it. Sinful people in a sinful world lack the ability to reach perfection in any endeavor. When we add the word “social” or “economic” to justice, we find it nearly impossible to define in a way that it can be administered. Put another way, we find it impossible to identify.  Two people work for an hour, doing the same work. But one is paid twice as much as the other. Is that justice? We have pretty good authority that it just might be. (Matt 20:1-16).

Absent that example, what if one worker can finish an hour’s work in half an hour, while it takes the other one twice as long? If the first worker does twice as much, is it just for him to receive twice as much?

I do remedial counseling with a 40+ year old retarded man. I counsel him while he’s at work. He gets paid his standard amount, probably about minimum wage. I get considerably more for the hour we spend together. Is that just?

Bill Gates has billions more than I do. Is that just? In economic terms he has improved the lives of tens of millions of people. Is it not just that he should receive a small portion in return for that improvement? And yes, his wealth, though prodigious for an individual, is dwarfed by the value his software brings to just our own economy. In 1970, most people didn’t know what “software” was. This year, software and computer-dependent jobs will contribute several trillion dollars to our economy. That doesn’t account for multiple years, or many other economies. One tenth of one percent (0.001) of a trillion dollars is $1billion.

Is economic justice receiving what one deserves? If so, how can that actually be determinde? It seems to me we would have to be God to determine that.

There are individuals, I’ll use pimps as an example, who not only don’t deserve the money they get, they owe enormous sums to everyone. But the only effective way to do that would be to enslave them, and use what they produce to provide restitution. And some of what they owe is not monetary, nor can money provide remedy.

But there are those who are homeless, or unemployed, etc., whom we wish to help. This is not “justice” but “grace.” I suspect what those who advocate “economic justice” really mean is something like “economic grace.”And even here we face difficulty.

For one alcoholic, a little help will be all that’s needed to give him/her hope, and encourage them to rehab. For another, seemingly in identical circumstances, that same help would be used to get by one more day. Would it be either gracious or just to give them the same help? I cannot see how it would be. But how could we know which is which, not being God, able to read hearts?

And yes, I know of just such a case. My wife’s brother received just enough aid to help him get by. When we offered him help, on condition that he not practice his destructive habits (while living with us), he declined. He died an early death of self-neglect and abuse enabled by welfare.

One economist has said, “scarcity is a tutor.” It seems that God agrees. Because one of the first actions He took after Adam sinned was to make food more difficult to produce, and thus more scarce.(Gen 3:18,19). Humans simply lack the wisdom to know when one has learned what the tutor has to teach, and when one needs more tutoring.

“Choose my instruction instead of silver,
knowledge rather than choice gold,
for wisdom is more precious than rubies,
and nothing you desire can compare with her. ”

Proverbs 8:10, 11.


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