The Religious Apostasy of Economic Interventionism
Posted on May 15, 2014
The prevailing economic worldview of Western elites in our time is interventionist. By this I do not refer to the idea that the valid role of the state in economics is guaranteeing a level playing field (enforcing contracts, suppressing fraud, and such). This is just what the state should do, but that view is nearly the opposite of interventionism.
If man is sinful, as Christianity asserts, he’ll often try to get an unfair economic advantage by not fulfilling what he promised, by lying about goods and services, and by stealing from his neighbor. One reason for the state, in Christian theology, is to assure that sinful man cannot commit these sins with impunity (Rom. 13:1–7).
The state keeps the economic exchanges fair so that each can act freely but must also act honestly. The state interferes in the market only to make sure nobody is stealing or defrauding (Ex. 22:1–6).
This is not the view of the state’s role in economics according to today’s elites. That role must be interventionist in a very different way.
The Interventionist Credo
I mean by interventionism, therefore, that a prime role of politics is to tip the level playing field to guarantee specific results of what is deemed by the elites to be a just society.
A living wage
For example, politicians decide what a “living wage is,” and they mandate a minimum wage. That is, they don’t allow employers to contract with employees freely; employers must pay no less than a certain amount.
Similarly, they determine the level and kind of education to which the country’s youth are entitled, and they mandate tax-financed schools to implement that educational vision. Parents are not permitted to deviate from that kind of education if they send their children to tax-financed schools.
“Universal” health care
Likewise, political elites arrive at an allegedly just minimum standard of health care for all citizens. These politicians then coerce medical providers and insurance companies to enact this universal vision of healthcare — all publicly (that is to say, politically) financed.
Whatever we may think of these policies, one thing is clear: they are not identical to what would happen if individuals (both as consumers and producers) were free to make their own choices in these matters.
Free to Choose
For example, entry-level workers might delight in minimum wage laws, but most small business owners certainly don’t. They might want to hire more workers but simply can’t afford to because they are forced to pay inflated wages to present workers. In fact, they might go out of business because they can’t pay the labor costs. Then nobody gets paid. But for interventionist elites, this is the price we must pay to guarantee their results.
Keeping young people from getting jobs is OK just as long as the few who already have them get a minimum wage.
Moreover, some parents might prefer a highly secular (and often substandard) secondary school experience for their children. But many others would prefer to use their own income presently devoted to taxes to purchase a different kind of education. Interventionist elites don’t give them that opportunity.
Likewise, certain middle age and elderly citizens of low and lower middle-class income might cherish universal health care. But most younger workers certainly won’t — they generally want health care coverage suited to their own age and physical condition. But universal health care is less interested in what any specific person wants than in what the elites want.
The alternative (non-interventionist) viewpoint, by contrast, wants a level playing field. It wants individuals (business owners as well as customers) to make their own decisions about wage costs, education, health care and life’s other decisions. They admit that this means everyone won’t make the same money, get the same educational opportunities, or afford the same level of health care. They’re all right with inequality, because they value liberty more than equality. (We’re reminded about the correct answer to the people who charge that a school’s standardized tests are unfair: “No, life is unfair, and standardized tests merely exhibit that fact.”)
Many of you reading these lines understand these facts, but I want to say that behind these two approaches stand two religious impulses, not just economic views or even worldviews.
The (Economic) Christian Worldview
The interventionist worldview conflicts with the Christian worldview at a basic level.
God’s (economic) providence
Christians affirm God’s providence. We hold that God created and sustains all things. We hold that God is at work in the world. He sets up and tears down kingdoms. We do not believe he coerces man’s choice to accomplish his will. He works organically with man’s choices to accomplish his will. We cannot fully explain why he allows evil. His ways are mysterious. But we much prefer faith in God’s benevolent mysterious ways than faith in man’s malevolent unmysterious ways.
This gets to the heart of the religious impulses of both economic non-interventionism and interventionism.
We non-interventionists trust God to be at work in the world. In his time, he rewards righteousness and punishes evil. He blesses wise economic choices. He governs investments. He causes some enterprises to succeed and others to fail. We don’t always understand his ways, but we do have faith that he’s actively at work. In the end, truth and justice will triumph in the world — and in the marketplace.
A chief way of implementing his providence is human action. Solomon writes, “A man’s heart plans his way, [b]ut the LORD directs his steps” (Prov. 16:9). Without coercing man’s choices or overriding his personality, God operates within him to accomplish his purposes in that individual’s life and in the world.
Ultimately human history is what it is because of God’s providence. But proximately it is what it is because of human action. Of course, these decisions are often communal (the family, business, church and state), but these communities consist of individuals who think and act. In the end, it’s individuals who are responsible. They are God’s main agents of providence.
Nor do we deny that the state itself is a part of God’s providential ordering of the world. But it has prescribed limits according to God’s revelation. It protects against external molestation of person and property. The state is not here to bring absolute perfection and cosmic justice before breakfast next Thursday, but to allow individuals maximum liberty under law to think and act and live in God’s good earth (1 Tim. 2:1–2).
Individuals work out their own salvation (Phil. 2:12), but God is at the center of everything, upholding all things by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3).
The tyranny of secular providence
But interventionists can’t trust God’s providence. They’ve already decided what the just society is and how soon it should appear. God’s ways are too mysterious and tardy. God allows some to get rich and others to remain poor, even if only comparatively poor. He takes much too long to provide. He allows greedy capitalists to make too much money. He doesn’t provide the poor with microwave ovens and Blu-ray players and prime rib dinners nearly quickly enough. In fact, according to many interventionists, he is either not there at all or has left the ordering of the world to humanity — specifically to a few noble, wise and gifted individuals, people like them, of course. The elites.
To most interventionists, therefore, the state is secular providence. Politics occupies the role of providence that God occupies in a Creator-worshipping impulse. They have lost faith in God, or at least in an active, caring God intimately at work in his world. Therefore, they vest their hope and dreams of economic justice in the state.
The state must bail out failing companies (with money coercively confiscated from its citizens, of course). The state must provide for the elderly (or, it has been suggested, allow for their elimination when they no longer serve the social purposes of the elite). The state must educate the young in the ways of fairness, goodness and democracy. The state must equalize incomes since economic inequality is unjust. Unjust, of course, in the eyes of the interventionist elite.
The harm inflicted by President Obama’s fairness
This enforced justice must be implemented, even if it produces economic harm in society. Listen to part of an exchange between candidate Barack Obama and ABC news anchor Charlie Gibson in the Pennsylvania Democratic presidential primary debate:
GIBSON: And in each instance, when the [capital gains] rate dropped, revenues from the tax increased; the government took in more money. And in the 1980s, when the tax was increased to 28 percent, the revenues went down.
So why raise it at all, especially given the fact that 100 million people in this country own stock and would be affected?
OBAMA: Well, Charlie, what I’ve said is that I would look at raising the capital gains tax for purposes of fairness.
We saw an article today which showed that the top 50 hedge fund managers made $29 billion last year — $29 billion for 50 individuals. And part of what has happened is that those who are able to work the stock market and amass huge fortunes on capital gains are paying a lower tax rate than their secretaries. That’s not fair.
I draw your attention to a salient fact: even if decreases in capital gains taxes spur the economy (thereby helping the poor) and create increased tax revenue, they are wrong because they are not fair. Barack Obama gets to decide what is fair, even if that fairness harms the poor and the rest of the country.
The issue is not poverty and wealth. The issue is the role of elites in playing God in getting to decide who gets what.
This is another way of saying that those interventionists want the state to play God. They cannot trust God to be God.
I am saying that interventionism is at root a faithless, agnostic and even atheistic creed. Even when Christians espouse it, they are thinking and acting as unbelievers, not as Christians.
 On this elitism, see Angelo M. Codevilla, The Ruling Class (New York: Beaufort Books, 2010).
 I am talking about God’s prescriptive providence: what God desires of his world as found in the Bible. I am not talking about his decretal providence, his secret counsels that he has not disclosed to man before the fact. It may be God’s decretal providence to bring political (and economic) tyranny on a culture (Hab. 1:5–11), but man must live by God’s prescriptive providence, which opposes tyranny (1 Sam. 8:1–18).
 “Transcript: Obama and Clinton Debate,” http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/DemocraticDebate/story?id=4670271&page=3, accessed March 16, 2011.