Christianity and Economics – Part 2
Incentives: How individual decisions shape outcomes for everyone
Jubilee co-founder, director and economist Aaron Hanson with the second of a four part series on Christianity and economics, first published by VOX.
If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
The first article in this series briefly established that Christianity has plenty to say about economics, and shared a few principles, which should guide our attitudes. This was all with a view to identifying and addressing common economic problems such as poverty or the unsustainable use of natural resources.
Solving these problems can often seem beyond our reach as individuals, making us feel helpless or apathetic. Yet while no-one can do everything, everyone can do something. By the same token, all of us have the capacity to contribute individually to aggregate-level problems, so we need to look carefully at our incentives: what drives our economic decisions? After all, Jesus taught that we must look at our own faults before we judge others.
We are more interconnected today than probably ever before: the global economy is like a giant spider’s web, and what we do in one small corner sends reverberations, however small, to other corners. One harrowing example of this is the demand for smartphones and other electronic devices in places like Ireland funding conflict and oppression in the Congo.
It is easy to get into a mindset whereby topics like this become what writer Douglas Adams called an SEP (Somebody Else’s Problem): our brain edits them out of our consciousness
(like a blindspot) because they are unexpected or inconvenient. Yet, if we are to love our neighbours then their problems become our problems – especially if we had a hand in contributing to those problems, and even though some such neighbours may be far away. This does not mean we must never again buy anything on the grounds that it ‘might’ harm someone somewhere. But at the same time, Jesus called us to be radical, and radical changes to our lifestyles and priorities may be required.
We are probably already aware of the countless Biblical injunctions against the desire for wealth (see Mark 8:36, Luke 12:15-21, 1 Timothy 6:10). But more than this, Jesus’s teaching indicates that our desire for comfort, though not bad in itself, may also cripple us spiritually. The Good Samaritan’s behaviour was not conducive to his comfort, yet Jesus commended his behaviour. We are commanded, time and time again, to forsake the easy path and this applies to the decisions we make about what to buy, which jobs to take, our incentives, charitable giving and so forth.
In practice, this will look different for different people in different circumstances. It may mean taking public transport more to reduce the severe pollution in European cities; it may mean a couple choosing to live on one income so that money (not to mention the second job) can be shared out to others; or it may mean seeking out ways to buy from farmers directly or buy food wrapped in less plastic. These all involve inconvenience, but if we are motivated to pursue others’ good as well as our own, such behaviour at the individual level can ultimately contribute to making the economy fairer and better for everyone.
This article was written by Aaron Hanson, with input from Jordan Maly-Preuss and Matt Williams. Aaron and Matt are founding directors of Jubilee, an agri-environmental organisation based in Larne, Co. Antrim.