Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter — by peaceful or revolutionary means — into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it. Frederick Bastiat, “The Law,” 1849.
The Bible doesn’t condemn the principle of self-interest, though it does condemn some practices of self-interest: “Whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God dwell in him?” (I Jn. 3:17).
But if I know there is a sale on of items I want, and that they could run out early, it isn’t wrong to get there early so I can get what I want. I am looking after my own interests. Is this wrong? No. The early bird catches the worm.
On a hot day at the beach, people want be ice-creams, cold drinks, sun hats and sun cream. People will often pay for these, so you (or someone else) can go to the trouble and risk of finding the products, getting them to the beach, setting up a stall with a generator or power source, and selling things like a good capitalist.
And at the end of the day you go home, do the sums and determine if you made any profit!
Self-interest drives the international economy. People want? People get. The key to prosperity in a free market economy (which the Bible endorses) is to find what it is that people need, and sell it to them.
Today, the Chinese and other nations are buying vast amounts of Australian coal and iron ore. They want it for their industry, and we have it in the ground, so they say, “How much?” and some Australian says “This much.” Arrangements are entered into, and a deal is done. And so it goes on, everywhere.
The Bible specifically indicates that Abraham, Isaac and Job were wealthy men, and it communicates no stigma in relation to this. Rather, it says that “it is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich, and He adds no sorrow to it” (Prov.10:22).
Abraham built wells (Gen.21:30; 26:18) for he understood the asset value of water in a dry land, especially as he had flocks and herds, and the welfare of hundreds and possibly thousands of people to consider. He shows us, that “physical resources are useless without capital and skills to develop them, or without access to markets.” He built up assets in gold, silver and livestock (Gen.13:2) through commercial activities which are not stipulated in scripture. He was a long-term planner, and these assets would be important in years to come (Gen.23:14-20; 24:22, 52-53; 49:29-32). He made the best of his abilities to understand markets, and to manage men, money and livestock in his era. Abraham it seems, believed in the Biblical virtue of diligence; that “the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Prov.10:4).
So honest, profitable trading is perfectly legitimate, and provides people with many of their needs in a far more efficient way than if they had to procure each one of these things personally. The butcher, baker and candle-stick maker make life easier for us all, and each makes a living by serving the needs of their customers. Economists call this the division of labour.
How can Christians match their economic wisdom with their walk of faith? North comments, “Self-interest should not be devoid of covenantal understanding.”
It’s when people ignore the God-ordained limits of government that problems of self-interest arise. If people in power say, “What’s in this for me?” corruption will ensue.
We see this in the Bible. When Samuel was old, he appointed his sons to judge Israel. But “his sons, however, did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice” (I Sam.8:3). They had neglected the fact that God had said that “the same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you” (Ex.12:49). Jethro later instructed Moses, “you shall select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens” (Ex.18:21).
Later, Solomon wrote that “…to show partiality in judgment is not good. He who says to the wicked, ‘You are righteous,’ peoples will curse him, nations will abhor him; but to those who rebuke the wicked will be delight, and a good blessing will come upon them. He kisses the lips who gives a right answer” (Prov.23:23-26).
The curse of government is partiality. Partiality to the rich, or the poor, or to anyone in particular. It can even be on the basis of race. Graduated taxation reflects a form of partiality. Instead of people paying a specific proportion of their income at a flat rate, graduated taxation (which is itself a Marxist invention) penalises those who have done better.
Why? It is not jealousy, it’s envy. Governments that invoke graduated taxation are saying, “You’ve done well this year? We’ll hit you hard. We’ll teach you a thing or two. We’ll take what was yours, and give it to people less fortunate than you.” And in the process, governments penalise the innovative, the risk-takers and the profitable, who may go somewhere else in the world to do business.
Governments that invoke the “too big to fail” idea (especially in relation to financially supporting banks and big companies) are being partial to the rich. Sometimes this is done because these organisations can make big donations to political campaigns. Governments implicitly (or explicitly) say, “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” Donating to political parties is not wrong of itself, as any business wants to see political parties returned that are not going to damage or hamper it in the market place. But if donations are made with an expectation of favours in return, it most certainly is corrupt.
Sometimes, governments lack the courage to let poorly performing companies go under. They feel guilty, thinking, “we could have saved them.”
At other times, governments think, “there are a lot of voters in that company. We’d keep their vote if we gave them a bail-out.” Each of these statements may be true, but it isn’t the role of government in a free society to save failing companies by giving them access to tax-payers’ monies. That’s partiality, and creates a very ugly precedent.
In recent decades the “too big to fail” ideal has become so endemic, that there is every chance that it will lead to an international financial catastrophe; the finances of banks and governments (especially in Europe and the US) have become utterly intertwined and compromised, as these institutions have ignored or by-passed Biblical ethical constraints. Now, the birds are coming home to roost, and it will be painful.
Nevertheless, it will be good when this happens. Why? Because there will be an undoing of unholy alliances, of Fascist style relationships between businesses and government, where partiality or nepotism has reigned supreme, to the detriment of justice, the individual and society.
Self-interest of itself is generally not wrong. It is the legitimate motivator behind 99% of international trade and business everywhere. Christians should not ever feel guilty or reluctant to deal in business, but should make every effort to be diligent, successful and profitable. The Bible applauds this.
God’s people however, must determine the Biblical limits to self-interest. The Bible specifically condemns all forms of partiality in the application of law, and tells us that “God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether good or evil” (Eccles.12:14). This should both warn and encourage us; evildoers will not prosper in the long-term, but the diligent godly will be blessed by God.