Krugman’s “Confronting the Malefactors”

Too late for the New Zealand parliamentary election recently held, but just to publish it in the blog where it properly belongs, I am republishing here an off-topic post I published on 8th October 2011 in my technical blog. 

A friend on Facebook drew attention to an article by Paul Krugman, Confronting the Malefactors, which was written at the time of the Occupy Wall Street protests. I decided that the comment I wanted to make was too long for Facebook, so I would post my thoughts on my own blog, instead.
It’s a good article whose sentiment I support in its essence, but Krugman misses an important point when he seeks to identify the malefactors. What he should have said and didn’t is, “We have seen the malefactor, and he is us.”
The politico-economic spectrum comprises capitalists, socialists and centrists. From that spectrum, we have to choose whom to support and vote for. Conservative Christians are sensitive to the right to private property as implied by the 8th commandment, “Thou shall not steal,” and so many vote on the right. Other Christians have thrown in their lot with the left, correctly motivated by compassion for the down-trodden but naive in their belief that socialism can provide an economically-sustainable solution to the problem. And the centrists try to provide room for the capitalists to keep the economy working while throwing sufficient sops to the masses to stave off the revolution.
What all these options miss is the genius of sin to subvert any of them. If Christians vote simplistically on the right in this day and age, they are not supporting the godly kind of capitalism called for by Biblical ethics. The people who had the 10 Commandments proclaimed to them also heard this, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6,7). Adam Smith thought that the invisible hand of the market alone would keep capitalism just, but it is not true. We all need to be confronted repeatedly with God’s ethical demands or we will pervert capitalism into oppression.
Krugman is in step with the Bible when he repeats Theodore Roosevelt’s condemnation of the “malefactors of great wealth,” but he is naive and – like every sinner – self-serving when he thinks that mere policy changes will turn the tide. He is right when he lists the excesses of greed that have so angered the Wall Street protesters, but he does not take into account that the protesters will want a solution that requires others to repent of their sins but not they of their own.
I began my working career at a time when trades unions had enormous power in the New Zealand workplace, and I saw at first hard the featherbedding, waste and inefficiency that therefore resulted. The “people” when in a place of power had no less a tendency to corruption than the wealthy. Human sin subverted the aims of socialism; “Animal Farm” is trenchantly true.
The government at that time was nominally right-wing but actually centrist and its ineffectual policies meant that by 1984 New Zealand’s rate of inflation was 18%. To everyone’s surprise, the Labour government that won the 1984 election gave New Zealand one of the freest, most deregulated economies in the world and curbed the power of the unions. All New Zealanders did indeed benefit from the immediate reduction in the inflation rate, and the “trickle down” theory promised that much of the newly unshackled wealth would ultimately find its way into the pockets of all.
Hurrah, I thought, only to see many at the top levels of business behaving in an economically destructive way. Murky schemes and complex patterns of company inter-ownership replaced actual productivity with a trade in illusions, and there was a transfer of wealth upwards as middle-income New Zealanders put money into companies that within a year or two failed. Human sin had subverted the potential of capitalism.
There are two kinds of capitalism – secular, Darwinian capitalism and Biblical capitalism. A Christian therefore has a problem at the ballot box. A vote for socialism is a vote against the 8th Commandment, but a vote for a right-wing party in our secular society is de facto a vote in support of the oppressive Darwinian version of capitalism, a state of affairs equally displeasing to God.
Faced with that kind of dilemma, many Christians choose to opt out altogether from the political process. I don’t believe that is the right decision. Instead, the decision has to be, which of the two systems will give me the greatest freedom to preach Jesus Christ and therefore bring his ethical suasion to bear on the economic decisions made by those around us?
And, if throwing your lot in with a political party (not merely choosing one to vote for on election day), ask which party might embrace a set of policies that honour the 8th Commandment and also encourage social concern and a “flood-down” rather than “trickle-down” theory of wealth transfer; a party where the “malefactors of great wealth” are seen as pariahs instead of patrons. Can’t find one? – perhaps start one!
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