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Book Review: Prosperity And Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity by E. Calvin Beisner

DECEMBER 01, 1989 by PETER J. HILL

Crossway Books, 9825 W. Roosevelt Round, Westchester, Illinois 60153 • 1988 • 304 pages * $9.95 paperback.

Despite protestations to the contrary by some economists, issues involving economic policy are extremely value laden. Questions of economic justice, appropriate levels of redistribution, and the moral foundations of rights continually arise. Hence it is not surprising that people who have a well-developed moral and religions framework attempt to integrate that value structure with their views on economic policy. Calvin Beisner fits very well in this genre as he has written a book that uses a biblical perspective to look at the world of economics.

Beisner’s analysis is thoroughly Christian in the sense that he sees the Bible as the ultimate standard of truth by which all things must be measured, but he is also conversant with much of the recent scholarship in economics. Thus his work represents a careful attempt to integrate the two perspectives. He recognizes the need for compassionate people to address the problems of poverty, but he is also aware that one must couple biblical concern with a careful understanding of how the world works. Beisner avoids the trap that many Christians fall into of thinking that good intentions are all that matters, and that appropriate Christian concern will automatically lead to effective policy measures.

Beisner begins with the concept of stewardship, arguing that the believer must see God as the owner of all things, and from that flows the responsibility to act appropriately in economic matters. He argues that we must not act wastefully and that the creation of wealth is very much a part of good stewardship. However, he also recognizes the dangers of wealth, clearly laying out where the allegiance of the Christian must lie. Beisner also does a thorough job of developing the concepts of work and rest as they relate to economic activity.

It is the second part of the book that many readers will find the most interesting. In it the author puts forth his standard of economic justice, and he departs considerably from most Christian ethicists on this issue. He argues that biblical justice does not demand equality, and, in fact, requires very unequal results in many eases.

A major part of Beisner’s analysis deals with the controversial Jubilee Year provision of Leviticus 25, and he concludes that the passage does not require a radical equalizing of property or incomes. He does recognize that the text implies a significant constraint on the ability of people to alienate their productive capital, and it is in this sense that the passage has the most interesting implications for modern society. Although Beisner acknowledges the importance of translating biblical concepts to the modern setting, a fuller exposition of just what the injunction against the permanent sale of land would prohibit in today’s society would have been appreciated.

Parts III and IV of the book give a fairly adequate explanation of how an economy functions with appropriate attention to issues of property rights, prices, and markets. Considerable attention is given to the questions of money and inflation, with the careful development of the argument that a decrease in the purchasing power of money represents both bad stewardship and theft. On the basis of the biblical injunctions protecting property rights, Beisner concludes that the government should have no positive role in the provision of money; in other words free market money represents the only truly moral form of currency.

The author reaches an equally radical conclusion with regard to coercive redistribution of wealth, namely that, by biblical standards, none should occur. A strong emphasis on the meaty of property rights is at the basis of this conclusion. Fairly standard arguments against subsidies, price controls, and import restrictions are also made.

The last section of the book presents Beisner’s views on what should be done to alleviate poverty. He recognizes a clear biblical imperative to care for the deserving poor, but argues that the government should have no role in doing that other than preventing fraud and the violation of property rights. Therefore he proposes alternative anti-poverty measures involving church and personal voluntary action. Beisner calculates the number of poor people in the United States according to the biblical concept of poverty, which he argues is much more restrictive than the official government definition. Using rough estimates for per capita income of church members, he concludes that about one percent of their income, or one-tenth of the expected tithe, would be sufficient to eliminate poverty. Of course any such Calculations are subject to numerous caveats, but the point is well taken; appropriate Christian concern could voluntarily solve most of America’s poverty problem.

Of course Christians do not devote anywhere near this amount to poverty reduction, a shortcoming of which Beisner is appropriately critical. He also recognizes that his call for reduction of government involvement in income redistribution must be accompanied by a dramatic alteration in the attitude of many Christians toward voluntary measures.

Beisner’s book is well worth reading. He takes his standard of justice and truth, the Bible, seriously and doesn’t shirk from attempting to apply it to some of society’s most vexing economic problems. He also is careful not to argue that the prevailing ethos of our capitalist society is biblical, while at the same time avoiding a utopian fascination with alternative institutional arrangements. One may wonder if the strength of his conclusions is fully warranted on some issues. For instance, is only free market money truly biblical, and can no coercive redistribution of income be considered legitimate from a Christian perspective? Nevertheless, Beisner develops well-rea-soned positions grounded in a careful reading of Scripture to support these positions, and the reader who wishes to disagree must be ready to confront his arguments head-on. 

Dr. Hill is George F. Bennett Professor of Economics, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

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December 1989

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