Only What Works: An Approach to Christian Policy-Making
If you’ve been paying attention, then you’ll have noticed a theme to my articles here at FaithfulPolitics.org over the last several months: from airplanes to Office Space to the book of Revelation, we’ve been focusing on a call to Kingdom-minded Christian engagement with the political structures of our world. However corrupt a government might be (how could it be less, given the Fallenness of our world?), its power to affect our lives in both individual and corporate ways necessitates our attention to its workings – most certainly when its power might affect opportunities to spread the Gospel.
So, how should Christians seek to encourage government to operate? Insofar as we are able to influence political processes (especially as citizens of the U.S. – a republic with democratic elements), what kinds of policies and programs should Christians support?
We could answer this question with morality in mind: Christians should promote the general welfare of our culture and work to bring temporary, Good Samaritan-like salvation to people alongside our efforts to bring the message of eternal, Christocentric salvation to them. Notably, government is not required for this to happen – in fact, by many accounts, it is a rather ineffective vehicle for helping people in this way over the long term – but, again, politics is but one more possible tool (as corrupt and ineffective as it might be) for helping others.
But that’s not what we’ll focus on for now. Before we can analyze the specific goals that government policies should target, we first need to determine our approach to figuring out what kinds of policies we should pursue at all.
How’s this for a rule: “Christians should support governmental policies primarily by the quality of their outcomes, rather than by the intentions of the policy-makers.”
No governmental policy is ever designed to intentionally bring about a lower societal standard of living, but that is precisely what many rules, laws, regulations, and mandates have ended up doing. As truth-loving, compassionate people who want to help others and are humble enough to admit when our imperfect plans turn out differently than we expected (Eph. 4:2), Christians should focus on the outcomes of our policies, not simply the rhetoric that gets those policies enacted in the first place.
Consider, for example, the federal requirement that businesses pay no less than a particular minimum wage to their employees. Since its inception in the early 20th century, the U.S. minimum wage has been marketed to voters as a protection for wage-earners against the greedy machinations of wage-payers. Because job providers don’t care about their employees, so the story goes, the government (which does care) must step in to keep companies moral and workers from being abused. While this foundation is questionable (as if employers have no incentive for ensuring a mutually beneficial relationship with their employees), the method of forcing employers to keep wages above an arbitrarily selected floor has not only reduced the employability of young and under-skilled workers (whose labor is not worth the artificially high price) but has also contributed to the overall inflation of prices across the economy – thereby reducing the purchasing power of workers, exactly the opposite outcome from the policy’s intention.
For a brief illustration, consider the preorder price of the pictured video game. This image was uploaded to Reddit.com by an Australian user last month as an example of the common price disparities from the U.S. to Oz (the same product is for sale at roughly half that price in the States). And while the factors that lead to inflation are numerous and complex, it should be noted that the minimum wage in the U.S. is likewise half what it is in Australia ($7.25 vs. $15.50/hour in USD). The intentions of minimum wage laws are certainly honorable, but their outcomes are largely damaging to the very people they are designed to benefit.
So, think of the example of Joseph – one of the only men in the Torah who is presented as a wholly honorable person. His policy recommendations in Genesis 41 were wide-sweeping and written with the best of intentions: saving the country from impending famine. But the reason why Joseph’s policies are remembered positively is because they were overwhelmingly effective – their outcome was exceedingly positive. If Egyptians still starved despite Joseph’s leadership, then the Genesis account (and its portrayal of Joseph’s character) would be told quite differently. Similarly, the robbed man was actually helped by the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 – it was not merely a case of the Samaritan really wanting to help the hurt man or lobbying the government to “do something” about the situation. Unlike gift-giving, it is not the thought of aid that counts, it is only the actual degree to which someone is aided that matters. If government is going to be the entity giving the aid, then Christians (and all citizens) should care that aid is actually being given. But this sometimes entails admitting that our original plan was off-base and needs correction – something that requires a humble spirit that is all-too-rare.
As economist Milton Friedman said, “concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.” Governmental policies have tremendous power to affect people – for better and for worse – so humble Christians (who recognize humanity’s limitations and care about its well-being) should lead the charge to continually reassess the performance of those policies and work for a more efficient and effective system overall. Insofar as this is done, then we’ll be moving closer to a Christian approach to policy-making.