The government of the system. Leaders Who Use Their Power for the Benefit of the People as a Whole

Up to this point, we have argued that a poor country that wants to move from poverty toward greater prosperity must adopt the right goal (produce more goods and services) and the right economic system (a free market). Now we turn to another, equally important topic: it must have the right kind of government.

The main principle that we hope to establish regarding government is this: If a country is going to move from poverty toward ever- greater prosperity, its leaders must use government power for the benefit of the people as a whole rather than for themselves, their families, and their friends.

The apostle Paul makes this point in the New Testament when he explains that the civil authority “is God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4). God’s intention is that government officials work to do “good” to the people under their authority rather than making it their goal to enrich themselves while in office or to use government power simply to increase their own power.

Unfortunately, the idea that rulers can just “take” money from the government’s treasury for their own benefit and for the benefit of friends is a cultural value deeply entrenched in some poor societies. What we would call “corruption” is widely accepted as just “the way government works.”

Dr. David Maranz, an ethnologist who lived for more than twenty- five years in several sub-Saharan African countries, describes what he observed in many of those nations:

A major function of government is to provide money and other resources to those members of society who are in power or have a close relationship to those who are in power. This unofficial role of government is widely observed in Africa. Many of the conflicts, the wars, and leaders’ clinging to power are a direct result of the practice. . . . The pressure is immense, from above and from below, on individuals in government and business to use their positions for the direct benefit of themselves and family members.[1]

Leaders in society (religious, political, and business) are expected to be people . . . who distribute resources and in other ways provide for their followers when they have needs.[2]

Economic historian David S. Landes sees that such government corruption is one of the primary causes of poverty in most of subSaharan Africa:

The governments produced by . . . strong-man rule have proved uniformly inept, with a partial exception for pillage. In Africa the richest people are heads of state and their ministers. Bureaucracy has been inflated to provide jobs for henchmen; the economy, squeezed for its surplus. Much (most?) foreign aid ends in numbered accounts abroad.[3]

Such corruption of government officials is not limited to Africa. Landes gives many other examples throughout economic history. For example, for centuries in China, the emperor ruled over all and took what he wanted. When Western Europeans discovered mechanical clocks, they proved to be a great boon for increasing productivity and helping people make wise use of time. But when Western mechanical clocks were brought to China, they were simply thought of as instruments to entertain the emperor and other favored officials rather than as tools to be used for the benefit of the population gen- erally.[4] We have already mentioned, from history, similar self-serving behavior on the part of Mogul princes in India, Spanish conquerors in Central and South America, and feudal lords in Eastern Europe (see 148). Powerful kings in Britain, France, and the Holy Roman Empire similarly used their power to enrich their families for many generations.

The cultural value that rulers have a right to take people’s money (such as tax revenue) and use it for themselves is a violation of the biblical view of property. As we explained in an earlier chapter (see 142-144), the Bible itself regularly assumes and reinforces a system in which property belongs to individual people, not to the rulers, the government, a tribe, or “society” as a whole in some vague sense.

In the rest of this chapter, we describe seventeen specific characteristics of a government that functions for the good of the people rather than the benefit of the rulers. (In the next chapter, we will list another twenty-one freedoms that the government must protect.)

  • [1] David Maranz, African Friends and Money Matters (Dallas: SIL International, 2001), 112-14.
  • [2] Ibid., 132.
  • [3] David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (New York:W. W. Norton, 1999), 504.
  • [4] Ibid., 336, 339.
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