Freedom to become wealthy by legal means

If a country is going to grow from poverty toward increasing prosperity, it must protect the freedom for anyone in the society not only to move to a higher income level, but to accumulate and retain even large amounts of wealth, so long as they do so by legal means and activities. This is the opposite of the situation that we mentioned in the previous section, in which the wealth of a nation is concentrated in the hands of a few privileged families and no one else has the opportunity to become wealthy. Instead, we are speaking of a society that promotes opportunity for anyone who works hard and has skill to increase his economic status as much as he is able.

Once again, government leaders must keep in mind the one thing that will lift their nation from poverty toward increasing prosperity: continually producing more goods and services of value. If that is going to happen, every person in the nation must somehow be motivated to contribute what he or she can to the increase in productive economic activity.

What most effectively motivates people to make their best contributions toward a more productive economy? They are best motivated by the hope of earning more and bettering their positions in life, as well as those of their families. Nothing else provides the needed mo- tivation—not appeals to patriotism, not challenges to love their fellow man, not calls to do more to help the poor, not envy of the rich, and certainly not forced labor in systems of slavery or totalitarianism. Nothing motivates a person nearly as well as his self-interest; that is, the hope of earning more money and bettering his own condition.

But if people are going to be motivated by the hope of earning more money, they must be able to see actual evidence that this is possible. They must be able to look around and see examples of people who started out poor and then became rich or at least moderately well-off. People must be able to see that a measure of financial success is possible with good work habits, honesty, thrift, and perseverance.[1]

If people know that they live in a country where no one is able to improve his family’s economic condition, such as a communist coun?try, where wages are set by the government, then no one tries. Likewise, if people live in a country where powerful government officials and a few wealthy families have kept all the wealth for themselves for generations, and where the poor really have no opportunity to work hard and succeed economically, then again they do not try.

A tragic example of economic and cultural systems that trap people in poverty by preventing anyone from getting ahead is seen in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Maranz, an expert on Africa, explains:

It is a general rule that people expect that money and commodities will be used or spent as soon as they are available. If the possessor does not have immediate need to spend or use a resource, relatives and friends certainly do. To have resources and not use them is hoarding, which is considered to be unsocial.[2]

To be fair, we must note that Maranz sympathetically views the reason for such customs: guaranteeing that everyone will survive, especially during severe circumstances of drought or famine. He writes at the beginning of his book:

What is the one most fundamental economic consideration in the majority of African societies? I believe the answer is approximately this: the distribution of economic resources so that all persons may have their minimum needs met, or at least that they may survive. This distribution is the African social security system. . . . Do Africans achieve the main goal of their economic system? Yes, they achieve it amazingly well. . . . [Even in bleak economies with 50% unemployment] people continue to eat, are clothed and housed, and they survive. Those who have even meager means share with kin and close friends. There are no riots. People live their lives with, it seems to me, at least as much contentment as Westerners do in their home countries. Of course, they all hope for better days, but in the meantime, they make the most of their situations.[3]

So we are not saying that these customs have served no good purpose at all. But we are saying that today they are a significant hindrance to economic growth, because they prevent anyone from getting ahead economically. In fact, Maranz himself says that the result of these customs is a continual “leveling” of society so that no one is able to get ahead of others:

The unwritten rules governing the loaning and sharing of money and goods, and the extreme social pressure on individuals to conform to these rules or face sanctions, serve as leveling mechanisms to keep people from getting ahead of others. . . . Extreme social pressure is exerted on those who have resources to share them with those members of society who have less. The effect is to prevent anyone from getting ahead and basically acts as a brake on economic development.[4]

What is the result of believing the lie that economic equality is more important than economic growth (progressive subduing of the earth, Gen. 1:28), property ownership (“you shall not steal,” “you shall not covet”), or getting a just reward for one’s labor? It is entrapment in poverty.

The need for people to see examples of others who have gone from poverty to wealth means that it is very destructive for a society to continually vilify “the rich,” to portray them as evil, and to promote envy and hatred toward them. (The idea that wealth comes from the exploitation of others rather than from creating new value is a Marxist idea, not a Christian viewpoint.) Such class-warfare rhetoric tends to discourage poorer people from trying to succeed in business and become wealthy through hard work and perseverance (for who wants to be hated by everyone else?). If a society focuses on envy or hatred of the rich, it significantly hinders its economic productivity.

Every time a nation moves from poverty toward increasing prosperity, some people will do better economically than others. People have different gifts and skills, different levels of ambition, different work habits, and different levels of intelligence in various areas. Many people will become moderately prosperous because they do quite a good job of providing useful products of value for the economy. The government—and the customs of the society—must allow them to keep the fruits of their labor, because this is what motivates them to continue to make valuable contributions to the economy. In fact, in free societies, most of the people who become moderately wealthy have quite “ordinary” occupations.

Then there will be a very few people who become spectacularly successful. Often they are people who invent new products or new ways to mass-produce products. In the history of the United States, these have been the people who figured out how to build an assembly line to mass-produce automobiles for ordinary families (Henry Ford), how to build a vast network of railroads (Cornelius Vanderbilt), or how to build huge steel mills (Andrew Carnegie, founder of U.S. Steel). They included those who developed home computers and a new generation of cell phones (Steve Jobs, founder of Apple), a computer operating system that is used in every country of the world (Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft), and an Internet marketing firm that delivers thousands of products quickly to any home (Jeff Bezos, founder of

The important point for the United States’ economic development is not that each of these men made millions of dollars. It is that each of these business leaders contributed a vast amount of economic productivity to his nation and, in many cases, to the entire world. These people and others like them enabled the United States to continually produce more products and services of value beyond anything that could be imagined from the efforts of one person. They succeeded, and the economy of their country grew significantly as a result of their efforts.

This kind of thing happens only in a nation that allows people unlimited opportunities to earn money with the hope of keeping large amounts of it. The people who can earn such millions of dollars are very rare, but they provide immense economic productivity for the society as a whole.

Frederick Catherwood rightly says, “The teaching of the Bible would appear to be that it is not the amount of a man’s wealth which matters; what matters is the method by which he acquires it, how he uses it and his attitude of mind toward it.[5]

If a nation allows the freedom for anyone to accumulate much wealth in this way, it encourages multitudes of people to try. Some fail, many do moderately well, and only a very few become truly wealthy. But the millions who do moderately well form the backbone of a healthy economy, and those who become extremely wealthy provide significant benefit to that economy.

If the opportunity to work hard, succeed, and become wealthy is removed by government policies (such as extremely high rates of taxation on “the rich,” or arbitrary and biased trials and imprisonments of high-profile wealthy people, as in Russia or China), then hardly anyone will try to become wealthy by building a productive business, and this will keep the entire nation from much of the economic growth that it could have experienced.

Therefore, if a nation is going to grow from poverty toward increasing prosperity, it must not confiscate wealth through punitive taxes on the rich, through high inheritance taxes, through unjust court decisions against the rich, or through social ostracism or moral condemnations of prosperity.

But what if people live in a country where nearly all the rich people have gained their wealth through immoral means, such as drug dealing, theft, or political corruption? In such cases, the society somehow needs to find enough strength to punish those criminals for the evil things they have done—not punishing them for the wealth itself, but for the wrongful means they used to gain that wealth. Then it needs to open up and protect genuine opportunities for anyone to become rich by legal, morally right means. If the only rich people in a nation are known to have become wealthy through bribery, theft, or corruption, then no honest people will believe there is any hope for them to increase their own wealth.

Pastors and other spiritual leaders in a nation have an important role here. They need to speak against the rich who have used lying, cheating, stealing, or the promotion of immorality to become wealthy. They also need to speak against wrongful government penalization or social ostracism of the rich. But if their sermons contain habitual criticisms even of the rich who have earned their money in morally good and legally correct ways, they will harm the economic growth of their nation by discouraging people from ever seeking to work hard and do very well economically.

The Bible does not say it is wrong for someone to say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit,” but rather that it is wrong to say this proudly without acknowledging that this can happen only “if the Lord wills” (see James 4:13, 15). The book of James does have some harsh words of condemnation for rich people (see 5:1-6), but these are people who have unjustly laid up excessive luxuries for themselves (vv. 2-3), have wrongly held back wages (v. 4), and who “live on the earth in luxury and self-indulgence” and have even wrongfully condemned and murdered righteous people (vv. 5-6). James is not referring to all rich people but to selfish, greedy, dishonest, unjust, self-indulgent rich people who have no care for others and do not act righteously.

In addition, there is this Old Testament warning: “Do not wear yourself out to become rich; be wise enough to restrain yourself” (Prov. 23:4, net).97

This is related to a New Testament passage that warns against desiring to be rich:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim. 6: 9-10)

Here we must distinguish between, on the one hand, the “desire to be rich” and the “love of money” that Paul is talking about, and, on the other hand, a desire to work hard, do well, and better one’s economic situation, which the Bible never condemns.

There are always many people whose goal is not wealth but doing well at their jobs or businesses and earning a decent living, and who are continually promoted at work or else invent products that sell remarkably well, and suddenly discover that they are becoming wealthy beyond anything they expected or even sought. In a free-market economy, that happens fairly often.

In addition, there are always many people in a society who know nothing about the Bible’s teachings and think there is nothing at all wrong with wanting to be rich. They, in fact, make it their goal to become wealthy. But one of the amazing aspects of a free-market system is that it often uses the immense energies these people devote to becoming rich for the economic good of the society as a whole. In order to gain more profit, these people work to create valuable new goods and services that bring great benefit to the society.

If a society does not allow people the freedom to become wealthy by legal means, then it loses many of the benefits that these people would have brought to the economy. They do not work nearly as hard or produce nearly as much, or else they move to other countries, where they can use their skills to become wealthy, and the other countries get the benefits of their economic productivity.

Freedom of religion

This freedom was implied in sections 15 and 18 above (and see also chapter 7, 258), but we state it explicitly here. Religious bigotry and intolerance in the past have led to the exclusion of valuable skills and knowledge in many countries, and significantly hindered economic development. In order to prevent such losses of knowledge and skill, it is important that a nation establish and protect freedom for every religious viewpoint.

Several Muslim nations today continue to exercise extreme exclusion of other religions, and they suffer negative economic consequences as a result. Communist nations such as North Korea and the former Soviet Union have excluded religion generally and have thus experienced the economic loss that comes from excluding people of various religious convictions from productive participation in the economy.

C. Conclusion

If the leaders of a nation make up their minds to protect the twenty- one freedoms outlined in this chapter, these freedoms will release the tremendous economic productivity of the people in the nation, and it will begin to produce more and more goods and services of value. As it does this, it will begin to make large strides in its journey from poverty toward ever-increasing prosperity.

  • [1] Stanley and Danko, The Millionaire Next Door, is filled with such examples, as well as numerous studiesof the surprisingly frugal and unassuming lifestyles of most American millionaires.
  • [2] Maranz, African Friends, 16.
  • [3] Ibid., 4, emphasis in original.
  • [4] Ibid., 150.
  • [5] H. F. R. Catherwood, The Christian in Industrial Society (London: Tyndale Press, 1964), 9.
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