Three Institutions Necessary for the Creation of Wealth and their Christian Origins

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In previous posts, Michael Miller talked with us about why we should be thinking about new approaches to poverty, and why it’s important to treat the poor as subjects of their own destiny and not objects of pity. This is all well and good, but there are institutions of justice necessary for the creation of wealth and diminishing of poverty, which Michael explains. But these institutions come from somewhere, and Michael argues they come from Christianity. 

Michael Miller: Some Christian leaders say things like, “If North American Christians would be more generous, we could raise “x” billion dollars and we could eradicate extreme poverty forever.” Well, the answer is, no we couldn’t. Poor people are not poor because they lack stuff. Primarily in the developing world, poor people are poor because they lack the institutions of justice that allow them to create prosperity for their own families and communities.

So what are the institutions of justice? Well, these are really boring things like clear titles to your land: private property, access to justice in the courts, ability to register your own business, and access to engage in economic activity (free exchange). Many people think competition of free exchange will hurt the poor, but it generally does not as long as it is not rigged against the poor. Moreover, who do you think influences the regulation in a highly regulated economy? Big businesses and powerful interest groups in an entrenched bureaucracy who end up colluding for advantages, and the poorest of the poor lack the social, economic, and political contacts to navigate this bureaucracy so they get excluded. So free exchange is important because it gives them an opportunity, whereas all the opportunities are already soaked up by those with interest and contacts when there is high regulation. So that is why free exchange is important.

Hernando de Soto’s question is why the West got rich. The developing world is teeming with entrepreneurs, but why don’t they emerge? He is right to say it’s because of lack of private property rights and related issues.

But a deeper question is where did the institutions come from?

Acemoglu & Robinson have a good book called Why Nations Fail in which they give a simple, minimalist definition of culture as what we like and food and all that. They don’t want to engage the question of culture. But this is probably naive. Institutions are a part of culture. The question that is often not asked–and Christians have a lot to bring to the table here–is where do the institutions come from?

Private property, clear titles to land, rule of law, justice in the courts, impartiality, free association, economic activity, etc. all comes out of the Jewish and Christian tradition. One example in the medieval period comes from Thomas Aquinas’ small treatise Contra Impugnates, but much more profound than that is to look at the biblical sources. For example, property is presupposed in the Decalogue, it’s important in the prophets and is presupposed in the Gospels as well. If you look at Genesis 23, Abraham makes sure he gets a title to his land when buying his burial plot for Sarah.

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Property is constantly being respected. For example, you cannot move landmarks. You need private property for sacrifice also. You see this after David carries out a census and must choose between three punishments. He chooses the three day plague from God, who has mercy on the people and does not completely destroy them. David goes down to build an altar on Araunah’s land, who tries to give it to David. But David will not offer sacrifice on something that is not his; he must own the land. So private property is even connected to sacrifice.

The violation of private property is a very serious thing, such as you see when Jezebel and Ahab take Naboth’s vineyard. Private property is also important to the family, which is something explicit in Catholic social teaching. One of the reasons Naboth doesn’t want to sell his vineyard is that it’s his inheritance. Tithing is also related to private property because you cannot tithe what is not yours. So private property is rich in the Hebrew BIble and is deeply entrenched in the Christian tradition.

And private property gives the space for families to live out their responsibilities. It’s also important for religious liberty and the passing down of religion and culture, which happens predominantly in the family, not sermons and prayer meetings.

The interesting thing is that socialists recognize this better than Christians. They understand there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between family, private property, and religion. and that’s why for socialists, the three primary obstacles to socialist reform (and this is Robert Owen, Engels, Marx, Scramschi, etc.)– Engels quotes Owen saying there are three primary obstacles: private property, religion, and this present form of marriage. So this idea of private property isn’t just some radical, individual, Enlightenment, secular idea, but it makes its way into the Western mind through Christianity.

So we have the question of why the West got rich. It’s true that it’s because of private property, but where did that come from? From the Scriptures.

The same is true with the Rule of Law. In Leviticus 19 you see that you are to show no partiality between the rich and the poor. That’s very different from social justice ideas in which the poor get special privileges because they’re poor.

I don’t want to overstate this. I’m not in any way suggesting that the Scriptures are making the case for capitalism, but they also aren’t favorable to a big, intrusive state. If you look at Solomon and the breakup f the Davidic kingdom, his taxes are heavy on the people, he increases taxes in spite of the elders’ advice, and the kingdom is broken up. So there is a deep sense of justice and of the family to be able to engage in economic activity that does not arise out of nowhere, but it is part of the Christian tradition.

Good people can disagree. There is no simple solution to poverty. You have to be careful with exegesis, not drawing conclusions like “Jesus was a capitalist.” But there is something to be said here. First, we must challenge the dominant model, rooted in the subject and challenge the institution. And for Christians, we must say that these institutions are part of our tradition and we have something to contribute to the discussion without thinking like a secularist.

Christians have been copying a bad copy of christian love. I recently spoke at a conference where the topic was Charity 3.0. By Charity 3.0, the conference was focused on entrepreneurship, which we know now (more so than a thousand years ago) is incredibly important for our economic system. My talk was “Charity 1.0.” Imagine if you had an iPhone 6 that works great; then they make iPhone 7 and it’s a terrible model that never works. If they made iPhone 8, would you want them to make it based on the iPhone 6 platform of the iPhone 7 platform? Of course, the iPhone 6 platform. The same is true with charity. If we want to build charity 3.0, we need to go back to charity 1.0. The focus on entrepreneurship is good, but we also should build on our old tradition and a proper understanding of the human person who is creative and the subject of his own development.


Michael Matheson Miller is a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute and the Director/Producer of the documentary Poverty Inc. and was formerly director of Poverty Cure for five years. You can connect with Michael at michaelmathesonmiller.com.

Find his documentary series Poverty Cure here on Amazon.

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Find the rest of our interview with Miller here. 


About Todd Scacewater

Todd is a Teaching Fellow in New Testament and PhD candidate at Westminster Seminary in Hermeneutics. He holds a Th.M. in New Testament and a B.A. in Political Science, and has served the church in music, college, youth, children, and discipleship ministries.