"He's depressed and overwhelmed by what he sees," said Rathbone Bradley, vice president of economic initiatives for the biblical advocacy think tank, Institute for Faith, Work and Economics (IFWE), based in McLean, Vir. IFWE's mission is to inspire Christians to embrace a biblical understanding of work and economics, exemplified by greater creativity and increased human flourishing.
"He (Yeltsin) cannot believe that ordinary people, in a mild mannered way, are pushing grocery carts in an air conditioned, well lit grocery store," continued Rathbone Bradley. "There are no fistfights. Nobody's pushing each other. He's in awe of the grocery store. (Yeltsin) said if the Russian people knew of this they would surely revolt."
Rathbone Bradley, who recently was a guest speaker at the Acton Institute's 2017 Lecture Series held at its facilities at 98 E. Fulton in downtown Grand Rapids, honed the reasons Christians should support economic freedom by comparing and contrasting the differences between countries that enjoy a free enterprise economy with those that don't.
Rathbone Bradley said people created in God's image are tasked to subdue the Earth, as expounded in Genesis 1.
"And it tells us our role in God's kingdom and how each of us plays an important role in that," she said. "How does that get translated into work? If you go to Genesis 2:15, the Lord God commanded them work the garden and care for it. Those are two different ideas and both are very important."
Here to cultivate abundance
Rathbone Bradley said the word "work" in the original Hebrew is abad, which means to serve.
"We're suppose to serve creation and take care of creation," said Rathbone Bradley. "The two are not in conflict but do present some tension. It is a story of abundance, of plenty. We were put here to cultivate abundance and richness and make more. So we're not suppose to look over God's creation and make sure nothing gets touched or nothing gets changed. We're not suppose to destroy it but we're suppose to cultivate and serve it and transform it."
As it relates to work and a free economy, cultivating God's creation and goodness is interrelated because it's tied to the concept of flourishing and shalom.
The way things are meant to be
"Shalom is the fullness of flourishing," said Rathbone Bradley. "It's more than people not fighting each other. It's the way things are suppose to be, God's design and desire for creation. If we do our jobs well, this is what happens: health, wholeness, strength and longevity."
"I think today profit is vilified and I think that's wrong," said Rathbone Bradley. "Now it depends how profits are made, but if profits are made respecting the principles of Scripture and the laws of nature then we actually get profits from that. We can only flourish when there's abundance, when there's enough to go around for everyone."
Different talents, gifts and preferences as well as varying attitudes toward risk are the backbone of free trade and economics, Rathbone Bradley said.
And because a free economy is dependent on different skills, which work toward earning a profit, an abundance of supplies and goods are produced, often with an energized ability to sell them at a lower cost.
"Human beings are not perfect," Rathbone Bradley said. "People are out to serve their own interests first because we want to profit ourselves. So, how can a bunch of profit seekers be induced to serve strangers, and care about them, and have empathy for what they need and want?"
The answer is profit is the incentive to encourage people to think about others instead of clamoring over one another to buy the products they need to live.
Can't do it alone
"We have limited gifts and abilities so we have to come and exchange with one another," said Rathbone Bradley. "We can't do it alone. It's finite. And we respond to incentives. When we recognize these economics realities, we can escape mere survival and experience greater flourishing. We can make it better."
In another PowerPoint picture, Rathbone Bradley displayed the photo of a woman who lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo who was drawing drinking water into jugs from a muddy river. She walked four miles to reach the river and burns thousands of calories to complete the necessary chore.
On the other hand, Rathbone Bradley drives her minivan to a store and purchases a week's supply of clean bottled water for $2 to $3, expending 100 calories.
Why the stark contrast?
"It's not because she's not entrepreneurial, it's not because she's not creative and it's not because she's lazy or a different color or a different religion," said Rathbone Bradley. "It's because she lives in a society that does not have economic freedom, which makes her a victim of the institutions she lives in and it's scary hard to escape."
Economic bright spots
Rathbone Bradley shone some bright spots economic freedom makes possible.
Estimates say the world's gross domestic product — which is a monetary measure of the market value of all final goods and services produced in a period of time — averaged $100 annually from AD 1 to the 1600s.
Then, starting in 1800 the worldwide GDP rose to $400 annually per person until 1900, when it increased to $1,000.
Said another way, 94 percent of the world lived in abject poverty in 1840. In 1990, 40 percent lived in abject poverty. The president of the World Bank predicts by 2030, abject poverty will be around three percent of the world's population.
"There are still a billion people living below the line of abject poverty of $1.90 a day, so there's still work to do," said Rathbone Bradley. "But there's never been more hope that we're going to eliminate abject poverty. We live under institutions that promote the service of strangers, not their plunder.
"And it's all happening while population growth is exploding," added Rathbone Bradley. "The Malthusian disaster (a prediction of a forced return to subsistence-level conditions after population growth outpaced agricultural production) in late part of the 19th century that ... we were all going to starve and die, has been proven wrong because of God's design and plan for us is to raise families, build cultures and build civilizations. We're doing what we're suppose to be doing and it's not bankrupting the planet, because clearly, we're getting wealthier."
The benefits of economic freedom become evident other ways as well: life expectancy increases, infant mortality drops, environmental standards improve and literacy rate rise.
"When you look at the most free societies, less than two percent lives in extreme poverty but when you look at the least free societies, 30 percent live in extreme poverty. Which society do you want to live in? My suspicions are we all want to live in a society where we have a very low chance of being poor."
It convinced Boris Yeltsin, who embraced the higher standard of living Americans enjoyed.
"It made him more of an advocate of economic freedom," said Rathbone Bradley. "We get to do that every day because we live in a society of economic freedom."
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