Tuesday, November 20, 2012

WWJD About Price Gouging?

Here's a flashback for you.

Remember the WWJD fad from the 1990's?

"WWJD" stood for "What Would Jesus Do," and was intended to help provoke Christ-like responses among believers towards all sorts of circumstances.

In other words, say, you're driving along in heavy traffic, and somebody cuts you off.  WWJD?  Instead of cursing the driver, you graciously back away, and re-construct the buffer zone you'd been maintaining between vehicles.

Or maybe you're at church, and you overhear a couple of people complaining about your pastor.  WWJD?  Well, we know Christ wouldn't sidle up to those folks and join heartily in the gossipy vilification, would He?  But would He take a posture of unquestioning defense for the pastor, without admitting maybe the complainers have a point?  Or would He simply keep walking away, praying for those malcontents under His breath, but not wanting to personally intervene and foment more antagonism?

What about when you happen upon a homeless panhandler?  If your town has a well-run homeless shelter to which you and your church contribute time and money, do you just pass by the homeless person without acknowledging their presence, assuming maybe they'd gotten kicked out of the shelter for bad behavior?  Do you pass by with a quick shout-out about the homeless shelter being just down the street, in case the panhandler isn't aware of it?  Or do you stop, give the person $10, or take them to a restaurant, or welcome them into your own home?

Would What Jesus Does Change Your Behavior?

You can see how quickly the simple WWJD mantra proves itself insufficient in addressing some surprisingly complex issues.  Thus, the WWJD trend became hollow quickly.

It wasn't enough, when you were asked a question about morality, ethics, or the propriety of a course of action, to simply utter "WWJD?" and assume you'd addressed the quandary.

Many people used WWJD as a social gospel validator, applying Biblical truths about grace and mercy inappropriately.  In some liberal circles, WWJD became a pithy excuse to chastise more conservative evangelicals who, even back then, were clamoring for welfare reform, or gun rights, or immigration reform.  Basically, liberals mistakenly assumed, Christ would have pretty much let people do whatever they wanted as long as it didn't involve ending generational poverty, carrying weapons, or enforcing national sovereignty laws.

So it scares me a little bit these days to find myself increasingly asking myself, "WWJD?"  Yes, I'm a moderate Republican, but I'm no liberal patsy.  I believe in - and am immensely grateful for - mercy and grace, but those are gifts God provides to His people along with expectations for how we're to exercise them.  Both as recipients, and benefactors.

I'm no liberal patsy, and neither is Christ.

To a certain extent, I cannot argue that our modern American culture hasn't bred a spirit of dependency on our government.  There have always been needs, and needy people, but it just makes sense to me that localized communities, starting with one's family and church, provide the best-balanced and benevolently accountable environments for meeting these personal needs.  National governments come in handy for broader efforts like building highway networks, electrical dams, sovereign defense forces, and ensuring the civil rights of each citizen.  But historically, government-run charities don't have a great track record, at least in making sure systems aren't abused and genuinely needy people don't go without.

When it comes to charity, the Biblical book of Proverbs has plenty to say both about our obligation to help the poor, and about the expectations a society is correct in having of each participant, and how each person is to contribute to their community.  And I don't disagree that over the years, our society has shifted from a bottom-up form of reliance to a top-down form, with our government at the top.

Sock It To the Ones With the Most Money?

Yet as I continue to encounter Libertarian viewpoints in our evangelical media, the question "WWJD?" has begun to flutter around in my brain.  Perhaps on account of all the empty space up there, true; but also, because some evangelicals appear to have quit the grace-and-mercy side of our faith cold-turkey.

Exibit A is an article for World magazine by D.C. Innes entitled, "Price Gouging as Neighbor Love."  Innes, a professor at New York City's conservative Kings College who lives out on Long Island, writes about how he observed the long lines and rationing at gas stations across the metropolitan area in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  He bemoans the unfair restrictions against price gouging imposed by New York State on its gas station owners.  He sounds convinced that it's actually a manifestation of Christ's command that we love our neighbors to let the price of gas go as high as the market will bear during a crisis.

"State law forbids anything more than a 10 percent price increase at the pump during a shortage," Innes complains.  "But while our guardians of the common good meant well in making that law, I think their kindness was cruel."

I think my jaw dropped open when I read that.  So... he thinks Jesus would endorse price-gouging?

"The market system of setting prices serves everyone," Innes claims, apparently assuming that we live in a perfect world.  Generally speaking, when a community is not reeling from a natural catastrophe, free markets do have a way of settling into a sort of stasis which benefits the most people.  But Innes doesn't believe that preying on the unfortunate is sinful behavior?

In challenging the government's need to mitigate a fuel shortage, Innes tries to argue that "there is always a shortage of some sort insofar as there is generally less of things than we would like."  But I can't think of any tangible commodities that we Americans could have more of if they were available.  What is there less of that we would like?  Lexus seems pretty good at making just enough luxury automobiles to satisfy the demand of people who can afford them.  Oreos hasn't faced an outcry over shortages of their nutritionless cookies, although devotees of Hostess Ding Dongs have recently.  In fact, the world has no shortage of food - famine these days is a political crisis, not a production crisis.

Innes is correct in pointing out that price controls don't do a good job of eliminating the black market, and he witnessed people buying gas for one price and selling it for double to people waiting at the end of long lines.  But all that proves is that sin corrupts our world, not that price controls automatically - or solely - cause black markets.  Black markets flourish in countries - or even neighborhoods in America - where some products are officially unavailable.  Would Innes blame the despicable proliferation of child porn on the black market, for example, on price controls?

It's hard to tell where morality fits into his viewpoint.  "If gas stations had been able to raise their prices to reflect the radically reduced supply," Innes postulates, "lines would have been shorter, and there would have been easier access to gas supplies for those most in need of it."  How does anybody know that if there were no price controls, only the people who most needed gas would have easy access to it?  The only way you can determine that is by placing the proposition's value not on the person "needing" the gas, but a person's ability to pay what the market can charge.

Talk About Reviling the One Percenters!

And, voilĂ , you have the indelible scourge of Libertarianism, folks!  The value in a Libertarian economy is not on the person, but on the person's financial worth.  What can they pay?

The value of a person becomes not who that person is, what they might need the gas for, or what factors have impacted their life in a way that prevents them from paying exorbitant prices.  The only value a person has comes from whether or not they can play the higher price.  Money becomes more important than the person.

For example, suppose a medical doctor and a hedge fund manager need fuel for their cars.  Sure, the doctor may be able to afford quadruple the price to drive to the hospital and perform a life-saving operation.  But if the hedge fund manager can afford ten times the price or more, should finances be the sole reason that doctor would be prevented from getting the necessary fuel?

What would Jesus do?  This past Sunday, the pastor at my church pointed out in his sermon that Jesus healed the ten lepers, but only one went back to thank Him.  Was Christ's healing power any less lavish on the other nine?  Apparently not, since His grace doesn't depend on how well we thank Him for what He does for us.  Is this the same Christ who would mock His people by setting the price for what we need at a level only a few could pay?

When the Bible talks about fairness in our business dealings, mandates like "accurate and honest weights," wealth being worthless in the "day of wrath," and not taking advantage of others are interwoven with accounts of Boaz letting Ruth collect food for free.  Free!  And maybe I'm being woefully literal by assuming "honesty" is concerned less with how much money you can exact from a customer, and more with being able to look your customers in the eye the next day.  However, don't you have to be a pretty rigorous Gospel revisionist to believe that loving our neighbor means figuring how much they're willing to pay for something they desperately need?

God has shown us what is good and what He requires of us.  We're to "act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." 

Must only WWJD bracelet-wearing, coffee-mug-holding social gospel liberals believe that?

Then again, would Jesus have given away the gasoline?  Probably not, since it wasn't the gas station owners' fault that Hurricane Sandy crimped access to fuel.  Nor could the industry control whether they had electricity to transfer their gas or not.  Selling fuel during a crisis is not what's wrong here.

So, would Jesus condone price gouging?  Since neither penalizing nor accommodating people based solely on their net worth is Biblical, I humbly stand in opposition to Professor Innes and say that no, He wouldn't.

If you believe He would, however, and your faith controls your politics, then maybe we've found another reason for why a certain political party lost this month's presidential election.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Readers -

    Since my objective with this essay has nothing to do with throwing D.C. Innes under the religious bus, I happily supply you with his response to an e-mail I sent to World Magazine.

    "First, I am not a Libertarian because though I believe in free market pricing I also believe that the civic relationship is a moral bond. Libertarians believe that the body politic is something like a trading bloc.

    "If we were to follow your logic, we would need to be governed at all times by a virtually omniscient, omnipotent perfectly just being who could judge who should pay what and receive what in which quantities and qualities according to their need and merit. Yes, it would require the direct rule of God. Various communist parties have tried to take on that role with monstrous results.

    "If it is morally necessary for government to assume these powers in a crisis situation, it is also korally necessary in every situation, because in all situations the rich and the poor are constrained in different ways. That's one of my points. You fail to appreciate that the power for government to allocate resources in the way you suggest is also the ability to use such power unjustly. You fail to appreciate "the political problem." See Federalist Papers #51.

    "I believe that market pricing is a feature of the created order and thus for all our good. And when it is conjoined with the love of redeemed people and of people who are culturally influenced by them everyone is best served. Of course people could give up their place in line just as people give up their seats on buses, let people in line when traffic is congested, give up their time helping to restore Long Beach, and surrender money for all manner of charitable works. But none of that invalidates the goodness of the order that governs seating, traffic flow, use of one's time, and ownership of property.

    "It seems to me that you have an overrealized eschatology.

    "By the way, in a recent column, Walter Williams pointed out that if prices had been allowed to float to market rate during the post-Sandy crisis, it would have drawn in many more resources (gas, roofers, tree services, etc.) in search of higher profits. That would help people. Of course, the love of God's people and the kindness of American neighbors in general also drew people to this area in search of people to help. We would also see a combination of these two influences: profit-seekers (not a dirty word) who also do pro bono work.

    "And Happy Thanksgiving to you too, and may the Lord lead you beside still waters."

    D.C. Innes


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