I have made several favorable comments about Tod Lindberg’s book on the political teachings of Jesus. On the other hand one of the few disappointments to me is the section on the spread of the Kingdom. It’s one of the few shortcomings I found in the book, and it’s probably because I was reading that section like an economist. It turns out that at the boundary of economics and political science lies a very similar problem: can societies break out of “prisoner’s dilemmas”…those situations in which individual incentives point to behavior (often called “free riding”) that makes everyone worse off than if everyone cooperated (or were given incentives to cooperate). Solving the free rider problem is not inconsistent with market economies; in fact markets couldn’t exist if everyone cheated everyone else at every turn. The success of economic markets is actually one of the triumphs of trust and cooperation.
Thinking as an economist and a Christian, this problem is very important. Maybe we as Christians don’t think often enough about how amazing it is that Christianity survived through its first couple of generations. Cooperative behavior is subject to exploitation by resolutely selfish outsiders. And Jesus demanded that what we are to do goes beyond such typical economic concepts of cooperation as self-satisfaction (“warm glow” behavior) or reciprocity. Warm glow cooperation looks remarkably the behavior that Jesus criticized in the Pharisees, and Jesus specifically rejects the idea that his followers should stop at the concept of reciprocity:
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matthew 5: 45 NIV)
I believe that the economic concept most relevant to this part of Jesus’ teaching surprisingly lies elsewhere --- in the economics of innovation. Joseph Schumpeter is famous for numerous contributions to economics, most notably to his concept of the entrepreneur. The study of entrepreneurship has become very popular over the past several years, and there are almost of many definitions of “entrepreneur” as there are writers on the topic. To me, an entrepreneur is a risk taker who realizes that the positive returns from his gamble will occur only if his very success fundamentally changes the way that the world is organized. I think that what Jesus wants us to do is to become entrepreneurs of grace and love, to sow grace and love knowing that it is foolish if the world stays as it is. This leads me to a second question I have about Lindberg’s book: I find a considerable ambivalence as to whether he believes Jesus’ teachings are meaningful as political models outside of a community that accepts Jesus as the Redeemer and the Son of Man. Or, do they require the kind of personal transformation that is a larger part of the Gospel? This will be the topic of my next post on the subject.