Less For-Profits, More Non-Profits

When I was at ETS two weeks ago, one of the sessions I went to was on a biblical view of economics. Wayne Grudem argued for a largely capitalist framework (which I agree with) and Craig Blomberg argued for a “third alternative” between capitalism and socialism.

I think Blomberg was confused, not rightly understanding the definitions of capitalism and socialism, and thus not realizing that there is no “third alternative” here (though there are degrees). But, it was great to hear Blomberg, as he is a very solid NT exegete and theologian (his essay on the Sabbath in the recent Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views is excellent, for example; on the other hand, I cannot recommend as highly his book on money and possessions, Neither Poverty Nor Riches, because I think it suffers from much of the confusion that was evident in his presentation at ETS).

In the question and answer session, one objection Blomberg made to capitalism was its tendency to create a proliferation of useless items, such as pet rocks and those really dumb singing fish you can put on the wall.

Now, the first point to make in response here was made by someone in the audience who had actually bought a pet rock during family night with his kids a few weeks ago, and it made for a memorable experience. I myself think pet rocks are pretty neat (though I don’t have any), though I think those singing fish really are quite atrocious. So much is in the eye of the beholder. Who gets to make the call? The point of capitalism is: you. You get to make that call, not the government. Amen.

The second point, though, is that there is nothing in capitalism itself which says people need to make pet rocks or annoying singing fish. The essence of capitalism is simply that people are able to pursue whatever endeavors are of interest to them. Capitalism does not say you have to make singing wall-mounted fish to make money; it does say that, if that’s what you want to do and you can (somehow!) get people to buy them, you are free to go for it.

So, I defend people’s right to make those singing fish that I hate so much. But, having recently been to Australia and overdosing (probably) on souvenirs for the kids, and right now feeling like my wife and I are starting to drown in the “stuff” that accumulates after 13 years of marriage and having 3 kids and so forth, I have a better proposal.

Even though we are in the midst of a quite severe (and long-lasting!) economic downturn, we are still a society of extreme abundance. An economist friend of mine recently pointed out that the US produces 1 billion units of clothing per year. The number could even be 100 billion; I can’t remember for sure. But it was simply massive.

I’m glad we produce a lot. I think that is a partial fulfillment of the creation mandate, and that it is good, not evil. However, I suggest that we could get by with producing less of some things in order to produce more of other things. We need more pastors. We need more missionaries. We need more people devoted to serving those in need. We need more people devoted to the causes of fighting large global problems, like extreme poverty and corrupt leadership. Many of these things cannot in themselves be done at a profit, but can and must be done.

When society reaches a point that we have a proliferation of trinkets and other such things, it’s not a sign that capitalism has gone bad. Rather, it’s a sign that we need to use the freedom that capitalism affords us to point our efforts more fully in another direction — namely, the social sectors. We need more non-profit organizations, more churches, and more people going in to ministry and non-profit work in general. We can afford it. It will mean less singing fish, and perhaps less pet rocks. More seriously, maybe we won’t be producing exactly the 1 billion articles of clothing per year (which I am fine with as long as Banana Republic doesn’t go out of business). The point of our prosperity is not simply or mainly to enable us to keep buying more stuff, though the desire to accumulate is not evil in itself. The point of our prosperity is, rather, to divert some of our ability to accumulate more to efforts that focus more directly on using our abundance to meet pressing global needs.

I know there is one important consideration and possible objection here, which is actually a point I’ve made for years and that I make in my book (if I don’t cut the chapter due to length). And the objection is that I may seem to be pitting business against social good, when in reality it is business, not charity, which is the long-term solution to global poverty.

So I want to say clearly that I am not doing that. I do believe that business is the only long-term solution to large global problems like global poverty. And I’m not saying that when a person opens a business and makes money that he is not contributing greatly to the welfare of society. They are. But business cannot do this alone, because not all needs can be met at a profit, and there is injustice blocking the way in many instances. We need to be a society of both excellent businesses and great non-profits.

This is not anti-capitalistic, but is precisely the freedom that capitalism upholds and champions. Start the organization you want to start, not looking to the government to keep you afloat but rather, under the grace of God, your own efforts and ability to produce things of value. Capitalism is about freedom, and starting non-profits is just as much in line with capitalism as starting for-profits.

What I’m saying is that we are at a point as a society where the enormous wealth we have created virtually demands that we give much more consideration to using that wealth not to buy more things and enhance our own positions, but rather to fund those who are meeting the types of essential needs that cannot be met at a profit.

Don’t stop buying better things altogether, or even to a huge degree necessarily, but do direct more of your money this year to your church, to missionaries that are raising support and, for some of you, to starting organizations devoted to meeting pressing needs on a global scale.

  • Jeanette

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I wholeheartedly agree that we need to have excellent businesses and great non-profits. Having worked in both for-profit and non-profit organizations, I’d like to add that a “noble” mission statement doesn’t necessarily make one’s organization a good one. I’ve seen just as many non-profit organizations mismanage resources and do social harm as I have for-profit organizations. Thus, my affinity for your blog — it helps me be a better manager and build a better organization that strengthens the social fabric, no matter our IRS designation. :)

  • http://www.lifeofasteward.com Loren Pinilis

    I love your point about business being the answer to global poverty. That’s something to chew on.

    But I think that, as a society, we put too much emphasis on for-profit vs. non-profit. Some people paint profit motive with a broad brush and assume that any profit motive corrupts – so the only organizations that do good are those that are non-profit. But it’s totally possible to do a lot of good and still have a profit motive – like an oncologist who helps people fight cancer.
    And that opens up a can of worms: is the oncologist doing less social good than someone who works for a non-profit to prevent animal abuse?

    The for-profit and non-profit distinction also leads many people to think of their for-profit job as merely a means to earn money – and their real service to society is then financially supporting non-profits. In other words, the perceived divide between for-profit and non-profits can subtly undermine the doctrine of vocation.

    Society needs more books on productivity, social good, and vocation. Know anyone writing one? :)

  • Matt

    Jeanette and Loren: Excellent points on all counts.

    This was a slightly unique post for me — normally I am seeking to reinforce the value of for-profits, since that is often overlooked. I definitely want to be careful not to soften that emphasis in a post like this. Being especially careful to avoid pitting for-profit vs. non-profit seems like a good way to keep that balance. And acknowledging, as you point out Jeanette, that many non-profits that exist for “social good” often end up doing much social harm due to bad management or wrong-headed notions of what works!

    Loren: A book like that sure sounds good! … Let me add that I am sure thankful that my “for-profit” publisher exists and is able to provide the service of enabling a book like that to be published!

  • Gavin

    Capitalism is built upon the system of lending with interest. This is called ‘usury’ in scripture and is absolutely and uniformly condemned as sinful. None of the caveats, re-definitions and qualifications added at the Reformation have any resonances in its pages!

    The critique of Blomberg’s book on possessions is hardly fair either, as his masterful summaries of scriptural injunctions set in their economic contexts barely touch on the discussion here. Rather the principles he expounds would apply with equal vigour to Christians serving in a whole variety of economic models.

  • Jace

    Matt, is there a book that you recommend instead of Bloomberg’s? Not just a basic economics book, but one that you believe faithfully interacts with Scripture as well?

  • Matt

    I’ve heard that “Money, Greed, and God” is excellent, and from a biblical perspective, though I haven’t read it yet. Other than that, the most helpful book I know from a biblical perspective is “Poverty and Wealth: Why Socialism Doesn’t Work” by Ronald Nash.

  • Rob

    A helpful Christian perspective on economic life comes from the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. I know that some of you may bristle at reading something from Rome, but this document does reflect deeply upon the Scriptures and historical Christian documents to give some guidance on how Christians should approach the economy. It’s very well done. Chapter 7 is the one to read on this topic. Here’s the link:

    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html#CHAPTER SEVEN

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