There is a debate among economic historians considering the origins of and prospects for America’s free enterprise system. Some argue that it is an old system with its roots stretching back into the mists of time. Others suggest that it is of recent vintage—a fragile creation of the modern age. At Concordia we think it is both/and much more.
Certainly some of the central elements of the free enterprise system – like respect for private property – are present in the earliest scriptures. The Bible clearly teaches that neither private persons nor sovereign kings should steal. But the prohibition against theft is not a denunciation of taxation or an encouragement to hoard. Wealth, or the accumulation of private property, is never the primary objective of a well ordered life – even an entrepreneurial one.
Likewise the scriptures clearly encourage hard work and thrift. In fact, they command it. After the fall, we are told, men and women will live by the sweat of their brow. But we are not to work always and at all times. It is equally if not more important to rest and worship (and allow one’s employees to rest and worship) at the correct time and place.
The scriptures also encourage charity – and demand that we refrain from condemning or judging persons on the basis of their wealth. After all, all material possessions are actually the Lord’s gift. Pride goeth before the fall, and those who ascribe earthly success or failure entirely to the person who enjoys or suffers it probably need to spend a bit more time in the scriptures.
In sum, then, there is much in our Lutheran Christian tradition to encourage us to participate in the free enterprise system as good stewards of the time, talents and resources with which we have been blessed. There is somewhat less in our tradition to help us negotiate, preserve, or reform the free enterprise system as it exists in the current day.
For example, would our system be better off if the federal government relied more on tariff revenue to fund its activities and less on income and payroll taxes? How much, if any, should the government regulate activities within the free enterprise system? Our tradition does not offer precise answers to such questions – but it does provide a framework for considering them.
Likewise, our tradition fails to locate for us all the entrepreneurial opportunities in the marketplace. Should we locate a coffee-shop in an old downtown area or adjacent to the freeway off-ramp? The Bible doesn’t say--but it does teach us to be attentive to the wants and needs of our fellow humans – and figuring out what they want and need is an important step in devising a successful business plan.
Finally, our tradition highlights the role of faith in our lives. We have faith that we have always been and will remain in the hand of a loving Creator who uses all things for good for those who trust him. If there is anything our free enterprise system needs now, it is faith that things will be ok and that tomorrow will come and courage to defend the practices and institutions that have contributed to our success. We are free to do the right thing, not because we control the free enterprise system or can exploit it to our own narrow advantage, but because our Sovereign Lord remains in command. And in the end our ultimate objectives are above and beyond those material possessions generated by the free enterprise system.
The free enterprise system is old and young. At Concordia we teach students how it works and what role activities in it should play in their own lives. The knowledge we impart helps equip them for success in the marketplace and beyond.