Prayer, Plain and Simple

The Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 goes to Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the award. Ms. Ostrom’s research challenges the traditional view that common ownership of a resource results in excessive exploitation, that fishermen for instance left to their own devises will overharvest their product. The typical resource management solution has always been to privatize a resource, giving responsibility to a single legal owner – capitalism, or to govern it by the fiat of a central authority – socialism. Ostrom’s work challenges these solutions. She shares the Nobel honor with Oliver E. Williamson, whose separate work also explores the mystery of economic cooperation.

Countering popular assumptions – the either/or paradigm of individualist capitalism on one hand and governmental-centric socialism on the other – Ostrom’s work demonstrates that common property is often well-managed by the groups that rely on that resource. She shows that common users often negotiate rules of use that mitigate overexploitation without resorting to privatization or government regulation.

In other words, the community is often smarter than we think! We don’t need tycoons on the one hand or kings on the other to make decisions for our best interest. There really is such a thing as community wisdom. Concentrating ultimate power in the name of common good is dangerous and now, it seems also unnecessary.   

Plato’s “The Republic” warned that a human community is too weak to govern itself. We need philosopher-kings, super-smart rulers given absolute power to act on behalf of the governed. Unfortunately human history is a tragic demonstration of the failure of entrusting power to individuals. “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” Ostrom’s work reaffirms suspicion in centralizing power, and offers the comforting, even exciting suggestion that local communities can be trusted to “do the right thing.”

As a Christian, I am deeply suspicious of concentrating capital in the hands of single individuals. The God of the Bible set up an economic system in ancient Israel that mitigated against centralized wealth. It was called “Jubilee” – the institutionalized redistribution of wealth, every 50 years back to the original clans that traditionally managed the resource. On the other hand I’m also wary of giving centralized control to any governmental power. In the scriptures, God limited that power of Kings by making them subject to his universal Law – including the stipulation of Jubilee. The rule of Law limits human control and continually moves power away from individuals back to the check and balance of the whole community.

This is best demonstrated in the economic “jazz session” brilliantly improvised in the early Christian church. The story is portrayed in the New Testament book of Acts (chapter 2-5). Without governmental oversight and without reliance on any single wealthy benefactor, the Christian community – as a whole – redefined economic reality. They VOLUNTARILY shared their resources, selling their properties to be distributed to those in need. Early Christians owned the responsibility to eradicate societal poverty, relying neither on wealthy individuals or governmental dictates to do the right thing. They acted justly by choice!

Christian charity for the benefit of the common good worked, not because any forceful hand forced generosity. Today we’re seeing this still. Christians around the world still lead the charge to bring clean water, medical care, rescue from human trafficking, and food distribution to the hungry. And we do this without any individual power source taxing us with a gun to the pocketbook. Christians gave and give to the poor because God gives us the desire to do so. The motivation comes from within us as individuals when we live and worship within a healthy, functioning community that holds the value that the good of the community comes ahead of our self interest. This is a pure and simple miracle, a miracle Ostrom has found operating all over the planet… I’d suggest that I see it best working inside Christian communties. I challenge you to explore this phenomenon. Look honestly at the voluntary work of groups like “Feed My Starving Children,” the “International Justice Mission,” and “World Vision.”

We typically see capitalistic or socialistic solutions as the only option for justice because we rightly do not trust individuals or communities of individuals to make right decisions for the common good. Ostrom’s research (and I would suggest Biblical and Christian history) challenge this assumptions. As a Christian I share the suspicion that we humans can ever solve our own problems. But Ostrom’s research seems to suggest that it’s possible for humans to find a motivation “outside” self interest. If we want to live free, beyond the tyranny of the wealthy few and the tyranny of an intractable government, we’d better find a ready source for the motivation to live beyond our personal immediate gratification. I’d suggest that that Source is God himself and that prayer can activate real love in our real lives. We can have an Acts chapter 2 generosity in our world once again. Kudos to Elinor Ostrom for giving us another glimpse that freedom really is possible and should be encouraged.

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