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ARTICLE | A Few Kind Words for Prudence

A Few Kind Words for Prudence
by Stephen L.S. Smith

How are Christians to promote shalom and true justice in a world of staggering injustices? A Gordon economics professor urges a clear-eyed assessment that balances prophetic vision and practical wisdom.

There are so many ways human communities go wrong and get unbalanced. Prophets can be false. Priests can teach false religion. Human wisdom can betray. Democratic peoples can exercise sovereignty negligently, just as the kings of old. Idol worship reemerges--it was true in biblical times and it is every bit as much of a challenge in the rich West today, where we are tempted to trust wealth and chariots rather than God. The world is rich in innumerable injustices. India's caste system holds more than 200 million people in perverse social bondage. China's "one child" policy has forced the profound injustice of an untold number of abortions. These and many more deserve prophetic condemnation and wisely chosen remedies.

How wise are we--and by "we" I mean Christians in academia and Christian intellectuals--in our thoughts about how to steward the world and promote justice? We have trouble, I think, getting the balance right. Other eras may have been unbalanced in their own ways, but what we struggle with today is that the practical wisdom essential for shalom and true justice, for stewardship and proper dominion of the earth, gets short shrift. At the same time, particular kinds of prophetic judgments are in vogue. The prophets we now hear most loudly aim their ire at free markets and globalization in the name of social justice. But they might not be paying enough attention to practical wisdom, complicating the clear-eyed assessment of these important topics.

A  Cardinal Virtue With An Image Problem
Practical wisdom is sometimes called "prudence." Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues along with justice, moderation and courage. The early church called these virtues "cardinal," which is the Latin word for "hinge," because other virtues depend on them. In particular, the supreme Christian virtues of faith, hope and love rely on the cardinal virtues for their full development. (Kreeft's Back to Virtue and C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity speak eloquently on these matters.) If justice or shalom is the achievement of a properly ordered life, it is prudence that uses reason to direct our energies and all other virtues to that end. Prudence directs us to recognize when we can do good, and how. Prudence directs us to recognize moments when we do the best by not doing things. In short, prudence is a core virtue necessary to properly steward the earth, care for the human community and exercise dominion.

But prudence has an image problem today. At best it sounds like wimpiness and lack of vision; at worst it sounds like compromise with evil. Bold prophetic calls for social justice, when measured against this pale version of timid prudence, can seem compelling. But everything hinges on which "justice" we mean. Whose justice? What vision of justice? And to think about that we need real wisdom. Justice must engage practical wisdom.

Here's where Christians in the United States go weak in the knees. Do you recall the George Clooney character in O Brother, Where Art Thou?--he plays Ulysses--and how he swoons at the song of the beautiful women by the river? We're like that. We can be swayed by appeals that may not pay sufficient attention to practical wisdom. Let me give you three examples.

Is The "Living Wage" Really Livable?
Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine is a vocal proponent of so-called "living wage" legislation. These laws would require a community to pay employee wages far above present federal or state minimum wages-say $12 an hour with benefits. When workers at Harvard went on strike in 2001 with similar demands, Wallis supported them, saying "The idea that people who work deserve a wage that allows them to support a family should not be controversial at Harvard University or anywhere else. It's a fundamental moral and human right" (from an April 2001 speech available at

Stirring words. But is he right? People live in families, often with multiple earners and multiple sources of support; some people work part-time and are not intending to support a family; some workers are low-skilled 16-year-olds whose work might not be worth $12 an hour. Must everyone earn a wage that will support a whole household? The predictable consequence of this legislation would be increased unemployment among low-skilled workers, teenagers and part-timers. Forced to pay more for workers, employers will economize on hires. Lucky insiders would benefit while outsiders suffer. Surely this is not shalom. There are better ways to help the working poor--such as raising the tax credit for dependent children of the poor.

So I say to the campaign for a "Living Wage Now": too much of the prophetic, not enough of the practical wisdom.

Unpacking A Slogan
Second example. Oxfam, the international relief and development group, runs a campaign under the banner slogan "Make Trade Fair." They claim the free market global price of coffee beans is too low for poor farmers. The centerpiece of the campaign is a proposal to fix the global price of raw coffee beans at about $1.20 per pound, far above its market value in recent years.
Coffee workers face real problems, to be sure. Bean pickers are often landless and not covered by local minimum wage laws--or worse, laws may not be enforced. Coffee-growing countries typically don't invest much in education in poor rural areas, so pickers might be barely literate. They're vulnerable to being cheated by landowners colluding with local police. And because the economy's not growing much, there are few high-paying jobs to be had anywhere, and certainly not in the countryside. Roads are terrible, so it's hard to take beans to markets where they might get higher prices, and the government may set the price very low anyway in order to cream off the value of international sales.

This larger picture suggests that poor treatment of coffee workers is misunderstood when blamed on globalization, or international trade or market-based exploitation. It's not international trade that holds back their well-being; the key structural problems that most harm coffee pickers and farmers are specific to their countries. They have everything to do with problems in economic policies and institutions, and very little to do with the alleged tyranny of global markets. Education, health care and a vibrant business-oriented entrepreneurial economy could pull workers out of coffee into higher paying jobs, and force higher wages for those who remain coffee pickers.

And what if there were a global high, fixed coffee price? The only way you can make a high price stick is to limit how many people or countries can sell coffee. There would be some fortunate farmers who would benefit while the rest of the world's growers would be excluded. Insiders and outsiders. Why hurt the poor in Vietnam to help the poor in Guatemala?

So I say to Oxfam's slogan: too much of the prophet, not enough of the practical wisdom.

Far better--though harder--to work with farmers and local and national governments to improve local conditions. This is exactly the strategy of the Traidcraft group headed by Paul Chandler, who visited Gordon last spring. Traidcraft supplies business development loans, insurance and marketing resources to small growers.

Questioning A Prophet
Final example. Wendell Berry. Perhaps you've read his poetry, or his essays on Christian ethics and economics and politics. He advocates an aggressive localization of economic life, going so far as to claim that a truly viable community "does not import products that it can produce for itself." He calls free trade between nations "destruction and slavery" ("The Idea of a Local Economy," Harper's, 2002, and "The Total Economy" in Bandow and Schindler, eds., Wealth, Poverty and Human Destiny, 2003).

One of the best aspects of private enterprise on markets is that people who want local products can generally buy them from willing suppliers. But to make localism a defining feature of economic life is not, in fact, just. It deeply violates shalom. I cannot think of any reason in Christian ethics why U.S. Christians should buy clothing made expensively in Massachusetts or North Carolina--by workers who have lots of alternative jobs that pay vastly more than most of the world earns--rather than clothing made by young women in Thailand or China who have far fewer options, and for whom the 60-hour a week factory job is a genuine step forward compared to 16-hour days of back-breaking farm work and an arranged marriage.

So to Mr. Berry I say: too much of the prophet, not enough of the practical wisdom.

Prudence And Markets
What will the world look like when we do bring practical wisdom to bear? How will things look when the prophet and the practical are in better balance? One immediate implication in economic life is that markets look pretty good. I draw a parallel. At a personal level, practical wisdom is the basis for practicing the highest Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. Likewise, at the social level markets provide prosperity and freedom that support human dignity. They assist--if we're willing to stir ourselves--the widespread practice of faith, hope and love. I'm not just saying markets are useful for achieving prosperity--though they are. I'm saying markets embody justice inherently. They are the morally legitimate grounds within which we can freely exercise our God-given talents. Properly regulated by democratic governance and Christian ethics, they are an essential component of our shared dominion over the earth.

It is genuinely difficult for 21st-century American Christians to think of markets in the light of practical wisdom. We are intimately familiar with markets' problems and less conscious of their strengths, though we benefit from them every day. For instance, we can think of lots of places where legitimate self-interest slides into sheer greed. It's a little harder for us to see how market competition puts basic constraints on how much one greedy person or firm can control.

We know how easily corporate advertising tempts us to extravagant consumption, even encouraging outright immorality. It's a little harder for us to see the virtues that markets encourage: hard work, thinking about the future, creativity. These may seem like thin gruel compared to the glorious Christian virtues of faith, hope and love, but they look pretty good in societies that can't exercise them fully yet.

We know how easily economic growth causes environmental problems. Less obvious is the fact that enormous restoration of creation is within our grasp--and that this is much more likely in nations with democratic governments and market economies. In China the environment aches for democratic voice to give form to pollution control.

A Crossroads
We're at a strange moment in the rich West. We're prosperous enough that economic growth seems far less urgent to us than it did two generations ago (though it shouldn't). We have a lot of freedom--to choose vocations, to choose responsible lifestyles, and so on. But that freedom can feel overrated given the greedy individualism we see around us. The hard fact around which we need to wrap our moral imaginations is this: Where most of the poor live, too much freedom and too much economic growth are not the problem. The freedoms attainable in democratic-market systems are very much an antidote to the problems in poor country cultures and
political economies.

This is hard stuff. Practical wisdom takes work and careful thinking about first principles and evidence. It is an intellectual struggle, no doubt about it. And it's always that way. We humans struggle to get things right. Being wise is a lifetime's work, though sometimes things come down to a few precious moments where countries and individuals make choices to be wise, or not.

Each of us has an opportunity to lead a life of sustained, abundant generosity and love. I urge you to use every inch of the God-like creativity in you to think of ways to do good. I urge you to find ways to help the poor and the dispossessed. Use your freedom--your political and market freedom, and especially your freedom in Christ--to serve His Kingdom diligently. And in God's providence may we all come to true practical wisdom.

From a convocation address, "Zadok the Priest and Nathan the Prophet Anointed Solomon King," September 28, 2007.

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Stephen Smith, Ph.D., professor of economics and business, joined the faculty in 1987. His teaching and research focus on international economic issues of all kinds, including trade and economic development policy. Southeast Asia is his particular specialty. He was a visiting scholar at the U.S. International Trade Commission in 1990. He codirects Gordon's program in international affairs and is on the editorial board of Faith & Economics, the scholarly review published by the Association for Christian Economists.


Steven L.S. Smith