#80 Incentivizing Sloth

the christian economist dave arnott

Incentivizing Sloth

The US Government has increased unemployment benefits, which means many workers are paid more to stay home than to work.  The Christian worldview clearly states that we should not incentivize sloth. 


In the Wall Street Journal this week, Daniel Henninger asks “Is the American work ethic dying?”  and the subtitle reads, “Covid laid off much of the country.  Now the Biden Democrats are paying people to stay home.”

The decrease in the work ethic has Biblical implications for individuals, the church, and countries.  First, the Biblical implications.

What does the Bible say about work?

Work is Good.  It’s the title of my podcast # 24.  God is working in the very first verse of Genesis.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  Then, later, God gives Adam and Eve work to do.  They are to tend the garden and name animals.  

Work is good.  It’s one of the Ten Biblical Commandments of Economics that Sergiy Saydometov and I found when writing our book Biblical Economic Policy.   

The Protestant Reformation was largely based in Martin Luther’s simple dicta: Faith alone.  He thought the Catholic church had inserted too many behavior requirements, and wanted to return to what he believed was a more correct reading of the scripture, that we are saved by faith, not works.

I make it clear in Economics and the Christian Worldview, which comes first: Salvation or work.  I write, “We do not behave to be saved, we are saved to behave.”  That simple sentence separates Christianity from most religious belief systems.  We work because we are saved, not to be saved.  We believe our salvation is secure.  We don’t work to gain nor to keep it.  We work because God commands us to work.  And we find fulfillment in serving others.  More about that later.

Biblical charity does not subsidize the slothful.  In the New Testament scripture about caring for widows and orphans, it states many detailed requirements for the widow to earn her charity.  I unpack that in more detail in podcast #20 Taxes that Care for Widows and Orphans. 

In his own book, with a name similar to ours, Biblical Economics, R.C. Sproul Jr. writes, “God imposes on people a moral obligation to work.”    

But before I go any further, perhaps I should look at my own writings.  The first line of Corporate Cults reads, “Work have become too important.”  I still stand by that statement, and I will unpack the details in a later podcast.  For today, let’s agree that nothing should become between the Christian and his God, even work.  


We believe we are free to do just about any work.  At dinner just this week, a friend lamented why a talented speaker and author with two PhD degrees was dying of a brain disease, and the man at dinner was still healthy.  He was making what some call the “Catholic Distortion.”  It assumes that there are different levels of work: Holy work is on a higher plane than secular work.  We don’t believe that.  We believe that just about all work is holy, as John Calvin called for, in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.“  Notice the subtle change from “do” in the first half of the verse, to “work” in the second half.  We are called to work.  This is the key verse in the monumental book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, written in 1905 by Max Weber.  Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro in their recent book The Wealth of Religions, find support for Weber’s thesis more than 100 years later. 

There’s also the “Protestant Distortion.”  This says that secular work is more important than holy work, because if secular workers didn’t support the church, it would cease to exist.  Both the Catholic and Protestant distortions are inaccurate readings of the scripture.  We are all called to work, and almost all work is good. 

We are free to choose just about any work.  Ok, I’ve used that phrase, “Just about” three times so I should explain it.  Some work does not honor God, like pornography, prostitution, and sales of illegal drugs.  But, God’s creational intent for those things: Sex in the example of pornography and prostitution, and potions that cure disease in the example of drug-dealing: Where originally created good by God, but mis-aligned by fallen humans.  But that’s not my subject today.  Work is my subject.

In one of my classes at Dallas Baptist University, I ask the students to explain the etymology of their surnames.  I always get a few that are related to work: Adam Smith, that guy whose been looking over my shoulder, got his name because at some time in history there was a blacksmith or a silversmith.  He got many of his ideas from John Stuart Mill, whose ancestors apparently ran a mill.  A Cooper is a person who makes wooden barrels, and a Rynegger is a person who cares for a field of Rye.  After that enjoyable exercise, I make that point that at some time in history, work was defined for each person.  Jesus’ Dad was a carpenter, so he was also.  If your Dad was a blacksmith, you were going to be a blacksmith.  If your Dad ran the Mill, you were going to take over the family business.  But in the modern economy, each person makes their own choice about the work they will perform to serve others. 

When Sergiy Saydometov and I wrote Biblical Economic Policy, we found Ten Commandments of Economics that I referred to earlier.  The first one is “People should be free.”  The more I have thought about those ten, I have come to think that perhaps freedom exists first, and the other nine flow from it.  More on that in another podcast.  But clearly, God wants us to be free to choose how to serve others, and my 21st century graduates have just about unlimited choices.  God likes that. 

Mike Rowe is known as “The Dirty Jobs” guy from his TV series bearing that title.  He has a five-minute video on PragerU titled “Don’t Follow Your Passion.”  He makes the fascinating case that just because it’s YOUR passion, doesn’t mean it creates value for others.  He’s onto something here.  Many young people are given the narcissistic advice to do what’s best for them.  Mike Rowe tells young people to do what others will pay them to do.  It’s a good start.  Our conclusion from the Christian worldview is that we have been created by God to serve others.  Pay is one indication that you are serving others.  In economics we say that suppliers create consumer surplus for the demanders who buy their products.  That’s loving your neighbor.  In the classroom, I also make the summary statement, “If you love your neighbor, you will create consumer surplus for them.  If you love yourself, you will make a profit while doing so.”  

In A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the 20th Century,” William Buckley tells a story from the 1960’s, about a guy who seemed to have a promising career, but then dropped out of life, and “did his own thing,” in Central America.  Reading that excerpt in 2018, I wondered out loud how a “drop out” would be treated in 2021.  Instead of being pitied, as Buckley did, he would probably be honored as a person who found his own way, “I did it my way,” as Frank Sinatra famously sang.  Dropping out, and doing it my way, are not Christian worldview phrases.  We believe we should stay in society and serve others, in a way that pleases others, and God. 

At Dallas Baptist University, we have a theme with our students about “Servant Leadership.”  That means that life is not about YOU, it’s about serving OTHERS.  

The Church

RC Sproul again, in Biblical Economics, writing about the church’s responsibility, “Sloth is one cause of poverty.  Slothfulness involves a refusal to fulfill God’s creation mandate to work, and God comes down hard on it.  God commands hard work from his people, and this is a command both the wealthy and the poor dare not overlook.  Slothfulness must not be indulged by the Christian community.”

Where is Captain John Smith when we need him?  He was the founder and leader of the Jamestown settlement.  When his socialist experiment failed, he quickly found the benefits of free market capitalism and quoted 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “He who will not work, shall not eat.”  The Apostle Paul continues, “We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies.”  Our government should honor and encourage work, but currently, they are doing the opposite. 


White House economists say there’s no “measurable” evidence that the $300 federal unemployment bonus is discouraging unemployed people from seeking work. Really?  If people don’t respond to incentives, Ludwig von Mises will need to come back from the grave and rewrite his classic economics book Human Action, because he and just about every economist since he wrote the book in 1949, believe that humans DO respond to incentives. 

It’s almost laughable: The Federal Government added $300 a month on top of unemployment benefits, and now the Administration is trying to act like it has no effect on the supply of labor.  If it had no effect, why did they do it?

As of today, 19 governors have disagreed with the administration and have told the Feds to keep the extra $300, because it was incentivizing sloth.  

Here’s Daniel Henninger again in the Wall Street Journal, 

“Refusal to work is something new in the U.S.  Ideas have consequences. By making unemployment insurance competitive with market wage rates in a pandemic, the Biden Democrats may have done long-term damage to the American work ethic.”  Henninger goes on to write that he believes the pandemic accelerated a transition evident for years—away from the basic concept of daily work and toward an emerging idea that life is less about work and more about play. Life as a nonstop game.  He would be correct.  My simple observation is the correlation between a less Christian America, and a workforce that wants to play instead of work.

Let’s turn to President Biden for his philosophy on work.  He talks about things his father told him, such as: “ ‘A job is a lot more than a paycheck’ he’d say. ‘Joey, it’s about your respect, your dignity, your place in the community.’ ”  Ok.  Then why did President Biden enact a policy that disagrees with his father’s advice?

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says, “Unfortunately, we are now seeing the negative consequences of these misaligned economic incentives.  An estimated 40 percent of the unemployed now earn more staying at home than working, causing severe labor shortages.”

Murray Rothbard in Man, Economy and State writes, “A man will not work if he is assured of minimal comforts not working.  The reason to work is simply not there as a man today can be paid by the government to not work.”

I have quoted Art Lindsley many times in these podcasts, saying “Government should punish evil, but not do good.  The church should do good, but not punish evil.”  In this case of incentivizing sloth, we find the government once again “trying to do good,” and once again, they have failed.  

Andy Kessler, writing in the Wall Street Journal this week, says, “Collectivist visions (like those from Cuba, or “infrastructure” bills in the US) fail in real life for one reason: They ignore productivity… Even night-school economists know that productivity is the only path out of poverty.”  I will overlook his down-grading of my night students, but his point is accurate. 

Among all the variables economists find that separates rich from poor countries, I maintain that there is only one, Policies that Promote Production, which is the title of podcast #27.

The Christian Worldview says we should encourage people to work, and we should not incentivize sloth.

To read the sources referred to within this episode:
Biblical Economic Policy https://amzn.to/3zrGano

Economics and the Christian Worldview https://amzn.to/3wbDzMf

Biblical Economics: A Commonsense Guide to Our Daily Bread https://amzn.to/354xu8x
Corporate Cults: The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization https://amzn.to/3xdiSQ0
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Economy Editions) https://amzn.to/3vbkfgO
The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging https://amzn.to/3gaQHLV
A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century https://amzn.to/3vfXVCx
Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (4 Volume Set) https://amzn.to/3czsT27
Man, Economy, and State https://amzn.to/3cvccVq