#82 Shopping Cart Economics

the christian economist dave arnott

The Economics of Self-Governing

Self-governing is a Christian concept that improves economic outcomes for all consumers.

The Shopping cart theory

Here’s a story that’s been going around the social media outlets. 

The shopping cart is the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing. To return the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as the correct, appropriate thing to do. To return the shopping cart is objectively right. Therefore, the shopping cart presents itself as the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it.

You must return the shopping cart because it is the right thing to do. A person who is unable to do this is an absolute savage who can only be made to do what is right by threatening them with a law and the force that stands behind it.   The shopping cart is what determines whether a person is a good or bad member of society. 

Actually, ALDI charges a quarter for the use of the cart.  That’s what happens when you fail to self-regulate, you lose economic value. 

Free Market Capitalism vs Socialism

The moral of the shopping cart story is that some people are taking labor from others.  You’ve noticed the first word in this section is free.  That means people are free to determine their own economic future.  They are free to self-govern.  In socialism, people are not free.  Think about the dicta “From each according to his ability, and to each according to his need.”  Individuals would have only what they need.  There would be no surplus, so how would individuals keep the Biblical command to give?  Giving would not exist.  Taking would.

This is very clear: The government has no money.  Before it can give, it must take.  There is no Biblical command to take.  

How clear can I make it: Free Market Capitalism distributes goods via choice.  Socialism distributes them via force.

Democracy in America

Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville visited the fledgling United States in 1830 to study the penal system.  He studied more than the jails, he made a comprehensive study of the new nation.  One of his insights was the idea of Associationalism.  He was astounded, that when a problem surfaced in America, someone started a free will association to handle the problem.  We are surrounded by these philanthropic organizations today: The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Baptist Men, Rotary, Chamber of Commerce, Lions club, and the list goes on and on.  These “associations” as Tocqueville called them, are examples of people returning their own shopping cart, because they serve their fellow man without compulsion.  Toquevelle made the observation that these associations buffer the individual from the more powerful government.  Think about it: How can an individual take on a governmental entity?  Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks was charged with insider trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission.  He took the case to court, only to show that rich guys like him could take on the government, but poor people can’t.  Good for you, Mark Cuban.  The rest of us have to join together into voluntary associations to have our very small voice heard.  And, as government gets bigger, the individual gets smaller. It’s an easy observation to make, that government is getting bigger.

The Church

This is why the church is so effective at solving society’s problems, and why the government is so ineffective.  In churches, and para-church organizations, people voluntarily return the shopping cart that others have left in the parking lot.  Government’s answer would be to hire more shopping cart police.  This is not a joke.  I live in Texas, where we’ve been pretty free to choose how to self-regulate during the recent covid pandemic.  Friends who have travelled to other states tell stories of people in orange vests, sometimes called “ambassadors,” but they are essentially “mask police.”  See what happens when people don’t self-regulate?  Someone has to regulate them. 

John Adams said it this way,  “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  What he meant was self-regulating.  He was referring to a people who voluntarily returned the shopping cart.

In his first inaugural address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson said, “Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels, in the form of kings, to govern him? Let history answer this question.”

The more I read about the intersection of economics, and politics, the more I encounter this spiritual term “angels.”  Both political and economic writers say that men are not angels.  

We also make the important point in Christianity that salvation is an individual act.  I am responsible to my students, not for them.  They make individual choices to do the work to earn an A.  This comes from our Christian belief system.  The greatest being ever conceived of, God, gives we humble humans the choice to accept or reject His invitation of salvation.  In these terms, we are given the freedom to “self-regulate.”  

Declining Marginal Utility

A personal friend of mine served the Ft. Worth police department for 30 years.  He once told me, “You get the level of crime you pay for.”  My perplexed expression caused him to explain.  “You could keep hiring cops, and each time you hired an additional cop, the crime rate would go down.  Your community keeps hiring cops until they get the crime rate where they want it, and they stop hiring cops.”  Image that, one of the best explanations of declining marginal utility from a guy who has never attended an economics class.   

The police will clearly tell you this.  If people don’t self-regulate, society falls into chaos.  This is what happens in Communist countries, and I’ve been to many.  The abolition of religion means that people no longer self-regulate, so the government has to do all the regulation.  But there are not enough cops.  So what do they do?  They make the public subservient to the cops.  They place moles and snipes into the community to report on their families, schoolmates, and fellow church members.  If you don’t see this creeping Big Brother attitude in America, you should look around more carefully.  Communist countries who lack the self-regulation inherent in religion must infiltrate the community to control it.  Look around, it’s coming to a neighborhood near you. 

Free riders

When I ask my students why they dislike group assignments.  They explain the free rider concept to me.  It’s simple: Some students do the work, while others ride freely on the work of others.  Free riders leave their shopping cart in the parking lot and the diligent students do the work for them. 

Students in my macro class at Dallas Baptist University are sometimes astounded to find that 47% of Americans pay no income tax at all.  Almost half of Americans are income tax free-riders, allowing others to return their shopping carts for them. 

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Phil Gramm and Mike Solon state that the US has the most progressive income tax system in the world.  That’s dangerous, because it creates two groups: Taxpayers who return the carts for free riders who don’t.  These two groups have very different interests.  

When Goldman Sachs produced the BRIC diagram, I took DBU students to Brazil, Russia, India, and China during successive Spring and Fall breaks.  If we had a group of ten, and four were paying, while six were free riders, that would create two groups, wouldn’t it?  With very different interests.  The payers would want cheaper hotels and meals and common tours.  The free riders would want more luxurious hotels, meals and tours.  I have just explained the current situation in the US.  Some return shopping carts for others who leave them in the parking lot.

Instead of e pluribus unum, this creates e pluribus pluribus. 

I call Acts 2, the “Honda scripture,” because they were all in one Accord.  Ok, not a very funny joke.  The story is summarized in Acts 2:44-45 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  That scripture is often mistakenly used to claim that Christians should be socialists.  There are many errors, but I will address only one today.  The disciples were not forced to join, nor to give.  “Forced giving,” is oxymoronic, isn’t it?  One sold a plot of land and GAVE the money to his fellow disciples.  What we lose in cultural understanding is explained in the shopping cart theory.  There was a strong cultural incentive to give.  In 21st century culture, we tend to split choice and force into separate categories.  That’s not how the first century people saw it.  It was more like a community commitment that you wouldn’t break.  It was not totally free choice, nor was it governmental edict.  It was culturally mandated, in a way that our society does not experience. 


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