This essay is adapted from a Sunday School lesson which I gave a few weeks ago. The lesson was more condensed and simplified due to time constraints and the class' background, however, the content was basically the same.
A false balance is abomination to the LORD: but a just weight is his delight.
Woe to those who plan iniquity,
who plot evil on their beds!
At morning’s light they carry it out,
because it is in their power to do it.
They covet fields and seize them,
and houses, and take them.
They defraud a man of his home,
a fellowman of his inheritance.
Therefore, the LORD says:
I am planning disaster against this people,
from which you cannot save yourselves.
You will no longer walk proudly,
for it will be a time of calamity.
With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Listen! The LORD is calling to the city—
and to fear your name is wisdom—
“Heed the rod and the One who appointed it.
Am I still to forget, O wicked house,
your ill-gotten treasures
and the short ephah, which is accursed?
Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales,
with a bag of false weights?
Her rich men are violent;
her people are liars
and their tongues speak deceitfully.
Therefore, I have begun to destroy you,
to ruin you because of your sins.
You will eat but not be satisfied;
your stomach will still be empty.
You will store up but save nothing,
because what you save I will give to the sword.
You will plant but not harvest;
you will press olives but not use the oil on yourselves,
you will crush grapes but not drink the wine.
You have observed the statutes of Omri
and all the practices of Ahab's house,
and you have followed their traditions.
Therefore I will give you over to ruin
and your people to derision;
you will bear the scorn of the nations.”
What They Mean
The verse selected from Proverbs is merely an isolated example which appears in other forms throughout the book of Proverbs and in the books of Mosaic Law --
A just weight and balance are the LORD’S:
all the weights of the bag are his work.
Divers weights and divers measures,
both of them are like abomination to the LORD.
Divers weights are an abomination unto the LORD;
and a false balance is not good.
Do not have two differing weights in your bag—one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house—one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. For the LORD your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.
Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity. Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt.
The repetitive nature of these verses makes one point very clear -- pay attention! This is very important!
All of these verses instruct the reader of the importance of fair and honest dealing in business transactions, specifically with respect to weights and measures. God repeatedly condemns the use of dishonest weights and measures, and even promises the specific blessing of long life for honest dealing. The use of such dishonest measures is an act of fraud and a form of theft. Christians and non-Christians alike recognize the obvious evil of these actions, and yet such practices and others like them have been widespread for as long as humans have engaged in trade.
The first passage in Micah describes a set of corrupt and powerful men who are engaged in plots to deprive less powerful men of their property. Micah prophecies that there will be dire consequences for their actions, but interestingly, it is said that these negative consequences will befall ‘this people’ which is a more general term than something like ‘these men.’ It seems to imply that the consequences will apply generally to ‘the people’ of which these men are a part, and not only to the specific perpetrators.
The second passage describes a more general state of corruption throughout the marketplace and society. The prophet asks what might be appropriate sacrifices to bring before God, including a list of immensely lavish gifts, even one’s own firstborn, then follows by asking what God has principally asked of them, which is merely that men obey him and act justly and humbly. The implication is that men are apparently willing to make lavish sacrifices, but unwilling to do the basic, honorable things that God really requires of them and which He really cares about.
Micah then goes on to list a number of widespread behaviors which have angered God, including dishonesty and violence and another instance of dishonest weights and measures, and prophecies that there will be a number of negative consequences for this disobedience. In mentioning the kings Ahab and Omri, God compares the evil that he sees today with the evil that occurred under the worst kings ever to rule Israel.
These passages occur against a backdrop of external conflict between Israel and Assyria. At the time of Micah’s prophecy, Israel had only recently gotten out from under the thumb of neighboring Assyria. Some of these prophecies appear to hinge on another future defeat of Israel by Assyria in which Israel’s lands are seized, including the land the corrupt men had gotten dishonestly. Under that circumstance, not only are the rightful owners deprived of the property, all of Israel has lost possession. The once rich men will ‘no longer walk proudly,’ while Israel and her people will be ‘given over to ruin’ and ‘the scorn of all nations.’
Taken together, these passages produce a vivid picture of the importance God places on personal integrity in business conduct, and the types of judgment that will be incurred for corrupt behaviors. Positive and negative sanctions are associated with the choice of whether or not to obey.
C. S. Lewis’s Three Levels of Moral Conduct
C. S. Lewis gives an insightful big-picture model of moral conduct in his book Mere Christianity. He divides the entire issue into three levels, or perhaps ‘spheres of influence’ from an individual point of view.
The first is the individual level, in which one is concerned with his own internal conduct and maintaining a proper relationship with God. The second level is the interpersonal level, which is concerned with the norms of behavior and codes of conduct governing interaction between people. These codes exist to prevent interpersonal injury and maintain proper and appropriate relations between people. This is the level that seems to attract the most attention and philosophizing.
The third level is a bit more abstract. It refers to the general development of broader society and the direction it is headed. Is the group in question, perhaps a family, or a church, or a nation, moving in a Godly direction, or is it decaying, or perhaps wandering around lost and directionless?
His analogy to a fleet of ships makes the relationship more concrete. The first level might refer to the care maintenance of an individual ship. The second might refer to rules of navigation so that the ships of the fleet don't run into one another as they are making their voyage. The third might be the destination itself. The voyage would be rather pointless if it set out for London, but somehow wound up in Hong Kong, even if safe and sound when it got there. He also notes how the different levels interact with one another, for instance, how even perfected, intricate rules of navigation are useless if the ships are so poorly maintained that their steering mechanisms do not work anyway. You cannot navigate the unnavigable, just as all the laws in the world cannot make up for a lack of individual self-control.
Integrity at All Levels
It is easy to see how the importance of business integrity applies at the second level. I would be surprised to meet a person who did not know that cheating and theft are wrong. The hard part of application at this level is actually recognizing the cheating and theft. Much creative thinking has been applied to this subject and it is not always easy to tell, especially if one happens to be a party that stands to benefit from a particularly confusing transaction.
At the first level, it is not so easy to see that this message has any application at all. How can one do business with himself, let alone cheat or steal? I would say that this level ought to be kept in mind in that situation when one doesn't really see the harm in some situation, or how anybody gets hurt or is even involved, but still has questions of the legitimacy of some transaction or other act. The truth is that nobody knows everything, least of all the future. One can never really predict how an act will pan out in the long run. ‘Lean not on your own understanding,’ another proverb says. Simply because one sees no harm does not mean that none will occur. A wise man acknowledges the limits of his wisdom and will refrain from doing something he knows to be wrong even if it may appear to him that nobody is harmed by it.
These verses have important lessons on the first two levels, but the third level is often neglected because it is not quite as accessible. Micah prophesies that a disdainful treatment of business integrity will have far reaching and destructive effects on Israel, which did turn out to be the case. Perhaps on the most basic level, it is enough to know simply this -- that God will bring destruction on those people and societies who take His commandments lightly, even if they are His own chosen people. This is the heart of the issue, and is probably the most important lesson.
However, the subject of economics has much to offer in an analysis of these verses that might bring more to light. Looking at the issue through the economic lens, one begins to really see many important connections between a society’s treatment of integrity and the effects it has on the development of that society, at least on an economic level. The prophecies of Micah begin to make sense in ways that are more connected than what may appear to be just a handful of dark visions of the future. In addition, the other, positive side of the situation, the blessings that come through obedience, begins to be fleshed out.
A ‘Gedanken’ Model of the Economy -- The Division of Labor
Economics could be briefly defined as the study of the way people go about getting the things that they want. The division of labor could be said to be ‘the way they go about it,’ so to a great extent, economics is all about studying different aspects of the division of labor. Constructing a mental image of the division of labor provides a useful tool for ‘Gedanken experiments’ – ‘thought experiments’ -- to look into many aspects of economics, including those of interest here.
So, to start at the beginning, the economy is about ‘you’ getting ‘stuff’ --
In this division of labor, the single person must produce absolutely everything he wants for himself. He is like Robinson Crusoe alone on an island with no supplies and no tools. Everything must be done by hand, and as you can imagine, he is of necessity not going to be very wealthy.
This is an important point -- no matter how smart or talented or capable he is, he will be doomed to poverty by his isolation. Even Bill Gates or Warren Buffet would be dirt poor in such a situation. Humans are limited beings in almost every way, whether in reference to intelligence, strength, attention, or time, and one of the most important consequences is that they physically cannot accomplish much alone. Developing the skill it takes to improve output at any particular task takes time and focus which are not available when constantly facing many pressing needs, and even if it were, skill could not be developed at all the tasks one would need to become wealthy. There are far too many, and on top of that, production time would be split between too many activities for that approach to work efficiently. Skill requires specialization, and a man who tries to do everything will not be particularly good at doing anything.
If there is more than one person involved in a division of labor, these people have several choices. First, they may choose to remain isolated, in which case they will remain as they always have. They will be poor, but they will be independent. They may choose to steal from one another, in which case defending their property will interfere with their efforts at production, so that though one might conceivably find himself slightly better off if he were a particularly good thief, on the whole, everyone would be worse off. The other choice is to cooperate --
By cooperating, each individual can focus on a few particular tasks and increase his productivity, then trade his surplus of these few goods for the many goods he would like but which he does not produce any longer. Those goods could be produced by others who have also specialized so that they also produce surpluses and need goods in trade. Overall, the entire quantity of goods increases, so according to the model they should all be better off --
So, with the division of labor, specialization, and trade come greater wealth, but they also come with a catch -- dependency on others. That is where these verses come in. With trade comes the potential for fraud and cheating. Though theft and violence were always lurking, they have now become even greater threats, because the participants in the division of labor have become dependent on one another. Without consistent integrity, joining the division of labor becomes risky, and trust and the division of labor fall apart.
This analysis is interesting enough, but continuing the model further will make it more useful and give a better idea of just how important the division of labor is, and how important integrity is to the division of labor and our lives. So far, there has been no mention of a very important type of good produced by the economy which has a profound impact on the performance of the division of labor itself, what economists call capital.
The individuals mentioned so far have been producing consumer goods like food and clothing, which are desired in-and-of-themselves by other participants in the economy. Capital goods are goods which are used by laborers to produce other goods, which is to say, generally speaking, that they are tools which increase the output of labor. They act sort of like a magnifying glass for the productive efforts of the division of labor, except that the ‘magnification’ results in more real stuff on the other side of the ‘lens,’ not just the perception of it. But in order to obtain capital goods, the division of labor must allow some fraction of its efforts to go towards their production and therefore away from goods for immediate consumption. The diagram for such a division of labor might look something like this --
From this model several important economic conclusions become immediately apparent. First, economic growth is principally a process of capital accumulation and extension of the division of labor. These two processes necessarily come with increasing volumes of trade and increasing specialization, not to mention increasing dependency on others. Also, it becomes clear why economic growth, under the appropriate conditions, tends to compound exponentially -- because the process of capital accumulation tends to feed on itself. Ever increasing output allows ever increasing savings, which feeds increasing output as more capital accumulates --
Prosperity Through Integrity
The continued functioning of these systems is highly dependent on the integrity of the individuals who are participating. So long as that integrity holds, the society can accumulate ever more capital and explore newer and more productive structures of the division of labor. The economy can continue growing until the point is reached where maintenance of the capital structure absorbs all of the saved resources. Or individuals may simply decide at some point that leisure and other activities have become as important as production, so that output stabilizes. But that is not to say that this would be the end of economic development. The types of goods and production methods could continue to change over time with changes of taste and new discoveries.
By maintaining consistent standards of integrity, a society can develop an economy that makes everyone materially much better off than if each of person worked in isolation. Today, even an average person who is part of a developed economy enjoys a standard of living far better than an ancient king, even a king from only a few centuries ago. This is one of the blessings that comes with obedience, and is the flip-side of the omens of destruction that one reads in the words of Micah.
In an interesting side-note, it was perhaps the first human act of disobedience towards God which set up this situation. One of the consequences of The Fall was that Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden and into a world where they would have to support themselves. Adam was told that the ground would rebel against his efforts at production.
It might only be a coincidence that the way out of the poverty into which God had cast fallen Man could only be obtained through observing the kind of integrity God had demanded in the beginning. No passage I know of declares this to be the specific intent of the curses that followed The Fall. But if it is only a coincidence, it certainly is an amazing one.
On the Other Hand...
What happens when this integrity is violated?
For an individual or an organization, the consequences may prove devastating. An entity that develops a reputation for being unreliable and lacking integrity will find itself having restricted access to the division of labor and the capital structure because others will not wish to trade with it. No employer would want to hire such a person. Other companies do not want to do business with a known cheat. That entity will find itself being isolated, and forced to either change its behavior or face the consequence of impoverishment.
It is often countered that some of the wealthiest individuals alive are known crooks. That is certainly true, but the vast majority of ‘known crooks’ are decidedly not well-off. Many are in prison. The few who do find a way to make crime pay usually spend their lives only a few missteps away from complete destruction, which often does find them in due time. In any case, it must be admitted that these individuals gain their wealth parasitically from a productive division of labor that is part of a society that places some value on personal integrity, and would not be wealthy if it did not exist. An entire society of Bernie Madoffs would not be stealing millions of dollars and fancy cars from one another. They would be stealing goats and chickens and living in mud huts.
What if this lack of integrity is widespread? Obviously, the division of labor will be stunted or will not develop at all, and poverty will be widespread and crushing in proportion to the level of corruption.
But the really scary question is this -- what happens when corruption takes hold of an already highly developed economy? This is a serious situation indeed. The division of labor will contract or become warped to varying degrees and in varying patterns, depending on the exact nature, severity, and pervasiveness of the corruption. Trust will diminish, and people will begin taking defensive measures, diverting resources and time that would otherwise be devoted to productivity and capital accumulation. The capital structure itself will come under assault, as investors refrain from maintaining and investing in capital that is subject to risk of theft and destruction, and furthermore, is decreasing in value as the productivity of capital is falling. Saving and investment decrease. Output will shrink and be diverted to new activities that do not really reflect the desires of consumers, but are dictated by economic necessity.
That is a best case scenario. Often the unfolding of such events leads to other, more dramatic and destructive behaviors. History is full of examples of waning empires where corruption had begun to spread, and people resorted to desperate measures to maintain systems that could no longer support themselves. Crushing tax burdens, violence and chaos are common. Sometimes societies resort to slavery, forcing a weaker group to endure cruelty and deprivation so that a few can maintain their unearned lifestyles. Sometimes a despotic regime grabs hold of the productive capital of a highly developed economy before it decays too much, and turns its output towards waging aggressive wars in search of the resources to sustain a dying way of life. Sometimes the civilization just begins to die off, and loses its territories to conquest.
Some of the specific prophecies of Micah make a great deal of sense in this light. The widespread corruption he describes would result in a contracting division of labor. A few powerful, corrupt men may become wealthier by defrauding others out of their property, but overall wealth and the desire to strive to produce will decline. The nation as a whole will have fewer resources available when the time comes to defend itself from hostile armies. These men have sewn the seeds of their own destruction by preying upon one another and weakening the nation as a whole.
Integrity, Economics, and the West
Here one sees the precariousness of the situation. A culture which encourages integrity can build itself up to a wealthy and mighty civilization, but when its ideals become lost or corrupted, often through placement of material pursuits above the very ideals which had made those pursuits possible, the people can be left in a state highly dependent on one another at just such a time that dependency is highly inadvisable. The results can be tragic.
Unfortunately, understanding of these principles, which only a century or so ago had been taken for granted, has eroded almost completely to nothing in the West. This is easily seen in many present-day actions and attitudes.
For example, what do America’s actions sponsoring ‘regime change’ and democracy in the Middle East as a solution to the problems there say about her underlying assumptions? They seem to imply that America attributes her own greatness, and by extension, Western greatness in general, primarily to her democratic institutions, not to any particular difference of culture or values. This diagnosis was underscored after developments had not gone exactly as planned in the aftermath of actual elections by the recently ‘liberated’ Muslims.
These ‘liberated’ people, it seems, were not nearly as interested in things like freedom of religion and equal treatment before the law as Westerners had expected. The Palestinians in particular elected a known repressive, terrorist organization to a sweeping political victory. Yet their actions were frequently defended by noting that it was okay if Muslim democracy did not function just like an American democracy, the unstated completion of the thought being that it would still work out because it was democracy.
These developments reveal a frightening mindset. They in effect tell Muslim societies that in order to develop into prosperous, contented civilizations, they don't really need to change anything important to them if it makes them too uncomfortable. They can continue to follow a religion that celebrates violence, repression, and death, and generally behave like savages if they like, so long as they vote about it and pretend that everyone is equal -- except for women and infidels, whom they can continue to abuse. Somehow voting will ‘make them better off,’ presumably because the violence and evil in their societies was due to the despotic regime they lived under, rather than as much the other way around. With the regimes gone, things will smooth out nicely, regardless of what they believe, because democracy is inherently transformative. Democracy and constitutions and congressional chambers and elections are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make a society a success. So long as one has them, regardless of all else, peace and happiness and prosperity are a given.
Western society appears to have forgotten or to be willfully ignoring the real source of its material success -- beliefs and attitudes about what constitutes acceptable behavior shaped by many sources, but most strongly by biblical Christianity -- and attributing success to things that it came up with ‘on its own.’ It is as if it is trying to supersede God, to say that it got its wealth ‘by its own hand.’ Western success is fundamentally attributed to the clever rules and arrangements that it has instituted over the years, not to the dumb luck of having inherited a Biblical outlook ingrained into it over millennia. As C. S. Lewis might say, representative government and written constitutions are very nice things, but they mean little in a society that cannot keep its baser instincts in check.
In addition, there seems to be a sort of built-in blindness that has developed. Many Westerners who have not seen firsthand what happens in other parts of the world simply cannot fathom the types of activities that are regular occurrences in other societies. Too often, Westerners take many of the benefits of belonging to their own worldview for granted, and perhaps are not as thankful as they ought to be for the changes that Christianity has wrought on their societies over time.
Likewise, other similar, unbiblical beliefs appear to have considerable sway at the present time. For some Christians, faith appears to be all that matters. Pagans and their civilizations which show steadfast personal integrity are nevertheless believed doomed to amount to nothing purely because they are pagan, while the nominally Christian world may do as it pleases and will always be the beneficiary of God's blessing, as societies and as individuals. For these people, it seems that being a Christian is kind of like getting a suntan. In my opinion, faith alone may or may not get you into heaven, but without some other very important ingredients, life isn't likely to be a very pleasant experience in the meantime. Neglecting them isn't a very good 'show of faith,' either. Non-Christian societies have in some cases achieved material success comparable to the Christian West throughout history and in modern times, so historically this belief is unfounded despite the general trend. Likewise, there are also examples of Christian societies mired in corruption and poverty. Integrity seems to matter a lot to God, even when it is shown by non-believers and not shown by those who claim to be His followers.
Many in the financial community seem to think that America can rely on the cleverness of financial experts and turn to the expedients of financial fraud and socialism to generate wealth and extract herself from her present economic predicament. Likewise, they believe that states like China will be able to use ‘command capitalism’ to launch themselves into wealth and prosperity to rival the West in its heyday. The corollary to these arguments is, of course, that cruelty, arbitrariness, and corruption are not incompatible with the development of a wealthy and prosperous civilization. The important thing seems to be to crunch the numbers properly.
Integrity is not really much of an issue at all, these experts say, aside from making some simple-minded people angry as an issue of justice. After all, this is a financial problem. The two are separate and belong to different systems, and both best left to the experts. The third world would come along just fine if it would only adopt the West’s more developed and successful financial institutions. Corruption is not a problem, there, here, or anywhere else. As long as it is predictable, it can be worked into the equations and corrected for. Once again, it is asserted that a wealthy, advanced, and powerful society is perfectly achievable without regard to personal integrity.
It is very disturbing to see such widespread acceptance of these lines of thought in contradiction to a picture which should be very clear, even to a non-Christian or Jew who had little regard for the ancient prophesies of a religion he did not even follow. It is not merely a few quacks and loudmouths expressing such views. These are the mainstream, authoritative positions of influential organizations.
For my own part, the thought that I might exist in a universe governed by such a moral order terrifies me. Much as I hate to say it, I would rather see American efforts in the Middle East fail and her government and economy destroyed by corruption and socialism than find that such activities had succeeded. However much I may love my country, the universe that such outcomes imply is a vision far more horrific than any of these isolated failures could prove to be. Economists and political scientists may engage in their rationalizations and speculations about industrial production and social cohesion and such to explain exactly why and how the Allies overcame the Nazis, and the Soviets eventually succumbed in the arms race with the West. But ultimately these disgusting, perverse systems were destroyed because they deserved to be destroyed.
God appears to have been perfectly willing to allow his chosen people to be overrun and conquered by pagan civilizations when they allowed their societies to decay into rampant dishonesty and corruption. If we are to believe the historical accounts of the Bible, He allowed it to happen on multiple occasions. Failing personal integrity comes with real sanctions on this side of the grave, to say nothing of beyond, and one cannot expect to continue to reap the benefits of a system built on integrity when integrity itself has been allowed to decay away. Comeuppances may sometimes be long in coming, but they do eventually come. I see no reason to believe that anything has changed since Micah made his prophesies so long ago.
On the bright side, the solution to all of these problems is quite clear -- to drive out all these foolish notions with a concrete idea that is very simple and understandable to practically anyone, and to return to sound and well-established norms and practices that emphasize personal integrity. As far as I can tell, the laws of the universe have not changed, and the Biblical attitude towards integrity that brought the West to the pinnacle of all civilizations in all of time still has every bit of its magic. It worked once, and it can and will work again.
I do not write this essay to cast shame on others or because I find that I am somehow of superior character in these matters. I myself am guilty of a great many of the charges I have laid out here and more, and count myself as much a part of the problem as anyone else might be. In pointing out these grave errors, I do not pretend that I am free of them myself. Rather, I write this in the hope that reverence and awe might be turned towards their proper Object, rather than in the narcissistic, self-referencing worship of some particular fruits of Western greatness as being the cause of Western greatness itself. I did not come up with this explanation on my own, but only stumbled upon it in the writings of greater minds than mine.
Personal integrity and intolerance towards corruption are the keys to personal and societal prosperity. The Proverbs and the Mosaic Law show how important it was to God that His people obey basic rules of business integrity, and the passages in Micah and other books of the Old Testament prophets are powerful reminders of just what happens when integrity is allowed to lapse and corruption to become pervasive. Contrary to many modern and not-so-modern notions, integrity is the glue that holds the division of labor together and allows a society to develop into a wealthy, prosperous, and harmonious form that brings honor to God.