Making Scarcity Scarce A 2010 Essay

Making Scarcity Scarce is a bit different from past posts. It’s an old essay I did while at St. John’s College. It deals though with some of the issues that I hope will continue to be part of Common Eating. This was obviously only preliminary thoughts. I would love for people to ask questions or make suggestions in the comments.

Making Scarcity Scarce

When it comes to any discussion of theology and economics, it exists as the elephant in the room. It challenges our assumptions about God and His goodness. It brings questions about whether or not there can be any interplay between theology and economics, or must both operate in their separate spheres with no ability or language to speak to each other. The “it” in question? Scarcity.

My aim in this paper is to look at the concept of scarcity and how it relates to our ability to relate theology and economics to each other. I would like to suggest that perhaps we would be best served if we took the concept of scarcity and divided into two forms. One, absolute scarcity, which entails the realization that there is somewhere on the horizon, how near or far we may not necessarily be able to determine, and this paper will not attempt, a point at which the number of people alive will eventually make the earth uninhabitable. Two, relative scarcity, which would deal more specifically with how we choose to distribute the resources that are available to us.

Along with these questions I would like to look closely at the question of “self-interest” as an economic motivator and its relationship with a Christian economic ethic, and finally, I would like to look at the question of whether or not working towards recovering the Christian practice of hospitality

Malthus and Scarcity

The concept of scarcity, the idea that there is a limited amount of goods, land, etc., has been around from the earliest days that economics started to develop as a distinct discipline, but found its most notable commentator in Thomas Robert Malthus, a clergyman, who in reflecting on Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations,” put forth the most dynamic argument for the presence of scarcity.

To put his ideas in a very brief form, Malthus looked at the world around him and saw that population had a tendency to grow in exponential progression, whereas agricultural production would only grow in arithmetical progression. Malthus’s conclusion was that unless population growth was checked, the result would be unrelieved public misery. To this proposition, no one as of yet has made a convincing rebuttal.

As A.M.C. Waterman states in an interview with Andrew Siebert, published in a pamphlet for St. Margaret’s Anglican Church’s 2010 Slater-Maguire lecture, in answer to a question to his disagreement with Canadian Catholic bishops in the early 1980’s regarding how the government should approach the question of unemployment.

One of my fundamental criticisms of current Roman Catholic social theology is that it acts as if there is no such thing as scarcity — the prime example is the encyclical Humanae Vitae — the idea that when you go on breeding human beings without any adverse consequences to the world is utterly absurd and unrealistic. As if God were just a magical Santa Claus who always provides everything in abundance.l

The last sentence encapsulates the fundamental problem faced by any theologian wishing to take on the topic of scarcity. The only realistic solution seems to be to fall back on the idea of the magically giving God. While such provision may indeed exist, its existence must of necessity fall outside the bounds of a scientific economic enquiry. This form of scarcity is what I suggest we label as absolute scarcity.

Waterman goes on in the article to suggest that he views scarcity as coming about as a result of the Fall as related in Genesis.2 Such a view moves scarcity out of the realm of a pre-existing condition and into a realm which comes about as a result of the actions of humanity. Such a view also fits in well with the view put forward in the Book of Revelation which pictures a remade heaven and earth where sin and its consequences have been removed.

I wish to come back to this idea later, in particular to look at how this might work out in light of Christ’s redemptive work.3 This approach also removes some of the dissonance created in dealing with the idea of a bountiful God who provides for his people and a world where there are many who go without.

Other views on scarcity

Such is the nature of scarcity, but need it be the only way to approach economics. There has been disagreement among economists about this concept from the earliest of times. One of Malthus’s contemporary’s David Ricardo, in correspondence with whom Malthus formed much of his ideas, and whose views, through John Stuart Mill, gained the upper hand in economics until the 20th century, had a much more limited view of scarcity than Malthus. Ricardo was willing to allow for scarcity, but only as it applied to certain objects whose production could only ever be limited in nature.’

Another economist, who wished to move the science beyond the bounds of scarcity was the 20th century Liverpudlian economist Kenneth Boulding. Boulding in his 1968 presidential address to the American Economic Society, stated that:

Economics specializes in the study of that part of the total social system which is organized through exchange and deals with exchangeables. This to my mind is a better definition of economics than those which define it as relating to scarcity or allocation, for the allocation of resources is a universal problem which applies to political decisions and political structures through coercion, threat and even to love and community, just as it does to exchange.’

In other words, what things are exchanged and the manner in which they are exchanged is far more the concern of economics than allocation, because allocation is a matter that is a concern in all areas of life, not only those areas in which some form of exchange is involved.6

This would seem to indicate that within the broader scope of the concept of scarcity there is room for discussion on how we make use of the goods and services that we do possess. This is what I call dealing with relative scarcity. It is within this realm that I think theology and economics are best able to find some kind of ground and in particular that theology can speak on economic matters.

This view of scarcity seems to undergird the writings of D. Stephen Long in “Divine Economy Theology and the Market,”7 and M. Douglas Meeks in “God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy.”8 Meeks in particular seems to feel that the idea of scarcity is one that has been promulgated as a buttress in defense of the idea of absolute private property.

Meeks makes the case for the fact that real shortages do exist within our world, but insists that when we are talking about scarcity that is not what we are referring to.9 Rather, we refer to scarcity as justifying our need to possess, and ultimately as a result we create even greater scarcity that helps create misery in the lives of the many who have little if anything.

Long picks up on another idea inherent in the concept of scarcity and that is the fact that it breeds an antagonistic attitude between the partners involved in the exchange relationship.

Commenting on a passage in Adam Smith which describes the way in which he states that the butcher is dealing from their own self-interest, Smith goes on to state that the person purchasing from the butcher should appeal strictly to the butcher’s self-interest and not to the purchaser’s own need. In the comments that follow, Long makes it clear that Smith’s Stoic view of life, meant that one should only shares in the joy of the butcher but not the sorrow.’10

To put it into Biblical terms, Smith would allow that we “rejoice with those who rejoice,” but we do not “weep with those who weep.”11 Boulding takes this idea even further when he suggests that when we are involved with people in exchange relationships we tend to “rejoice when they rejoice and rejoice when they mourn.”12

Long also suggests that in doing this, we are hiding our own motivations from the butcher, and as a result that antagonistic relationship always remains. I would add that in such an understanding, there is also always an underlying tinge of dishonesty, for each must dissemble before the other in such an exchange. These are because of the fact that scarcity means we must always be protecting our own self-interests.

One aspect of this antagonism that I am not addressing here, is the addition that was made to it by Marx’s analysis and his understanding of the mutual antagonism that existed between the owners of the means of production and the proletariat. I still hope at some point to add this, because it relates so clearly to Liberation Theology, a form of theological enquiry that places a great deal of emphasis on the economic conditions of people.

It is more than slightly ironic that while we work in a world that is built around this idea of scarcity, we are encouraged to consume ever greater amounts of goods and services as the best way of keeping this scarcity at bay. Firstly, such a strategy would seem to push us ever closer to that edge where we reach absolute scarcity.

Secondly, it appears that such a strategy also contributes to the ever widening gap between those who have the most and those who have the least. If wealth is defined strictly by accumulation, especially of scarce goods, it might also account for the burgeoning phenomenon of hoarding, where people fill their houses and apartments until there is almost no room to move, despite the fact that much of that which they possess has very little intrinsic or extrinsic value to them.

This need also leads to food waste, the amounts and meaning of which vary, but are indicative of our ability both to better feed our entire planet, and our unwillingness to share.’13

In addition, I think there is a correlation between scarcity and commodification. It is not only that we need to accumulate more, but that every decision we make in life is what that has a price tag on it, so to speak. I’m not sure to what extent this is a chicken and egg argument, does scarcity lead to commodification or vice-versa, yet there is a strong connection between the two ideas.

Looking to the good of others

Furthermore, the ethic of self-interest runs directly counter to the Biblical mandate.  From the Abrahamic covenant onwards the God’s blessings are meant to be used to bless those who live around us. One of the major contributions that Liberation Theology has made to Christianity is recalling Christians to the mandate of God articulated throughout the Bible to care for those who are least able to care for themselves.

Perhaps the most concise statement of this attitude is found in Philippians 2:4 where it states“14 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”” This verse serves as the lead in to Paul’s great statement on Christ’s humility in taking on the form of humanity and of our need to emulate such behaviour.

Coupled with this is the notion that the death and resurrection of Jesus represent a reversing of the curse that came with the fall. While the complete reversal will not come until the Parousia we are nonetheless called as Christians to live as people who are no longer are under the curse of the fall but as people who are shaped by the event and the power of the resurrection. This is part of what N.T. Wright is getting at in his book Surprised by Hope.”

Hospitality as a corrective to self-interest

Where and how do we go about starting to behave in such a fashion. One long-standing form is within the idea of the intentional community, people living and holding goods together in common. This rediscovery of the old, monastic tradition is finding proponents among many people, such as Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove.” This way of life however, is not one that will appeal to all or maybe even a majority of people, so what other ways can we go about achieving such change.

I would like to suggest that we go and work towards recovering the great tradition of Christian hospitality. For many of us, hospitality is a synonym for entertaining, or it is something carried out by hotels, restaurants, and other establishments that make up the “hospitality industry.” Christine Pohl suggests that we need to recover the more ancient definition of hospitality, that of ‘Welcoming strangers. ‘7

If the concept of scarcity tends to move us towards viewing others in an antagonistic light, as competitors for a limited amount of resources, hospitality will tend to move us towards viewing the stranger as our collaborator.

Pohl’s book does highlight some of the problems with hospitality as well, most notably the use of hospitality to further agendas that are not at base concerned with simply meeting the needs of the stranger, or likewise with the stranger taking advantage of those who are offering hospitality.

However, I think that hospitality can also serve as a bridge toward developing something along the lines of what Boulding called the gift or grants economy. This exists already in the form of what we call the welfare state, items such as Social Assistance, Employment Insurance and even in the form of supporting people in developing economies through organizations such as World Vision or PWRDF

However, many of these operate under some form of coercion, such as taxation in the government and emotional coercion in the pleas of NGOs. Hospitality can only be voluntary as it involves the giving of ourselves as well as the use of exchangeable goods and services.

This paper has not addressed the larger issues of what type of system best enables us to deliver on this move away from scarcity. However, going along with Boulding, I would have to say that this move is best accomplished in a capitalist society, in that social forms of distribution rely, by their nature, on some form of coercion to help them achieve their goals. This does not mean that I think there should never be any intervention in the marketplace, but rather that it should be the exception rather than the rule.


  1. Siebert, Andrew, Interview with A.M.C. Waterman: Economics as Theodicy, in Slater-Maguire Lectures: A Companion, St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, Winnipeg, MB, 2010, Page 9
  2. Ibid, Page 10
  3. It should be noted that books such as Hal Lindsey’s “Late, Great, Planet Earth,” tend to hold to scarcity, if not stated in those terms, as a sign of the coming end of the world.
  4. Ricardo, David, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, ed by R.M. Hartwell, Penguin Books Limited, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1971, Page 56
  5. Boulding, Kenneth E., Economics as Science, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1970, page 123
  6. Boulding is unfortunately too little studied today. Raised Methodist and adopting Quakerism in his adult life, he contributed the idea of niche economics, and was among the leading proponents of game theory in the study of economics. I think a reexamination of his work might be useful in trying to find common ground between theology and economics.
  7. Long, D. Stephen, Divine Economy: Theology and the Market, Routledge. London, 2000
  8. Meeks, M. Douglas, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1989
  9. Meeks, op cit, page 170
  10. Long, Divine Economy, op cit, page 28
  11. Romans 12:15
  12. Boulding. Economics as Science, op cit, page 126.
  13. I looked briefly at some information via the internet, but have not included it, and hope to add more reliable information later.
  14. Philippians 2:4, NRSV
  15. Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope, Harper One, San Francisco, 2008
  16. Wilson-Hartgrove, Johnathan God’s Economy: Redefining the Health & Wealth Gospel, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009
  17. Pohl, Christine D. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999, Page 4.