Evil Systems

Christians who are concerned about poverty often blame the "system" for poverty. The problem with this is that no one is very clear about what the system is. It can be a bit of a cop-out, because if the system is the problem, then no one is responsible or accountable. Systems cannot choose to do evil.

If we want to deal with evil, we must track it Back to the person or group of people who are perpetrating it. Evil always starts with individuals. Individuals can evaluate options and value things. Individuals make decisions and take actions. Individual people can choose to do good and they can choose to sin.

Sometimes people get together in groups to do evil, but each individual chooses to join the group, and not to opt out of it. Sometimes one person decides to dominate the rest of the group and the other decide to go along for the benefits. Nevertheless, all the decisions and actions are taken by individuals, who are accountable to God for their behaviour.

Evil actions taken by people with power over other people amplify the impact of evil. An evil person with political power or economic power can do more evil than an ordinary person.

Legal Evil

Sometimes evil is translated into the legal system. This is what I think most Christians are referring to when they talk about systemic evil. Evil laws can take various forms. Governments may provide protection for corporations to rob the poorer people in society. Tariffs may be used to prevent some people from trading. Governments can perpetrate evil in a variety of ways.

Nevertheless, all evil laws and regulations are put in place by individuals. If the law has been imposed by a king, he is responsible. If the law was passed by a parliament, each of those who voted for it is accountable. If the unjust law was passed in the past, then the current parliamentarians are equally responsible, because they have not changed it. Those who choose to benefit from the evil law are also accountable to God.

Wherever an evil system is in operation, there are people who have put it in place, people who refuse to change it, and people who choose to benefit from it. Often there will be groups of people working together. Ranting about an evil system is pointless. We must track responsibility back to those who established it and those who maintain the evil system.


Some Christians see the market system as an evil system. The problem with this view is that a market is an abstract concept and not a real physical thing. A market often cannot be seen.

The most visible market that I know is the Sunday market operated by a Rotary Club on a Racecourse in the city where I live. In Europe, it would be called a Flea Market and the UK it might be called a Car Boot sale. Vendors rent a site and set up a stall at which to sell their goods. Some are quite sophisticated, offering a delivery service and accepting credit card transactions. Most just accept cash. Large numbers of people come through the market looking for bargains.

When I look at the market, all that I see is:

The combination of people and things is described as a market. Is it evil? Of course not! Land, people, goods and portaloos are not evil in themselves.

Can evil occur at this market? Yes. Evil can take place in a variety of ways.

A variety of evils can occur at a market, but that market does not make the market evil. A market cannot take actions or make decisions. A market cannot be good or evil.

The evils listed above are all perpetrated by people: visitors, purchasers, vendors. Not all visitors, purchasers, or vendors are evil, but only those who do something wrong. The market is not evil. The piece of land is not evil. The goods are not evil, except for the land mine. The Portaloos are not evil, provided they are kept clean.

The rotary club is not responsible for any evil that occurs at the market, nor is the racing club. To suggest that they are responsible for what happens at the market is absurd. On the other hand, it may be in their interest to engage a security guard to minimize evil. If things got out of hand, the market might decline and they would suffer.

People can do evil at a market, but the market is not itself evil.


Another well-known market is eBay. It is even harder to see. I can look at eBay on my computer screen. I could visit San Jose in California and see the eBay offices and the banks of file servers, but I would not really be looking at eBay. The reason is that eBay is really an information system. It holds various types of information. Vendors record descriptions of items that they want to sell and give an indication of the price they want to receive and instructions for payment. Purchasers record the amount they are willing to pay for an item and the address that they want it delivered to. A sale only occurs when the buyer and seller agree on the price. Completed transactions are what make eBay a successful market.

eBay consists of people and information about articles for sale stored on a computerised information system. The people can be evil, but most are not. The articles for sale good may be evil, but most are not. The information recorded might be immoral, if it is deceptive or malicious, but most is not. Evil can be done on eBay, just like at the Sunday market. Sellers may lie. Buyers might cheat. Evil things may change hands. However, whenever an evil occurs, it can be tracked to a person or group of people who were responsible.

The strength of eBay is that it provides a facility to expose immoral people. This also happens at the Sunday market too. The word soon gets around about bad products or unreliable vendors, but word of mouth is slower at transferring information.

Markets Benefit People

A market must allow sellers to display what they want to sell and allow buyers to make offers. However, a market is only successful if a significant number of sales take place. Buyers and sellers attend a market because they know that there is a good chance of concluding some transactions with other people.

A market is an information system that allows people to buy and sell goods and services. In the Sunday market, this information is provided by displaying the goods for observation. On eBay, people display photos of their goods and detailed descriptions, instead of carrying them to the market. This reduces the costs of selling.

Transactions in the market only occur if two things happen. First, the seller must want the money being offered more than they want the thing they are selling. Second, the buyer must want the thing being sold more than they want the money they are offering. Both the buyer and the seller are better off after the transaction is complete. The buyer has a good they wanted. The seller has the money they wanted. This is the great benefit of a market. It allows people who do not know each other to engage in transactions that make all parties to the transaction better off.

No one is made worse off by a market. The only people disappointed at the market are those unable to sell the items they hoped to sell. They were unable to find someone who valued the item higher than they did, but they still have what they came with, so they are not worse off. Some potential buyers may be disappointed if they did not find what they want, but they still have the money they came with, so they are not worse off. An arrangement that makes lots of people better off, and harms no one, cannot be called evil.

The Market system

The market system is made up of a great number of different markets, ranging from flea makers to shopping malls to futures markets. Each of these is an information system that allows people to buy and sell different types of good and services. Sales only occur when both the buyer and the seller are made better off. All market transactions make the people involved better off, and those not involved are not any worse off. A market does much good and no harm.

A market can be overcome by evil in two ways. The first way is for a market to start selling things that are evil. One example is the slave trade. Most people would agree that this was a terrible evil. However, a market for slaves did not develop, because markets are immoral. A slave market could only function if there were people willing to buy or sell humans and perhaps others willing to enslave humans. These are the people who did the evil, not the market. They created a market in evil, which is the worst evil.

The more common way for a market to be overcome by evil is for a seller or buyer to force someone into a transaction that they do not want to make. Someone may be forced to buy something do not want by someone who threatens to beat them up. Someone may be threatened into selling something at a price less than they were wanted. A buyer might be forced to pay a price greater than they wanted to pay. Once someone is forced into a transaction against their will, the benefit of the market disappears because one party to the transaction is made worse off.

Forced transactions take place when bullying tactics enter the market. This can happen at various levels. An adult might intimidate a child. An armed man may force someone to buy something they do not want. A gang may threaten a seller with violence. A country might invade another to establish trading privileges. In these situations, the market is not evil. The evil is perpetrated by the person or organisation that is forcing people to buy or sell against their will.

However, we should get our words right. These situations no longer fit the word "market". A better word would be "organised extortion". There is no doubt that organised extortion is evil.

The most common way for force to enter a market is when the government enters the process. It may start setting the price or place limitations on who can buy and sell. When this happens, the market is partly destroyed as some of the participants in the market will be made worse off. Some will be forced to take pay price higher or lower than they wanted. Others may be forced to sell against their will or at a lower price than they wanted. However, the result is no different from the organised extortion described in the previous paragraphs.

Free Market Idolatry

A common view is that markets are dangerous because they lead to idolatry. People cannot idolise many things. Some Christians idolise the Bible, but that does not make the Bible immoral. The correct response to God word is to worship and obey him, but that does not stop people from idolising the word. People can make an idol of the game of football, but that does not make it morally wrong. God gave us the ability to communicate in markets. We should thank him for that gift and operate by his standards when active in markets. People can idolise the market, but that does not make it wrong or immoral.

The sin of idolatry is in the heart is in the heart of the person idolising the idol, not the object of idolatry. A block of wood is not evil, because someone could make it into an idol.

There are two types of idol:

  1. Objects that we love

  2. Objects that we fear

We sometimes make an idol of something we love, but we also have a tendency to make an idol of something that we fear.

Some people in the United States are so passionate about the free market that they have made it into an idol. They allow the market to shape their lives and determine their morality. If something will sell, then it must be good. This is misguided, because God is the one who determines good and evil. Many things that happen in a free market are morally wrong by his standards.

On the other hand, many more people treat free markets as an idol of fear. Primitive people blamed bad harvests on failure to appease the weather gods. They made an idol out of something that they feared. We know that the weather gods do not exist. When people blame the troubles of economic life on the free market, they are raising up an idol that does not exist.

Oliver O'Donovan refers to the market as a personality and calls it Leviathan.

The Markets do not regulate themselves. They adjust themselves, but like the brutish and short-sighted Leviathans they are, they trample people beneath their feet while they do so (The Ways of Judgment, p.65).

Donovan makes the market seem personal and hostile to humans, but the market is not a moral being. To be morally responsible, an entity must be able to make decisions and understand the consequences of their actions. Markets cannot think. Markets cannot make decisions. So markets are not moral entities. The moral decisions are made by people participating in the market. They are the ones with moral responsibility.

The market does not close factories and lay people off. This is done by the managers and owners of businesses. They might say that the market forced them to close the factory, but that would not really be correct, either. It would be more correct to say that the people stopped being willing to buy what the factory produced at the price that was offered.

Contrary to what most people think, markets do not set prices. In fact, prices are never really set. In a market, you can see offers to sell for a price. You can see other people offering to buy at a different price. Many people do not enter the market, because the prices offered are way outside the range that would interest them. You sometimes see a transaction occurring at a price when the offers of the buyer and a seller coincide, but that does not set the price. A transaction may never occur at that particular price again, if no other buyer or seller is willing to trade at that price. Buyers and seller decide prices by agreeing to a transaction at a particular price. But they only set the price for their transaction. Their deal may influence the price for later transactions, but it does not set a price.

Those who speak as if the market can make decisions, be morally responsible and cause evil are also idolising the market. These people have built the market up into something mysterious and malignant with terrible powers to do harm. This gives them something to blame, but they have created an idol that does not exist. My approach is to demystify the market. A market is nothing more than interaction and communication between people.

Football Analogy

If you can understand a football game, you can understand a market. It is just a group of people interacting in a different way. A football game is not a moral entity, but is an activity where people interact with each other. The decisions about what happens in the game are made by the people participating in it: players, owners, managers, referees.

People get hurt playing football, but I cannot say that I was injured by a game of football. Rather I was hurt by colliding with someone or falling heavily to the ground. It may have been deliberate, or it may have been accidental.

There are several people or groups of people that might be morally responsible for my (hypothetical) football injury

When a footballer player is injured, another player, a referee or an administrator might be responsible. However, an injury is usually the result of a series of actions by several people leading to an outcome that no one foresaw. If these people had perfect knowledge of the future, they would have done something different. In this situation, no one is morally responsible except the person who chose to put themselves in a situation where an injury could occur. No one can be blamed except the injured player.

Economic Risk

Participation in a market economy is risky, because no one knows the future. The safest way to live is in subsistence. If I grow all my food and produce my own clothing, I have a high degree of security, because I am not dependent on anyone else. By putting in a water storage system, I could even eliminate my dependence on the weather. However, subsistence living is very inefficient, because producing food would take so much time that I would have very little time for making other things that I might want. The subsistence lifestyle provides security, but the cost is a very low standard of living.

Most people will prefer to specialise in something that they are good at. They will produce more than they need and sell it on the market (often their labour). The can buy the other things that they need with what they earn. This raises their standard of living, but it increases the risk, because they are now dependent on other unpredictable people. If the other people lose interest in what I am producing, I may find that the price falls, or I am left with a surplus that I do not need and cannot sell. My standard of living will decline rapidly. I may even wish that I had stayed with subsistence living.

I may look for someone to blame, but no one has done evil to me. The people who stopped buying what I produced, because they could get something better elsewhere, did no wrong. I made a decision in the face of future uncertainty and got it wrong. I acted on the assumption that I would continue to be able to sell my surplus. Because my guess about the future proved to be wrong, I will suffer (just like the football player entering a collision).

I may want to blame someone, but no one is morally responsible for my plight. I cannot even say that I sinned. Making a mistake about the future is a human frailty, and not a sin. Only God knows the future. It may be that he warned me that my decision was a mistake and I ignored his warning, but I am not sure that he always does warn us in this way. He does not want us to be unthinking automatons, but to enjoy the excitement of being human.

Lack of wisdom is not a sin. Perfect knowledge does not exist this side of heaven (1 Cor 13:8), so participating in a market is always risky. I could avoid the risk by staying out of the market and producing all that I need for myself. But the returns to the risk of participating in a market economy are so great, that most people prefer to take the risk. It would be great if that risk could be eliminated, but the risk-free life is a poor one.

Risk at Ford

Most of us prefer not to take risk. We try to minimise it by becoming employees rather than entrepreneurs. However, some risk is inevitable, even for employees.

Leaving school in 1967 and getting a job on the production line at the Ford factory involved some risk. The Ford worker could have stayed at home to grow their own food and make their own clothing. The money paid by Ford offered a far better lifestyle that was judged to outweigh the risk. If the factory closes because people stop buying Ford pickups, no one is necessarily to blame. The Ford managers may have sinned, but it is more likely that they guessed wrong about the future. Big businesses have more resources to study the future, but they should not make as many mistakes and individual might, but they can still get it wrong.

The people who replace their Ford pickup with a Toyota car have not sinned either. So no one is really to blame. The person took a risk by working at Ford and got it wrong.

Market and Poverty

Blaming the market for people being in poverty does not help them much. There are several reasons why a person may have lost their employment and become poor.

  1. Their employer might have been hard-hearted and enjoyed punishing people by destroying their work opportunities.

  2. The employee might have been sinful and cheated their employer.

  3. The people who brought their employers output may have found a better supplier, or changed their tastes. They may now be buying something different.

  4. A pirate may be preventing them from getting their products to the market.

In the first case, the employer is responsible for the poverty. In the second case, the employee is responsible. In the third case, no one is morally responsible. In the final example, the pirate is morally responsible. In no case was the market responsible. Blaming markets is like blaming the football game for a football injury. It does not help and is often wrong.

Our immediate response to poverty should be mercy and assistance. Christians should also be on the alert for injustices that cause poverty. However, finding the real cause of poverty requires wisdom, because every situation is different. We cannot assume that if one person is poor another is to blame. We must study the situation before deciding who has sinned.

Christians with the spirit of wisdom and a prophetic edge should be really effective at identifying the moral actions that cause poverty. If someone has sinned or done evil, they should be exposed and encouraged to repent. However, if the person is suffering was the result of a risky choice that went wrong, looking for someone to blame will not help. It is more helpful to give them some assistance.

Reality and Dreams

The market is the place where dreams and reality meet.

The managers of Ford dream about the success of their latest vehicle. They have spent millions of dollars on the development of the new model and hoped it will be the new Mustang. It hits the market, just after the release of an offering from Chrysler's that is better and cheaper. The reality of the market turns the Ford dream into an Edsel.

A young man dreams about getting work at the local Ford plant. He will be set up for life, with a good lifestyle. When he is forty-five, the factory closes. Reality has destroyed his dream.

Another young man dreams about writing a novel. He is not very hopeful of success, but when the book hits the market, it proves to be a bestseller, changing his life. Reality exceeded his dreams.

Thomas Edison dreams about using electricity to light up offices and homes. After many failures, he develops a light bulb that works effectively. Reality matches his dream and his dreams grow. The people of the world enjoy something that they had not dreamed was possible.

Every dream needs to be tested, but this is very risky, because sometimes dreams fail in the face of reality. The only way to avoid this risk is to leave your dreams as dreams.

A risk-free world is only possible for people who are willing to live in their dreams, but the world of dreams is actually a world of poverty.

Progress needs people who will dream big dreams. Even more, it needs people like Thomas Edison, who will test their dreams against reality by bringing them to the market again and again.

Uncertainty is Certain

Some people would like to change the market so that dreams never fail. This is like changing the football game so no one is injured. It could be done, but the game would cease to be football. The only way to prevent dreams from being hurt by the market is to push reality out, but ignoring reality is dangerous.

God chose to place us in a world of risk and uncertainty, so that we would grow to our full potential. Our capability for enjoying risk is the image of God within us. He knew that if life was risk-free, we would become lazy and bored. He also understood that economic uncertainty would result in some people falling into poverty through no fault of their own.

The reason that the poor are always with us is that life on this earth is uncertain and risky. That is why God put in a safety net to catch those who have fallen and are unable to rise again. In the New Testament, this safety net is the church. The church is responsible for poverty, so if people are getting stuck in poverty, the market has not failed. No, the church is not doing its job.