My goal in this series is to demonstrate that many of key concepts of economics are either explicitly or implicitly taught in Bible’s account of the siege of Samaria as found in 2 Kings 6:24-7:20.
In Part One, we looked at 2 Kings 6:25 and what we could learn from the exorbitant prices people were paying for undesirable food under siege conditions. In Part 2, we looked at the relationship between two economics and politics. Especially, we considered how economic hardship is frequently brought on by the ill-conceived policies of politicians, who, being loath to take the blame themselves, often will attempt to find a scapegoat to divert public dissatisfaction away from themselves.
Today, I would like us to look at another important economic concept demonstrated in 2 Kings: opportunity cost. But before diving into that, perhaps it would be advisable to offer a definition of economics.
Economics, What is it?
In his lecture series on economics, John Robbins offered the following definition of economics: it is the study of the logic of choice.
That may sound a bit surprising to many people. It is common to think of economics as news about what the stock market did today, but that is history. Some may think of economics as mathematics. Still others, when they consider the subject at all, hold very negative views about economics. For example, 19th century Scottish thinker Thomas Carlyle famously dubbed economics “the dismal science.”
But starting with the axiom of Scripture, the idea that the Bible has a monopoly on truth, Robbins makes a strong case for his definition. He starts with four principle statements about man taken from Scripture:
- Men are rational creatures made in the image of God.
- Men always act purposefully.
- Men always act in their perceived self-interest.
- Only individuals choose/make plans/act.
From these concepts, Robbins provides us with the following chain of reasoning: To be human is to be rational > To be rational is to have purposes > To have purposes is to plan > To plan is to arrange ends and means (in other words, to choose). And economics, as Robbins defines it, is the study of the logic behind the choices we make.
Continuing with his chain of reasoning from above, Robbins tells us that to choose is to forgo (alternatives). For example, you’ve chosen to take time out of your busy schedule to read this blog post. In all likelihood, you could be doing any number of other things, but you’ve chosen not to do those things and instead took the time to read this article.
And this leads us to the final step in Robbins’ chain of reasoning: To forgo is to incur cost. The cost of a thing is not its price. When you chose to read this blog post, there was no charge to you for accessing the article, but it did cost you something. Your cost is your next best alternative, whatever it is you gave up doing to read these words about economics. And that forgone alternative, what it is you gave up, is called your opportunity cost.
Men always act in their own perceived self- interest, and they determine their self-interest by weighing the cost of one alternative against the cost of the other options available to them. Ultimately, they will choose the option that they perceive has the lowest opportunity cost. This is the logic of human choice.
The principle of opportunity cost is clearly illustrated in the Bible’s account of the siege of Samaria. There we read,
Now there were four leprous men at the entrance of the gate [of Samaria]; and they said to one another, “Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say, ‘We will enter the city,’ the famine is in the city, and we shall die there. And if we sit here, we die also. Now therefore, come, let us surrender to the army of the Syrians. If they keep us alive, we shall live; and if they kill us, we shall only die” (2 Kings 7:3, 4).
In this passage, we can see the lepers reasoning through their options. There are three courses of action open to these men: 1) enter the city and die of famine, 2) sit at the gate until they die of famine or perhaps some other cause, and 3) surrender to the Syrians.
The first two options, as the lepers see it, involve certain death. The third alternative, surrender to the Syrians, may mean death, but it may provide them with an opportunity to live.
Preferring the possibility of life over certain death, the lepers forgo the opportunities of dying in the city or outside its the gates – I know, those are pretty shabby “opportunities”, but this simply means that, in terms of opportunity cost analysis, the lepers cost of surrendering to the Syrians was quite low; they didn’t have much to lose – and decide to surrender. Verse 5 reads, “And they rose at twilight to go to the camp of the Syrians.”
As Robbins points out in his lecture on opportunity cost, only actions or decisions have costs; things do not have costs. This is so, because only individuals have alternatives.
To show you what I mean, consider the question, What is the cost of a pair of shoe? The correct answer, surprisingly enough, is “nothing”. Shoes do have a price. But they do not have cost, because shoes do not have alternatives.
You, on the other hand, do have alternatives. If you choose to buy a pair of shoes, your cost is not the price you paid for them. Your cost is the next best alternative for the use of the money you spent on the shoes. Maybe instead of buying shoes, you could have purchased a shirt. If so, then the new shirt, your next best alternative, is your cost for buying the shoes.
Understanding opportunity cost can be helpful to us in our everyday lives. For one, it can make us think carefully about our alternatives. When we begin to view the cost of a particular course of action, not as its dollar price, but in terms of forgone opportunities, it can prompt us to think more carefully about the options available to us.
Second, once we know our options, we then can logically think them through to determine which one has the lowest opportunity cost. In this way, we are positioned to make better choices than if we are driven either by superficial considerations such as an item’s price tag or by our emotions.
Going back to the example of the three Samaritan lepers, doubtless surrendering to the Syrians was a difficult decision. The Bible doesn’t tell us this, but it’s reasonable to assume the lepers had some sense of patriotism. And what patriot would ever want to surrender to the enemy?
During the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, Jeremiah repeatedly told the people to defect to the Babylonians and live. The alternative, as he presented it, was for them to remain in Jerusalem die. And were his words well received? Hardly. People, especially the rulers of Judea, hated him for his message. “Why, the temple of the Lord is in Jerusalem. Nothing bad can happen to us here. That Jeremiah, he’s just an unpatriotic, crack-pot, nattering nabob of negativism. Kill him!,” was more or less their reaction to his ministry.
The rulers, as it turned out, had a false perception of their own self-interest. Because they allowed emotion and pride to dictate their decision, they elected to stay in Jerusalem and fight rather than heeding the Word of God spoken to them by Jeremiah. In the end. they paid for this choice with their lives.
But the lepers, they did not let emotion get in their way. They calmly reasoned through their alternatives and made a logical choice based upon opportunity cost. And for their good sense, as we shall see, they were rewarded beyond anything they possibly could have imagined.
To be continued…