What’s a Christian to do with capitalism?

This post from Ned Resnikoff highlights some interesting data about Americans’ views on the compatibility of capitalism and “Christian values.” As he notes, the number of people who see them as incompatible goes up when the sample is restricted to self-identified Christians.

I don’t think Christianity is necessarily anti-capitalist per se. Presumably a Christian should support whatever economic system best promotes human well-being. There’s a case to be made that some form of capitalism is the best candidate for this, at least given the available options.

But there are also some deep-seated Christian principles that tell against a full-throated embrace of capitalism. I’d put them under two broad headings:

(1) Christianity is against excessive wealth accumulation.
(2) Christianity is against the market as the ultimate arbiter of value.

The first point seems nearly incontrovertible to me based on a close reading of the gospels and a general familiarity with the history of Christian thought on these matters. Certainly the accumulation of wealth has rarely been upheld as a virute for Christians. I think this has partly to do with the idea that Christians should depend on God rather than wealth (you can’t serve two masters) and partly with our obligation to share from our excess with those in need. It’s certainly hard to argue that the disparities in wealth and the excess exhibited at the top of the income scale in contemporary America reflect sound Christian values.

What I mean by the second point is that Christianity sees all human beings (and indeed all living creatures, I’d argue) as having a certain intrinsic value, which is derived from their creation by God. A consequence of this is that all people are entitled, simply by virtue of exisiting, to the prerequisites of a meaningful life, such as adequate food, shelter, health care, education, etc. A thoroughgoing “market society” in which goods were distributed strictly according to the ability to pay would be flatly inconsistent with this Christian principle.

If this is right, the practical upshot is that Christians should support an economic system that limits great disparities in wealth and ensures that people’s basic value is respected independent of their “market value.” In my view, the evidence suggest that some kind of regulated capitalism with a generous social safety net and provision of high-quality public services is the best currently available system for doing this. There are multiple models here–North American, European, Asian–but all of them depart in significant ways from the laissez-faire ideal beloved of American right-wingers. (It’s worth noting that conservative Christian support for laissez-faire capitalism in the U.S. is both a historical and geographic anomaly.)

It’s possible that some as-yet-untried alternative to regulated capitalism would perform better according to these principles. And the search for such an alternative may become more pressing as we continue run up against limits to nonrenewable resources and the environmental consequences of ever-increasing material consumption. These circumstances are likely going to require us to come up with new economic arrangements that might look very different from capitalism as we know it. But if we are entering into an era that requires us to radically alter our patterns of production and consumption, it’s even more important that Christians (and other people of good will) work to ensure that any new economic arrangements respect every person’s God-given value and dignity.

UPDATE January 15, 2012: If I were writing this post now, I think I would change the first principle I cite to something like “Christianity regards all property and wealth as held in trust.” I think this gets more to the heart of the matter. Everything that is ultimately belongs to God and we only hold it in trust, as stewards. For Christianity there is no such thing as truly “private” property, and our possession of anything is inherently qualified to some extent by the claims of the well-being of others.

Similarly, while I would still affirm the second principle, it might be better stated positively, e.g. “Christianity regards all people as having intrinsic value as creatures of God.” This clearly implies that the market is not the ultimate arbiter of value, but better expresses why that is.

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8 thoughts on “What’s a Christian to do with capitalism?

  1. For some of us, it is not so much that we wish to defend the accumulation of capital, but that we don’t believe in using the sword to regulate the market. We would limit the sword to preventing or punishing the unjust use of the sword. To use the sword for another purpose is to do evil so that good may result.

  2. Here’s one way to think about it: suppose you have a perfectly competitive, “non-coercive” market economy, and you still end up with significant numbers of people without access to life’s basic necessitites (given the historical evidence, I don’t think this is far-fetched). Is it reasonable to ask them to accept a system where they are prevented from expropriating the excess of the rich to meet their own needs? If it isn’t (and I don’t think it is), then we’re far better off with a system of institutionalized redistribution than one of ad-hoc expropriation (for a variety of reasons).

  3. “Is it reasonable to ask them to accept a system where they are prevented from expropriating the excess of the rich to meet their own needs?”

    This requires a different answer if I read it as “Is it right to ask the poor to accept the idea, ‘Thou shalt not steal’?”

    But I would also want to point out that the question seems to assume the equivalence between two very different kinds of situations.

    1.) Someone owns 10,000 acres of land, and some landless poor wish they could have land so that they could provide their own necessities of life.

    2.) Someone invented something and people have freely traded with him so that he has a massive fortune.

    In the first case, the “system” has allowed people to hold land, most of which they probably don’t use. This probably involves a lot of free policing. If the poor are being asked to consent to a system of government, they probably wouldn’t want this kind of arrangement.

    My conviction is that many more people would be capable of being self-sufficient if the state did not help with this kind of land-holding. We are making people artificially dependent on help by making it illegal for them to help themselves. The kinds of redistribution we do now are far from making up for this. But they not only fail to help the poor sufficiently, they also treat the just and the unjust rich the same, which is too harsh on one group and too lenient with the other. It’s the distribution of unjust privileges to some of the rich at the expense of taking from all of them.

    If the Biblical picture is everyone enjoying his own fig tree, the modern solution is, “You can’t have a fig tree, so here are some stolen figs to make you feel better.”

  4. More substantively, I think we’re coming at this from two very different starting points. Although, I’d be interested in exploring the possibility of a system that allowed for more widespread ownership and less concentrated wealth along the lines you indicate. I’m not convinced, though, that all this requires is for the state to “get out of the way” as I believe the state inherently shapes the kind of economy we have. There’s no “neutral” hands-off position for the state to take, in other words, because things like property rights, contracts, etc. are inherently shaped by politics.

  5. I think a deeper difference is that you are judging the goodness of a system by its consequences. I’m judging it by the means is uses. I’m not claiming that the consequences will all be good. I’m claiming that the use of certain means is unjustifiable.

    Now, many of these means are of long standing. I would want to use prudence in my dismantling of the current system, and have little interest in schemes that remove one or another regulation that help the poor while leaving the rest of them intact. I also know that in order for things to work, what is done by the state probably had to be done with some success by the market first. (What usually happens is that someone argues that it must be done perfectly by the market to justify allowing the market to work. As if things were ever done perfectly by the state. But the state will make false promises where the market doesn’t make promises.) I’m in partial agreement with the idea that things like property rights and contracts are shaped by politics. But I think there is some natural law here. Much trouble comes of trying to fundamentally reshape human nature through politics.

  6. I had to look up Henry George. Looks like someone worth reading. Not sure if I’ll agree across the line. But it is still promising. The Wikipedia article said one of his woman students invented a game that was a forerunner of Monopoly. From the picture of the board, that appears to be almost indubitable.

  7. Pingback: Updated thoughts on Christianity and capitalism | A Thinking Reed

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