3/11/2009

Is Capitalism God’s Ordained Economic System?

There is a lot being bandied about (especially in conservative Christian circles) that President Barack Obama is ushering in a new age of socialism into the United States of America. It reminds me of when it was godly America versus the godless Communists – the arguments given were in black and white terms—capitalism and free markets are God’s moral system, socialism is a godless system.

What should we say? Well, I believe that history as shown that we should embrace markets. Markets have proven to be the best way to structure interactions in economic life. Marxist Socialism failed because it had major flaws inherent in the system. But, is capitalism God’s ordained economic system?

Michael Kruse is helpful here when he writes,
If the question is whether or not free market capitalism is the biblically prescribed model for the economic life, then the answer is an emphatic “No.” There is no culturally transcendent economic model given in the bible. Therefore, no economic model is Christian. Those that would take capitalism (or any other economic system) down to the river and baptize it as THE Christian model engage in idolatry.

If the question is whether or not free market capitalism emerged from a society with a distinctively Christian ethos, then the answer would clearly be “Yes.” The ideas of human beings created in the image of God, linear time, progress, future orientation, and vision oriented ethics, were the soil from which capitalism grew. This is NOT to say that free market capitalism is the best of all economic systems that can, or ever will be, conceived. It is merely to acknowledge the roots from which it sprang.

The third way of interpreting this question is to evaluate the degree to which free market capitalism moves us in the direction of the coming age of shalom. It is this evaluation that has to be asked about every human construction, always with an eye to the fallen state of humanity and the inability to achieve utopia in our present age.

NEXT:
Market Economy vs. Market Society
Kingdom Economics vs The American Dream
Should We Want a Completely "Free Market?"

15 comments:

Jimmy said...

The Bible is true but not exhaustive. It does not speak to every little detail we find in culture. When we try to make it speak to everything we read meaning into the text when it's no there and create an eisegetical nightmare.

It doesn't matter what type of economic system we live in. We are called to do the same thing.
Proclaim Jesus.

Wickle said...

But everyone knows that Jesus is an American, and a Republican to boot, right?

Bob Robinson said...

Jimmy,

Here are some questions:

Are there ways that Economics "Proclaim Jesus?"

Does the gospel of Jesus Christ speak to such things as Economics, or does it only speak to such things as Heaven and personal righteousness?

Are followers of Jesus Christ to seek economic justice?

Bob Robinson said...

Wickle,
I understand where you're coming from. I think that this is the presumption of many American evangelicals.

But not all.

Capitalism is not just an American (or Republican) economic system. It is a global system, practiced by many, many countries with both Right and Left leanings. Right?

Byron Harvey said...

Point well-taken. I'd argue, not that capitalism is, per se, Christian, but with the author, that it sprang from Christian understandings. I argue for an unfettered free market based, not per se upon it being "Christian", but upon it working for the overall good of society in a way far superior to any other current option. It is consistent with human nature as we know it to be (not a utopia that exists only in our imaginations and imagines people as we might like them to be--unfettered by nasty things like original sin, etc.).

I believe that the poor have the best opportunity to put poverty behind them in a capitalist system. Now, we are not capitalists first and Christians second, but the other way around; there are character flaws that thrive in capitalism (just as there are character flaws which thrive in a socialist environment), because we are flawed human beings. But a capitalist system will, I am confident, tend to more consistently reward the right behaviors and punish the wrong ones.

And in a fallen world, that's about the best we can do.

By the way, I'm not sure that President Obama has full-blown socialism in mind, but he has shown little reluctance to engage in nettlesome meddling with the economy in a way that assigns to government what in his mind is a constructive role (and by the way, I've not much use for GWB's economic policies either, particularly vintage 2008). It seems to me that history shows us that interventionism in the market by the overreaching hand of government is pretty much always a bad thing.

Good post, Bob; I'll look forward to the others. Tackle the morality (or, IMHO, the immorality) of Social Security at some point!

Jimmy said...

Bob,
I would say that Economies are merely systems. Systems cannot speak to anything. Jesus taught many things that may have applications to how we should behave within a given economy. As far as seeking economic justice...I'm not sure what you mean. Justice in whose eyes?

Being that economies are systems, they can be used for good or evil. Socialism is only bad when the "common good" equals the ruling elite. The temple system in the Old Testament was a very small scale system of socialism. Since the Levitical priests could not earn a wage, the tithe was given so they could offer sacrifices continually. Our current economic system is a debt-based system, therefore it can hardly be considered Biblical. Just look at what happened when the easy flow of credit dried up.

Blessed Economist said...

Bob
The way you phrase the question makes it quite hard to answer. The word capitalism means different things to different people. Capitalism is not a system that has been established by someone.

We actually dont have a system. All we really have is a set of laws that may be good or bad. We have a whole lot of human action, which may be good or bad. Your question needs to be given more content, before you can get a clear the answer. (Note: the fact that capitalism in some form makes people wealthy does not make it right).

A key question is Capital. Economists refer to plant and equipment that makes work more productive as Capital. There seems to be nothing inherently wrong with Capital. It is has actually allowed made our lives vastly better. I can write better with a computer than my finger. Shares are just a record of ownership of capital.

The more important question is who should own capital. Most Americans think it should be privately owned. Marx thought it should be publicly owned. So Communism is really state capitalism. The Russian experience shows that state ownership of capital is inefficient. My view is that the scriptures do not explicitly forbid state ownership of capital (except big war weapons -chariots) or private ownership of capital or shared private ownership in companies.

The more important question is how capital is obtained. It is morally wrong for either the state or private individuals to steal capital. Both have done plenty in their time. The morally correct way to obtain capital is to consume less and save to buy it.

The other important question is what is done with capital. The Bible warns that owning capital is risky, because we can easily slip into trusting it or worshipping it. Capital can be used to control other people. On the other hand, the Bible seems to respect good use of capital. Ie it distinguishes between good and bad use of capital.

The other big question is how should goods and services be exchanged between people. There are three ways an exchange can take place. 1) A person can share or give something to another. 2) Two people can make voluntary exchanges in a free market, bartering or using money. 3) One person can force another to hand over their stuff by threat of violence or deceit. As you noted the Bible seems to sanction option 2. However, for Christians, number one should be number one. Sharing and giving should be a high priority for us.

The Bible does not seem to be very keen on option 3. This is where socialism gets tricky. I guess that if everyone agrees with the state helping the poor, then it is fine. However, if the state is taking money from people against their will to give it to the poor, socialism gets dodgy. That is what seems to be happening in America.

Many Christians want to use option 3 to help the poor, not because it is a good method, but because they think it is necessary. I am uneasy about that. I believe that if Christians took option 1 as seriously as the Bible does, then option 3 would not be necessary to resolve poverty.

Anyway your question is much more complicated than just choosing between systems. The Bible gives clearer answers when you ask the right quesitons.

Jimmy said...

I need to rephrase a comment I made earlier...
Our current MONETARY system is debt-based. Blessed Economist would be correct in stating that our economy is not a true system. In fact the majority of the world's largest economies are corporations, not countries or regions.

Michael Kruse said...

It's an important question, Bob. I like the quote you included. :-) Thanks.

Bob Robinson said...

It's great to have BE back in the Vanguard!
Great insights, as always. Thanks. Everyone, please read Blessed Economist's comment! Very helpful.

Bob Robinson said...

Jimmy,
You ask me, As far as seeking economic justice...I'm not sure what you mean. Justice in whose eyes?

Justice in God's eyes, of course.

One of the Bible's main topics is economic injustice. The prophets were often rebuking the rich and powerful for their oppression of the poor. When Jesus began his ministry, his announcement of his purpose was this: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor...to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor" (Luke 4)- words that were purposely chosen to announce that Jesus saw his work as the fulfillment of the economic justice that the Old Testament was pointing towards (Jesus' message was "good news to the poor," and "the year of the Lord's Favor" was the "Jubilee," when economic grace was given so the debts were wiped clean).

So, the main reason I am offering this blog series on economics is that I believe that economic justice is part of the Christian calling in the world. The debate amongst us Christians, then, should be not whether or not economics matters (for it is one of the major issues for Christians to deal with in order to be transformative agents in the world), but rather the debate needs to be about what economics theories and practices should be advocated in our society.

Jimmy said...

Bob,
I think we will forever be at an impass here. If economic justice is part of the Christian calling, then how are those Christians in China, Burma, etc. living out their calling? The freedom we've experienced in this country is an anomoly in Christian history. The majority of the church has lived under very oppressive conditions. In times past a king owned all of the property within his kingdom. Taxes were paid just to let the serfs live in the king's land. How should those Christians have fought for economic justice? Disobedience to the king would've cost them their head.

The biggest need of the lost is to understand that they are dead in their trespasses. They are walking corpses. The blood atonement is the ONLY thing that will give new life to the unregenerate. Economic justice may meet their felt needs, but it still leaves them lost. Don't get me wrong here. We are called to have compassion for the poor and help the needy, but economic justice is a fallacy in our fallen world.

Bob Robinson said...

Jimmy,
Yes, this is a major impasse.
If all Jesus wants to do is save souls and not to redeem all things, then why bother righting injustice? We should have never tried to abolish slavery. We should never seek to stop today's human trafficking. We should forget about helping those in the third-world by giving them the training to create business so that they can survive. Just tell them about sin and salvation, and let them die or starve or be slaves. 'Cause that really doesn't matter as much as salvation.

The gospel is righting that which is wrong. That certainly starts with people's individual sins, but it means so much more!

Jimmy said...

Bob,
Those are all good things, but why do you preach the gospel?
Is it to help people meet their earthly needs or their eternal needs? Jesus is not a life coach with a good plan for overcoming poverty, addiction, injustice, etc.
He's our Lord and Saviour who overcame death so that we might have life.
All things will be redeemed, but only in God's appointed time. While we still live we should expect to see injustice. We should expect tribulation. The world will hate us because it hated Him first. Sin is a condition of humanity. It will remain that way until Jesus returns.

I look forward to some more exchange, but right now I need to go pick up my truck from the shop.
God Bless,otimp

Bob Robinson said...

Jimmy,
I certainly appreciate what you're saying.
I agree with it, and yet I have come to see it as a truncated gospel. It has some essential elements, but it is not the whole thing.
I wrote a series on this. If you want to understand more clearly this concept of a more cosmic gospel, I invite you to read it.
Thanks so much for visiting Vanguard Church. Hope you stay.