Archive for August, 2010

Christianity and Capitalism

August 11, 2010

(This blog first appeared in Focus Magazine, June 2002, 22(2):8-9, 24, and is here slightly revised.) 

 It happened at a meeting of a book club, whose membership consisted of male professionals, including several physicians.   We were selecting the books we wanted to study for the coming year, and I suggested Beyond Poverty and Affluence: Towards a Canadian Economy of Care, by Bob Goudzwaard and Harry de Lange.  Bad mistake!  My suggestion was quickly ruled out of court as being too leftist.  It took me a while to recover from the shock – I had assumed that we were a group of professional Christian men who were open to exploring books covering a wide range of subjects and perspectives.

 A conversation about this incident with one of the members of this book club prompted the editor of Focus Magazine to invite me to write a short piece on my views on economics from a Christian perspective.  I hasten to add that I don’t at all see myself as an expert in the field.  I am a philosopher, not an economist.  But philosophers like to meddle in other fields, particularly by way of uncovering underlying presuppositions and subjecting them to critical scrutiny.  Over the years I have tried hard to come to an understanding of the Christian Right, and conservative politics and economics.  I subscribe to First Things.  I even read the Report Newsmagazine: Alberta Edition on occasion.  But the more I read and study, the more concerns I have about the ideology of radical free-enterprise capitalism – the words “ideology” and “radical” are important for the purposes of this essay.  My hope is that this outline of my concerns will stimulate further thought and re-evaluation about an important issue for Christians.

 My first problem with capitalism is that it would seem to be based fundamentally on selfishness and greed. Selfishness and selfish ambition belong to our sinful nature, according to my Bible (Gal.5:20).  The greedy person has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God (Eph. 5:5).  Yet, selfishness and greed are the engines that run a capitalistic system.  Indeed, these qualities are seen to be virtues according to Ayn Rand, an outspoken advocate of individualistic/capitalistic thinking.  But surely there is something outrageous about a title such as The Virtue of Selfishness.  Selfishness is simply not a virtue.  It is immoral.  Naked capitalism rests on a Darwinian assumption of the survival of the fittest, a philosophy that is hardly in accord with Christian presuppositions.  Radical free-enterprise capitalism must therefore be condemned as wrongheaded and immoral.

 But is not my first objection to capitalism based on utopianism?  The selfish nature of human beings is inescapable.  We need to be realistic here.  So why not exploit these admittedly negative aspects of human nature for positive gain?  That is surely at the heart of Ayn Rand’s defense of the virtue of selfishness.  There is something to be said for this argument.  Political and economic systems must be structured in such a way as to take into account sinful human nature.  I quite agree.  But surely such realism does not entail the condoning of unbridled selfishness.  Surely we need to put limits on selfishness.  Indeed, when taken to an extreme, selfishness and other forms of evil, deserve to be punished.  Yet, nothing of the sort is entertained in unrestrained capitalism.

 Here, of course, another problem emerges with the ideology of radical free-enterprise capitalism. Freedom is an essential component of this ideology.  Any controls imposed on business is anathema to those who are committed to unrestrained capitalism.  “Small government” is the watchword of those held captive to radical free-enterprise thinking.   But here again, I would suggest that freedom can be taken to an extreme.  Freedom to exploit workers, to misrepresent products, or the freedom to charge exorbitant prices for a cheap product, are wrong.  Freedom is not an absolute good.  Indeed, freedom is only possible within a context of constraints (unless of course one assumes the goodness of human nature, another assumption of the ideology of radical capitalism that could be explored). Given the sinfulness of human nature, it is laws that make freedom possible.  Christians can only support the notion of “ordered freedom.”  Greed needs to be curbed.  Monopolies are dangerous.  The power of Bill Gates needs to limited.  And therefore we need a structure which represents all the people and seeks the common good, and which imposes limits on the inevitable enterprising excesses of capitalism.  That is the function of government.  Of course, government power too needs to be limited, and that is why we have systems of checks and balances in place.  The problem with the ideology of radical free-enterprise capitalism is that it wants no checks and balances.

 Arguments like the above invariably get me into trouble with conservatives and capitalists.  They point to the inefficiency of socialism, and the horrors of communism.  They assume that because I am objecting to the ideology of radical free-enterprise capitalism I must be a socialist or even a Marxist.  I am neither!  I am all too familiar with the problems inherent in state-planning, having spent some time in Lithuania shortly after it’s break up with the Soviet Union, and having witnessed first-hand the problems of state-control in the area of business and industry. I know about the horrors that my Mennonite ancestors experienced under Communism.  And I regularly do a thorough critique of Marxism in my political philosophy classes. 

 Here another problem of the advocates of radical free-enterprise capitalism needs to be exposed.  They are guilty of “either-or thinking”.  They assume that either you believe in free-enterprise or you believe in socialism.  But there is a middle way. It might surprise the reader to discover that I am in sympathy with conservatism.  I even believe that capitalism is a better economic system than socialism in handling the economic sphere of life.  But I believe in conservatism and capitalism with a conscience.  I believe in capitalism tempered with social responsibility.  I further believe that only with such qualifications can conservatism and capitalism be reconciled with biblical and Christian values.  The clarifying of this middle way is in fact the central thrust of a book by Jim Wallis, Who Speaks for God:  An Alternative to the Religious Right – A New Politics of Compassion, Community and Civility (Delacorte Press, 1996).

 The God of creation has built norms into all spheres of life, including the economic sphere. If there is one theme that comes through again and again in the Scriptures it is God’s concern about the poor, the widow, the helpless (cf. Deut. 10:14-22; Ps.82; Isaiah 1-5).  And this is not just an Old Testament concern.  James too reminds us that God hears the cries of workers who have not been paid adequate wages (5:1-5).  Instead of pious worship and chorus-singing, God wants justice to roll on like a river (Amos 5:24).  The economic sphere of life must therefore be ordered in such a way as to be in keeping with these God-given norms.  Naked capitalism which encourages selfishness and which exalts freedom as an absolute norm fails to follow the norms that God build into creation.  It is therefore unbiblical and something that we as Christians should not support.

 An emphasis on God’s norms in creation leads to another objection to unrestrained capitalism.  It doesn’t work, at least certainly not in the long run.  The current world-wide economic crisis, initiated by unregulated capitalism in the United States, should be ample re-enforcement of this point. The Scriptures are very clear as to the consequences of obedience and disobedience to God’s norms.  We always reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7).  Following God’s norms, His ways, His decrees, and His laws leads to blessing, and disobedience prompts God’s curses (Deut.11:26-32).  Interestingly, it is in this very same context of the Creator-God giving us laws and spelling out the consequences of obedience and disobedience, that we are reminded to be like Him in defending the cause of the fatherless and the widow, loving the alien, and giving them food and clothing (Deut.10:14-22).  Failure to do this will of necessity bring with it unpleasant consequences for the disobedient society, and there is abundant documentation of this cause-effect relation in the Old Testament. 

 It is in this light that we need to understand the growing unrest today, in our own societies and in the world at large. When economic injustice reigns, when there is exploitation of third world countries, when the disparity between the rich and the poor becomes too great and is too widespread, then discontent grows and eventually people begin to protest and to riot.  We know this from history.  That is if we study history!  It has been well said that the problem with this generation is that it has not read the minutes of the last meeting.  Modern secular prophets are warning us about the consequences of unbridled capitalism (cf. Thomas Homer-Dixon).  Biblical prophets did so long ago. Are we listening?

 Another fundamental problem with unrestrained capitalism is that it leads to consumerism and materialism.  The good life gets to be defined in terms of possessions and more possessions.  The population at large is at the mercy of advertising, the engine of capitalism.  But advertising fosters consumerism, coveting, and greed.  Our Lord reminded us that man cannot live by bread alone.  You cannot serve God and Mammon.  “Watch out!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).  Consumerism is fundamentally wrong.  We must therefore also condemn the primary expression and cause of consumerism – capitalism that wants complete freedom to profit and to produce as much as possible.

 Finally, I want to suggest that the ideology of radical free-enterprise capitalism is an expression of idolatry.  Paul interestingly calls the greedy person an idolater (Eph.5:5). What is an idol?  An idol is anything that we as human beings create and to which we then give our utmost loyalty, devotion,and trust, and which therefore usurps the place that only God should have.  I would suggest that the primary idol of our time is the ideology of radical free-enterprise capitalism (cf. Harvey Cox,  “The Market as God.” Atlantic Monthly  1999, 283(3):18 -23). Just think of our preoccupation with economics today.  Governments see their function primarily in terms of stimulating the economy. The major newspapers include a weekly edition of “Report on Business” complete with a 10-12 page report on the markets.  The evening newscasts include updates on the TSE and NASDAQ – it seems we need a daily reminder that our god is doing well!  And how often is it suggested that free-enterprise capitalism is the answer to the grinding poverty of third-world countries.  Hence the push for a global economy and the significance of meetings of the World Trade Organization. But free-enterprise capitalism is not, and cannot ever be, the saviour of the world.  The twin idols of selfishness and freedom, upon which unbridled capitalism rests, cannot deliver.

  I do not at all condone the action of the terrorists on the World Trade Center on that fateful day of September 11, 2001.  But the terrorists knew the power of symbols. I cannot help but wonder whether the real significance of this event is not the exposing of an idol for what it really is – vulnerable and frail.  Is that perhaps why the United States took such desperate measures to reassure Americans and its allies that all is well, that while buildings can collapse, the foundations are still firm. “You shall have no other gods before me,” God says.  Christians of all people should be able to see idols for what they are.  Instead, all too often they themselves are blinded by ideological group-think.  And God is not pleased.