“Under capitalism man exploits man; under socialism the reverse is true” – Polish Proverb
A friend passed on an article the other day from the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal titled “What the Bible Teaches About Capitalism” by one Aryeh Spero. In it, Mr. Spero (or Rabbi Spero, if you’re so inclined) undertakes a defense/praise of Capitalism based on some Biblical principles – I’ll outline the list of arguments here:
- Personal responsibility
- Work develops responsibility and accountability, and fends of idleness
- Man is created in the image of God, having creativity and ingenuity, and capitalism is the system that embraces and fosters this
- Payment for your labor [call it “feedback” if you will] is a good thing
- Envy [the basis of socialism] is bad
After these points he goes on to make a few “stretch” allusions linking capitalism with prosperity (valid), and prosperity with the ability to provide a robust national defense. He then draws a connection between the high taxes of Rehoboam with the collapse of Solomon’s kingdom.
Leaving aside the last two arguments, which are tenuous at best, I don’t disagree with the bullet list, but I also wouldn’t use any of these as a defense of capitalism – and I would certainly call myself a capitalist. The article appears to begin with the premise that capitalism is good and socialism bad (I don’t disagree) and then works to back-fill the premise with Biblically tenable points. But we don’t need any of these to make a defense of capitalism. Equality is all we need … the rest falls out.
As with many things, making the definition clear is critical. People will use equality to mean a lot of different things. I will say that equality is first, from the Christian perspective, equality before God. God is no respecter of persons (Rom 2:11). Side note: this equality before God flies in the face of any number of modern doctrines that would like to declare “I am more special to God than you” and then add “therefore God is on my side” (for the record, you had better move to find yourself on God’s side, not strain to find justification that He is on yours).
After the establishment of equality before God, we move quickly to equality before the law (see Lev 19:15, for example). Equality before the law is a derivative of equality before God. It says “in the laws that you enact with regards to one another, you had better recognize that you are all equal before God, and therefore treat each other equally under your laws.”
That’s it. Once you have that (and you don’t add frivolous nonsense on top) you find that the rest must be filled with freedom. That is, laws that restrict human freedom make humans unequal by the simple means that it makes one a judge over another (see James 4:11). That is, if I pass a law that says it is immoral to die your hair purple I raise my own decisions about life (what color to die hair) above your decisions – and decisions in regard to your life. But if your life is equal to mine, and your life has been given to you and not me, then I have no grounds to make such a law.
This freedom of hair color translates quite simply into freedom of economic decision. That is, when you wake up in the morning, whether you go out in the world to produce (i.e., work) is your decision. Whether I exchange my production with yours is our decision – and we must both agree. Laws that say otherwise are laws that say your life is not your own. This is capitalism – free market capitalism – and it is precisely because of freedom that it is the system which respects life as a gift from God and all people as equal before the law.
(Side note: before you complain – no, the current economic system in the United States is not free market capitalism. That’s a subject for another time though.)
Do I believe in personal responsibility? Sure, but I don’t need it to argue for capitalism. You are free to make your own decisions. I won’t go so far as to enforce the notion that you must bear the consequences of your own actions – I will simply say that others are free to choose whether they help you bear the consequences of your actions (or consequences that affect you but are totally unrelated to your decisions). You may find that such freedom means people give a wary eye to whether they will help you, choosing to allow you to feel some your own pain (“if a man will not work, he shall not eat” – 2 Thess 3:10). You may also find that Christians will use this freedom to come to your aid when the consequences are heavy upon you; this too is a Biblical principle (“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows” – Isaiah 53:4). So long as they are equal before God, equal before the law, and thus free – then they may choose to help however they wish. I can agree or disagree with their approach, I can argue for my position based on Biblical principles or any other means of discourse, but I may not enforce my preferred course of action on the life of another.
Do I believe that capitalism is a more efficient system of economy, which produces greater well being that other systems? Sure, but I don’t need that to argue for capitalism. Don’t get me wrong, pragmatism isn’t a bad thing, but it can’t and shouldn’t overwhelm principle. (Unless, that is, your principle is that the system that produces the most economic benefit, defined in whatever terms you choose, must be the best.) We don’t need to be surprised that the system consistent with Biblical principles (equality before God) also turns out to be the most beneficial economically. This too is a Biblical principle: doing the right thing often results in beneficial outcomes that were not your focus while doing the right thing. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” – Matt 6:33.