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Monday, August 1, 2011

I'm a Capitalist, Am I Going to Hell?

2018 Update: This is one of the more widely read pieces on my blog. I am definitely leaving the piece up as it reflects where I was in 2011. However I am not quite in that same place anymore. I hope to eventually write a response to my own thinking here, but until I do, the summary of my changed thinking is that this piece is built on a belief that rights=goodness. I have come to believe that such an equation is ethically anemic. That is to say I think that a rights-based ethic represents a weak vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. A more fully developed vision of the Kingdom would be based on Love/Justice and would look to that state of affair where (to quote Julian of Norwich) "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well". That is not so say that I have quite rejected capitalism or embraced socialism (I am still very uncomfortable with state power over people) but I do think that I started from the wrong place when I was working through these ideas seven years ago and that, as a result, my conclusions were flawed.

Cigars make you rich
I spend a lot of time hanging out with and reading the works of people who are (among other things) united in being anti-capitalist american Christians. This is odd because I am a pretty hard line free-market guy. But I agree with them on so many other points. In fact my worldview seems to have much more in common with theirs than it does with most other Christians, especially with other Christians who tend to hold free-market type views.

Now a when I started to notice this discrepancy I wasn't too worried about it. I just chalked it up to "personalities and preferences". After all, it is an issue of economics, not exactly (despite what some modern theologians want to claim) a matter of deep doctrinal profundity. I didn't see my stance, or the stances of others, as integral to my understanding of what Jesus is like or what it means to be one of His followers.

But recently I have found that my position on this issue does have a pretty big impact on my beliefs about how I ought to live as a Christian in the modern world (for those of you theologaphiliacs, it has substantial implications for orthopraxy). If that is an accurate observation then it would seem that I was wrong to dismiss the debate as unimportant to my worldview. If I find that I disagree with someone about how a person ought to live then it is likely that we have some fundamental disagreement on a deeper level than personality and preference.

So this post is targeted at those of you who really disagree with me about capitalism. I intend to lay out 1. Why I am a free-market sort of person and 2. Why I think that being a free-market kinda person is more in line with following Jesus than opposing it would be. I hope that you will let me know where my thinking starts to diverge from yours and why I am so terribly mistaken.
Also smoke stacks... see... cigars?

Let me begin with some of my presuppositions. I think that Jesus is not interested in having us force people, especially people who aren't interested in following Him anyway, to behave in a "kingdom of heaven" sort of way. So Jesus isn't interested in us passing laws that make divorce illegal in the case of "irreconcilable differences" even though that doesn't look like something He thinks is actually good for people. He doesn't want us to make it illegal to "blaspheme against the Holy Spirit" even though He suggests that doing so will have pretty dire consequences. So it's not good to force someone to do good.

My second working presupposition is that capitalism creates wealth. But let me be clear about this. I'm not saying that wealth is intrinsically good (I see it more as a tool which can be used well or badly) and I'm not saying that there is any particular virtue in a countries acquiring wealth, at least not beyond the capacity required to feed the population. But I do think it's pretty clear from history that the capitalist approach has been more effective in creating wealth in general than any other system we have tried. That doesn't make it good, it just sets up a correlative and assumed causal relationship.

My third presupposition has do do with definition. I define free-market capitalism (the kind I am interested in) as an economic system which guarantees all members the right to make and enforce whatever contract they choose so long as that contract is made in good faith and doesn't infringe on the basic negative rights of anyone else. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great article on the distinction between positive and negative rights).

As a consequence of these presuppositions I see free market capitalism not as an established economic system so much as an economic non-system which generally has to be defended from having systems like socialism, mercantilism, or crony capitalism imposed on it. Essentially, free market capitalism is what you get if you just let people do their thing and a)don't force them to be virtuous and b) don't let them violate one another's negative rights. Thus I see it as a system of minimal justice. Free market capitalism is not forcing the kids to share but not letting them steal each other's toys either.

But this is not complete. Surely a  Jesus follower wants people to do more than just "not steal each other's toys", surely it is important that people actually grow into practicing the positive virtues of love, generosity and compassion for others. Of course this is true. But remember my first premise: Jesus isn't interested in having us force our joy on people who don't want to follow Him (another way of saying this is that God's Kingdom grows by persuasion, conversion and transformation not by threat, violence and law). If this is true then following Jesus means living a life of love, generosity and compassion without ever trying to force anyone else to lead such a life.

And now I bring the two together. Free market capitalism leaves everyone free to do what they think God wants them to do with their money without forcing anyone. I am in favor of free market capitalism specifically because I see it as the economic system of maximal freedom. All the other systems I know of either force people to do what others think is right (socialism), or force people to contribute to specific injustices (mercantilism, crony capitalism, feudalism).

Apparently Jesus doesn't like flappers... not sure why.

I want to end by heading off a couple of objections by adding a couple of clarifications. First, I do not think that this country does now or ever has practiced free market capitalism. We have been both closer to it and farther from it in the past but we haven't ever fully practiced it so I am NOT arguing for the status quo or the "system that created the current financial crisis". Second I am not arguing that free market capitalism with it's at least tacit approval if not outright benediction of greed reflects the way we would go about dealing with possessions in a perfect world. And I am not saying that capitalism is a necessary evil. I don't happen to believe that there is any such thing as a necessary evil anyway. I am only saying that free market capitalism is the only system a Jesus follower can advocate for in the world as it is because it does not, of necessity, cause us to act in ways that are contrary to the life Jesus calls people to (though it does allow such actions to occur).
This visual pun is supposed to be
"The Communist Party"

In case this last point is unclear let me make an observation. In a society which restricts itself to enforcing only free market principles (a capitalist society) it is perfectly compatible with that societal structure for any given person or even for every person to behave in an economically socialist manner so long as they do not try to impose their socialism on anyone who doesn't accept it. Thus in a free market society I would be free to throw my income into a pot along with a group of friends or an established community and then distribute that wealth to each person according to their need. But the reverse is not true. In a socialist society, no person is free to behave in a free market manner distributing wealth to each person in accordance with a pre-defined, mutually agreed upon manner; instead all people are required to dispense with their incomes according to the direction of the state. Thus free market capitalism allows for socialistic behavior (so long as it does not force itself on anyone) while socialism does not allow for capitalist behavior. I note that this relationship does not exist between free market capitalism and several other economic systems (feudalism, mercantalism, crony capitalism) because they are integrally dependent on suppression of human rights.

So where have I gone wrong? Are my premises false? Is there a flaw in my reasoning? Have I overlooked some key fact? Please let me know.


  1. Bill,

    Some great questions and thoughts. I don't comment in order to take the directly opposing view. In fact we probably have a lot in common (sorry to disappoint). But I can play devil's advocate a bit, just to get the conversation stoked.

    You throw the term, "crony capitalism" into the list of culprits as a straw man. Every economic system has its crony version and its ideal version. The spectrum between the two versions is the range in which a particular society will fall depending on its cultural health. A corrupt culture, given capitalism, will veer towards crony capitalism; and a corrupt culture, given socialism or any of the rest, will veer towards crony *fill in the blank*. My understanding of Jesus' command to "render to Caesar what is Caesar's" is that the Kingdom of Heaven is less concerned with the economic system. His currency is much harder than ours. God's economy is much more resistant to the effects of the housing bubble, oil futures, and the like. Nevertheless, he tells us that we should take what little worldly wealth we have and sow it for eternal reward. This is a capitalistic idea. Also, buried in the Golden Rule is intrinsic self interest. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love for self is assumed, not as self idolatry, but as appreciation for the good life. In this sense, we see the essential elements of a healthy capitalism. Without a balanced love for neighbor and love for self, there will be crony capitalism.

    Human nature, although impacted by periodic renewals, has given us a fairly predictable trend in history. The framers of our particular governmental and economic structures were aiming to establish a system that was best suited to human nature. I think what we are seeing now is just as much an erosion of character as of the economy. The fix, therefore, might actually be to address the moral foundations first, or at least alongside the national debt.

  2. You make a good point about my use of "crony capitalism" and, while I think it my be defensible in the long run (I'm not sure). Instead of trying to defend it though, I probably ought to have just used something like "modified or directed-economy capitalism". I used "crony capitalim" basically to represent all forms of free-market capitalism which modify or compromise with other, more directed economic models.
    I certainly agree that FMCapitalism will only be uncorrupted so long as the individuals involved are uncorrupted (pretty much never) but I do think that pure FMCapitalism is a system a country could officially adopt and attempt to protect. I don't think that we have ever fully adopted even a theoretically pure, if practcally tainted, form of FMCapitalism.
    I definitely agree with your last paragraph and I would generally take that concept very far. If we focus on helping each individual improve and become the sort of person that Jesus wants and will enable them to be, then many issues, including this one, will pretty much fall away. Steve Hamilton sent me a bunch of really great stuff about stewardship and servant leadership which, if practiced by the whole world would lead us far beyond any general economic "isms".