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Thinking Christianly About Capitalism

June 9, 2013

“The problem with capitalism is capitalists; the problem with socialism is socialism.”–attr. William F. Buckley

“Wealth is not a pizza. If I have too many slices, you don’t have to eat the Domino’s box.”–P.J. O’Rourke

“Chrapitalism has been America’s distinctive and gilded contribution to religion and theology, a delusion that beloved community can be built on the foundations of capitalist property. As the American Empire wanes, so will its established religion; the erosion of Chrapitalism will generate a moral and spiritual maelstrom.”–Eugene McCarraher, “Love Is Stronger than Debt”

“Wait and see whether the religion of the Servile State is not in every case what I say: the encouragement of small virtues supporting capitalism, the discouragement of the huge virtues that defy it.”–G.K. Chesterton, Utopia of Usurers

This post will be the first in a new series, “Thinking Christianly About [Fill-In-The-Blank].” The purpose of this series is to look at several different issues and looking for a position that draws on Biblical wisdom rather than simply repeating Americanist conservative or internationalist liberal positions. I make no claims to be “above politics,” and my affiliations fall considerably more on the conservative side than the liberal side. But as a member of the Church and a follower of Jesus, my beliefs and conscience demand that I must be critical of conservative ideals when they go against the Gospel. Autonomous conservatism is no holier than autonomous liberalism.

Capitalism is a tough issue to talk about, primarily because no one really seems to know what capitalism is. Conservatives describe it as if it were the greatest thing to ever happen to Western Civilization, an unprecedented leap in government, ethics, and philosophy. Liberals describe it as an ethic of “devil-take the hindmost,” a system in which “to those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, even that will be taken away.” To a tea-partying, SUV-driving, Hayek-reading suburbanite, capitalism is the market’s protection against tyranny. To a No-Labels, Occupy Wall Street, Adbusters-magazine reading punk rocker, capitalism is the enemy, the only truly immoral force in the world. Both sides have strong opinions about capitalism. But it seems like both sides are supporting or opposing radically different things.

Conservatives generally use the word “capitalism” to refer to the free market system, in which markets conduct their business with some minimum of interference from the government. Libertarian conservatives generally favor the government taking very little or no role in the business world, to the point where some libertarians advocate for getting rid of all government restrictions, even on things like hard drugs or prostitution. Conservatives who aren’t libertarian are friendlier to government taking some role in the market–Hayek was not opposed to the government providing a safety net for all citizens or jump-starting the production of new technologies (electronic cars, flying cars, etc.) However, all capitalists agree that the market should be free from government central planning and large-scale intervention.

The conservative idea of a capitalist (or, “Look mom, it’s James Franco!”)

 

Another use of the word “capitalism” connotes a consumeristic ethic. It can be summarized by Gordon Gekko’s famous dictum “Greed is Good.” Capitalism in this sense means a consumer mentality applied to all of live. Profits are valued above human potential, people are treated like commodities, and material goods trump moral goods. This is often what the Rage Against The Machine types mean when they rail against “big corporations,” and this mentality has been attacked by a host of writers and philosophers, including G.K. Chesterton, Richard Weaver, and James K.A. Smith.

The liberal idea of a capitalist.

How are Christians supposed to think about capitalism? The Bible does not provide a blueprint for economics. However, in the light of its principles, we can form economic theories that try to better reflect the teachings of Jesus. There are three points I would like to make.

1. Capitalism is not a Moral Imperative: Capitalism can be a good thing. But it is not the only good thing. Some Christians have acted as if capitalism was some sort of inherently godly system, firmly based in the Bible. This sacralization of the free market most likely began from an antagonism to Communism (which was a dehumanizing, evil system). However, the co-option of anarcho-libertarianism by Christians has led to what might almost be called a reverse Liberation Theology–instead of viewing the kingdom as a socially engineered exercise in wealth redistribution, it looks at it as a libertarian paradise. This kind of thinking fails to take in the teachings of Jesus. The Roman Empire was hardly a libertarian capitalist’s dream, but Jesus’ messages about economics were (to my knowledge), almost entirely focused on the personal dimensions of the economy–what you do with your own money. This doesn’t mean that Christians can’t engage in the larger world of economics; it just means that we shouldn’t treat our economic plans (capitalist and otherwise), as if they floated down from heaven engraved on stone tablets.

Or, in other words, RON PAUL IS WRONG!

2. Christians must oppose Consumerism:  While Christians can support the free market system, they must be opposed to the consumer mentality. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that American culture is saturated in things. We have so many things, we even have shops for old things that no one wants any more and that no one really wanted to begin with. Many Americans are victim to “commodity fetishism”–thinking that a price tag gives a metaphorical value to something. This is inculcated by the consumer culture, and the ways in which consumer culture influences our thinking from a very young age is frightening. There are two approaches to this. One approach, often unconsciously held by Christians, is to dive right into materialism, embracing the idolatry of things along with everyone else. Another approach, held by people who like being called “Ordinary Revolution Radicals” or something, is to demonize money. The teachings of Jesus forge a middle path between these two extremes. As I have detailed elsewhere, Jesus teaches us to neither idealize nor demonize money, but to use it as a tool. The Christian position on money and things is to use them for their worth, but to continually note the fleeting and unsatisfactory nature of worldly wealth.

3. We Need to Think About The “Free” in Free Market: The libertarian ideal of the free market is a market completely free from any government regulation. In the libertarian paradise, Bob the Evil Coal Executive could hire eight-year olds for mining jobs, refuse to hire black men for any jobs, dump his trash in the river, sell coal dust smoothies, and run a brothel from his Charleston, WV office. The libertarian ideal would remove any government restrictions from the sale of sex, drugs, alcoholic beverages, firearms, spraypaint, video games, and Tim Allen’s Don’t Stand Too Close To A Naked Man. This is not freedom, any more than the freedom to sin repeatedly is freedom. Christians need to look at the nature of freedom, and what it means. A free market should not means the lack of any and all restrictions. Much to the chagrin of those who enjoy being “agin the guv’ment,” the state does have an important role in the market, as the arbiter of market justice. Obviously, many Christians differ as to the particulars of the state’s role, a commitment to justice should be part of every Christian’s thought. This includes pointing out injustices within American capitalism, and working to fix them instead of sitting back and waiting on “the market” to fix everything. If capitalism is an anti-Christian, unjust system, then let it burn!

Current Listenings: Youth by Matisyahu

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Troy Lizenby permalink
    June 14, 2013 12:45 pm

    Nick, I marvel at what you and your dad are able to read and write. Your post is an excellent critique from a Christian viewpoint. I recently finished reading Daniel Bell’s Economy of Desire. He critiques capitalism using two postmodern philosophers (Deleuze and Foucault) as a springboard to gain a perspective on modern capitalism. It reminded me of Peter Leithart’s characterization of postmodernism as the “revenge of the vapors on modernism”. Bell also deals with Adam Smith, the Austrian economists, and some of the procapitalist christians such as Michael Novak. He contrasts capitalism with the divine economy, and distinguishes philanthropy, and welfare, that is uninvolved with recepients, from works of mercy that draw others into communion with God and others. The best characterization of the divine economy as different from capitalism, however, is from a book that I am presently reading by Harry Blamires – Recovering the Christian Mind. In the place of productivity and the market, achieving and acquiring, the Christian focuses on being used and receiving. Praying that you will be used by God and receive God’s best gifts for work in His Kingdom.

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