[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part of our series on controversial questions. A NO post will normally follow a YES post. Join in by posting your comments.]
by Chris Eyre
Chris has been with Energion Publishing since 1997 and fills a variety of rolls, mostly behind the scenes. Expect to hear more from him in coming months. The English spelling in this post reflects his London roots.
The question asked is “Does Capitalism best express Christian economic values?”, which I interpret as meaning free market capitalism, rather than (for instance) the nascent Chinese authoritarian-capitalist model.
So, what passages in scripture best enable us to see what Christian economic values might be? One might start with the account of the early Jerusalem church in Acts 2:44-45, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common, and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need”.
Having all things in common would be an expression of the second part of the Great Commandment from Mat. 22:36-40 “You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Selling their possessions and distributing them to all would seem to flow from the parable of the rich young man in (inter alia) Mark 10:17-31, “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’” He went on to say, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Also, of course, according to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26), “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Many reading this will immediately think that this had to be a short term situation, perhaps having regard to the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return and the institution of the Kingdom of God on earth. And some will think of Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem church, referred to in 1 Cor. 16, 2 Cor. 8 and Rom. 15, and suspect that the Jerusalem church had effectively beggared themselves. I am, however, mindful that Jesus also said (Matt 6:25-34), “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” and “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
If there is a major fault I can see in the Jerusalem church attitude, it is that the evidence is that it shared equally only between its own members. Implementing the principle of “love your neighbour as yourself” however has guidance as to who your neighbour is in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), in which it is clear that your neighbour includes those of another religion and race, and traditional enemies. These days, it should probably be the parable of the Good ISIS insurgent. Help should have been for the whole community, and not just the group of followers of Christ.
But, I hear said, this is just totally impractical, it cannot work. G.K. Chesterton however said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” There have been some decent attempts (generally shorn of explicitly Christian content, for instance the anarchist communal enterprises during the Spanish Civil War), but never a widespread trial. I should underline that a statist controlled economy (which is often seen as the only alternative to unbridled free market capitalism) is not what I think is the nearest to a system Jesus might have approved of. However, something like the Jerusalem church might well be a halfway house to a truly Christian economics.
Let’s turn to free market capitalism. At first sight, a free market looks a wonderful idea. You produce something which someone wants, and you agree a price with them. If someone else sells cheaper than you do, you have to lower your price to compete with them, and without any conscious decision making other than everyone getting the “best buy” and, on the other hand, selling at the “best price”, prices are kept low and competitive.
There are two problems with this. The first is in the motivation it assumes on the part of both buyer and seller – the buyer is looking to pay as little as possible for as much as possible, the seller to sell as little as possible for as much as possible. Both are assumed to be working entirely out of self-interest. Self-interest is not a Christian value; it ignores the command to love your neighbour as yourself.
The second is that it fails to work in practice except in very limited circumstances. What we actually see are monopolies (even on a very small scale you get those – there just is not room for two competing sellers of some goods in my town, for instance) and, where there isn’t quite a monopoly, a cartel, agreeing not to compete on price. As time goes by, one supplier becomes dominant because they can sell a little cheaper, and then economies of scale kick in and they become cheaper yet, and you have another monopoly (which is then protected from someone else entering the market by selling at a loss until the new entrant fails, at which point the losses are recouped by raising the price).
Another problem kicks in when talking about markets in, for instance, stocks and shares. What governs those prices is more what people think is going to happen to the price in the future than a dispassionate view of how well the underlying company is doing, so they are prone to boom and bust cycles.
Of course, except on a very small scale (without economies of scale), it is not a matter of a single person producing something, it is a matter of an employer with multiple employees, it is a matter of needing capital from somewhere in order to set up the business; both separate the work of production from the sale of the product. But, I hear, workers contract freely to work for the capitalist, and there is again a free market. The fact that the employer or the provider of capital makes most of the money, and not those who actually produce, is fair because it is a free market.
This is just not the case. A free market demands that both seller and buyer are free from overwhelming need to contract at whatever price the other demands. Except in circumstances of labour shortages (which rarely arise except in the case of people with specialist skills), the employer can employ anyone, the worker fears starvation and the gutter and is compelled to accept what the employer is willing to give. This is good free market capitalist economics; it reduces the cost of production for the employer and increases the profit margin.
It is not, however, remotely Christian. The employer is not only failing to love the employee as himself, but is taking advantage of rather than benefiting the poor (for instance by giving them all his money…). In a truly Christian economy, the fear of starvation and the gutter would not be there, because the rich would be queuing up to give the poor money.
Indeed, free market capitalist economics value people only as units of production or units of consumption. The less you pay in wages the better, the more they pay for what they buy (and the more they buy) the better. A Christian economics would value them as people and, I suggest, value them the more if they are poor (hungy, thirsty or unclothed), a stranger, sick or imprisoned (Matt. 25:31-46). Capitalist economics, in other words, values only money. If you work for a capitalist enterprise, you are likely to be sacked for giving anything away or for selling it at a lower price than the employers demand; you are forever going to be pushed to produce more at a lower cost and sell more at a higher price. To make more money. As Gordon Gecko says in “Wall Street”, “Greed is good”.
There is the problem. Paul said “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) and Jesus said “You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). The word used for money there is “Mammon”, which Christian theology has traditionally seen as a false god or prince of hell (Gregory of Nyssa, Cyprian and Jerome certainly thought this way; Gregory equated Mammon with Beelzebub).
All this for something which you cannot eat or drink, which you cannot wear, and which has only the value we permit ourselves to be deceived into giving it unless and until it is converted into something real. In addition, if you consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, while the lowest level (physiological) can be attended to fairly readily with money, safety requires more than money, and having more money links badly with all the higher needs of humanity (“Money can’t buy you love”), though we are deceived into thinking that money gives us security and others are deceived into esteeming us more for “having” more of it.
It is also the case that in every free market capitalist system (and the more so the more nearly that approaches the ideal), the principle of “trickle down economics” which benefits the poor because it benefits everyone does not work. Marx got a lot of things wrong, in my eyes, but the one thing he got right was that free market capitalism concentrates wealth (and so power and the ability to choose what one does with life) in fewer and fewer hands, particularly where there is no labour shortage. “Thus says the LORD: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals – they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way. “ (Amos 2:6-7)
So, capitalism gives us a system which results in us valuing each other by the amount of this Satanic fiction we consider each of us to have and concentrating that in fewer and fewer hands. We live in fear of not having it (which is a primary reason why we do not try a truly Christian economics) and are compelled into getting more of it, and letting others have as little of it as possible.
I therefore think that I was entirely justified in a recent Global Christian Perspectives webcast in calling Market Capitalism the “system of Satan”. It is the opposite of a Christian economic system.
The trouble is, just as Jesus observed when he said “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17), we are stuck with this system. I am myself too consumed with the fear of destitution to go as far as I think I should towards a truly Christian view of economics, and can only chip away at the edges (by, for instance, not buying from companies which I know oppress workers particularly badly, and by paying more than I need to where a seller is plainly poor, as well as the normal charitable imperatives for which there is no justification in Market Capitalism). The fact that we are stuck with it, however, should not blind us to its Satanic character and the fact that we should aim at something better.
Capitalism is not a matter of “best expressing Christian values”, it’s a matter of expressing their opposite.