Monday, October 30, 2006

Is it more Christian to be a socialist or a capitalist?

A Christian argument for socialism would emphasize caring for our neighbors; a Christian argument for capitalism would emphasize the freedom and dignity of individuals.

I'd like your thoughts on whether either of these is right, wrong, or other.

18 comments:

Jeff said...

If you're a capitalist/socialist because you believe that your particular economic system benefits the most people, Christian morality ought to approve. Furthermore, if you're a capitalist because that's the system that benefits you personally, or if you're a socialist because you want rich people's money redistributed to you, then Christian morals would probably find your conduct objectionable either way. Let's avoid the common fallacy of linking religion to a particular economic system. It's possible to uphold Christian morals of charity, care for fellow humans, and individual dignity under both socialist and capitalist systems.

jose said...

Is the freedom and dignity of individuals really in Christianity? Even to the extent of "love thy neighbor?"

Ρωμανος ~ Romanós said...

I don't know the answer to José's question, but I DO agree with Jeff's very wise and rational response to the question. Very well expressed, Jeff! Bravo!

Kenny said...

We can avoid the common fallacy of linking a particular economic system to a particular religion. We can do this by not being simplistic and dogmatic, which is where this questions usually goes off the tracks.

However, the question remains of which system better exemplifies or supports the values of a religion. So, similarly, I can easily subscribe to the notion that a Christian can be either a Republican or a Democrat. But I'm still interested in hearing any particular Christian's reasons for why she's one over the other.

The best answers I've heard recently are for a market/capitalist system, and they went like this:

1. The results are obvious; capitalism is far better for all involved. Not to say that it's perfect, but given the options there's simply no comparison between market solutions and command/control solutions.

2. The market scheme respects people as creations made in the image of God. It does this by maximizing their freedom, and by giving them a decent place to live.

-Dave said...

Agreeing wholeheartedly with Jeff's "A Good Christian can be either or neither," I'll give a couple points why I'm the capitalist.

I believe:
That free markets and the profit incentive drive technological progress and innovation more strongly than state-controlled R&D.

That technological growth leads to better potential living standards for everyone on the planet.

That stifling innovation by redistributing resources (through the state's coercive power) from more productive individuals to less productive individuals will stifle that growth.

Hence, I believe redistribution has positive and negative effects: Positive: those with less get more. Negative: further advancements are stifled (why should company X invest millions in R&D only to have profits taken from them disproportionate to how any losses would be subsidized?).

I believe that the Christian call to love our neighbor means that I, not the state, should love them. After all, the Good Samaritan paid for the beaten man's care out of his own pocket - he did not impose said expense on anyone else (such as the innkeeper).

Side thought: if love for neighbors is a motivating factor, and giving money to someone equates to love, how do we justify taking money from the rich (who are also our neighbors)?

Kenny said...

One point I've heard anti-welfare state capitalists make is that charity should be done by the free choice of individuals, as opposed to through the coerce efforts of the state.

But, couldn't the actions of the state be attributed to the individuals of the political body? At some level, a majority of the population has decided to "give," and the fact that there's a minority is just a ever-present fact of our political system. Why should the minority's characterization of the action be the controlling one?

Erin said...

I can’t believe that no one has jumped on the socialism band-wagon! I’ll gladly take the bait…

Anti-capitalism arguments, in a nutshell:
1. Capitalism is profit-driven. The reason it is so successful is because it relies on the sinful nature of man, particularly greed and selfishness. There is an assumption, probably correct, that people will stop innovating new technology / science / medicine / etc. if salaries are capped at $200,000 or $1 million or any amount that stops you from becoming a zillionaire. As Christians, shouldn’t we be more concerned about glorifying God with our work and loving our neighbor than raking in a huge profit?
Verses to support:
Matthew 6:24 - You cannot serve both God and Money.
Colossians 3:23 - Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.
I Corinthians 10:31 - So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
2. What about capitalism honors the dignity of the human being? When pay day lenders come into poor neighborhoods and charge people 10% of a $200 paycheck so that they can cash it now rather than next week, how does this honor the dignity of either party? (the person cashing the check in frustration and humiliation, or the person who offers the service and thereby becomes the exploiter) When a person works full time to support their family but still has to go on welfare rolls because we’ve set minimum wage so low, how does this honor the dignity of the person? (and note, the person would be in a worse predicament if it wasn’t for the non-capitalist provision of welfare and minimum wage).
3. What is the Christian defense for saying that the “best” country is the one with the nicest roads, most booming economy, or lowest unemployment rate? The fact that most non-Americans, if given the choice, would move here to enjoy our thriving capitalist economy proves nothing about the Christianity of capitalism. Christianity is exploding in third world countries, and it’s falling stagnant in developed, wealthy countries. People aren’t interested in the Good News because they’re already leading comfortable, cushy lives.
Supporting verses:
Matthew 7:13 - For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.).
Luke 6:20 - Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Amos 6: 1-7 (Woe to the complacent)
4. Who says God’s economic system has to be the most utilitarian or make the most sense? Is grace about fairness and working hard and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps? (See Matthew 20: 1-16)
5. What are market forces doing to the church? (See Kenny’s October 24th post, “Against Ministry Gimmicks”)

Is socialism any better? In practice, it is clearly an inferior economic system for generating wealth. But again, I’m not convinced that overall wealth generation matters as much as taking care of the least of these. Plus, God provides a model for Christian community that looks very socialist in Acts 4:32-35.
A closing thought - As Kenny has taught me, systems / frameworks are not inherently good or bad – human sinfulness comes in and makes a system corrupt / evil / bad. Capitalism thrives because it counts on human sinfulness, and socialism fails because it counts on human goodness.

-Dave said...

I'm plenty willing to give a face to the anti-welfare-state capitalist.

I had a rambling answer, but deleted it in favor of the following points:

1) I agree that the "economy" in the church is socialist, in theory (everyone works for the good of everyone else, by choice.)

2) To be a socialist in practice today is different. One can be in a capitalist system and live a communal life of poverty. To be a socialist means to me that not only do you choose to live this way, but you want to use the coercive power of the state to make others do so.

3) The example of socialized industrial states in Europe suggests that this is more harmful to the state of the church than the American system. Perhaps by promoting idleness, or by playing to people's innate desire to receive without toil. Unemployment rates to not measure spirituality, but I suspect a minimum wage welfare mom has more sense of personal dignity than a Muslim youth in France, who has a 1 in 4 chance of being unemployed, period or a person in Sweeden who is pressures to classify themself as mentally unfit for work to make the unemployment rates appear rosier than they are.

4) What is spiritually profitable to me (to care for the sick, feed the hungry, etc) does not by necessity carry over to the state. Why should I forcibly take money from someone, even if my goal is noble? Should the Good Samaritan have told the innkeeper "Look, I bound this man's wounds and brought him here, now he's your responsibility"? Instead, he promised to pay whatever expenses were necessary.

6) Since I see charity as an act for an individual or the church to undertake, I see Capitalism as superior because it provides the greatest resources for both to do their part. Private charities beat government programs in efficiency, hands-down. Efficiency here is a good because I assume that doing equal benefit to a person while taking fewer resources to accomplish it is a good/wise thing. Paying a dollar in taxes to have 25% get to the program and 75% go to government bureaucrats is bad, in my opinion.

Kenny said...

Why wouldn't it be profitable for the population to do collectively via government what is profitable for me to do individually? A state's actions have moral quality; so it seems that when the state undertakes a good action like charity, that has a good moral quality, and therefore is a desirable action.

So there's a minority who dissents: this is true of literally every action taken by this country. That's how a democratic form of government works. Why should the minority have veto power over the desire of the majority to act charitably through government?

There's an important empirical question that I've never really seen addressed: free market folks feel strongly that the private sector would to a better job of caring for the poor than the government does; welfare-state folks believe the private sector would not take care of the poor if it weren't mandated. I think it's fairly obvious that if all things were equal, then the private sector would do a better job than the government. But I'm concerned that the private sector wouldn't have nearly the financial resources of the government. So say the government is only getting 25% of my dollar to its programs, and say the private sector would get 100% to charity, if the government can collect more than 4x the financial resources, then the government would still get more money to charity.

Capitalists and socialists have completely different instincts about this: capitalists think that if it weren't for taxes, a lot more money would go to private charity; socialists think that if the taxes were mandated, then no one would give the money toward charity.

But I'd be really interested to see some hard evidence on this matter.

-Dave said...

One proposal I heard for addressing the need for hard evidence is this: reform the tax code such that charitable contributions are a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, instead of a tax deduction. If I give $5,000 to charity, I don't have to pay my first $5,000 in federal taxes.

The Government may be able to collect over 4x as much money in your example to (eventually) get $X to the poor, but you are still pulling the 4X out of the hands of citizens, spending 3X on bureaucrats, and 1X on charity. And what money does make it to charity is not necesarilly to those who most need it, but where it will make the biggest impact on getting government officials reelected.

If there were an apolitical process for government distribution of charitable funds, I might be more in favor of it. But because government programs tend to exist to self-perpetuate before they exist to solve problems, I see them as at best neutral, and possibly harmful overall (cf, welfare before the 1996 reforms, which in the name of charity created an underclass of people depending on government cash, while simultaneously providing perverse incentives to break up families).

In my view, we spend 3X on bureaucrats, and the remaining 1X may be distributed in such a way that it causes harm.

-Dave said...

"Why wouldn't it be profitable for the population to do collectively via government what is profitable for me to do individually?"

Because sacrifical giving ought to be an act of 1 Corinthians 13 "charity," an act of will, not of passively assent to higher taxes.

Because ceding increasing power to government is to yield control to an entity that never gives it back.

Because it requires nothing of me - instead of offering my last two pennies, I am taking from others to do what I will, while making the noise of the Pharisees who give large ammounts. Is the personal private sacrifice, though small, more or less than large, noisy ammounts? Since when does government give in any way other than the Pharisees?

Because I don't think the population at large acts as one, it simply tends to find the median choice, not the optimal choice.

Because the populace as a unit does not love, it acts facelessly.

Because the "good" of charity is offset by the "bad" of taking from people what is otherwise rightfully theirs. Where is the balance to be set?

Because democracy is mob rule. Simply because an action can be taken does not mean it should. We could vote to strip the wealthiest 40% of the population of all their assets to give to the other 60%. Should we? Do they have no right to what they have earned? Taking such action in Zimbabwe in the late 90's led to those who knew how to handle the stripped resources (farmers, in this case) leaving the country, taking their expertise with them. The economy collapsed, and the government has to print m oney to survive, with inflation over 1,000%.

At what point does charity stop? I find it interesting to note than in 1 Timothy 5, not all widows were to be on the "public" dole of the church, only a limited number. It was better for them to remarry, or to be supported by their families first. Possible principle: caring for people should start small and work up (a new husband, then the family, then the church). It was specifically noted that supporting people in less dire straits (though presumably still distraught) would be spiritually harmful for them.

Ben said...

Taking into account everybody's acknowledgement that there is not a one-to-one relationship between Christianity and any economic system.......

And noting that the debate has recently taken an a-religious turn away from Kenny's initial question.....

I offer only this point in response to Dave's question: "Do they have no right to what they have earned?"

My answer: No, they don't. Oh, I suppose there are legally constructed rights....but morally, theologically, they do not. Nothing we "own" is ours. We are all merely stewards of the resources God gives us to use. And those resources should be used in a manner that glorifies God.

I am not disputing any of the other arguments Erin and Dave advance, but I must disagree with the "have a right to their possessions" argument.

Ben said...

To clarify: theologically speaking, we "own" nothing. Everything in the world is God's and we do not have a "right" to any of it. We are merely given possession for a while to use these possessions for God's purposes.

In other words, I don't think God is sympathetic to the "but it's MINE. I earned it and it's MINE." argument.

-Dave said...

And yet, at least in the old testament, possession and ownership are clear parts of society. (cf, Genisis 29-31, Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:15, Malachi 3:5, Matthew 20:8). "Do not hold back the wages from a hired man" makes me think that the hired man is entitled to the reward for his labor.

Even the widow who gave her last two coins gave HER last two coins. Are examples of possession to be taken to mean that they don't really possess anything in any meaningful sense?

We are called to relinquish our very lives to Christ in view of his marvelous grace. Are we also called to take the just wages of those that have earned them? We give an account for how we use what is entrusted to us - will we be called into account for how we failed to use what was entrusted to our neighbor? Will it be a credit to them if what they had was removed by coercive means and used to some end - good or evil? I do not recall the servants with few talents banding together to take by force what had been given to the servants who received many talents.

I think the capitalism/socialism argument is almost entirely amoral. A good Christian can be either. I think that Capitalism is the wiser choice (because it works better than the alternatives), and I think it is wrong to take from others to meet my own needs, even if the need is a desire to do good.

Jeff said...

Dave - Sure, you don't hold back money from someone who earned it, but there's nothing unbiblical about taxation. The Bible also commands us to give 10% of our earnings to the community (tithing, in Christian terms). This is often seen nowadays as an act of charity, but in the Hebrew Bible ("Old Testament") era, people were assessed "tzedakah" (lit. righteousness, oft. translated as charity) much as we are assessed taxes. So the commandments leave room for both.

I've made this point on this blog before, and I'll make it again - in Jewish thought at least (and probably Christian thought too) the most charitable act one can do is find someone else a job - the "gift of self-sufficience." If we take the socialist route, we can't forget that straight giving often endangers the dignity of the recipient (especially if it's the state doing the giving), and that's a bad thing. And if we're doing the straight giving thing, it's better for someone to give $20 grudgingly than for someone of equal means to give $5 out of the goodness of his heart. Because, hey, fifteen bucks. (My point here is that pure "charity" is no basis on which to run a welfare state. You either do it right or don't do it at all.)

Of course, I'm not arguing one way or the other, just ruminating.

Ρωμανος ~ Romanós said...

Wow, I'm impressed! Just noticed that this topic generated 15 comments! I wish the post about asking for something in prayer would generate as much response! Does this indicate a "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" attitude?

-Dave said...

I had heard there were three seperate, compounded tithes, for a total of nearly 30%. If we think of this as a task, we can think of the Levites - the priests of God designated to administer the temple, and live off of the sacrifices people brought. Does this make the Levites the ancestors of bureaucracy? Interesting thought :)

I am interested to know if there are examples of a significant (say 25%) ammount of the Israelite's involuntary offerings/tithes being given as monetary compensation to poor Israelites. Help?

All I really meant to demonstrate was that I see a man's wages as his own in a real sense, not in a purely semantic sense. (It is my poor attempt to answer "My answer: No, they don't. Oh, I suppose there are legally constructed rights....but morally, theologically, they do not.")

If a man has some legitimate claim to his wages, then the desire to do anything with his wages has to be balanced with the awareness that you are taking from him what is his by right. You do so with the power of law, but that does not make it inherently moral.

Is accumulation of wealth bad? Buckley has through wise investing gathered a fortune in the tens of billions of dollars, a very, very large chunk of which is going to private charity by the people he trusts to effectively use it to help people. He was asked why, if he was such a strong believer in charity, he didn't give his fortune away sooner. His answer was, in part, that he believed he could better manage the money to be able to donate EVEN MORE decades later (as "the poor will always be with us"), through growing the money in the interim through wise investments.

If that money had been taxed out of his hands at the start up, we (1) take someone's money to (2) spend it inefficiently on charity, (3) while decreasing the total ammount to be given to charity in the long run. ($10M from $30B) I'd consider that to be a perfect storm of negative outcomes as a result of taxation, all of which are avoided by allowing the nation's second-richest man to do what he will with his fortune.

Ρωμανος ~ Romanós said...

I enjoy the site www.politicalcompass.org, which suggest an clever test on "political orientation." Clever, because it is appends something original to the tradition division into right and left. I recommend this amusement.

Still, I think one thing I can add even to this clever site, because I am a historian.

Modern opposition of right and left in politics is Modern. It is impossible to say whether St Paul, St Benedict or Jeanne d'Arc were right or left. (This is why it is wrong to look for political answers in Scripture or Tradition.) You cannot be right or left under Tzar, king, emperor or any other sort of dictatorship. If a man has no political rights, his hands are cut--both hands, right and left. If a bird is in the cage, she cannot use nor right, nor left wings.

Political of politics into right and left appeared only after the overthrow of French monarchy, and it can disappear any moment, if any sort of autocracy will return.

It seems to me that there was opposition of right and left in the Roman Catholic Church in 1960-s, but now there it disappeared. At least I haven't found anyone inside the Catholic Church who would dare to say he is "liberal." Certainly, I am in Moscow, and Moscow is very provincial...

Fr. Yakov Krotov
(A link to his blog is in the side panel of mine.)