byFaith | 8.25.14
By Alan Dowd
French economist Thomas Piketty’s new book (“Capital in the 21st Century”) is generating lots of discussion
outside the field of economics. It’s been fodder for pop-culture websites, op-ed
pages and Sunday morning news programs. Some observerseven say it has influenced the Twitter tweets of Pope Francis.
Piketty believes capitalism
has “inherent and self-destructive contradictions,” as one reviewerwrites. Deeply concerned about income inequality and concentrated wealth,
Piketty proposes an 80-percent global tax on incomes over $500,000. But the
specifics of the book are not as important here as the debate it has ignited
about the problems with capitalism and supposed benefits of the alternative: socialism.
(Piketty has been dubbed“a modern Marx.”) The debate raises an interesting question for people of
faith: Is God a capitalist or a socialist? Depending on where you look in
scripture—and how you define the words—the answer is, well, yes.
The Heart of the Problem
Of course, we know that God
is bigger than any man-made philosophy. But exploring this question may have some
merit. Hopefully, the exploration generates more light than heat.
Socialism advocates “collective
or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and
distribution of goods…group living in which there is no private property.” It
is often associated with lifting up the less fortunate, social justice, and bringing
fairness and balance to a world out of balance.
These are things God really
Consider the guidelines He
lays out in Deuteronomy: “Be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who
are poor and needy.”
righteous care about justice for the poor,” Proverbs 29 explains.
“to proclaim good news to the poor,” declared, “Blessed are you who are
poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” and warned, “Woe to you who are rich
for you have already received your comfort.”
In fact, Jesus once told a
rich man to sell everything in order to follow Him. And when asked about
taxation, He showed contempt for money as the symbol of the very opposite of
what really matters: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
The Church of Acts lived
under what could be called a communal system: In Acts 4, we learn that “No one
claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything… From
time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from
the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as
he had need.” Acts 11 adds, “The disciples, each according to his ability,
decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea.”
Taken together, these verses are
echoed in one of Karl Marx’s most oft-quoted maxims: “From each according to
his abilities, to each according to his needs.”
The important distinction
between Marx’s worldview and the Church of Acts is that Marx envisioned the
state—the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—compelling people to hand over and
redistribute wealth, while the early Church wanted people to follow
their hearts. That’s an enormous difference.
The Spirit of the Lord
Following one’s heart
presupposes choice, volition, free will, freedom. These, too, are things God
really cares about, which brings us to the other end of the spectrum.
Capitalism is an economic
system characterized by “free exchange,” “private ownership” and “competition
in a free market.”
God has always put a high
value on individual choice and its close relative free will. In Genesis, after
all, He gave Adam and Eve the choice to obey Him or not. It was their decision.
Deuteronomy declares, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and
curses. Now choose life.” Likewise, Jesus explains that He knocks but the
choice is ours to answer.
God cares deeply about
freedom. Indeed, the story of God’s people is one of freedom
pursued, attained, misused, lost and regained.
In the beginning, freedom was
the natural state of man, which helps explain why God so detests man’s tendency
to usurp the freedom of his fellow man. He wants His people to be free—free
from Pharaoh, free from Haman, free from the shackles of sin.
Thus, Jesus declares, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Paul writes, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Peter counsels,
“Live as free people.”
More specific to wealth, Proverbs
is full of advice that still guides sound wealth creation. Scripture includes
128 references to “prosperity,” “prosper,” “prosperous.” Nicodemus, Zaccheus,
Jairus and Joseph of Arimathea were all men of considerable means, and Jesus didn’t tell them to sell all their
possessions, suggesting that wealth in and of itself is not the problem.
Now, as then, wealth is to be
used to support the Lord’s work—by choice, not compulsion. The more of that
wealth that is confiscated, the more freedom is diminished, which raises a
pivot-point question for people of faith: Would God—the God of justice and
fairness, the God who lifts up the poor, the God of freedom and free will, the
God of liberty and choice—rather your wealth be controlled and directed by you
or the world?
To be sure, government has a
role to play in helping those in need, especially in a rich country like ours.
The very idea of a safety net is to provide some measure of security when
circumstances overwhelm us. But government doesn’t generate wealth, and history
shows there’s no better answer to poverty
than the free market.
1990, a billion
people have escaped extreme poverty, owing to the embrace of free markets.
It’s no coincidence that this dramatic decline occurred as the Soviet Union’s
Marxist-Leninist experiment imploded. Indeed, capitalism—not communism—has
lifted some 500 million people out of poverty in China in the past 30 years.
Chicago to Sri Lanka, micro-enterprise lending, which gives aspiring
entrepreneurs small amounts of capital to build self-sustaining businesses, has
done as much or more to alleviate poverty as the Great Society or UN
Development Program—at a fraction of the cost.
Or look at the Korean
peninsula—one people divided into two economic systems. The difference is
breathtaking. Socialist North Korea’s annual GDP is $40
billion (106th globally), per capita income $1,800, life expectancy 69. Capitalist South Korea’s annual GDP is $1.66 trillion (13th globally), per capita income $33,000, life expectancy 79.8.“The average seven-year-old North Korean boy is eight inches
shorter, 20 pounds lighter and has a ten-year-shorter life expectancy than his
seven-year-old counterpart in South Korea,” as James Morris noted when he
headed the World Food Program.
the global to the personal, the free market allows for needs and wants to be
met efficiently. As Adam Smith, the father of free-market economics observed,
“Man has almost-constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in
vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only.” In other words, we need
each other, but we can’t always count on the generosity of others—and shouldn’t,
for that matter. That’s where the free market comes into play. “It is not from
the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we can expect our
dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” Smith explained.
this free exchange, the market enables people to use their talents and gifts.
It also allows for wealth creation, which free people can deploy to help others.
This might take the form of charity or job creation—or both.
- Sam Walton’sWal-Martstores employ an astounding 1 percent of America’s working
- Bill Gates and the firm he built are responsible for creating some
15 million jobs globally. Gates’ foundation has given away $28.3 billion
- Andrew Carnegie’s wealth built libraries, research institutions,
universities, social welfare charities and the TIAA-CREF pension fund for
- Americans donate more to international development through private giving ($39 billion) than
through taxes ($30.9 billion). In 2012 (the most recent year data are
available), we donated $316.23 billion to charitable causes such as education, health care, food
pantries, homeless shelters, disaster relief and human services. By way of
comparison, that’s three times what the federal government spends on
education, four times the amount the government spends on food programs
for the needy, 40 times what Washington spends on the FEMA
disaster-response program. Importantly, Americans directed the lion’s
share of these charitable donations—32 percent—to religious organizations.
Best of the Worst
Capitalism is anything but perfect. It has flaws and shortcomings, excesses and
limitations. But what Churchill said of free government is true of free
markets: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other
forms that have been tried from time to time.”
God wants us to be free and
creative and productive—and to use wealth to promote justice and help those in
need. Just as He wants us to love Him because we choose to do so, He wants us
to share our blessings because we choose to share them. After all, there’s no treasure
in heaven for giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Even if that’s 100 percent of
our income—and even it goes toward the noblest of causes—we haven’t done God’s
will by doing what government compels us to do.
Dowd writes a monthly column exploring the crossroads of faith and public policy for byFaith.