Providence | 4.27.16
By Alan Dowd
“So often in the past there
has been a division between left and right, between capitalists and communists
or socialists,” President Obama explainedto a group of young people during his recent visit to Argentina. “You should be
practical and just choose from what works. You don't have to worry about
whether it neatly fits into socialist theory or capitalist theory,” he
instructed, before adding, quite literally as an afterthought, “The most
successful economies are ones that are rooted in a market-based system, but
also recognize that a market does not work by itself.”
What a pity. Not long ago,
American presidents spoke without apology or asterisks about the superiority of
free enterprise, free markets, free exchange and free trade, recognizing that
economic freedom undergirds political freedom at home and abroad. As leader of
the free world, spreading that message used to be part of a president’s job
Recall that Thomas Jefferson’s
masterpiece invokes the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit happiness.” He
borrowed the phrase from Locke, who explained that each person has the right to
“preserve his property…his life, liberty and estate against the injuries and
attempts of other men.”
Calvin Coolidge said
America’s purpose was to spread prosperity, famously concluding, “The chief business of the American people is business.”
Harry Truman advocated that
“the whole world adopt the American system” of free government and free
John Kennedy matter-of-factly
concluded that the “philosophy of the free market—the wider economic choice for
men and nations—is as old as freedom itself. It is not a partisan philosophy.”
Ronald Reagan advocated
for the free market with historical insights and humorous observations: “There
is a threat posed to human freedom by the enormous power of the modern state,”
he said. “History teaches the dangers of government that overreaches: political
control taking precedence over free economic growth, secret police, mindless
bureaucracy, all combining to stifle individual excellence and personal
the lighter side, Reagan told lots of jokes highlighting the
differences between Marxism and capitalism. One of his favorites went like this:
“How do you tell a communist? Well, it's someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And
how do you tell an anti-Communist? It's someone who understands Marx and
Bill Clinton explained that “jobs must come from growth in a vibrant
and vital system of free enterprise.”
The younger Bush spoke unequivocally
and unapologetically about the superiority of freedom: “Free nations will answer the hopes and aspirations of their people,” he
observed. “Free nations will help us achieve the peace we all want.” He bluntly
called on the Cuban dictatorship to turn off the dead-end road of socialism: “Mr.
Castro: Let your people live in freedom.” He connected economic freedom and
political freedom by pointing to China: “Our greatest export to the world has
been, is and always will be the incredible freedom we understand in America.
And that’s why it’s important for us to trade with China to encourage the
growth of an entrepreneurial class. It gets that taste of freedom…that breath
of freedom in the marketplace.” And he promoted economic freedom by tying trade
and development to market-oriented
predecessors understood—innately, intuitively, inherently—that the free market is what works. It’s not a preference or
an opinion. It’s not something that has
to be tested or tried out. History proves it works. Empirical evidence proves
it works. And both history and empirical evidence prove that socialism does not
Heart of the Matter
Yet 25 years after being discredited with the collapse of the Soviet Union, socialism
seems to be making a comeback.
It’s regrettable but perhaps
understandable that many Christians are confused about socialism and
It’s understandable because
socialism is often associated with lifting up the less fortunate, promoting social
justice, and bringing fairness and balance to a world out of balance. These are
things God really cares about.
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
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 Marx’s most oft-quoted maxims: “From each according to his abilities, to
each according to his needs.”
Yet many Christians overlook
the important distinction between Marx’s worldview and the Church of Acts: 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.
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 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 Rome, 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, Zacchaeus,
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 by your government?
Of course, we know that God
is bigger than any man-made philosophy. But this question has some merit. How
an individual or a society answers it reveals something.
To be sure, government has a
role to play in helping those in need, especially in a rich country like ours. But
government doesn’t generate wealth, and history shows there’s no better answer to poverty than the free market—notwithstanding
the president’s vague uncertainty about “what works.”
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 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 more to alleviate poverty than 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.
Communist North Korea’s annual GDP is $40 billion (113th
globally), per capita income $1,800, life expectancy 70. Capitalist South Korea’s annual
GDP is $1.84 trillion (14th globally), per
capita income $36,700, life
expectancy 80.“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 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’s Wal-Mart stores 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 those
working in the nonprofit sector.
- Americans donate more to international development through private giving ($39 billion) than
through taxes ($30.9 billion). In 2012, 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.
Capitalism is anything but perfect. It has flaws and shortcomings, excesses and
limitations. But to paraphrase what Churchill said of democracy, “Capitalism is
the worst economic system, except for all those other forms that have been