Markets and Morality

Barb Wire

This is one of those topics where the amount of sloppy thinking or just plain wrong thinking tends to abound. And sadly plenty of Christians can get things wrong here big time. There is a knee-jerk reaction against the free market in many quarters, including many church circles.

Now antipathy to capitalism can sometimes be warranted, as capitalists can do some lousy things. But much of the hatred of the free market is due to deliberate misinformation or disinformation about what markets are actually all about.

Whole books have been penned on this, so here I again foolishly seek to write just the slightest of overviews, just a very quick introduction. But some moral and intellectual clarity is greatly needed in this area, so here goes.

First it must be pointed out that lots of criticism against capitalism is simply done in a most unfair manner. That is, often the worst actual excesses of capitalism are compared to the best ideals of socialism. That is simply mixing apples and oranges and helps no one.

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What must be done is to either compare the actual practices of capitalism with the actual practices of socialism, or compare the ideal of capitalism with the ideal of socialism. When these comparisons are made, I believe in both cases the free market comes out the clear winner.

Of course we live in a fallen world, so there can be no ideal, perfect form of capitalism, just as there can be no ideal and perfect form of socialism. We can only move closer to the ideals of either capitalism or socialism. In the real world that is the best we can expect.

A second thing to mention is that lots of criticism of capitalism by believers comes not from a careful examination of the biblical data, but from a mishandling of it. A classic case in point is seeking to argue from Acts 4 and 5 that the early church somehow practiced and endorsed communism.

I have dealt with that particular furphy in great detail elsewhere. See here for

Or consider another case of massacring a biblical text to push a leftist agenda. The temple cleansing episode is cited by lefties as a clear indication of how Jesus disliked capitalism. But this had absolutely nothing to do with some anti-capitalism, pro-socialism agenda. It had everything to do with the misuse of a house of worship.

But believers are surely right to bring moral considerations into economic discussion. How can they not? Indeed, for the Christian, every area of life must be assessed in terms of its moral and spiritual impact. But some might be surprised to know that many defenders of the free market have done so from moral grounds.

Sure, some, like Ayn Rand, championed capitalism and the virtues of selfishness in the same breath. We expect as much from libertarian atheists. But many believers have in fact made the moral case for the free market. Catholic writers such as Michael Novak, Thomas Woods and Robert Sirico, and Protestant authors such as Edmund Opitz, Ronald Nash and Jay Richards have all carefully made the case for the free market.

Many more Christian thinkers can be mentioned here. They all point out that unfettered laissez-fairewith no moral considerations is certainly not being proposed. They all acknowledge that excesses and immoral actions can be carried out by capitalists.

But they tend to want to insist, along with Austrian ex-socialist Willi Schlamm, that “The problem with capitalism is capitalists. The problem with socialism is socialism.” And they agree with Winston Churchill that “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

That is, capitalism itself can be a very helpful system indeed, although often abused and twisted by some capitalists. On the other hand, socialism is an inherently unhelpful and even dangerous system, regardless of some well-meaning socialists.

The real test of various economic systems is this: which one really helps the neediest? Which one actually helps the poor? While those pushing socialist and welfare-state economies may speak much of helping the poor, it seems the free market has the best track record for actually helping to lift the masses out of poverty.

Yet many Christians still think that the free market is evil, and they opt for a statist solution. But as Douglas Wilson recently wrote in Rules for Reformers, “Many who claim to love Jesus with their theology hate the poor with their economics.”

Two new books which deal with all this in great detail are The Poverty of Nations by Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus (Crossway, 2013) and For the Least of These edited by Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley (Westbow Press, 2014). Both books argue that if we really care about the poor, and seek to apply biblical morality into the issue, then the free market is the way to proceed.

The first volume carefully examines how nations can best achieve a sustainable prosperity. The authors argue that big government and even many Christian humanitarian programs do not help, and actually can hinder the poor from breaking out of poverty. There is nothing very moral or spiritual about keeping people trapped in their destitute condition.

As they state in their introduction:

The goal of this book is to provide a sustainable solution to poverty in the poor nations of the world, a solution based on both economic history and the teachings of the Bible. We use the word sustainable because this solution addresses the long-term causes of poverty in nations. If those changed become long-term causes of prosperity, the solution will last. Our solution does not claim that everyone can be equally well-off. Some people will always be richer than others, and therefore some will be (relatively) poorer. But the solution we proposes explains practical steps that any poor nation can take.

The second book features 15 experts who discuss a wide array of subjects: who are the poor; how does poverty arise; what does Scripture teach on these issues; true biblical compassion; the nature of the free market; morality, justice and the market, etc.

It is well worth getting and carefully digesting. It covers all these issues quite carefully, looking at biblical, theological, economic and political concerns. It contains a wealth of information and careful biblical and economic assessment. As Jay Richards writes in the conclusion of the book:

Whether we like it or not, no culture has emerged from absolute poverty through government-to-government aid or even private relief efforts that did not enable recipients to create wealth for themselves and others. Private charitable giving and even some government actions have an important role to play in our response to poverty…. [But] an aid culture of redistribution and neo-colonial dependency does not, and never has, worked to lift whole cultures out of extensive poverty.

With each of these books being 400 pages in length, I have only begun to scratch the surface of what they have to say. I encourage you to get each volume and give them a thorough read. They combine the best of economic thinking with vital biblical and theological concerns.

At a time when so much thinking about wealth and poverty by Christians is so very mistaken and confused, it is good to see these solid, biblically-based authors helping to set the story straight. For all its shortcomings, nothing has helped the poor more than the wealth creation brought about by free markets.

As Robert Sirico puts it in his chapter in the second volume: “The free market is not inherently moral; what it produces is not inherently moral; and those operating in it are not necessarily virtuous. Something that is potential is not guaranteed; it merely contains the capacity to do something. All the same, a free economy is better suited to promote human well-being and flourishing than its alternatives.”

To really help the poor, we have to go beyond rhetoric and theory, and utilise that which best works to help not just individuals but nations get out of grinding poverty. That is the sensible approach. That is the moral approach. And that is the biblical approach.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Bill Muehlenberg
Bill Muehlenberg, who was born in America, lives in Melbourne, Australia. He runs a web-based ministry of pro-faith, pro-family activism called CultureWatch: Bill is widely sought out by the media for comments on social issues, faith issues, and family issues, and has appeared on all the major television and radio news shows, current affairs shows, and debate programs. He is the author of In Defence of the Family; Strained Relations: The Challenge of Homosexuality, and several other books.

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