By Michael Wagner, Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Reformed Perspective magazine (www.reformedperspective.ca), pages 7-9:
The capitalist West has the highest standard of living in human history. But despite this, capitalism is under constant criticism. Certain intellectuals and activists blame it for many human problems, especially poverty, since there remain many poor people in the West.
Even Christians get in on criticizing capitalism. Some Christians go so far as to say that capitalism violates “social justice.” They argue that God favors the poor and oppressed, and since capitalism leads to poverty and oppression, it must be condemned by God’s people. They point to verses such as Proverbs 31: 9, 14:31 or Luke 6:20, which reads: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (ESV). Capitalism is said to violate the spirit of such verses by benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor.
Instead of capitalism these Christians propose we should move towards social justice. As Dr. Ronald Nash points out in his book Social Justice and the Christian Church (Mott Media, 1983) the term “social justice” is very vague but generally the term is used to describe the government initiating some sort of redistribution of wealth. This kind of “social justice,” in other words, “is possible only in a society that is controlled from the top down. There must be a central agency with the power to force people to accept the preferred pattern of distribution” (p. 50).
Basically, social justice involves some sort of socialism. And by using the terminology of “social justice,” proponents of this concept imply that those who don’t support socialism are thereby approving of injustice. It’s important to note, however, that the kinds of verses they marshal in support of “social justice” don’t call for socialism. Nevertheless, there are people who think that Christians should support socialism.
Toward the end of Acts chapter 4 it is stated that the early Christians “had everything in common.” Indeed, we read that: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35, ESV).
Some people argue that this means the New Testament church believed in socialism. Everybody shared everything. So Christians today should be socialists too, at least if they want to be Biblical Christians.
That sounds like a pretty strong case, but it’s not. First of all, some expositors have pointed out that this was a unique situation tied to a specific time and location. The sharing of all things in common does not appear to be the practice of all the New Testament churches, just this one in Jerusalem. It’s not a good idea to take one unique and particular situation and say that its practice should be universalized for the entire church at all times.
That is a good point, but there is also a stronger case to be made about the issue of socialism. It’s very important to keep in mind that socialism is the public ownership and control of the means of production. The government owns most (if not all) of the land, equipment, etc., for economic activity. The government is in control of the economy.
With this in mind ask yourself, “what role did the government play in Acts 4?” Actually, the government in Acts 4 had no role in the sharing of the Christians’ possessions. When the Scripture speaks of the people having “everything in common,” it was referring exclusively to church members. In other words, even the finances and property that were held “in common” were privately owned. This is not socialism.
If you and your friends, family and fellow church members decided to share your belongings and theirs, you do not have socialism. You have sharing. Socialism is not sharing. Some leftists like to portray socialism as sharing, but it’s not. Sharing is voluntary, as in Acts 4. Socialism is compulsory and it is enforced by the state.
The Christians in Acts 4 were not advocating that the government should confiscate and redistribute property. They tended to be victims of government power at that time, not supporters of increased government power. There is no way that Acts 4 should be used to justify Christian support for socialism. In fact, socialism would have made the sharing described in Acts 4 impossible. How could the Christians sell their lands and houses unless they owned those lands and houses in the first place? If there had been socialism, the government would own the land and it could not be sold by church members. The sharing in Acts 4 presupposes the private ownership of property and in no way can be interpreted as suggesting the government should own property instead.
Capitalism and greed
There are, of course, many verses in the Bible that talk about helping the poor, widows, orphans, the oppressed, and so on. These verses should be taken seriously. But are they calls for some sort of socialism? Is that what God means? It seems that some Christians think so.
People do bad things to other people, and those with the most power have the ability to cause more harm than those with little power. God condemns harmful activities such as when rich or middle class people take advantage of the poor and underprivileged. But capitalism isn’t the target of God’s anger in these kinds of verses, people are. People who do bad things to others.
People who oppose capitalism like to talk about how bad greed is and how capitalism feeds on greed and encourages it. Well, guess what? All people are sinful and all people are greedy to one degree or another. People are just as greedy in a socialist system as in a capitalist system. The only difference is in how the greed is manifested. Greed is a feature of human nature, not a particular economic system.
Businessmen are often portrayed as being greedy. They want to pay their workers low wages and charge their customers high prices. You can’t get much greedier than that, right?
Well, how about the public sector workers who go on strike for higher wages, pensions and other benefits? Is that to help the poor and underprivileged? No, it’s for their own personal benefit. Public sector workers aren’t any more virtuous than businessmen. They aren’t any worse than businessmen either. We’re all sinners. We were born that way, it’s not a result of capitalism. To blame capitalism for greed or other vices is to totally miss the mark. Yes, all capitalists are sinners. All socialists are sinners too, including those who blame capitalism for greed.
Helping the poor is a good thing, of course. The problem is that socialism involves the confiscation of property from some people (the so-called “rich”) to be given to others (the “poor”). If rich people have stolen from the poor, then of course they should be forced to make restitution. The rich are not exempt from the Ten Commandments, that’s for sure. So if they have stolen they must be punished. But if they obtained their riches lawfully they are not to be blamed for the presence of poverty. Wealth for some people does not cause poverty for others, if the wealth was obtained in an honest manner.
You may know successful Christian businessmen in your own congregation. They have run their businesses for years and they now live rather comfortably. They probably contribute much to the church. They worked hard, year after year, and the hard work resulted in their affluence. Should these people be punished because there are poor people in society? Should the wealth of successful businessmen be confiscated by the government? Is that what the Bible says? Is that what the verses that talk about so-called “social justice” mean? Certainly not.
It’s ironic that people who support “social justice” appear to call for a redistribution of wealth as the main solution to poverty. How is it “just” to confiscate the wealth of people who earned their wealth honestly, through hard work and thrift? Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once made a comment that was later paraphrased to be, “The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” This is a funny statement but it contains an important truth. And like socialism, “social justice” can only be implemented using other people’s money, money that was earned lawfully.
It’s easy to criticize capitalism, either from a misguided Christian perspective or a secular perspective. But the truth is that there has never been an economic system that has done so much to alleviate poverty and suffering as capitalism. The Bible does not teach that the state should control the economy. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the government implementing policies to help poor and underprivileged people and improve their lives. But that is different from controlling the economy or a large-scale redistribution of wealth. The advocates of “social justice” are not content with welfare for the poor. They want a form of “justice” that involves much more state control.
Anti-capitalists may be well-meaning, but if their preferred policies were adopted, standards of living would likely decline as government control of economic activity would undermine they key element of economic progress—entrepreneurial activity.
Human beings who are creative in the economic realm are the main contributors to economic growth. Capitalism frees these people to be all they can be, and to reap the rewards of their efforts. They have an incentive to work hard and build businesses because they can earn lots of money as well as achieve prestige in their industry. This leads to economic activity and growth. These are the people most constrained by socialism. And the harm done to them eventually hurts us all, even (or especially) the poor.