Friday, May 11, 2007

Is Socialism Christian?

A web site from England has a quotation that equates Christianity with Socialism. Thursdays LA times had an article giving sympathetic treatment to the liberation theologians in Brazil and elsewhere who are being pressured by the Pope. Is socialism Christian?

Biblical Christianity does place a strong emphasis on caring for the poor, working for justice, and helping the powerless and oppressed. Early Christians gave their worldly goods to help the poor and share with their brothers and sisters in Christ. In the Old Testament there were laws designed to provide for the poor. But Israel was very unique among ancient nations in not having a centrally planned economy with wage and price controls or a feudal land-for-military-service system.

The Bible does not prescribe a particular governmental or economic system for modern nations. In that sense, neither capitalism nor socialism can claim the label “Christian.” There are different costs and benefits for all economic/government systems or approaches. In many ways the real question is which system is wisest, works best, and achieves what a particular society wants within acceptable costs.

Capitalism, with the rule of law and a relatively moral government, results in a better overall material quantity of goods and services, and greater freedom of choices among immaterial goods than socialism. It has the cost of greater apparent inequalities between individual financial outcomes and the cost of consuming fads that are in bad taste, morally suspect, or ill conceived (I do not think the market is always right even though it is right more often than the government). Capitalism hurts the foolish, the lazy, the poor, the sick, and the ungifted. Capitalism rewards hard work, creativity, service, and (not so good) cunning.

Socialist centrally planned governments tend to be inefficient, dependent on continued population growth, and restrictive of legitimate freedoms. They also make bad planning decisions that affect everyone because the whole scheme is run by the government. The advantage of socialism is that people feel outcomes are more equal even though they may all be worse off. Socialism rewards the lazy, protects the sick and ungifted, and cheats the productive producers. It also gives greater power to individuals who seek power over others. Some people like socialism because they do not think the public makes good choices and they want to choose for everyone else. But all humans are fallen, and so on the whole, the choices of the few are as bad, or worse, than the choices of the many. Perhaps choosing a system with these values and results is not so moral as it seems to those who value equality of outcomes above all else?

There are also usually other moral problems with socialism in practice. First, in theory socialism can be put into effect voluntarily. Perhaps in places like Sweden it is mostly voluntary. But in practice, socialism is usually put in place by force and steals property in order to redistribute property “more equally.” Theft backed by violence is not really moral. It is sometimes supported by arguing that the rich acquired their wealth immorally. This is sometimes true, but certainly not always or universally. Often the immorality involved, if any, may have occurred generations ago. Second, socialism decreases the individual’s opportunity to make virtuous moral choices. It takes moral responsibility from individuals and places it on the government. In the end, people become less moral because they expect the state to help those in need. Aristotle pointed out this second problem over two thousand years ago.

A Christian solution to human need and suffering is for individuals, families, and associations to give to help those in need. A socialist solution is to take property from individuals, families and associations to help those in need. It is sad that Christians have been so ineffective at giving and helping others that socialism seems attractive to people. But I think it is also the case that because human desires and needs expand to fit the supply, people in a fallen world will never be completely happy with any distribution, system, or circumstance. Though we should give, no amount of giving will ever be enough. But there are real and serious needs that cry out for more giving, and we should give more than we do even though Americans are already the most giving people (as individual) in the world. I hope though that we never give away our freedom in order to try to satisfy the hunger for equal economic outcomes.

14 comments:

David M. Smith said...

Hi Dean McConnell,

Technically, God may not have prescribed a precise form of government or economic system.

However, throughout Scripture, freedom to choose is God’s prescribed life system. Therefore, democracy, along with free enterprise, are God’s preferred government and economic systems.

Socialism, or liberation theology, are the antithesis of God’s design.

Dean McConnell said...

I really agree that socialism does not fit well with God's design. Ideally, I think God wants people to prosper by voluntarily doing things for others, not by robbing or regimenting.

Anonymous said...

"Socialism rewards the lazy, protects the sick and ungifted, and cheats the productive producers."

Just as capitalism rewards lazy capital-holders who were smart enough to be born rich. Who do you think works harder - a day laborer on a farm, or Warren Buffett?

--------------------------

"Capitalism rewards hard work, creativity, service, and (not so good) cunning."

capitalism rewards those who already have capital, period.
it's shocking that you think capitalism rewards service. How many soup-kitchen attendants or Red Cross workers do you see in mansions? The same with hard work - hard workers typically get tired instead of getting rich. The reason we celebrate rags-to-riches stories in America is because they are RARE (like an honest politician).

Dean McConnell said...

It is interesting that you picked Buffett as an example. His personal ideas are very “progressive” or left wing. Buffett was born into a well off family, but not an extremely rich one as riches go. He has a humble life style compared to other super-rich people. He also gives a lot of money to charity – though many of his charities do society more harm than good.

I think it is arguable that Buffett actually does bring more benefit to society every day than a day laborer. The real question is not how much we sweat, but how much we supply the needs and legitimate desires of others. A day laborer works hard and deservers a reward. But, generally he can only do the work of one person and many other people could do the same work in his place. Buffett probably does not benefit society in proportion to his income. That is a failure of wisdom in those who reward his work. But his wise use of money is a benefit to millions of people whose union pensions and retirement accounts get dividends from the companies he invests in.

One problem with any economic system is that there are “robber barons” and con men who exploit the system. The party elite in the old Soviet Union were the Warren Buffett of their economic model. Human nature leads some people to cheat in any system and to try to get money and power by tricks or crimes instead of by benefiting others. That is why the libertarians are wrong - you need the rule of law to police the free market. But even when people try to give day laborers millions and the Warren Buffetts of the world six dollars an hour it usually does not result in greater wealth, virtue and happiness for most people. It results in social collapse. In the end the people who decide who gets what end up being billionaires in exchange for ruining everyone else. Cuba is a good example.

I understand people’s frustration with their own inability to accumulate wealth, and the seemingly unearned wealth of others. Even if you work hard, as Ecclesiastes says “time and chance happen to every man.” But socialism is not the answer to the problem.

Dean McConnell said...

It is helpful to have capital in a capitalist economy. But somebody either had to work for it or steal it. Most ways to steal it are illegal. Capitol does not appear by magic or descend from ancient times to the present. The lazy and the foolish often loose the capital they inherit. Have you heard the old joke I saw in the Weekly Standard some time back that goes something like this: “The patriarch of the first generation worked hard as a laborer so his child could go to the University and become a lawyer. The second generation worked hard long hours as a lawyer so their child could be wealthy. The wealthy person invested their money so their child could go to the University and become an activist. The child of the activist is on welfare.”

Dean McConnell said...

For more on free markets v socialism see my book review of The Victory of Reason at http://trinitariandon.blogspot.com/2008/01/book-review-victory-of-reason.html.

Michael Staddon said...

Thank your for this post. I agree with you.
I know plenty of people who are well off because they work hard and are honest and skilled. They are happy, their families are happy, and well provided for. Most of them are Christians. They even employ other people. I know other people who work just as hard who are not very well off because most of their money goes to drugs or alcohol or other wasteful things. Socialism would destroy the honest and good peope's incentive to make a good living for their families. When I look at Scripture I see the principle repeated all over the place that people should own production and resources and reap the rewards of their own work and be generous to those who are in difficulty. This is the Christian way: a mixture of capitalism and compassion. When someone becomes rich, be happy for them; don't covet their goods. Be happy that success is possible and be motivated to be productive yourself while also being content with what you already have. Let the teachings of the Bible dictate the way people use their money and treat other people and you can't go wrong. The communist way of "From everyone according to his ability to everyone according to his need" is a disaster when it is forced by government and he government decides what our needs are, and people do not reap the rewards of their own work. "Ability" quickly dwindles down to what has to be done just to get by. When my brother was in Russia, he saw a lot of drunkards who should have been working. Socialism leads to lifestyles that are very difficult to come out of. The abundance we have in America is there partly because people can get more than their basic needs if they work for it, and partly because of the christian ethic that restrains theft and deceit. We must face it that George Washington was right when he said that whoever is an enemy to religion and morality is an enemy to his country.

Angelina said...

Ok, I am familiar with the bible, and there really is no biblical argument in favour of socialism or capitalism. In fact the bible, particularly the Gospel tends to stay away from commenting on the political structure of the state at all.

But, come on. I only actually got halfway through this article and there were too many gaping holes already to inspire me to write.

"wants within acceptable costs."....Since when has been cost effective been any part of biblical conduct?

"relatively moral government"- Definition of moral? No? How are we to assess the morality of any government and is there a biblical duty to do so?

"Socialism rewards the lazy"- No. Socialism offers a way for each individual to be able to meet their basic needs, thereby reducing the need to commit crime in order to live. Which in turn makes society safer for all.

I guess maybe I should have listened to the stereotypes and expected little from an American, Christian article. I guess you are as stupid as everyone says.

Dean McConnell said...

Angelina,

Thansk for the comment. I am sorry you think I am stupid. Here are my thoughts on your thoughts:

You said: "Ok, I am familiar with the bible, and there really is no biblical argument in favour of socialism or capitalism. In fact the bible, particularly the Gospel tends to stay away from commenting on the political structure of the state at all."

I thought that the lack of direct comment on economics was part of what I said in my post.

I also always try to look at the Bible as a whole, not just the parts I like best. Not every book in the Bible is tasked with dealing with every potential human issue to the same degree. And the Bible interprets the Bible. It is a consistent whole. That said, the propositional truths about morality, human nature, and rea;ity are what the Bible does give us very directly. What I am saying is that given those truthe, I don't think socialism is a good idea. I am not saying all Christians need to agree. But if you disagree, lets see your arguments.

You said: "Since when has been cost effective been any part of biblical conduct?"

I don't say it was. But in the real world things do have to be paid for. God is not magic. For a society, being good will generally result in greater abundance, but it is not magic. Food must be grown. Goods must be produced. People need to work etc.

You said: "Definition of moral? No? How are we to assess the morality of any government and is there a biblical duty to do so?"

I say that the Bible, taken as a systyematic whole, has a fairly obvious standard of morality. Nearly a third of the old testament is taken up with moral evaluation and advice to nations and societies. With the example of the profits, I don't think moral evaluation of governments is beyond attempt. As a citizen of a republic who has been commanded to love his neighbors we do have a duty to evaluate at least our own government. If I love my neighbor I cannot vote for people who support a govenrment that is bad for my neighbor.

You commented on one line in my article saying:"'Socialism rewards the lazy'- No. Socialism offers a way for each individual to be able to meet their basic needs, thereby reducing the need to commit crime in order to live. Which in turn makes society safer for all."

I understand what you believe is the purpose of socialism. But I am not evaluating only what we want to happen. I am evaluating what will, can, does, and has happened because of fallen human nature and the world in which we live. Socialism does create perverse incentives at times even if you like it.

So, I stil think socialism is a bad idea for the reasons I give. As the United States is becomming more socialist, I think the results are confirming rather than refuting my evaluation for most Americans.

Dean McConnell said...
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Dean McConnell said...
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Dean McConnell said...

Angelina,

Thansk for the comment. I am sorry you think I am stupid. Here are my thoughts on your thoughts:

You said: "Ok, I am familiar with the bible, and there really is no biblical argument in favour of socialism or capitalism. In fact the bible, particularly the Gospel tends to stay away from commenting on the political structure of the state at all."

I thought that the lack of direct comment on economics was part of what I said in my post.

I also always try to look at the Bible as a whole, not just the parts I like best. Not every book in the Bible is tasked with dealing with every potential human issue to the same degree. And the Bible interprets the Bible. It is a consistent whole. That said, the propositional truths about morality, human nature, and rea;ity are what the Bible does give us very directly. What I am saying is that given those truthe, I don't think socialism is a good idea. I am not saying all Christians need to agree. But if you disagree, lets see your arguments.

You said: "Since when has been cost effective been any part of biblical conduct?"

I don't say it was. But in the real world things do have to be paid for. God is not magic. For a society, being good will generally result in greater abundance, but it is not magic. Food must be grown. Goods must be produced. People need to work etc.

You said: "Definition of moral? No? How are we to assess the morality of any government and is there a biblical duty to do so?"

I say that the Bible, taken as a systyematic whole, has a fairly obvious standard of morality. Nearly a third of the old testament is taken up with moral evaluation and advice to nations and societies. With the example of the profits, I don't think moral evaluation of governments is beyond attempt. As a citizen of a republic who has been commanded to love his neighbors we do have a duty to evaluate at least our own government. If I love my neighbor I cannot vote for people who support a govenrment that is bad for my neighbor.

You commented on one line in my article saying:"'Socialism rewards the lazy'- No. Socialism offers a way for each individual to be able to meet their basic needs, thereby reducing the need to commit crime in order to live. Which in turn makes society safer for all."

I understand what you believe is the purpose of socialism. But I am not evaluating only what we want to happen. I am evaluating what will, can, does, and has happened because of fallen human nature and the world in which we live. Socialism does create perverse incentives at times even if you like it.

So, I stil think socialism is a bad idea for the reasons I give. As the United States is becomming more socialist, I think the results are confirming rather than refuting my evaluation for most Americans.

Dean McConnell said...

I don't know what happened with the five postings of the one comment. Computer technology is one area where I make no claim to wisdom.

Dean McConnell said...

I should add one more thing in response to Angelina. Most people who commit crimes do not do so becasue their basic needs are not met. I would recommend the novel "Crime and Punishment" by Dostoevsky and Augustine of Hippo's "Confessions" for insight into the same.

Many of the most honset and hard working people in the world are poor and living on the edge. As an atorney, I have met many criminals, both amature and professional. None of them were truly wanting for food or shelter.