French economist Thomas Piketty’s new book “Capital in the Twenty-First 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 observers even say it has influenced the Twitter tweets of Pope Francis.
Piketty believes capitalism has “inherent and self-destructive contradictions,” as one reviewer writes. Deeply concerned about income inequality and concentrated wealth, Piketty proposes an 80-percent global tax on incomes over $500,000. But the book’s specifics 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 cares about. Consider the guidelines He lays out in Deuteronomy: “Be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy.”
“The righteous care about justice for the poor,” Proverbs 29 explains.
Jesus came “to proclaim good news to the poor,” declared that “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. In Deuteronomy, the Lord 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, 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 the world?
To be sure, government has a role to play, 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 history shows there’s no better answer to poverty than the free market.
Since 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.
From 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 U.N. 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 7-year-old North Korean boy is eight inches shorter, 20 pounds lighter and has a 10-year-shorter life expectancy than his 7-year-old counterpart in South Korea,” as James Morris noted when he headed the U.N. World Food Program.
From 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.
From 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 population.
- Bill Gates and the firm he built are responsible for creating some 15 million jobs globally. Gates’ foundation has given away $28.3 billion (and counting).
- Andrew Carnegie’s wealth built libraries, research institutions, universities, social welfare charities, and the TIAA-CREF pension fund for teachers.
- 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.