Acton Institute Powerblog

Is Capitalism the Most Biblical Economic Model?

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Richard Land argues the case that free-market capitalism is the economic model that most closely fits in with Christian anthropology:

When I lived in England as a Ph.D. student, I was visited during my first fortnight in the country by a fellow student seeking to sign me up for the Socialist Club. In some wonderment I asked him, “Why would you think I would want to join the Socialist Club?” He responded, “Well, I’ve been told you are a Christian minister, and if you are you would have to be a Socialist.”

I responded that if I am a Christian who believes the Bible is the truth, I couldn’t be a Socialist and be intellectually consistent.

Why? The Bible tells us men are fallen, sinful and selfish. Socialism is based on the premise that individuals in particular and as a whole are at best good, and at worst neutral. Thus, Socialists believe men will work according to their ability and receive according to their need. But the overwhelming majority of human beings only do that grudgingly and then only when forced by government coercion. Such coercion never produces the productivity and innovation produced by a capitalist, free market system.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • This piece tries to do a bit too much, on a number of levels. Part of it depends on what you mean by “capitalism.” JPII on whether “capitalism” has won the day, so to speak: “If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a ‘business economy’, ‘market economy’ or simply ‘free economy’. But if by ‘capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.”

  • Roger McKinney

    Not only does one have to define “capitalism”, but the term “socialism” as well. The commonly understood meaning of socialism is sharing one’s wealth. The common definition of capitalism is big business buying the power of the state to give them privileges. If we accept the common definitions, no Christian could be a capitalist and all would want to be socialist.

    Land: “With few or no external controls, unfettered capitalism will exploit workers and seek to monopolize markets to the detriment and harm of both workers and consumers. The “Robber Baron” era of late 19th century America serves as a good example of what happens when this occurs.”

    Never in history has anyone ever advocated an “unfettered” system of anything. That is a lie fabricated by socialists in order to make it easier for them to win arguments. As immoral as Ayn Rand was, she never promoted a lawless society. Free marketeers have always and everywhere insisted on the rule of natural law.

    Land’s caricature of the “Robber Barons” advances another lie from socialism. The “Robber Barons” acquired monopoly status on because the industries they chose employ very new technology, petroleum refining and steel making, with very small markets. As those markets grew, it would have been impossible for them to maintain their monopolies in the face of competition even without anti-trust legislation.

    Fear of the “robber barons” was built on the stupid Marxist idea that free markets inevitably lead to monopolies, when history proves that free markets do exactly the opposite: free markets make monopolies virtually impossible. Only the state can create enduring monopolies, which it does through patents, copyrights and utilities. All the monopolies in the US have been created by state action.

    Land needs to learn economic history. Capitalism began with the change in attitude toward business in northern Italy. It gained steam with the scholars of Salamanca who emphasized the rule of law, the sanctity of private property in the Bible, and the role of free markets in producing just prices. Capitalism, as defined by capitalists, is the only Biblical system of economics.

    True socialism, as defined by socialists, cannot possibly be Christian. The foundation of socialism is the idea that people are born innocent, that is, with no inclination toward evil at all. People go bad only because of oppression. The greatest oppressor is private property. Socialism, as defined by socialists, is an alternate gospel of salvation: get rid of private property and people will revert to their natural state of innocence.

    Of course, Lenin, Stalin and Mao understood that human nature would not change on its own but would require prodding and sometimes force by the state even after getting rid of property.

  • Boris

    I think your comment is fair enough as applied to totalitarian communism. Of course, it’s clear to everyone that socialism in that form will never work because, yes, people will never do the right thing by themselves and you get all sorts of corruption, etc.

    However, as a committed Christian, my 2 cents is as follows. As you correctly pointed out, human beings are fallen, sinful and selfish. I would have thought that this fact actually calls for more state control, not less. Clearly, because people ARE selfish and sinful, they will not take care of their less fortunate fellow human beings voluntarily. Therefore, the government must levy taxes and redistribute income in order to take care of more vulnerable people in society. How do you expect to solve the problem of homelessness, for example, unless you have a strong social security system?

    Certainly, governments are not sinless and the potential for corruption is always there. However, with appropriate checks and balances, there should be no problem with having a society in which people are free to grow their wealth. but at the same time, are compelled to use some of it for the good of their fellow human beings.

    Finally, I just would like to say that, in the US, people are very keen to use the Bible to prove that this system of government is better than that system or to argue about the structure of the welfare system, etc. As Jesus said, give what’s Caesar’s to Caesar and what’s God’s to God. Our Lord requires us to display Godliness, love and compassion in our OWN personal lives. I think your country would be better served by people focusing more on that than having arguments about whether or not Obamacare is in accordance with the Bible.

    Peace out,

    Boris from Sydney, Australia

    • Roger McKinney

      It’s a fact that people are fallen, sinful and selfish, but that doesn’t call for more state control because being a bureaucrat does not relieve one of being fallen, sinful and selfish. Bureaucrats are just as fallen, sinful and selfish, not to mention foolish and ignorant as the people who elect them.

      Also, the idea that the state through laws and threat of violence can improve the moral character of the people contradicts the Bible on what makes people sinful. The state does not create the moral character of the people. It’s just the opposite: the moral character of the people determines the character of the state and its bureaucrats.

      History has proven that people will voluntarily take care of the less fortunate without the state forcing them to do so. Look at the history of poverty and relief in the US before the state got involved. Americans have been very generous toward the poor at all times. And most of the very wealthy give away their wealth to charities. Warren Buffet just gave $31 billion to Gates’ charity.

      Being fallen doesn’t mean we are devoid of all compassion. Of course, some people can be, but the majority is not. The more affluent the society the more generous people tend to be. The places where compassion is most dead are the very poorest societies in which no one has anything extra to give.

      BTW, there was no homelessness to speak of before the 1980’s when the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, forced states to expel the mentally ill from institutions.

      “…there should be no problem with having a society in which people are free to grow their wealth. but at the same time, are compelled to use some of it for the good of their fellow human beings.”

      Except that the Bible encourages voluntary giving. Forced giving has no moral quality at all. That’s why the Rabbi’s say that Israel never enforced the poor laws of the Torah. They saw them as moral rules, not civil laws, between God and man.

      How do you determine how much forced redistribution of wealth is enough? No matter how much you do, there will always be poor people. And every dollar you take from one person takes a dollar from investment in jobs. The wealthy today don’t sit on mounds of gold stored in a warehouse as they did in the middle ages. Every dollar is invested in job creating businesses, unless it is invested in government debt. Take away those savings and you take away jobs.

      Adam Smith seems to have been a good Christian who understood morality and government. His solution was to let competition among businessmen control their greed. He opposed using the state to control morality because politicians and bureaucrats are too easily bought, and if not bought, they are just as immoral and ignorant as the next man.

      But if you want to talk about morality, let’s talk about “thou shalt not steal.” That applies to the state as much as it applies to individuals. And what about a “just price”, which Church scholars debated for centuries? Those godly men concluded that the only just price is the one found in a free market, that is, without government price setting, coercion or monopolies.

      Yes, charity is very important. But how you do it is just as important and it doesn’t trump all of the other laws and principles of the Bible, such as thou shalt not steal.

      • Is taxation tantamount to theft? If not, when does it become so? At a certain level? Of a certain kind? For a certain purpose? Some combination of the above?

        • Roger McKinney

          Church scholars, particularly those at Salamanca, as well as Protestant writers during the Reformation, determined this by asking what is the role of the state? If the state collected taxes in order to pay for the costs of fulfilling its legit role, then taxes were legit. Otherwise, they were theft.

          They saw the role of the state as protecting life, liberty and property, not redistribution of wealth, which makes up about half the federal budget.