Acton Institute Powerblog

Why the ‘Proto-Communism’ of Early Christians Doesn’t Work for Modern Society

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sharing“There are solid grounds for believing that the first Christian believers practiced a form of communism and usufruct [i.e., the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance],” wrote Peter Marshall in Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. As evidence Marshall cites the second chapter of the book of Acts:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Acts 2:44-47, ESV)

Marshall is (mostly) correct. The early Christians did engage in a form of voluntary usufruct and wealth redistribution. Since then, many Christians have asked why we don’t follow that sort of proto-communist model today. If the economic system was good enough for the apostles, why isn’t it good enough for modern society?

A hint at why the system is not longer used is found in the verse that immediately follows the passage cited above:

And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:48, ESV)

The size of the group increased—and rapidly. And when the size of the group increased, the dynamic changed dramatically. What worked well before, when the group was small, would no longer work at all when the group got bigger.

This problem of scale is well-understood in the natural sciences (it’s why a mouse can’t be scaled up to the size of an elephant) but it’s often ignored—or it’s implications outright denied—in the social sciences, such as sociology and economics. But as Shane Parrish explains, the implications of scale on society should be rather intuitive and obvious:

What works at a small scale (say, a Utopian community), loses its effectiveness as it scales. Everything has a breakpoint.

The reason communism or utopianism can work at small scale is because of the tight knit nature of a small group. Think of your family dinner table: Do you need to trade chits to decide who gets to eat how much, or do you need some grand overseer to dole out the potatoes? No. You all simply take what you need for the meal, and make sure everyone has enough. Think of the shameful admonitions if you over-eat and leave another family member hungry.

Parrish goes on to offer a helpful thought experiment about two groups on a deserted island (his hypothetical situation is likely the way it really worked out for the first Christian communities). He then concludes,

By necessity, a utopian communist system is replaced by a combination of socialism and market-based capitalism. The problem is that the system of communist distribution which worked for a tight-knit group of 4 people did not scale to 400. Each person, less visible to the group and less caring about others they rarely interacted with, decided in turn to cheat the system just a bit, and only when “needed.” Their cheating had a small individual effect initially, so it went unnoticed. But the follow-on effect to individual cheating is group cheating, and the utopian goal of To each according to his need, from each according to his ability had the effect of expanding everyone’s needs and shrinking their ability, aided by envy and reciprocation effects. Human nature at work.

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).

Comments

  • Great analysis! Hayek made a similar point in “Fatal Conceit,” I believe. He argued that family/tribal values of sharing only work because people know each other well. At the national level, few people know each other and the dynamic changes. Tribal/family values don’t scale, as you wrote.

    I tend to disagree with Marshall that the giving of the early church was communist. In any definition of communism a third party, the state, takes from one and distributes the proceeds to everyone, including those they took from. Early Christians were merely practicing Christian charity, which is an integral part of capitalism.

    Also, keep in mind that in II Thessalonians Paul takes up an offering for the poor church at Jerusalem. Reading between the lines, it might be that the early church expected a quick return of Christ to establish his kingdom and so gave away all of their wealth. But when the kingdom didn’t appear they were left without capital to invest in businesses to provide an income and so became poor.

    • Maphesdus

      Why does not knowing someone make a difference? Does the Bible say “be nice to people who you personally know and can relate to”, or does it say that we should be nice to everyone, whether we know them or not?

      • Not knowing the person you’re helping makes a huge difference. If you know people you can separate the truly needy from the frauds and lazy people. You can’t do that with people you don’t know.

  • Philosophical Actuary

    It is interesting to see the same arguments against communism found in Aristotle’s Politics (which I happily have been reading today) specifically arguing against Plato’s proto-communism/authoritarianism.

    “For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill.” (Politics Bk II Ch 3)

  • I have often wondered whether some of the Christian charity and communal living was a bit of necessity. Many of them no doubt became quite the community outcasts with likely harm to their well-being.
    Banding together in this way described in the Book of Acts may have been a requirement rather than utopia in the initial days of Christianity.

  • Maphesdus

    Why do anti-communists always fall back on the old cliché of using a hypothetical deserted island to support their argument? Why don’t you look at the actual history of the world instead of relying on hypothetical scenarios that only exist in your own imagination?

    • Because their dishonesty has worked very well. If they compared reality with reality they would lose completely.